With a few quick taps on a screen, I get my iPhone front facing camera on me. I study my image for a few seconds to assess my face—do I look tired, how’s my skin, is my eyeliner still okay, how is the lighting—before making the appropriate adjustments. For Asians like myself, it’s always best for the lens to be above me so I’m looking slightly up (it makes my eyes look bigger). To fix my shiny skin, I simply blot my face with an oil sheet and then play around with the lighting. Finally, if my face is looking more round than I would hope (man, I shouldn’t have eaten those cookies), I can try turning my head to the side to show off the contours of my face. One of my friends told me that I have a good silhouette, so I trust that opinion.
Alright, a few more just in case my hand wasn’t steady or it was a bad angle.
Snap snap… Snap.
This is the modern day process of taking a self-portrait, or a selfie.
In this blog I will be using the framework and terminology provided by Amy Shields Dobson‘s “The ‘grotesque body’ in young women’s self presentation on MySpace” to analyze the self-produced self representations of 3 celebrities on Instagram: Lauren Conrad (‘traditional femininity’), Kylie Jenner (‘hetero-sexy‘), and Miley Cyrus (‘grotesque’).
1. Traditional Femininity – Lauren Conrad
If anyone in the mainstream media embodies traditional femininity, it’s Lauren Conrad. Virtually all of Conrad’s photos of herself on Instagram check off on Dobson‘s list of traditionally feminine aesthetics: cuteness, pastel colors and tones, pinkness, and “delicate, decorative ‘prettiness'”. Conrad comes off as the girl you propose to, the girl you take home to meet your parents. In Conrad’s selfie (see above) she displays the traditional feminine engendered qualities of shyness (she’s not looking directly at the camera, she’s hiding a little bit), submissiveness (this can be seen in her body language, which lacks a certain confidence and fierceness that marks a commanding role), and passivity (part of this is shyness, the other part is that her mouth is closed–a characteristic of the ‘classical body’–and she seems frozen in time).
In the quick snapshot of Conrad’s Instagram account above, it is easy to see that Conrad’s representation is feminine by traditional standards. There’s an Instagram of a closet full of clothes, a teapot, a drawing of Conrad looking princess-like while holding a flower, Conrad dancing in a frilly dress, a close-up of Conrad’s updo. All of these objects and actions are things society typically associates with femininity. Furthermore, it is important to note that Conrad’s Instagram photos are not just feminine because of the photos’ subjects, but because of the bright, pastel-colored, rose-tinted filters applied to them.
2. Hetero-sexy – Kylie Jenner
Who’s the hot girl of Instagram right now? Queen of the hetero-sexy selfie even though she’s only 16? Kim Kardashian‘s little sis Kylie Jenner. It must be difficult living in the shadow of the three sexy Kardashian sisters, known for their hot bods, dark locks, and smoky eyes. I suspect that in response to living in the shadows, as soon as young Jenner went through puberty and her body started developing, she began developing her self representation as well.
Jenner is exactly what Dobson describes as hetero-sexy. Not only is Jenner’s femininity sexualized (long hair, dresses, polished nails, glossy legs, shy facial expressions, large eyes), but it is “aligned with a specific gendered and heterosexual aesthetic, derivative of both ‘traditional’ femininity (pink, delicate, cutesy, and so on) and mainstream heterosexual pornography (overly large artificial looking breasts, high heels, excessive make-up, revealing clothing, or clothing which draws attention to sexual and erogenous zones). In other words, she’s not the girl you want to take home to meet your parents, but she’s not a porn star either. Hetero-sexy Jenner is somewhere in between.
It’s hard to tell who the imagined audience and ideal reader are for hetero-sexy practitioners like Jenner. In a snapshot of Jenner’s Instagram account (seen above), no photo seems entirely directed toward one gender. Instead, hetero-sexy photos seem appealing to both genders, though they usually lean toward one gender more than another in most cases. For example, the photo of Jenner’s legs, a popularly fetishized female body part, is probably ideally for the masculine gaze. The next photo of Jenner in a stylish gown is more pleasing to the feminine gaze.
3. Grotesque – Miley Cyrus
I chose to analyze Miley last for a number of reasons. The first is that she exemplifies the ‘grotesque body‘ which is at the far end of the female representation scale. But more importantly, Cyrus is the most mainstream and dramatic example of a girl who shed her extremely traditional feminine representation (remember Disney Channel’s Hannah Montana?), bypassed hetero-sexy, and went straight for grotesque. In doing this, Cyrus inverts the symbol of femininity.
The commonly held cultural code is for women to be Lauren Conrad, traditionally feminine. Cyrus, once trapped by society in a traditionally female image, breaks free from the shackles of stereotypes and provides an alternative view of what femininity can be with the grotesque body. Her protruding tongue that licks everything from hammers to mirrors on Instagram serves as a caricature of female hetero-sexuality, a parody of exaggerated seduction. Cyrus is not merely an object like the ‘classical body’. Cyrus’s grotesque body is in the act of becoming, illustrating how female representation is not confined to a specific image the way it is in classical iconography.
Society can criticize Cyrus all it wants. Cyrus’s alternative view of femininity is in fact a revolution in its own right. By self-producing a self representation of extreme grotesqueness, Cyrus began knocking down the walls that limit women.
Although Dobson‘s paper was published in 2008, prior to the rise of Instagram and the new modern day selfie, her research on young women’s self presentation is still relevant to today’s discussion on the topic. And while Dobson only posed this as a question because she believed it was out of the scope of her paper, I will confirm that that young women’s grotesque body representation does disrupt the potentially voyeuristic pleasure of the viewer because they are the ones choosing, making and producing the representation. In fact, these 3 celebrity examples lead me to believe that the ability to control one’s self representation, whether you wish to come off as traditionally feminine or hetero-sexy or grotesque, through selfies and social media is new form of power women did not have in the past.
When it comes to the selfie, the ideal reader is neither a masculine gaze nor feminine gaze. Instead, what matters most is the individual’s gaze, empowered by the opportunity to self-produce his or her own self representation.