There’s been a lot of press in the last couple of years dedicated to “selfie” scholarship. It’s partly the fault of the Oxford dictionary who declared it a real word in 2013 and therefore somehow more worthy of critical attention. There is the pro-camp, who says it’s empowering and should be encouraged. There are the detractors,who say they reek of low self-esteem and encourage plastic surgery.
I am ambivalent personally. I am by no means immune to the practice. It’s too big a temptation with the camera right there in my hand at most times, the smartphone being practically an extension of the limb these days. But while I take them semi-regularly, I am generally loathe to post them on social media. For fear of being one of “those girls.”
We all have that friend, the one who feels the need, daily, to post a “selfie” to their social media page. The hashtag may read #nyc or #lacma but the background is secondary. The focus and the majority of the space is dedicated to the face, often wearing a strikingly familiar expression. What is the need the “selfie” fulfills?
I agree with James Franco when he said “Selfies are tools of communication more than marks of vanity (but yes, they can be a little vain).We all have different reasons for posting them, but, in the end, selfies are avatars: Mini-Me’s that we send out to give others a sense of who we are.” I think that one of the people we are communicating with though is ourselves.
The “selfie” is about seeing ourselves from the outside.It is a self-portrait, true, one we create with the intention to affect how we are seen but it is more than that. It is difficult to imagine how you are perceived. A logical mind will fixate on the diversity of possible perspectives and the changing nature of the self. It matters who’s looking at us and how we happen to be at any given occasion. We are not the same today as we were yesterday. The “selfie,” a visual check-in, serves to capture “objectively” the mutating reality of the self.
Now most people would admit that photography has from it’s birth been subject to manipulation and tampering with, but it is also the best tool we’ve got for capturing some of life’s most precious truths. Birth, Death, what your friends looked like out at the club last Friday…
Human vanity, sin or not, is natural, timeless and virtually inescapable. We love to gaze at our own reflections, in mirrors, in photos, and in “selfies.” It is the narcissitic hallmark of our times. Much has been written about whether the “selfie” version empowers or demeans, objectifies or elevates. I posit that it serves like a GPS- this is where you are now. It reassures.It confirms. It realizes. I am here. I exist.
Yesterday was officially Memorial Day, even though we all had Monday off in observance. Well, actually, I worked,(yay for domestic workers)but on my way to and fro I had a chance to hear NPR’s coverage of the occasion. They had interviews with veterans and others about how they were spending the day.This was the first year I remember there being a perceptable tension between recognizing the sacrifice of the troops and enjoying the beginning of BBQ season. On facebook there were a rash of statuses’that said, if I may paraphrase, “while you are out there having fun, assholes, remember someone died so you could enjoy this day. Freedom isn’t free!” It smacked of Jesus’ dying for my sins, frankly. On the radio elderly respondents lamented the lack of respect they perceived from the American public.There was a defensiveness, almost a hostility that divided the world, at least in the minds of those speaking into those who do Memorial day right and the rest of us.
What bothered me was the generational blame game that seemed rear its’ head. These kids they said, they don’t appreciate what we did- they don’t know how it is. The multiple calls to reinstate the draft sounded to me like frat boys standing up for hazing. While I get the logic behind saying that if everyone had to go to War we wouldn’t be so keen on starting them, whose babies will unwillingly be slaughtered to prove your point? and who says we wanted to start them in the first place? As though we voted on these last few. Who are we talking about, exactly, when we say “they”? “They” who don’t care about history, who don’t spend Memorial day putting flags on gravestones, who should be drafted so they know what wars about. Which generation is in question? Is it mine? I definitely got dragged as a child to the cemetery. Our baby boomer parents, even the hippies, emphasized the enormity of the whole WAR proposition early enough in our minds.Besides,the gray haired men who sign the budgets and bills to pay for the war, they are my parents age at least and their own experiences with the draft hasn’t seemed to stop them from making war.
