“Closing the Loop,” Aria Dean’s long illustrated article about selfie feminism offers a great deal of food for thought.
Dean opens with a photograph by Carrie May Weems (above); Laurie and I know her work because both Weems and Laurie were featured in the Gender: Beyond Memory exhibit at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography in 1996.
This photograph of a dark-skinned woman looking into a mirror and being violently attacked by the mirror is the perfect visual for Dean’s thesis, which is (to simplify substantially) that the selfie, which could have been a huge opportunity for genuinely inclusive feminism, incorporating anti-racist, anti-colonialist imagery, has instead (at least in the “mainstream”) done the opposite:
…there is a shared belief that the control afforded through the act of self-imaging is invaluable; nothing less, in fact, than the primary feminist tool for resistance. The claim follows a logic in which circulation of personal narratives through Instagram and other social media platforms is supposed to provide points of identification for all women, everywhere; and finally, there is a demand for equality; that ‘the female body’ be treated as equal to its male counterpart and for its vulnerability to be without consequence. Arvida Bystrom and Molly Soda both spoke in 2014 on “the female body” online, advocating for body positivity and an end to the inescapable sexualization of the female form. Soda says things like: “Being open with your own body allows, invites and encourages others to do the same or to at least feel good about their bodies.” Bystrom: “A body has to be able to be a body without being sex.”
However digital and radical this brand of feminism is marketed as being, in taking up the mantle of second-wave feminist cinematic and visual theory, selfie feminism most unfortunately takes on its baggage as well. Selfie feminism is guilty of extending the violence and ignorance that plagued its forbears. As bell hooks writes in “Ain’t I a Woman,” white feminism has long suffered from “a narcissism so blinding that [it] will not admit two obvious facts: one, that in a capitalist, racist, imperialist state there is no one social status women share as a collective group and second, that the social status of white women has never been like that of black women and men.” Selfie feminism likewise claims a universal female experience located in “the female body.” The artists at the forefront of what the media calls a “movement” and the media itself often fail to note any nuance beyond “female body,” “female form,” “girls,” etc.
Dean brings in the extraordinary work of Adrian Piper, whom I hadn’t heard of, along with other women artists of color. This photograph is part of her series Food for the Spirit, which documents “‘a private performance’ where Piper fasted and read Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason in her NYC loft for an extended period.”
In the work, Piper looks and demands to be looked at in a most specific way; she is both the black female body in the frame and the maker of the picture at once. Lorraine O’Grady calls it “the catalytic moment for the subjective black nude.” In her total nudity — stripped down in more ways than one — Piper enacts a politic of looking wherein her direct gaze (bouncing around the frame in a near-closed loop) triangulates between eye mirror and lens while we, the audience, view her as though from the other side of a one way mirror. Looking at Piper looking at herself, one becomes aware of the rarity of the moment. Where else, particularly within art history, do we see black women looking straight at themselves and making that looking public?
Dean calls to our attention the way that “Duboisian double consciousness,” the experience of always looking at oneself through the lens of a racist society, has shifted:
… every single networked human being now exists under this condition of “looking at oneself through the eyes of others” or living, watching, being watched, watching yourself watch others. What could be a workable theory of auto-expression that takes into account the temporally, spatially, experientially flattened act of looking and being looked at? We are each the constant voyeuristic subject and object, both surveilled and surveyor. Devising a theory, politic, praxis (or whatever) that finds its center in the experiences of the Black femme and female body — perhaps historically the blurriest situation one can imagine for a body — might lead us to a theory, politic, praxis (or whatever) that speaks more accurately to the increasingly alienated experiences of all users – in particular those whose gender expressions fall outside of white cis-masculinity.
If white people (white women) live in a state of double-consciousness, then women of color live in a state of multiple consciousness. The condition of “woman” is the condition of being looked at and compared to a standard that cannot be met. The condition of the “Black femme and female body” is the condition of being made invisible while being looked at, of being compared to many standards that cannot be met.
The selfie experience holds within it the possibility of looking at ourselves without (or with minimal) double consciousness, looking at ourselve for ourselves. Whether or not the person taking the selfie chooses to share it with others is secondary to the personal experience of choosing how we wish to see ourselves, who we are (visually) to ourselves. Selfies themselves have infinite variety, which is why they are important. But when viewers, scholars, feminist curators, pundits, start picking and choosing among selfies, making some important and others not, combining the “meaning” of selfies done by Black and/or trans and/or disabled and/or fat and/or otherwise marginalized women with the “meaning” of selfies taken by white women, and then recombining all of those unmixable things with the “meaning” of selfies taken by cis white men, then the selfie becomes commodity, and the patriarchal gaze wins again.