Wednesday morning was like every other morning. I woke up, kissed John, bid good morning to my children, reached under my pillow for my phone and dabbed my finger onto the blue and white F on the touch screen. Ok I didn’t kiss John. Or say hello to my children. I basically did what I always did and jumped straight onto Facebook, getting my first fix of the day before anyone realised I’d woken up and I’d be forced to get involved with the pre-school run hunt for shoes, reading diaries and an ever elusive clean school jumper. I scrolled through the feed to see a couple of selfies of my friends looking a bit paler/younger/older/cleaner/sadder/happier than they normally do, nestled in amongst an alarming number of posts ranting about the N word: Narcissism.
This was day 1 (in my feed at least) of the #nomakeupselfie craze that has filled up most of our Facebooks for the past 48 hours or so. The craze – in which women post pictures of themselves wearing no make-up and urge their friends to text BEAT to 70099 to raise £3 for cancer research – follows hot on the heels of the recent #necknomination phenomenon, in which people (mostly male, mostly young, mostly not middle class) were nominated by their friends to down a pint of booze in one, and nominate their friends to do the same in 24 hours. I have, much to the horror of many of my friends I’m sure, gegged in on both of these daft scenes, just as I geg in on pretty much all the wonderfully meaningless (and of course narcissistic) opportunities for ersatz connection that facebook affords. You post a petition? Oooh lemme sign that!; You get a year older? HPYBDY DUDE!; My kid farts? Here’s a pic!; Ooh a CiF article on student fees? Sharing that bitchesssss!; You die? RIPing and weeping right here for ya bbz!
But I’m an unusually social person stuck in rural exile and I can’t drive #soalone #prayforkate
However, this isn’t some elaborate exercise in justifying my participation in any and all of the lameness that is life on Facebook (honest). What has been bugging me today is the difference in the public reception of the #neknomination and #nomakeupselfie crazes, and in particular, how that reception has been framed by a troubling, gendered discourse that circulates around the issue of narcissism.
‘Narcissistic’ ‘martyrish’ ‘Pathetic’ ‘needy’. These are some of the words that have filled up my FB news feed in these past few days of the #nomakeupselfie. These are harsh, contemptuous words. Words that have been used time and time again to insult, demean and pour scorn upon women. Words that have a very deep and profound resonance in the historical representation and experience of women under patriarchy. Words which have been borne and lodged under the sign of ‘WOMAN’ for centuries as testament to our inherent passivity and our inferiority to our ‘actively’ creative male counterparts. The well-worn trope of female narcissism feeds into bullshit ideas about the passive nature of female desire, it infantilises us, and it justifies the continuing objectification of women in western visual culture.
"Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at." (John Berger)
Helmut Newton, Self Portrait with Wife and Models 1980
The difference between the reception of the self-representations of women and the self-representations of men can be seen clearly in the history of art. When men make art using their own body, when they perform naked and use their own flesh as their material, they are invariably understood to be saying something unspeakably profound about the human condition. When women artists do the same, particularly if, God forbid, they happen to be attractive?
Well, they’re being totes narcissistic innit.
Well, they’re being totes narcissistic innit.
Above: Vito Acconci, Trademarks, 1970
Left: Hannah Wilke, S.O.S. Starification Object Series, 1974-82
“She is a narcissist. And Vito Acconci, with his romantic image and pimply back, is an artist.” - Lucy Lippard
Forty years on and the reception of the creative display of the male and female body performed in the #necknomination and #nomakeupselfies on Facebook has played out in pretty much exactly the same way. It will be of no surprise to anyone thay the N word was completely absent from my feed in the discussions following the #neknomination phenomenon, despite all the hench nudity, the self-aggrandizing behaviours, the arrogance and the evermore desperate and competitive performances of spectacular virility displayed in the videos. But as I say, the #neknomination craze was a predominantly male phenomenon so, rather than reaching for the vocabulary of narcissism, lazy tabloid journalists turned straight to the section on ‘hackneyed tropes of white working class young men’ in their thesaurus, and squealed in age old moral panic about the ‘dangers’ of this ‘extreme’ ‘challenge’, this ‘deadly game’ that ‘was out of control’ and threatened to ‘claim another victim’. All the posturing, showing off and peacockery of these young white lads has nothing to do with narcissism oh no! It’s their wildness, their daft laddishness, their untutored, disaffected, un-productive, insufficiently middleclass MASCULINITY writ large, leaking out all over the internetz and threatening to destroy society. And of course it had to be stopped. But narcissism, nahhhh. That’s just for the girls spending 30 seconds posting a selfie in no make-up for cancer research.
I get that posting a selfie on Facebook is pretty narcissistic. Just as necking a pint of Blastaway naked in a stream and posting it on Facebook is too. But dudes! Facebook IS narcissistic. It is self-serving and self-aggrandizing and needy. All of it. Look what I signed! Look what I ate! Look what I read! Look what my kid did on the potty! Narcissism is as essential to Facebook as the desire for an illusion of communalism in an increasingly atomised society is. Calling out a bunch of bare-faced women for being narcissistic in the interminable sea of MEEEEEEEEEE that is Facebook is, by my reckoning, pure projective identification (and, as I say, a bit sexist). So rather than wringing your hands about female narcissism and #nomakeupselfies, move on, sign a petition, post a picture of your cat and then, you know, text BEAT to 70099.