Selfies for Social Justice

Jamie Shaw’s art installation, That Lady Thing: Phoenix Rising, is one part #MeToo, one part selfie-culture, and one part pop-up museum. The result? Feminist selfie photo-opps with a cause just in time for International Women’s Day.

For good, bad, or otherwise the selfie has been a cultural mainstay since Paris Hilton and Britney Spears (allegedly) shared the first selfie in 2006. The selfie reached peak zeitgeist when Time Magazine listed the term on their Top 10 Buzzwords of 2012 and the Oxford English Dictionary named it word of the year in 2013.

 The prevalence of selfies in social media attracted researchers in the field of psychology. An oft cited study conducted in 2015 examined 1,000 men between the ages of 18 and 40 to determine whether or not connections between narcissism, psychopathy, machiavellianism and the posting of selfies exists. The results determined a modest correlation between personality traits of narcissism, psychopathy and self-objectification with selfies. This modest correlation became judge, jury, and trial. Googling “selfies and narcissism” results in more than 10,000 hits.

A second, much less often cited study conducted in Poland, evaluated selfie habits and the primary traits of narcissism among men and women. A slight positive correlation was found between narcissistic personality traits and selfie posting in men, less so in women. Per Dr. Gwendolyn Seidman, “It should be noted that all of these correlations were rather small, and as is always the case with correlational research, the existence of a significant correlation most certainly doesn’t mean that everyone who posts frequent selfies is a narcissist….narcissism can explain only a small amount of the selfie-posting behavior that we observe on social media. There may be many other still-to-be-uncovered factors that also influence this behavior.”

One of these factors that influence people to take selfies is that selfies have become socially normative. Raise your hand if you have NOT taken a selfie. Exactly. The more selfies we see in our social media feeds, the more acceptable it becomes to engage in this form of self-expression. And selfies are exactly that – a way to show the world how we see ourselves. When I share a selfie mid-run, I’m showing the world that I view myself as an athlete, someone who gets up before dawn to log the miles it takes to run the next half marathon. Selfies are also wielded as a powerful tool of self-expression that challenge mainstream media. Selfies are one way for marginalized communities to increase the visibility of people we don’t see on TV, in magazines, or at the movies.

Pop-up art museums, like Color Factory and Museum of Ice Cream, create experiences that harness the allure of the perfectly styled selfie. There are opportunities to dive into pools of sprinkles or confetti, pose with color-coordinated props, and snap selfies against well-lit pop art backgrounds. These experiences ditch the velvet ropes that prohibit museum or exhibition patrons from engaging with installations in order to create a fully interactive experience – all while leveraging a culture that views the world through a social media lens.

And it works. There are more than 185,000 photos under the #museumoficecream hashtag. The Color Factory’s Instagram profile has 205,000 followers.

San Francisco-based creative director, Jamie Shaw, created That Lady Thing in response to the popularity of pop-up art museums. Shaw believes that art installations can be photo-ready and spread messages of social justice. At the first That Lady Thing in 2018, visitors dove into a Sea of Objectivity, a pit filled with plastic breasts of different shapes and colors, hoisted themselves up The Corporate Climb, a rock-climbing wall meant to symbolize the significant efforts it takes for a woman to climb to the top, and posed in front of wallpapers designed to challenge traditional standards of beauty and address impostor syndrome.

That Lady Thing (or in this case, That Lady Thing: Phoenix Rising) is back in 2019, running from International Women’s Day on March 8th through Sunday, March 10th. At the press sneak preview earlier this week, we were greeted with a projection declaring we would be “getting medieval on the patriarchy,” watched a woman perform acrobatics in a clear inflatable ball bearing the phrase “Still a Man’s World,” and snapped photos in a phone booth that encouraged women to speak their shame.

Confetti is cute and sure, it encourages self-expression and connection on social media. But a nipool (as we have dubbed the Sea of Objectivity in my social circle) hands women the tools to tell a larger story. The selfies captured at That Lady Thing identify the selfie taker/sharer as a feminist, as socially aware, and part of the solution. Is aligning one’s self image with these traits the same thing as the narcissistic quality of an over-inflated sense of importance? I don’t think so. Much like the movement to use selfies to challenge representation in mainstream media, these too are selfies with a cause.