[-empyre-] empyre Digest, Vol 132, Issue 3

Mehita Iqani Mehita.Iqani at wits.ac.za
Thu Dec 10 20:17:54 AEDT 2015

Dear All, 

I've been following the conversation with interest, thank you all for your contributions and Jonathan for adding me. 

As I'm about to go on annual leave (it's our long summer break here, in South Africa), so I'm going to have to limit myself to this one email, and then try to catch up on what I miss once I get back online in the new year. I have two contributions to make. 

1. The boom of recent scholarship on the selfie is really fascinating. I'm really looking forward to the Kern conference next year where I'm certain we will see even more original perspectives on this empirical object. I think that one area where more research is required is into the ways in which selfie-taking and sharing is a kind of identity work. That is, a move from the aesthetic of the selfie (where I position my own interests) and towards the ethics of selfie-taking. What do people mean by this kind of image-work, and what does it mean to their own ideas of self? One of my graduate students, Jess Pereira, is currently researching this question in relation to middle class young women in Johannesburg, South Africa. She has undertaken extensive in-depth interviews with her participants, including tours of their Instagram profiles, in order to understand not only how they self-present in social media spaces, but what that self-presentation means to them in terms of their confidence, ideas of beauty standards, and accusations of narcissism. I think we need more studies like this, as types of selfies proliferate and new technologies emerge that facilitate new ways of "selfie-ing". Jess is still working through her data, but we have found that her participants (all relatively well-off, educated young women from a variety of ethnic backgrounds) are acutely aware of the ways in which their selfies produce particular narratives of themselves (for example, as professional, or as someone who doesn't "care" about looking good), yet at the same time who have internalised practices of self-management and work on the self so deeply that they insist that they are "doing it for themselves". I think we need more studies like this, which explore in detail what people say they do with selfies, and why, and what work they believe selfies doe for them in their everyday lives. Although I have worked on celebrity selfies myself, I think need a move towards the everyday, the less spectacular selfie, in order to develop a vocabulary and theory for how selfies have become normalised as an everyday activity. This is a project relevant to all genders, but I think it will have particular resonance for feminist media scholars.

2. As well as the paper Jonathan and I wrote together, which he has already mentioned, which aimed to position the selfie as both a commodity form and consumption practice embedded in relations of power, I have written a bit about how celebrities use selfies not only to promote their own brands, but to make powerful statements about aspiration, consumption, sexiness and race. In  my recent book, 'Consumption, Media and the Global South: Aspiration Contested', I devoted a chapter to looking at the aesthetics of  the selfies of six black African celebrities, each of whom has received public attention for something to do with skin tone (they are either "bleached and proud" or "dark and proud"). In that chapter, ' Celebrity skin: Race, gender and the politics of feminine beauty in celebrity selfies', I argue selfies are an important empirical site through which discourse about femininity, sexiness and different narratives of "black beauty" are at once reinforced and challenged.

Here is a short extract from the chapter, which elaborates on these themes a little: 

"How does the politics of post-feminine sexiness coalesce in the visual forms of communication of digital self-portraiture? It is clear that post-colonial female subjects and their images do often "enter global realms of representation and discourse", and by so doing they "can, and sometimes do, assert agency and resistance" that defy simplistic renditions (Shome, 2006: 258). Selfies by black women celebrities are most certainly evidence of agency. But to what extent could they be theorized also as acts of resistance? Arguably, the image of a strong, sexy, proud, beautiful, talented, successful and wealthy black woman stands as a powerful statement of presence and pride. In the context of the racist histories of South Africa, the United Sates, Brazil and the damaging legacies of colonialism in other African contexts, it cannot be denied that white supremacist values have shaped media and cultural representations for decades. As such, it is extremely significant that elite black women are entering global media spaces in order to promote their own profiles, businesses, and brands. Arguably, the advent of mobile phone photography, social media and digital sharing have made it possible for women of colour to insert themselves into the public realm in ways that they were previously denied. As such, they are able to provide a new visual repertoire about beauty: this can be read as an act of resistance against a perpetually racist mainstream global media culture.  