I know for sure the kids growing up right now have a grasp of the concept, because imagine that if you are a twelve year old girl and you live in America, you must take for granted that from the moment you were born, the United States has been at war.You grew up slowly piecing together the letters that graced the bumper of so many cars, “Support the Troops.” You see the most recent Katy Perry video, Part of Me, in which the message seems to be if you get mad at your boyfriend maybe the answer is to enlist in the Marines. You are the target demographic of the artist in question and you have just begun to be involved with boys romantically, in the sense that they tease you mercilessly. There is a strong possibility that this could be considered recruitment material.
As a six year old, you watched Elmo’s dad come home from being deployed for multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Since when does Elmo have parents?) The subject matter is both treacly and deep all at once. What does the future hold for you? Why do all the old people on public radio want to draft you? Why can’t they let you enjoy the sunshine outside? Do peaceful societies need these kinds of holidays at all? Yesterday I said a prayer for all the fallen soldiers and for the generation that hopefully won’t become them.
I make no excuse in regard to my love for the reality TV show, “Toddlers and Tiaras.” On some level I know I am watching the exploitation of young girls turned into commercial entertainment. The show is an hour long orgy of mothers forcing grotesque standards of beauty on their often pre-school aged daughters in the form of fake teeth and spray tanning. Every episode features countless toddlers wrestling on the floor in piles of taffeta while their mothers’ own aspirations and need for attention are satisfied. I know this is wrong. But I can’t stop watching.
I think I like the show because it’s absurd and the presentation doesn’t lend itself to critical analysis of what it is we’re watching. It’s how I can get away with not thinking about what happens to the little girls who don’t win or the long term prospects of those who do.
I have often joked that the reason I am not famous is that my own mother wasn’t a good enough stage mom. I tried acting as a kid but if on a Saturday morning I decided that I’d rather stay home and watch cartoons than attend an audition, she’d let me do just that. I didn’t want to drive you anyway, she’d say. I joke that her lack of pressure was what separates me from Lindsay Lohan, the joke of course being that in reality my well-adjusted obscurity is enviable in comparison to Lindsay’s out of control celebrity life. On the stage mom front, the mothers of the pageant circuit take the cake. They would have dragged their children to who know where in the pursuit of fame; a few dark alleys come to mind.
The subject of my fascination, however, are not the ladies who daughters are primped, plucked and pimped in service of good television, but the children themselves. Young girls who are being endlessly prepared to flirt with the middle aged female judges, with the occasional odd male judge thrown in, as part of their pageant training. The bikini wearing three year olds freak me out. The kisses being blown and the winking makes me sick, which in turn keeps me glued to the TV. How can this be happening, I think, people are so weird, is this legal? The exacting ideas of what is beautiful is based on who knows what dark thoughts, but my former roommate used to say that he felt uncomfortable watching the show and wouldn’t admit to friends or coworkers that he had. If you weren’t in the room with me, he’d say, it would instantly classify me as creepy.
I’ve also joked that ballet school with its’ punitive discipline and anxiety producing body fixation is the launch pad for a million stripper careers. It takes strength and flexibility to work the pole and the dexterity and grace displayed on so many strip clubs has to be learned somewhere. Maybe that’s where all the girls who get too curvy for ballet go. So many girls study dance and there are so few professional ballerinas. In that vein I believe the pageant world must be another feeder source for the exotic dance community. For girls whose self-esteem and sense of self-worth was attached at such young ages to bodies used for the entertainment, judgment and enjoyment of other, it seems an easy leap. Those girls already have so much practice preening to other’s specifications, and so many beauty skills. By age ten they are already well versed in make up and hair. Why it’s the same curling irons and tan in a can on the counters of pageant queens and strippers alike; the same fixed smiles attached to their faces.
