Moral Panics and Social Shaming with Selfies
Selfies shake up the heirarchy of who gets to be photographed.
Posted August 21, 2018
“Moral panics” are popular explanations that spread at times of change and uncertainty, particularly when the order of things seems to be threatened and the privileged groups start getting worried about the stability of their privilege. It might be about economic privilege, but often it is about symbolic or moral privilege to define what is right and wrong.
In the case of selfies, a moral panic that appears to be emerging is about the right to be seen. Who has the right to choose to be seen and the terms of their visibility and who does not? Women, children, teenagers, queer people, people whose bodies do not look young, white, thin and able have historically been invisible or visible following very narrow rules of either sexual objectification or grotesque comedy. Now, all of a sudden, they have cameras in their pockets and are pointing them at themselves.
This shakes the hierarchy of what is photographable and threatens the reign of the beauty and fashion industry over what is worth looking at. That, in turn, plays a key part in a billion-dollar industry that relies on our self-doubt and our aspirations to look more like the people who are held up to us as ultimate exemplars of the photographable.
When the status quo is jostled, people and institutions react with more and less forceful forms of nostalgia. Milder forms include lecturing people on the good old times – you know, when the grass was greener, when things were predictable and people knew their place. Stronger forms are ridicule, bullying and shaming of the various things people do, as indicators of their flawed selfhood. So a practice, for example taking and sharing selfies, becomes the basis of judging someone as a person.
I’d say that in the case of selfies, we’ve seen both kinds of reactions. One interesting case of this are the gatekeepers of the business of visibility. There are examples of them disparaging selfie taking or trying to co-opt it. In an attempt to protect their right to say what is hot or not, Vogue published an article, where department store heiress Hayley Bloomingdale wrote, “A selfie is only acceptable on a few occasions: if you work in fashion and are showcasing an outfit for work purposes or if you are somewhere awesome and there is no one to take your picture. Any selfie that involves the ‘kissy’ face is not acceptable. These pictures are not sexy. You look like an idiot.”
But as people seem to be really into taking selfies and looking at other people’s selfies despite the persistent shaming and nagging, it has become increasingly common for brands to try and pay the more popular selfie takers to become their ambassadors. However, remembering internet celebrity Essena O’Neill’s very public and emotional exposé of her own Instagram account, it seems that getting paid to post selfies tends to poison the joy of it. It turns selfie takers into cogs within the existing machine, stripping the practice of any sense of ownership selfie taking may have given them. O’Neill had more than half a million followers on Instagram, and then one day deleted more than 2000 images, and changed the captions to the remaining hundred to show how insecure she felt, how manipulated the images and situations were, etc.
So, moral panics work with moralizing, nostalgic stories we as people tell ourselves to define certain practices or people as a threat to societal values and interests. They reassert conventional morality by passing judgment. Selfie scholars often call this shaming. Art historian Martha Hollander has said that shame is “profoundly visual” because it operates at the point of “seeing and being seen.” Being seen as doing something and through that as a particular kind of a person. Shame is a very efficient way for regulating people’s behavior, as it makes us ashamed of ourselves not just our actions. In essence then, shame means we take in and incorporate the judgment coming from outside – we internalize it. So, selfie shaming is a cultural discourse that aims to control people, in particular women and minorities, to conform to the existing norms of their (in)visibility and does so by shaming them until they internalize the norms that position selfie posting and selfie posters are narcissistic, vain and fake.