Tag Archives: photography

On Self-Objectification

Woman on a red bed taking a selfie for Selfies and Self-Objectification by Malin James

Selfie by Malin James

I’m a contrary person. If there’s a popular take on something, I tend to play devil’s advocate, if only for the sake of discussion. The idea that selfies are a form of female “self-objectification” is one of those issues. The only difference is that, in this case, my objection is rooted in actual disagreement, not just the spirit of debate.

A great deal of ink has been spilled on selfies and their social impact. A lot of articles voice a concern that selfies foster poor self-esteem in young women and a reliance on external validation. Others protest that selfies as narcissistic, vain and shallow—also as regards women. Still others point out that posting selfies can make a woman vulnerable to bullying, predation, anxiety and stress.

All of these concerns are valid – in some cases. In others, selfies are a source of healthy self-expression, positive reinforcement, memories and the basic human drive to exclaim Hey! I was here! It all depends on the person and their motive for taking the selfie, and that’s far too contextual a thing to usefully question or protest.

What I take issue with is the assertion that selfies are a form of self-objectification, ie: that women who take selfies have unknowingly drunk the patriarchal Kool-Aid.

So, what ‘self-objectification’ and why I have an issue with it?

Before we can deal with self-objectification, we need to start with objectification as a concept. Objectification is a theory that refers to the treatment of a person, usually a woman, as an object, stripped of autonomy and subjectivity. (For a detailed definition, click here). Objectification is usually assumed to be sexual at its core.

According to feminist theory, sexual objectification is a symptom of the male gaze, a way of seeing everything, including women, through a male, often sexualized, lens. According to critics, the male gaze has led to internalized misogyny – that’s the drinking of the patriarchal Kool-Aid I mentioned earlier. It’s the idea that women have been subjected to the male gaze for so long that we’ve internalized an objectifying view of ourselves and other women.

While I do believe that internalized misogyny can manifest in all kinds of subtle ways, it isn’t, and can’t be, inherent in selfie-taking. Here’s why.

Objectification is something that is done to you. It’s the lens through which you are viewed. Even if you wear nothing by fuck me pumps and a smile, you are not objectifying yourself. You might be inviting objectification, but odds are you aren’t viewing yourself an object devoid of autonomy and reason. You’ve simply presented yourself in a sexualized way. Objectification is the step other people take when they see you.

So, is it possible for women to self-objectify? Can a woman see herself as a thing stripped of personhood and subjectivity? Can a woman view herself as an object? Well…while it’s possible, especially in cases of abuse, but casually speaking it isn’t likely.

When a woman takes a selfie, she’s acknowledging that she has a body. She isn’t stripping herself of intelligence, resilience, bad-assness or anything else. Those qualities still exist in the way she sees herself, regardless of how she angles her body. She is simply asserting her physical presence for reasons of her own and that is what subjectivity is all about.

Whether you like it or not, inviting objectification is a legitimate, autonomous choice. Whether or not it’s a symptom of internalized misogyny is as unique to the individual woman as is any other motive for selfie-taking, which brings me full circle.

People take selfies for all kinds of reasons. Judging those reasons as shallow, vain, dangerous or anti-feminist is as useful as judging someone’s motives for eating an ice cream cone. Sure, you could eat ice cream for unhealthy reasons. You could eat ice cream to excess. Or you could just eat ice cream because it tastes good and you want ice cream. There are too many possible motives to warrant casting it in a reflexively cautionary light.

The same thing goes for selfies – protesting on the grounds of internalized misogyny discounts the many reasons she might have for taking the picture. It denies her the ability to make an autonomous choice and strips her of sovereignty over her image and how she uses it. That’s anti-feminism dressed up as real feminism, and it’s much more dangerous than the hottie in your timeline.

Selfies are a curious thing. As a species, we are preoccupied with our presence in the world. It’s why we have cave paintings, graffiti, art, and most other forms of human accomplishment. They are an assertion of presence – a huge I WAS HERE shouted into the void of existence. Selfies are just another way to shout into the void. It’s an assertion of presence, regardless of the reason, and that makes selfies important. The fact that women use them to assert their presence in the world for reasons of their own is a devil worth advocating for.

On Seeing Yourself

A wet plate portrait of Malin James on glass beneath water. Wet Plate Collodian by Nicolas Laborie for On Seeing Yourself by Malin James

Portrait, Malin James. Wet Plate Collodian by Nicolas Laborie

I’ve been bumping up against my own self-image recently, which is a curiously exciting and unsettling thing. It’s been happening in several ways, some easier to define than others, but the overall effect is the realization that I don’t know myself as well as I thought I did, and that that is absolutely fine.

Being photographed by someone gifted is its own kind of gift – one that I couldn’t accept when I was a young, distracted thing. A gifted photographer can distil you with an odd sort of purity. If you’re lucky and the stars align, what you end up with are visual representations of various facets of yourself – shards of personality that often operate beneath your conscious understanding.