Okay I am 99.9% sure it was her. If it wasn’t and it was just some poor lesbian who looked like her having lunch at Hugo’s in Studio City, well at least I made her day with my enthusiasm. I didn’t have any lesbians with me to confirm her identity but I’m really good with faces and I’ve always kind of thought she looks a little like my mom, so as I said 99.9 %. Upon seeing her picture again i’ll even add .05% to it.
To set the scene, I was meeting a friend to get feedback on my memoir and it being LA, I noticed upon plopping down that Vanessa Hudgens (of High School Musical “I dated Zach Efron” Fame) was sitting at the next table over, with only a thin pane of glass between us ( we were seated outside). While I admit to reading gossip blogs, I couldn’t bother to be impressed by her- I know who she is but that doesn’t necessarily make her special. I have not heard good things about “Suckerpunch.”
So I went about advising my friend on her personal problems and neglecting the question of tense in my writing, and Vanessa leaves after kissing who assume to be Austing Butler? I think that her boyfriend’s name ? and towards the end of the meal once we’d finished our egg-white oatmeal frittata, which was better than it sounds even though it included kamut, who should be seated right in my eyeline on the opposite side of the glass but Ms. Etheridge out to lunch with a lady friend.
I about died- and that is why I think it was her, that instant heart based gut reaction. I immediately began to strategize how to approach her and what to say. A few minutes later I strolled into the restaurant with what I hoped was casual purpose and veered in the direction of her table.
Despite my planning, I believe I came off as a babbling fool and probably overwhelmed her. I approached the table, leaned in a little and said, “Excuse me, I hate to interrupt but I just had to say Hi, because I was so excited.” She took my hand and asked me to introduce myself, “I’m Kellen Kaiser and I’m Queerspawn and my little brother, who’s a decade younger than me, loved your songs so much as a little kid and at three knew every word to them, and used to sing them out loud in the car, and now he’s a frat boy at Long Beach State.” I’m not sure why I’d decided that was the most important thing for her to know but there it was. She smiled and said it was nice to meet me, her companion seemed amused at the encounter, like well, this is what happens to you when you’re Melissa Etheridge, crazy people approach you as you peruse the menu. Or at least that’s what I imagine she was thinking…. It’s funny to find out who you really are in awe of- She qualifies. She’s a Big Fish of Famous Lesbians. It’s like her and Rosie O’Donnell. I’m coming for you Rosie- watch out!
I’m in the audience of a game show called “Baggage.” A show which features a sexy bachelor or bachelorette who chooses between three suitors, each of whom have three suitcases set in front of them. Those cases hold secrets that might make them less attractive mates. Stuff like sexual proclivities and past addictions, obssesions, quirks. I collect my nail filings. I used to be real fat. One guy’s secret was that he lived communally- what horror!
As the show goes on they have to open those suitcases and admit to being the freaks they really are. Okay my choice of words not theirs… and We as an audience get to encourage the contestants to harshly judge their prospective mates. The camera pans to reveal shock and disgust in our faces. We have a guy showing us the appropriate faces to make. Jerry Springer the host then asks them to explain why this particular piece of information was a deal breaker-” So why can’t you stand the idea that he collects Barbie Dolls? Tell me about that…”
I am wearing a cute summer dress as advised by the same casting service that has promised to pay me in cash at the end of the day. It’s always fun to check out what people choose to wear to these things, their interpretation of the dress code. A lot of personal taste can come through “Business Casual”.
Between takes I turn and scan the rows behind me, looking at the people who have come here to be paid in cash like me. I settle my gaze repeatedly on a handsome blond man, hair spiked with gel, sitting next to an aging bottle blond girlfriend.
There is something about him that makes me think “maybe you were once a woman” Something in his rocker/surf presentation, something in the cheekbones or the eyes. Gender is of course a reading of a set of culturally determined cues and as I steal glances I think- His hands aren’t so big- He is big but no larger than the bigget and butchest of my moms-I imagine the face before the hormones, what that might look like.
