Selfie Feminism and the Digital Political

New feminisms are coined constantly. Blink, and you’ll miss one. From sex positive feminism to transnational feminism and radical feminism to anarcha-feminism, one qualifier tacked onto the F-word can change everything. Over the past year, I’ve heard rumblings of a new kind of feminism in casual conversation and in print, but this one is specifically named to disparage the 4th wavers. According to a recent article by Suzanne Moore in The Guardian, this new school of “selfie feminism” is ruining our chances for political progress because of its solipsistic, anxiety-ridden, over-sharing tendencies. The figurehead of this selfie feminism, is – you guessed it – the selfie.

Selfie critiques are a little overdone at this point, but because the phenomenon is emblematic of an entire generation, Moore probably finds it hard to resist. She cites Lena Dunham as a poster child for this new kind of self-indulgent feminism, where we plaster our insecurities in public for all to see but don’t actually make any activist efforts otherwise. She writes: “A generation caught between the selfie – yes, often ironic and gurning – and actual mirrors that make many girls extremely miserable also lives with the idea that the relaying of every interior monologue is communication.” The takeaway from her article is that social media has amplified women’s issues for the worse (and she doesn’t mean ‘issues’ the way politicians use the word).

I completely agree with Moore’s assertion that “acute self-consciousness is not the same as acute self-knowledge.” It’s true that “Only one of these is powerful. Only one of these moves things forwards.” However, who is to say that the selfie cannot, in certain instances, promote self-knowledge? The selfie can be far more than self-obsession. For those who argue that the selfie isn’t empowering, that it’s a cry for help, others argue that the selfie can be a radical act of self love.

When I taught a 4th Wave Feminism class last semester at The New School, by far the most popular assignment was to “take a feminist selfie.” Turns out, a lot of students had already been taking feminist selfies for a while. The accompanying text to their funny, awkward, and very real photos was far more political than you would expect from the under 20 set. One girl showed off the hair under her arms with a Riot Grrl sneer and wrote a caption about taking a stand against hegemonic beauty standards; another girl featured her mother who she explained had raised her and her siblings as a single, working mom; and one student of color snapped a shot of friends of different ethnicities standing together and wrote how intersectional feminism can only work if all women are in solidarity.

So are these young feminists what’s wrong with feminism, just because they take selfies? Granted, not every girl who takes a selfie is aware of feminist issues, but most young, self-described feminists also happen to be selfie-takers. By plastering their faces across the internet they are owning their visage, and they are owning their voice. Publicly claiming your right to visibility is a kind of public engagement, and in that way, it can be a small step between the selfie and action. What that action is remains to be seen, but the potential is there. Even a cursory look at #effyourbeautystandards or #blackisbeautiful on Instagram is enough to vividly present the selfie as rallying cry and, at times, organizing tool. In our highly visual culture, it is a way to publicly voice your discontent.

“The personal is political” was and still is the ultimate feminist slogan as a call to connect your individual issues to women’s issues at large. Selfie feminism has the power do just that, only in new and different ways. In that sense, selfie feminism isn’t a trend, it’s a sea change. Selfie feminism is just another name for an entire generation of women who use the internet to communicate more than they use their own vocal chords. You can say it’s more or less effective than feminisms of the past, but that’s not going to make it go away. Time will tell what impact the 4th wavers will have. Moore says, “out there is a world controlled by those who disclose very little about their inner lives.” I say, not for long.