Selfies from young, sexy, relatively wealthy and successful young back women can also be read as a direct challenge to the patriarchy. In dialogue with work by Rachel Spronk (Spronk 2012) on yuppie sexuality in Nairobi, Dina Ligaga argues that in the context of African patriarchal cultures, single, independent women are often considered a threat to the status quo, and that their displays of independence are therefore ridiculed and derided in popular culture as a form of discipline against "new" cultures seen as disruptive of the social order (Ligaga, 2014: 252). Although in Kenyan media "good time girls" (university women who use their youth, sexiness and beauty to trade for material benefits from older men) are derided and condemned, they are also treated with fascination (Ligaga, 2014: 252): "This woman is a source of great moral anxiety because of her apparent freedom, living as she does away from the normalizing structures of family, church and school" (Ligaga, 2014: 252). Similarly, black female celebrities represent an acute form of independence and agency. Through whichever avenues, they have reached their goals of recognition and a certain level of income: they are free to do as they wish, say what they wish, and present themselves as they wish. Their selfies to some extent threaten the power structure of the patriarchy by virtue of their mere existence. On the other hand, however, the wholesale buy-in to a very narrow repertoire of beauty and sexiness (framed, yet again through the lens of heterosexist desire) could be read as a betrayal of the myriad other forms of femininity that are still excluded from the public stage of the media.  In the genre of celebrity selfies, the female body enters a new context in which it functions both as "a sign of a cosmopolitan imagery through which neoliberal consumerist logics are circulating" (Shome, 2006: 259) and as a new, exotic inscription of post-feminist sexiness. The exotic is tamed and disciplined by the post-feminist commercial ethic, which welcomes racial difference only to the extent that it intersects with a version of gender acceptable to the neoliberal patriarchy. Yes, these women have achieved public recognition and have "voices" that are listened to, and faces and bodies that are looked at. Would they have received the same amount of adulation, attention and respect if they did not fit certain prescribed boundaries of feminine beauty?" (from pages 192-3 of my book). 

I'll leave it there for now. Again, I offer my apologies for not being able to follow the rest of this conversation too closely in the next weeks, but I look very much forward to catching up on it in the new year. 

All the best 

Mehita Iqani 

Associate Professor in Media Studies
School of Literature, Languages and Media (SLLM)
University of the Witwatersrand
Room 3064, Senate House
Private Bag X3
2050 Wits

Tel: +27 (0)11 717 4123
Email: mehita.iqani at wits.ac.za

My books: "Consumption, Media and the Global South: Aspiration Contested" (2015); "Consumer Culture and the Media: Magazines in the Public Eye" (2012)
Critical Research in Consumer Culture Network: http://consumerculturenetwork.wordpress.com/
The Newsstand Project: http://www.thenewsstandproject.org
ITCH Magazine: www.itch.co.za

-----Original Message-----
From: Jonathan Schroeder [mailto:jesgla at rit.edu] 
Sent: 10 December 2015 03:32 AM
To: soft_skinned_space
Subject: Re: [-empyre-] empyre Digest, Vol 132, Issue 3

----------empyre- soft-skinned space---------------------- In a recent paper, Henry Giroux excoriates much of selfie culture, particular in terms of how selfies are implicated in state surveillance and capitalist uses of selfies as data. However, he does leave room for potentially constructive uses of the selfie. 

He writes "The good news is that selfie culture can also be used to rewrite the relationship between the personal and the political, and in doing so expand the vibrancy of public discourse and work to prevent the collapse of public life. In this case, selfie culture moves away from the isolation and privatisation of neoliberal culture and further enables those individuals and groups working to create a formative critical culture that better enables the translation of private troubles into public issues and a further understanding of how public life affects private experiences. In contrast to the mainstream appropriation of selfie culture, this more empowering use of selfies becomes part of what might be called an emergent public dedicated to undermining what Alex Honneth has called 'an abyss of failed sociality'. Selfie culture is not all of one piece and is emblematic of such a struggle. And at its best it becomes an act of empowerment and a vehicle for social change.
Giroux, Henry A.  (2015) "Selfie Culture in the Age of Corporate and State Surveillance," Third Text, 29:3, 155-164, DOI: 10.1080/09528822.2015.1082339

From: empyre-bounces at lists.artdesign.unsw.edu.au <empyre-bounces at lists.artdesign.unsw.edu.au> on behalf of Murat Nemet-Nejat <muratnn at gmail.com>
Sent: Wednesday, December 9, 2015 5:29 PM
To: soft_skinned_space
Subject: Re: [-empyre-] empyre Digest, Vol 132, Issue 3

----------empyre- soft-skinned space---------------------- _______________________________________________
empyre forum
empyre at lists.artdesign.unsw.edu.au
<table width="100%" border="0" cellspacing="0" cellpadding="0" style="width:100%;"> 
<td align="left" style="text-align:justify;"><font face="arial,sans-serif" size="1" color="#999999"><span style="font-size:11px;">This communication is intended for the addressee only. It is confidential. If you have received this communication in error, please notify us immediately and destroy the original message. You may not copy or disseminate this communication without the permission of the University. Only authorised signatories are competent to enter into agreements on behalf of the University and recipients are thus advised that the content of this message may not be legally binding on the University and may contain the personal views and opinions of the author, which are not necessarily the views and opinions of The University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. All agreements between the University and outsiders are subject to South African Law unless the University agrees in writing to the contrary. </span></font></td>

More information about the empyre mailing list