By Grace Atkinson
Manchester Metropolitan University’s Body of Words series presented ‘Selfie Aware’, an evening of critical lectures, poetry and creative writing prompts discussing selfie culture, hosted by poet and lecturer Helen Mort at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation.
Mort began the event by introducing her motivation behind the evening, explaining how an acquaintance emailed her about the photos she takes of herself on social media. “It started with me thinking about what selfies are for,” Mort said. “What image I was projecting, and what image people were receiving of me from that.”
Mort went on to introduce Dr Anne Burns, a portrait photographer whose PhD discusses women’s photography and social discourse, her lecture focusing on ‘the duck face’ and how a woman’s exaggerated pout can be scrutinised in social disciplines.
Burns spoke about a common rejection of selfies that is seen today, saying, “This idea that they are indicative of an illness is very popular, that they are narcissistic. You very often have somebody talking about selfies only to explicitly reject them, saying ‘I don’t do this’. You don’t really get people necessarily doing that about landscape photography.”
To Burns, this behaviour towards selfies becomes more than just about pictures: “Talking about photographs and photography is a way of talking about people. So this idea that you’ve got to avoid taking selfies is part of a wider process of social discipline, in which, in order to be accepted in society you’ve got to abide by certain rules, avoid certain activities, certain ways of behaving in order to be accepted by your peers.”
Behind Burns was images of memes and snippets from the internet exampling this sort of denunciation of ‘the duck face’, some in the form of men mimicking the pout, others simply stated “dear whores of the internet, this shit is not attractive”.
Burns went on to explore how ‘the duck face’ when presented in a selfie, can be subject to strict examination and penalisation, and how, underlying such behaviour, is a larger and more violent discourse.
Burns said, “This kind of discussion shows how this kind of perception of one small aspect of a woman’s face demonstrates a legitimisation of regulation, a very normal way of talking about people and scrutinising their sort of micro-behaviours […] the discourse regarding ‘the duck face’ doesn’t simply identify deviance, it also constructs a vision of expectable bodies.”
Burns went on to talk about other wider issues behind common attitudes to ‘the duck face’, including an underlying violent language towards women: “This sort of ambient humiliation and mockery of others seemed to characterise a form of discipline as entertainment, a sort of recreational nastiness, in which the humiliation of others constitutes a form of leisure time.”
Burns ended with a slide of images which had been deemed “acceptable” use of ‘the duck face’, all of which were of male celebrities.
Next to speak was Andrew McMillan, a poet and Senior Lecturer at Manchester Writing School. McMillan’s first poetry collection Physical was published in 2015 and was the first to win The Guardian First Book Award. McMillan read poetry that circled the theme of body image from his forthcoming collection Playtime, which is due to be published in August.
“I think selfies are a way that we find out about ourselves”, said McMillan. “The way in which we put an identity out into the world but before we can do that we kind of have to find out about our own bodies in childhood, so I thought I would start off by reading a couple of poems about that.”
McMillan began his reading with ‘Glimpse’, a poem that encompassed the beginnings of sexuality, and some of the earliest translations of the body as an opportunity for sex: ‘fear, lust, and shame, not yet ripened to full blush’.
‘Things Said In The Changing Room’ was a poem that gave a beautiful narrative of the body through time. Beginning with the embarrassment of a pre-adolescent physic, ‘like the time a new young supply teacher seemed to look at me with pity as though my body was someone else’s misbehaving child’, to them told as the past to their children: ‘which parts of them ache as they lift their boy out’.
McMillan went on to read poems about men, the gym and masculinity, saying, “We might think of the gym or places like that as fairly an hyper-masculine environment […] and not necessarily welcoming of the kind of queer genders. But what has seems to have happened is that these straight men posting topless selfies want the same thing as gay men, which is essentially for other men to tell them that they look good. That odd blending of two worlds I think is really interesting.”
McMillan then went on to read ‘Personal Trainer’, a tragic set of instructions that identified the male pressure to act tough: ‘first, the body must be bruised so it can heal itself stronger’.
‘Watching MMA’ was similarly a poem that seemed to comment on the social expectations of masculinity, as he stripped back a brutal and grotesque fight to re-imagine it as a loving embrace. “In many ways, it seems to me its just almost naked men writhing around together until one of them taps out. Its incredibly homoerotic and also wonderfully violent and kind of hyper-masculine”, said McMillan.
McMillan’s poetry was an exploration of the familiar, turning social assumptions of intimacy and gender on its head.
Nikolai Duffy followed with an essay on Andy Warhol’s infamous screen tests, and their relation to modern day selfies. Duffy is a poet and senior lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan, his latest collection ‘Up The Creek’ was published in 2017.
Since their making in the mid 1960s, Warhol’s screen tests have become a staple of his work, where visitors of his New York studio, ‘The Factory’ were asked to sit for a camera for exactly 2 ¾ minutes. Some of the most famous screen tests include ones of Edie Sedgwick, Bob Dylan and Lou Reed. They were at the time dubbed the name ‘stillies’.
For Duffy, these screen tests are more than just self-portraits but a kind of original selfie: “So ‘stillies’ invite this slow looking in a way, and I think that slow looking is different, a little bit, from selfies. Selfies are often quick and interactive, but they needn’t be so. Selfies are images we can re-visit in our own time. I’m not asking you to admit this but has anyone actually ever looked through someone else’s social media profile, gone through their history […] and spent some time looking at those faces?”
Duffy ellaborated further: “Selfies, I think, are amazing, because they enable me to look at someone else, and I mean really look at someone else. So, to really look at someone else’s face for a period of time, in a way that would actually be deeply uncomfortable and weird in reality. So, for me, duration is really important here, how long are you actually allowed to look at a face? And how long before you really know that face? And how long before you know your own face?”
To Duffy, this act of looking and being seen allows a human vulnerability to become present on the surface, a type of voyeurism that is as much about wanting to see someone as it is about wanting to see yourself, what Duffy called “a narrative of surfaces”.
He said, “It is confessional, not in the symbolic way, but rather, in its simple documentation of daily-ness. ‘Here I am, I go here, I go there, this is how I look today, this is how I feel’. Just a camera turned on our life for anyone to see, and through which to see yourself.”
“Smartphones mean that screen tests can be done anywhere at any time, we do this already, we are all already life casters, life as a tweet, status update, selfie, and because of that, life is not just catalogued but affirmed online, I see you, can you see me.”
After his talk, Duffy gave the audience two minutes of silence in which to film a ‘stillie’ of themselves on their phone. These videos were then compiled on twitter, a sort of makeshift version of Warhol’s own ‘The 13 Most Beautiful’.
The evening closed with a prompt to write our own understandings of the word ‘selfie’ and to create our own self-portrait through words or sketches.
‘Selfie Aware’ was an incredibly in-depth and thought-provoking exploration of selfies, a chance to consider an activity that is so ingrained in modern culture, it can often go unthought about.
Look out for Body of Words next event ‘The Body Beautiful’ with Dr Muzna Rahman, Alan Buckley & Helen Mort on Wednesday 25th April.