Groundbreaking research into the social phenomenon of the selfie is being carried out in Ireland. And it’s showing there’s a lot more to selfies than meets the eye.
“It’s easy just to say it’s a narcissistic act. The reality is much more complicated,” says researcher Mary McGill, who is currently doing a four-year PhD on the selfie phenomenon in NUI Galway.
Ms McGill’s groundbreaking research was the subject of a TED talk, ‘Young Women, Narcissism and the Selfie Phenomenon’ earlier this year, that subsequently went viral.
“There has been a lot of research done on women’s involvement with and representation in film, television, advertising and so on, but very little about the selfie given how new it is.
“Whatever about the interest in women and the taking of selfies, we rarely ask young women themselves why they’re so interested in this. It’s just lazily labelled as narcissistic but it’s not examined on a deeper level, with a broader question,” Ms McGill told the Irish Examiner.
In the first year of her research, she carried out a literature review in order to see what other studies, similar to what she was doing, already existed.
“There is a quite a lot of study coming from psychology and communications in relation to the selfie but little taking a specifically feminist cultural approach, which is what I am using,” she says.
The researcher, in deciding to pursue academic research into the phenomenon, felt that the selfie had something far more important to teach us about society rather than just allowing us to label young women as self-absorbed.
“I want to challenge preconceived notions about why women take selfies and provide a deeper, more nuanced understanding than we currently have. I want to do this because I believe the selfie has something important to teach us about contemporary femininities and what it means to be a young woman today.
“At the moment the mainstream consensus is often how silly young women, in particular, are to be taking selfies. Although they are certainly not the only demographic taking selfies, young women seem to get disproportionate attention for doing so,” she says.
From her research so far, she has observed how selfies are often taken in intimate places like a person’s bedroom or bathroom and shot at the mirror in those rooms.
She believes that far from being a sole act of narcissism and self-obsession, the selfie helps young women understand what it means to be feminine in today’s world.
“When I’m studying the selfie, I see it like the new mirror. What does that new mirror allow us to see at this point? It holds up a mirror and captures the kinds of concerns and desires that our young women are grappling with.
“We try to capture things we can’t hold on to. The selfie also reflects things about being female in the world today and also the skills associated with femininity. When I look at the selfie I see young women trying capture that accomplishment and then being rewarded and approved for it,” explains Ms McGill.
Integral to her research is to remove judgement from the conversation around selfies. Instead, she is looking at where this new social behaviour is coming from.
“In Simone de Beauvoir’s book The Second Sex (1949) there’s an entire chapter on narcissism and women. It relates very much to the feminism and the selfie today.
“So it’s not to say women are simply narcissistic, more that women are socialised to behave in feminine ways, which have always focused on the body and appearance.
“Before making judgements, it is always important to consider where our behaviour comes from and to look at social and historical factors,” she says.
Before embarking on her PhD at NUI Galway, where she also teaches at the School of Sociology and Political Science, she did a degree in media studies.
She then went on to work in the media but “doing a PhD was an itch I always knew I’d scratch,” Ms McGill says.
Key to her research will be the “lived experience, centring on the voices of young women who engage with the phenomenon.”
She will begin interviewing young women in the next academic year.
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