The introduction of the mirror in the 14th Century and the symbolism imbued in it allowed painters to paint themselves with more accuracy, and by the time the mid-15th century rolled around men were painting themselves either as a self-portrait or as an important character in the painting among their still-life’s and landscapes. This is not to say that there were no women painters, or that those women painters did not also create self-portraits. Catharina van Hemessen created what can be regarded the first self portrait of a painter at an easel in 1548. Women painters were, due to the nature of training required to be a painter, unable to practice drawing the nude in a studio, and so it makes sense that many women painters before the early 20th century specialised in creating portrait work, and by extension, self-portraits.
In the 17th Century Rembrandt was classed as one of the most prolific of self-portrait painters, although it is now known that Rembrandt had his students copy his self-portraits as part of their training. Self portraits historically depicted either the painter at work, or more personal portraits that whisper more about the subject, their beliefs maybe, or morality.
The self-portrait was also used extensively as a way of self promotion, especially for portrait painters and once the camera and photograph were available, artists began using this medium too, to create self-portraits. Robert Cornelius is credited with the first photo self-portrait in 1839.
But, I hear you ask, what does this have to do with selfies, and by extension the self portrait, especially as a woman?
Although women have been part of artistic movements, they have been overshadowed by men. Art, in all forms has been typically a male dominated space, despite notable women creating exemplary work, they have long been overshadowed.
The Male Gaze
In 1989 Guerrilla Girls created their widely shared and seminal piece ‘Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum?’ A valid criticism all things considered.
There have long been associations of the female form in art, that has, historically been depicted by men. Men that have painted, drawn, photographed their ideals, their view of the ‘beautiful’ female form. To turn that lens to ourselves is to subvert how men think we, as women should be presenting. John Berger once wrote, in Ways of Seeing “You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting “Vanity,” thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.” To take a selfie is to control how we want to be viewed and how we want to present ourselves. Rarely do we share ‘selfies’ where we are not looking our best.
There are arguments to be made though, that when women share selfies they are knowingly, or unknowingly sharing images that appease the male gaze. Due to the saturation of images created of women by men, we have been socially influenced to see our own selfies through the gaze of a man. There is a more nuanced thought process where we do elevate the selfie to something more, where the the selfie taker is considerate of how they may have been viewed by men and either challenges or complies with that gaze.
To be critical of the selfie is often taken as to be critical of the subject. The selfie, like the self portrait is a projection of self, and the examples of selfies mirror those self portraits once taken. Many take selfies to demonstrate wealth, social status or beauty. Selfies have a layer of the taker showing their talent or creativity.
A selfie shared by Ellen DeGeneres has now become classed as one of the most famous selfies; like those historical self portraits it demonstrates an element of social status and wealth, one that some may aspire too.
The selfie, like the self portrait is a way for anyone to create their own self.
Cindy Sherman was a fore-runner for subverting the male gaze, her Untitled Film Stills saw Sherman taking on fictional characters, the body of work a critique of the portrayal of women in the media in 1977. Sherman played director and subject, just as we do with our selfies.
In 2014, Amalia Ulman created an artwork solely on instagram. At risk of turning this into a(nother) tirade about instagram Ulman curated a ‘brand’ that played the game of instagram and popularity. Ulman showed us that like the historic self-portrait artists she decides how she wants to be viewed, and she can manipulate viewers to see her how she wants them to see her. It’s extremely clever.
The selfie allows us to create caricatures of ourselves for online audiences, similar to that of self portraits and the self portrait artist, it is this power of the selfie that we, as women, can (and do) harness. Each selfie a woman takes, even if there is no more thought in it that “I look pretty” imbues power, it is, inherently a feminist act. For a woman to take a selfie, to decide that the composition, the light, the aesthetics are ‘on-point’ is to use our own agency and power.
Although the press has touted selfies as ‘narcissistic’, is this because we are not seeing the history? As mentioned previously, it was, at one point, commonplace to pay for a portrait to demonstrate wealth and social standing, is taking a selfie not the same? Is it because women are more likely to take a selfie that we class selfies as narcissistic? Women, in controlling the lens that is facing them, are pushing for the world to view women differently, and this is not changing anytime soon.
For all the derisive comments centred at women who do take selfies, women are still taking, and sharing their own self-portraits. Some women are using this to support others, some are sharing as part of political discourse. They are fat, black, scarred and damning the idea of the women we usually see in the media, they are using their bodies and their photographs to effect societal change, and shouldering the emotional labour this takes, too. These women are demanding that they are to be seen, having been hidden by societal standards for too long, and I support them.
Long live the selfie, and all who take them.