Black and white head shot of Malin James taken by Nicolas Laborie. For On Seeing Yourself by Malin James

Photograph by Nicolas Laborie

The self-image I’ve nurtured over the years is that of a controlled, measured woman. I don’t let down my guard unless I choose to and it’s rare that I do. Like most people, I wear a social mask and it’s that mask that I recognize in pictures. I rarely see the person who watches the world from beneath it represented on film. That’s probably why the images Nicolas Laborie took this past week-end pulled me up short.

The wet plate above is recognizable insofar as I recognize the interiority it caught – that particular mixture of nameless emotions is essentially my resting state. I’ve just never seen it on my face, not even when I look in a mirror. I’m not entirely sure how the wet plate caught it – maybe it’s just having to stay perfectly still for the exposure – but it’s the first time I’ve seen an accurate visual representation of my internal life.

Black and white portrait of Malin James taken by Nicolas Laborie. For On Seeing Yourself by Malin James

Photograph by Nicolas Laborie

The other three were taken after the wet plate and they do something a bit different. When I was younger, I longed for self-possession. When someone photographed me, I very consciously cloaked myself in imitation poise. The problem was that I always knew it was fake and I didn’t like seeing that gap between reality and aspiration caught on film.

As I got older and grew increasingly uncomfortable with what I saw in images of myself, being photographed stopped being a pleasure. It was too much of a personal minefield. Participating in Sinful Sunday has helped me enjoy photography again, but only to the extent that I control the image, and I rarely let down my guard.

But these are different. These are just of me being me in the moment because I no longer know how to be something I’m not. That’s why they mean so much to me.

Black and white portrait of Malin James taken by Nicolas Laborie. For On Seeing Yourself by Malin James

Photograph by Nicolas Laborie

The person in these pictures is the woman I wanted to be when I was a confused mess of a girl. I wanted to be calm and hungry and strong, so much so that I tried to pretend to be something I wasn’t and failed every time.

It’s magic to me that I became someone I could respect. I never trusted myself – I never gave myself a reason to – but the person I see in these pictures is someone I respect and trust. That’s why these photos are a bit of a revelation. In many ways, it’s the first time I can say that seeing myself on film is comforting rather than proof of the gap between my reality and everything I want to be.

To see more of Nicolas Laborie’s work, please visit his site, and follow him on Twitter. He’s brilliant. 

NB: I nearly didn’t write this post. Ironically, there’s still something uncomfortable about talking about myself, especially in what could be perceived as an arrogant light (and let’s face it, talking about pretty pictures of yourself skates that boundary uncomfortably close). Ultimately, the fact that the experience was so unexpected and revelatory in its way was the reason I decided to go out on a limb and write it. It was an amazing experience and I hope other people are able to experience something similarly positive in front of a lens.

Sinful Sunday: My Hands

My hands aren’t beautiful. They’re smaller, female versions of my dad’s massive paws – strong and wide, not elegant and long. But that’s why I love them. They’re good and reliable. They’re sensitive and brave. They express things I don’t have words for. I love the way they touch. They aren’t pretty but I trust them and that means a lot.

And following on the theme of Favorites, this photo was taken while I was thinking about one of my favorite things…. I’ll leave it to you to imagine what that is. (For I am a kind and gentle, heartless tease).

Picture of Malin James's hand for Hand post Sinful Sunday

To see more Sinful Sunday Favorites, click the pretty lips.

Sinful Sunday

(NSFW) Spotlight: Revenge by Ellen von Unwerth

Time for another installment of Spotlight, an occasional series in which I shine the light on books that I love. This time around, I’m looking at a decadent and thoroughly debauched story / photo collection by the brilliant fashion photographer, Ellen von Unwerth. It’s called Revenge, and it’s the prettiest, most artistic piece of soft-core pornography that I’ve ever come across. 

revenge16 I need to preface this post by admitting that I’ve been wanting to spotlight Revenge for ages but held off because it isn’t that easy to find, and the copies that are out there tend to be fairly expensive. I bought it on a lark when it first came out in 2003. I had no idea that my first edition was one of only 10,000. That said, I was flipping through it the other day, and was struck again by how…well, striking it is, so I decided to go ahead and run with the post and hope that anyone interested in getting a copy has some good luck or a generous Santa. xx.M

Let’s begin with the premise, because the premise says it all. An evil Baroness, (yes, I know…), takes her step-sister’s daughters and nieces in after a terrible cable-car crash devastates the family, (yes, I know…). Little does anyone know, but the Baroness is plagued by her late husband’s debts and has been forced to let most of her household staff go. All she has left is a nameless stable boy, a chauffeur named Eric, and three pouty sadistic maids.

