Hyperrhiz 21

Know Thy Selfie

Mark C. Marino
University of Southern California

Adeline Koh
Sabbatical Beauty

Citation: Marino, Mark C. and Adeline Koh. “Know Thy Selfie.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 21, 2019. doi:10.20415/hyp/021.t03

Abstract: To plumb the depths of selfie culture, this assignment asks students to reflect on their own performance of identity (race/ethnicity, sexuality, gender, socio-economic status) by analyzing 5 selfies.

Keywords: selfies, identity, social media, Instagram, writing, feminism, intersectionality.

View the Assignment Artifact

Sample Pedagogical Materials

This assignment was developed for a first-year college writing course with an emphasis on identity and diversity. In this assignment, students, from a variety of majors, take five selfies to use as the basis for analysis of their performance of their identities along the following axes: race-ethnicity, socio-economic status, sexuality, gender. Students are asked to focus on 3 of the characteristics, and consider these identity characteristics independently and as they intersect. The specific prompt is: How do your selfies produce or obscure a sense of your identity? How do we create our selves?

The students perform a detailed image analysis of each selfie and create an argument using the details as evidence. Students are asked to consider all elements of the way they present themselves (clothing, pose, facial expression) but also the elements of the framing of the picture (background, lighting, proximity, angle of the camera) and any other elements in the picture (people, animals, objects). In the selfies, students may be alone or with another person, but must make sure they are a central and large part of the photo. For the sake of this assignment, students are instructed that a selfie should contain at least their entire face and should be taken by them. All of the selfies should be different from one another.

“Know Thy Selfie” helps students to isolate and identify concrete aspects of their performance of specific intersecting identity characteristics. While the assignment seems light and frivolous, it produces an opportunity to examine the performance of identity by using specific and concrete snapshots from lived experience. When contextualized within the theories of identity and performance by Butler, DuBois, Goffman, and Rettberg, which were part of assigned readings and class discussions, selfies prove to be a way of observing both conscious and subconscious aspects of identity creation. We begin the assignment by examining several selfies from celebrities, using a fact-idea list (see below) to identify the concrete details (clothes, posture) and the contextual markers (setting, address of the camera) that form the picture. Paratexts (such as a caption on an Instagram post) serve also as markers for how the person posting the selfie wishes to be regarded. However, in the context of Goffman and Butler’s work, we can complicate this communication transmission by noting unintended messages carried in the selfie. The goal is not to test the student’s ability to recognize stereotypical markers of identity but instead to help them see how the many details coalesce into a complex self-portrait and to discuss the many factors that complicate this communication act, i.e., to make it much more nuanced than the ease of posting suggests. The assignment also helps students to make arguments by supporting their claims with concrete details.

Training Needed

Only the ability to take a #selfie. Possibly a place to post them, though they can be embedded in a Google Doc or shared publicly over Twitter or Instagram. In-class time can be used for sharing selfies and discussing them, preferably one or two class periods of at least 50 minutes.

The course

The #SelfieClass website

Accompanying Readings

Jill Walker Rettberg. Seeing Ourselves Through Technology.

W.E.B. Dubois. “Of Our Spiritual Strivings.” The Souls of Black Folk.

Herbert J. Gans. “Symbolic ethnicity: The future of ethnic groups and cultures in America.

Stuart Hall. “Representation and the Media.”

Judith Butler. “Your Behavior Creates Your Gender.”

Deborrah Frable. “Gender, Racial, Ethnic, Sexual, and Class Identities.” *This article offers some basic frameworks on these identity classifications.

In-class Exercise

To keep this exercise tied to concrete details and to help students build strong pairings between claims and evidence, students were asked to create a 3-column fact-idea list on which they listed 1) Details from their selfies, 2) Classifications or groupings for those details, and 3) Assumptions or claims drawn from those details.

Details from the Selfie Classification of the detail Assumption drawn from detail
School sweatshirt Clothing Shows intellectual and economic status
Open books in foreground Habits Shows intellectual aspirations, priorities
Cat-eye eyeliner Makeup emphasized femininity

Pitfalls and Pro-tips

Most college students (in Mark’s classes at least) deny that they even take selfies (by narrowing the definition to “images posted by self-centered posers”), so it is worth having a discussion that unpacks some of the stigma associated with this form. Jill Walker Rettberg’s book helps quite a bit to challenge their preconceived notions and selfie-stigmas. Selfies are often associated with young women, a group that is easy to undermine and devalue. It is worth asking how the stereotype of duck-faced, vain Instagrammers continues this denigration and continues the age-old gotcha that cultivates, capitalizes on, and shames youth through the cult of beauty. To help promote a broader understanding, it was useful to tie selfies to a longer tradition of self-portraiture and even first-person writing. Once the students began the process of analyzing their selfies, they found it difficult to recognize the signs of their performance of (“unmarked”) identity characteristics that conformed with social norms. For example, most heterosexual students have a difficult time recognizing the way they perform heterosexuality, and since like all identity groups, it is not monolithic, those signs vary widely across cultures and can be read in different ways. However, you can use those sorts of questions (and possible resistance to the analysis) as an opportunity to look at examples to ask how sexual identity is performed. The most productive examples came from popular culture rather than our own class, as performers are putting their consciously crafted personas on display. Lastly, even though this assignment separates out the categories, it is important to always show the intersections and interplay of these complex social constructs. Students are discouraged from discussing, for example, the category of gender absent considerations of the ethnic or racial cultures that shape those constructs. More than mutually informing, these identity characteristics do not exist out of the formative context of the others. To treat them otherwise is to naturalize them or treat them as abstract preexisting categories, which typically makes a pervasive culture (such as white cis-gender heterosexuality), an unmarked cultural norm.


Tools and Tutorials:

Discussion of assignment in Chronicle of Higher Education: