This week I started teaching and in my STEP module I asked the students -cheekily- if they knew “what a ‘selfie’ was?” They are experts in selfies: after all, they are the Facebook/Instagram generation. The main idea of the session was to reflect about the year ahead. These are third year students, concerned with finishing with good grades and a decent dissertation, plus finding perhaps their first professional job, while navigating through a lot of stress and challenges.
So why a selfie? Well, it is all about what is called impression management and personal branding and impression management. The idea is nothing new, and perhaps the most popular work is by Erving Goffman, the Presentation of the Self in Every Day Life. In this book, Goffman draws upon Shakespeare’s view of “all the world is a stage and we are all actors”, in order to indicate that we are playing a role in different situations. The point, as Goffman suggests, is to understand how our behavior and self is shaped by different social contexts and interactions. Indeed, self-portraits, have been a key part of artists showing their selves to the world: From the raw selfies of Frida Kahlo, to Rembrandt’s selfies of ambition and old age!
In its recent re-incarnation a “selfie” makes self-portraits available to everybody, and its popularity can be explained by the western tradition of looking at the “face”, and also, by the selfish traits of a capitalistic culture. But, in more simple terms, they are the continuation of our fascination with our own self.
One of the recommendations I gave to the students was to smile, to show a very friendly self appealing to potential employers, partners, customers, etc. Moreover, I suggested them to “SMIZE, or “smile with your eyes”. This is a term created by the wonderful Tyra Banks in her international franchised America’s Next Top Model (abbreviated ANTM). As many other reality competitions ANTM involves a transformation, from rough beauties into top models, and the process entails sometimes demanding (and sometimes gruesome) challenges, ranging from the “catwalk”, music videos, ads, and photographs. But what is remarkable about Tyra is her capacity to capture a number of cultural trends into her program, while altering (slightly) the format of the competition, but bringing these new trends, such as social media, selfies, “guys and girls” -acknowledging the rising world of male models- and many other ideas from her own experience. She has transformed herself from one of the few African American top models, into a brilliant entrepreneur, advocate for diversity and ultimately a trend-setter and creator of new terms. Indeed, this notion of ‘smize’ refers to the communication between model and the camera and the emphasis in the “gaze” or as she says: smile with your eyes = smize. As mentioned before, the format is nothing terribly innovative: Tyra and some other judges, evaluate the photographs, the challenges and in recent years, the reaction of social media and “fans”. Notwithstanding, the show is also about perseverance, learning capacities and capacity to endure the pressures of this short-lived profession.
Of course, on the other hand it is possible to argue that all these modelling competitions focusing on the female body are made for a “male gaze” – and this may be a questionable aspect. Yet, it is not only ANTM but the whole culture objectifying the female body… In the age of FACEbook, selfies and sexuality play a major role. This may be about a “sexual marketing” tool, presenting women as attractive and available. Some refer to the selfie as “the male gaze going viral”, sand writers of favorite Feminist blog Jezebel question the fact that “selfies” perpetuate the dangerous idea of women’s worth linked to physical attractiveness. Some others, argue that selfies are ways of gaining power on our own image management, and sometimes selfies challenge beauty stereotypes, gender and ethnic roles. Anyway, this seems to be a mined-field, yet, it is part of our culture and it does not seem to go away… so the question is what can we do with it?
Unlike few other brave creatives (for example, Mark Gatiss), I have kept my addiction to ANTM as a secret guilty pleasure, but I know that I’ve learned a lot from watching the show. Most interesting is to see how Tyra has evolved in the show: not only as the creator of a great idea, but also by getting a business degree, using what she learned in the show, and keeping up with the trends and evolution of the industry: the inclusion of social media as a key factor for the “points”; the inclusion of guys in the last two series; and the consideration of different social, gender and ethnic backgrounds as well as specific series for non-traditional models (plus size and 5 foot… models).
I know that a lot of my capacity to keep up with trends and cultural evolution is based on my omnivorous reading of the world: from an eclectic education ranging from engineering to art and sociology; my reading of academic articles and TV programs, passing through my long-standing love for literature, rock music, magazines, fanzines, fashion and trend-spotting. I believe that knowledge is not a privilege of some few with degrees, but more increasingly in this time and age, there is a constant flux between the world and the academy, ‘low’ culture and ‘high’ culture, couture and high street. These dialogues and interactions nurture both the artist and the educator in me. I keep ransacking decor magazines, pinterest and shops to get ideas and to take the pulse of trends and aesthetic movements. Similarly, I feed from journals, research and pop culture in order to bring live to my lectures, relate with what my students are experiencing (now that the age gap between me and them is increasingly wider) and tell, as ever, a good story.