So, the Baroness takes in the lovely young naifs, (eight in total, all legal yet beguiling in her own way), off her step-sister’s hands, but little does anyone know that these poor, poor, poor young women will be “forced to earn their keep” and take up the roles left vacant by the chateau’s departed staff. As you can imagine, a certain amount of discipline is required, much to the girls’ dismay. But the girls are resourceful, and not nearly so innocent as the

The Baroness & Veronique the maid. From Revenge, by Ellen von Unwerth

The Baroness & Veronique the maid. From Revenge, by Ellen von Unwerth

Baroness assumes. Despite setbacks and misadventures, they manage to turn the tables in the end.

Revenge is the photographic retelling of the girls’ misadventures during their stay with the Baroness. As the premise implies, it’s an unabashedly over-the-top BDSM fantasy. The whole thing reads like an elaborately choreographed scene. In fact, I could almost believe this whole scenario going down during a long week-end at a private play party.

The book is signature von Unwerth – gorgeously sexual and fantastically staged. But within the staging and premise, the models are given a remarkable amount of freedom to act and react naturally. That’s what keeps it from straying into a sort of vacant, cynical exercise. It’s obvious that everyone is having a genuinely good time. While there is no doubt that this is a photo-shoot and that von Unwerth has a firm hand on every frame and angle, everyone’s hamming it up, and that’s charming. There’s no way to take the situation terribly seriously, so they don’t. The models pout and grimace and sneer like pretty, X-rated cartoons, and engage the “story” with a gusto that I find totally and joyfully infectious.

Ivy turning the tables. From Revenge, by Ellen von Unwerth

Ivy turning the tables. From Revenge, by Ellen von Unwerth

As with much of her work, Ellen von Unwerth’s photographs feel like throwbacks to Weimar Berlin. The grainy, black and white images starkly highlight the girls’ pale skin, dark lips and glossy hair as they are forced to chop wood in stiletto heels and scrub floors in artistically tattered thigh highs. In fact, the entire book feels like what would happen if Vogue decided to run a unapologetically explicit sex issue. I almost never find anything this staged to be sexy at all, regardless of how aesthetically pleasing it is, but something about the book’s tongue-in-cheek, winking quality turns my head every time.

It’s that charm, more than anything, that turned me on when I first found Revenge nearly eleven years ago. On the surface, there’s a lot to get caught up in – a flagrantly abusive Baroness and her tool of a chauffeur, the lovely clutch of suffering nymphs, a trio of sly, sadistic, barely clothed maids – but beneath the sex-drenched premise and the glamor of von Unwerth’s images, the reality seemed to be that a bunch of people were getting a kick out of acting out a fabulously over-the-top fantasy, complete with crops, iron cuffs and pretty, black masks. That’s what made it impossible for me to put down.

What little text there is winks at novels like The Story of O and many of Anais Nin’s short stories, while never delving deeply into the potential psychology of the situation. This is one, very rare example of something that I think is sexy because it skates the surface of a fantasy without going deeper or darker than it has to. Forexample, the girls, who have “immaculate manners,” write the Baroness a thank you note after they liberate themselves from the chateau and leave their evil aunt in a compromising position in the village square.

Image from Revenge, by Ellen von Unwerth

Image from Revenge, by Ellen von Unwerth

Ridiculous. And yet…I kind of love the entire idea of that note, and of their aunt receiving her just desserts at the hands of outraged peasants who’ve been primed by rumors of her wicked ways. The fact that there is almost no story is actually one of the book’s strengths. The premise remains a premise, undeveloped and whole unto itself. Normally, I hate this. But I love it in Revenge.

I stumbled over Revenge when I was only just beginning to get a sense of my kinky side. I didn’t know much about BDSM then and, while I enjoyed sex, (a lot), I wasn’t consuming a lot of explicitly sexual material. I was still trying very hard to be my mother’s very normal, very good girl. But I couldn’t ignore this book or it’s arch, in-your-face sexuality. It was delicious and wicked and beautiful. It turned me on in so many ways, and I couldn’t put it down. It became one of those tiny bits of media that my sexuality latched onto. Something deep inside of me said, this is okay. This is good. It’s okay to want things that aren’t “safe.”

I’m honestly not sure I’d love it nearly so much if I hadn’t stumbled over it at such a pivotal point in my own sexual development. I might just have dismissed it as really pretty soft-core porn, or flipped through it and put it back on the shelf without paying what was then more than I could afford for a single book. But I did stumble over it at a pivotal time, and it tapped something inside of me like a tuning fork. It literally turned something inside me on. I didn’t know then whether I wanted to be the Baroness or one of her poor, put-upon nieces. All I knew was that I wanted to be in that book, and that was a revelation to me.

Image from Revenge, by Ellen von Unwerth

Image from Revenge, by Ellen von Unwerth