Scrolling through pictures on my brother’s iPhone, I’m reminded of a Rembrandt retrospective I saw some years back. His photos feature theatrical shading and ill-fitting headwear—an abortive attempt at donning a fedora. In some pics, half-dimmed vanity lights lend my brother a sort of murky corona, his hairdo limned in white. Almost all of the photos are selfies, and they leave my brother’s digital representation trapped between the mirror and a far wall, rooted, stolid, confident.
“Why the selfies?” I ask, and he snatches his phone away, grunting something about breaching his privacy.
The episode got me thinking. By and large, we feminsed selfie-taking. Kim Kardashian is credited as the medium’s progenitor, the bridge between Rembrandtesque self-portraits rendered in oil on canvas and the (much criticised) duckface of the late aughts. Since then, selfies have been largely framed as a female vice—misconduct worthy of a paternalistic intervention, that, according to the New York Times, draws "eye-rolling and vague embarrassment even among those who take them."
But can we really gender selfies? A UK study by smartphone manufacturer HTC showed that men are twice as likely to avail themselves of that front-facing camera. An Instagram search yielded a bevy of male selfies, largely nestled under testosterone-buzzing hashtags like #BeardPorn, #ManCrushMonday and #BrosBeingBasic. And my close guy friends have all admitted, however grudgingly, that they “dabble” in selfies now and then.
|This article is part of the Cultural Radar series|
So, it looks like male selfies are actually on the up-and-up.
To be clear, I’ve always rationalised the selfie as less a crystallisation of deep-seated narcissism or psychopathy and more an effort to answer certain questions. Made public, selfies ask, “how do I look?” They wonder “what do you think of me?” and “what is my role?” They beg for insights about who we are, how our peers see us. Self-doubt trickles from picture-taker to picture-viewer through each small, digitised portrait.
So it makes sense that men might look to selfies for help. We know from think piece after think piece that traditional masculinity is in “crisis.” Jack Myers, author of The Future of Men, puts it succinctly: today’s man feels “abandoned by thousands of years of history… to be strong; to be a provider; to be in authority; to be the ultimate decision maker; and to be economically, educationally, physically and politically dominant.” Bereft of ruling ideologies, knocked to the margins for the first time in thousands of years, men might just be dumbfounded when it comes to readjusting their fit in (capital C) Culture.
Through this lens, male selfies are a proactive effort to ask for feedback. They’re an admission of uncertainty or confusion, a request for open dialogue. They’re questions. Women and minority groups have every right to offer answers, but brands should play a role here as well. You can read the new, oft-cited Axe positioning, for example, as a pat on the back for confused, selfie-posting men across the United States. Axe’s response is comforting: redefine masculinity in your own terms, it urges. Find your magic. Other brands would do well not to dismiss selfies as signs of self-absorption. They’re analytical tools. They’re question marks. And it’s about time we offer up answers.
|Zoe Weitzman is research executive at Flamingo New York|