I think to myself that it is all so subtle that only someone well-versed in the possibilities of gender queering like me would notice. You were passing and then I caught you. Then I wonder why I care at all. This person is living, passing as the gender of their choice so what do I care?
I love trans people- why am I staring at this one? Maybe because it was so close, I just couldnt be sure how to categorize them, not even cultured ol’ me. That would be the ultimate suitcase secret for a show like this-but then it would most likely end with the person being rejected for being too different to accept and what fun really is that? Not my kind.
Don’t get me wrong I love judging strangers just as much as the next guy- when one lady’s secret was “I only do it on my sex towel”, I was quick to think- No way, what freak that person is- how neurotic and bizarre.But right after that thought was the consideration of what could have possibly convinced these people to offer up themselves for judgment? That was the real freakiness of the whole thing for me. Did they need the cash worse than I (Hardly Possible)? Did they think they stood a chance at finding love through this hell (implausible)? Did they just want the attention? And what did that mean?
My godmother Helen gave me David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water” this last weekend. It’s the one commencement speech he gave before he died. The book had bits of wisdom on each page, small bites of it so it was perfect for the environment of reading during filming breaks.
It seemed to me it was saying that it was worthwhile to consider the experiences of others, to question
ones own natural self centeredness. That you aren’t the only person who matters, there are others and they count too. That you get to choose to remove yourself from the position of judge and jury of the world around you and the needless suffering of ego. I think about how from a very young age I have known that thanks to my many mothers I am different, that there are others with different perspectives than mine. I have always known that people think they are right often when they don’t know any better. This perspective has made me less self-righteous in my own pronouncements.
I think that being queer teaches you not to take for granted a lot of things that others don’t think about.
I read an affecting article about a young trans child and her parents and their attempts to navigate the world. It isn’t easy to be different but it is an education.
Back to Baggage- I spent the day mulling over what might be in my suitcases and how I felt about Secrets in general (Anti! Definitively so!). I checked out everyone else in the room and made uneducated guesses about what could be “wrong” with them. I felt blessed that this wasn’t the only forum in life for getting laid.
SInce I see that the public at large seems to be checking out my view on Gypsies, i’d like to restate for the record my feelings especially in light of the recent protests in France. What Sarkozy is doing in terms of persecuting the Roma people is little better the the actions of his Vichy predecessors. Check out this article saying he attacks foreigners when his poularity needs a boost
I have tried to get over my feelings that the French would happily reenact the Dreyfus Affair if given the chance and this isn’t helping one bit.
LA feels to me like a second puberty complete with pimples. Supposedly the bad skin can be blamed on the pollution and stress of living with millions of other people. I’ve never experienced anything like it myself. My skin reacted in terror and confusion, along with at times the rest of me. I have revisited the personas with which I survived middle school and high school; the “I don’t care what you think about me sullen poses”. I went to see the two coolest girls in the senior class when I was a freshman, perform locally and afterwards found myself a stuttering stammering fool in their company. I held my coat in front of me and pigeon-toed, tried to make conversation. Fail. The “fan” mentality is dangerous to establishing friendships, not that it was a intentional strategy. My friend told me that often happened to her when around women she respects.
Last week I went to an audition for an audition for an audition aka an audition for a casting workshop. The deal was they gave you a scene (in my case from Seinfeld) and a partner and fifteen minutes. I thought I had a headshot in the car but of course didn’t so had to run back and forth from my house before reading not that i’m really ever composed regardless. But my partner was very gracious and I had fun reading and waiting outside, we realized that not only had we both gone to NYU but had both been in the same studio, ETW, a year or two apart. So we’d all had all the same teachers. After we read, they critiqued us separately and told me to take cold-reading classes, possibly theirs, because we’d read the scene too quickly. As I left there was another young woman coming in to start the process anew. She turned out to be someone I’d met through acting in New Mexico. I suddenly knew half the people in the room. They do say that LA is the smallest big city in the world. It was like high school… Cue Cheers music