28 July 2015
The selfie, particularly for my generation, has become just another component of day to day activity. What was originally considered merely society’s latest fad has exploded into a contemporary phenomenon that we encounter not only when on holiday or in front of cultural landmarks, but in our homes, in the classroom and even on the toilet.

For those not quite so familiar, the selfie is commonly referred to as ‘a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media’. The term not only entered the Oxford Dictionary in 2013, but went on to be crowned ‘word of the year’ too.

It seems then that there is something special surrounding the hype of selfie related photography, and it was this that piqued my interest into taking a closer look at a specific aspect of the selfie phenomena – gender. Thus, my dissertation was born. My decision to look at selfie taking and selfie images through a gendered lens was influenced by a theorist I was introduced to in my first year on Lancaster University’s Gender and Women’s Studies course – Judith Butler. It was her concept of ‘gender performativity’ that most interested me and I was curious to explore the relationship between gender binaries and society’s latest obsession with capturing selfie images. My focus throughout the project was on British adults aged 18-25.

In its most basic form, Butler’s argument is that gender is the taken for granted acts that we internalise and then reproduce through our bodies, repeated in a way that becomes naturalised. I wanted to explore whether this could be seen through selfie images – did males and females ‘do’ gender in different ways, reflecting stereotypical gendered traits? In order to answer this question I chose a tri-method way of assessing it. 

My research comprised of both quantitative and qualitative methods with an emphasis on the latter. A visual analysis of two hundred and eleven selfie images I collected was used to create graphs based on comparing the production, content and facial expressions that males and females used in the creation of their selfies. This was complimented by interviews with six individuals – three males and three females - to further explore why males and females take the selfies they do. A further one hundred and eight participants completed my online questionnaire, which sought to study what British 18-25 year olds characterised as stereotypical gendered traits and how they evaluated selfie images. Elements of this included participants describing selfie images I had embedded within the questionnaire and asking them what they stereotypically associated with words such as ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’. Interesting results surrounding gender norms arose from this, enabling me to create representations such as Wordles. 

Through exploring the masculine and feminine qualities found in selfies taken by British adults aged 18-25, I discovered numerous key findings. These included that the selfie phenomena appears to be more of a female-orientated activity, with females initiating selfie taking in mixed gendered photographs and taking more selfies on a day to day basis. Similarly, there was a clear divide between ‘serious’ and ‘funny’ selfies for females. For example, smiling, showing off new possessions and ensuring the lighting made their face look blemish-free were some of the characteristics that ensured a female selfie was Instagram-worthy – distinct from ‘funny’ selfies, meant purely for the eyes of close companions. This suggests that different types of femininity are constructed and performed for different spaces, with those being viewed by a wider audience conforming to stereotypical conceptions of femininity, such as looking ‘girly’ or ‘beautiful’, as outlined by the results of my online questionnaire. 

Male key findings included that masculinity was performed in selfies via the use of props such as sporting equipment, pulling aggressive faces, offensive poses and taking selfies in locations such as football matches or garages – spaces you would not associate with femininity. Results from my online questionnaire identified masculine traits as being ‘manly’ and ‘strong’ which was often reflected through the male selfies, with examples including that of several topless male selfies, in the gym or holding weights.

However, an interesting pattern started to emerge. Even when males were posing in these manly, aggressive manners, they were still subject to being critiqued as looking ‘feminine’ - as stated numerous times in my online questionnaire results. We must ask then, if masculinity is often synonymous with ‘power’ – a force not to be tampered with - why is it that an overwhelming number of participants from my online questionnaire contradicted themselves by stating that aggression was a masculine trait, but when used in a facial expression, it appeared ‘girly’? This brought me round full circle to conclude that it is the selfie phenomena itself that is gendered – as feminine – ensuring that those who partake in the culture become feminised.

When embarking on this project I wanted to bypass traditional notions of narcissism that are typically associated with selfies, going above and beyond to assess gender performativity at a deeper level. As we live in an increasingly sexualised culture, is the selfie merely another tool involved in the moral panic that males, and particularly females, are getting caught up in? As the main instigators of taking selfie images, do female displays of femininity through post-diet and new-outfit body shots draw attention to their bodies in ways that were previously not achievable, as the visual bombardment of appropriate femininity through selfie images is the latest apparatus in policing normative gender binaries? Or is the selfie just a bit of fun, capturing pictures from the banal to the exceptional as we go through life?

Writing my dissertation was probably the most challenging, but also the most enjoyable, element of my third year Media and Cultural Studies course. Considering the ethical aspects was also interesting for me, as I had to be cautious when it came to consent and breaching data protection, particularly with regards to using individuals’ ‘public’ images online, opening up a plethora of issues that helps reflect the implications of my research. Even now, post-project, I cannot help but undertake a quick visual analysis whenever I see that someone has posted a selfie online! The skills I have acquired from this research will be useful in aiding me in the next steps of my career as I begin work on a Graduate Scheme later this year. Who knows - they may even been exercised further if I decide to return to Lancaster to do a Masters in the future. 

By Hayley Schubert