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Rescuing the Selfie from Popular Portrayal in the Media

Derek Conrad Murray, Associate Professor of History of Art and Visual Culture (HAVC) at UC Santa Cruz, visited Davis last Tuesday, October 12th, to talk about the significance of the selfie. In his talk, entitled “The Self-Portrait in the Age of Social Media,” he argued that, despite popular portrayals, selfies aren’t inherently negative. That is, rather than revealing latent narcissism within the millennial generation, selfies instead represent a source of empowerment for marginalized peoples.

Murray began to consider the selfie as a subject for his academic research while teaching a course at UCSC. There he noticed how women in his class used self portraiture to express their sexuality and identities.

Simultaneously, he noticed how often women were ridiculed for taking selfies by others, typically men, who would describe them as being vain or self-absorbed.

With this in mind, Murray began to investigate the selfie through the lens of gender analysis. If there was a gendered aspect to the selfie, might that explain society’s backlash to it?

Murray explores this question by analyzing images featured in articles critiquing selfies and its impact on society. In nearly all cases, these images feature young women. Thus, Murray contends that the negative connotation surrounding selfies is a result of its propagation being tied to women.

One instance of particularly egregious “selfie shaming” is evident in an article criticizing sorority girls for taking selfies at a baseball game. Murray notes how the male announcers of this nationally televised game berated these women for their apparent self-absorption, and how these criticisms were positively received by the majority of Americans.

Because women are usually the target of selfie criticism, Murray argues that the controversy over selfies has roots in a deeper societal struggle over evolving conceptions about gender. The critique that selfies are by nature narcissistic, for instance, is seen in a different light when considering how this reinforces historically negative stereotypes about women’s mental health.

Indeed, the charge of narcissism seems doubly suspicious when considering that many medical professionals doubt the “clinical veracity” of narcissism as a mental disorder. And yet even so, popular media websites continue to claim that selfies are indicative of mental disorder, often using suspect evidence to do so.  

For Murray, selfies have been “culturally coded” to be viewed in a negative manner, but only because they allow women, people of color, biracial people, and other marginalized communities to own their identity and find a place for themselves in the world and within their respective cultures.

In the end, the selfie isn’t about attention for attention’s sake, or for pleasing the male gaze. Neither is it something that instantly devalues the photographer. Instead, it’s about giving the photographer the ability to define themselves in a society that otherwise won’t give them that opportunity.


– Nicholas Garcia, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral student in the Department of History


This page was last updated: July 26, 2018



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