Town's Selfie Sculpture Reveals a Sexist Stigma

June 2nd 2016

Lucy Tiven

A Texas town recently installed a statue that has many of its residents freaking out on social media.

The sculpture — which depicts two teenage girls taking a selfie — spurred massive online backlash, and revealed some of the unsettling ways we stigmatize young women and their contributions to pop culture.

The statue that ignited the outrage was erected outside of Sugar Land, Texas' city hall, as part of a series of installations inspired by everyday activities.

For example, another one of the statues, located near a public fountain, depicts a man playing an acoustic guitar.

Twitter users from Sugar Land and across the country found the selfie statue's subject matter particularly embarrassing and unimportant, and slammed it on social media.

Sexist selfie-shaming.

Our cultural distaste for selfies can reflect sexist attitudes about the women and young girls who often appear in them.

"The concern people express about selfies is almost identical to misogynistic insults that have been hurled at girls forever: that we're vain and superficial and vapid and desperate for attention," Laci Green said on her MTV digital series "Braless."

This isn't the first time sexist selfie-shaming has surfaced in the news, either. In September, Major League Baseball announcers spurred a major controversy when they called out a group of sorority sisters for taking selfies during a game, MTV News reported.

The announcers' remarks — commenting, “every girl is locked into her phone. Welcome to parenting in 2015," and suggesting an intervention — were widely interpreted as misogynistic. The controversy led Fox Sports and the Diamondbacks, one of the teams who played in the game, to issue an apology and free tickets to the sorority sisters.

The stigma that teen girls take selfies because they are vapid and self-obsessed also disregards how selfies can empower young women.

Most of the statue's hater contingent claimed or implied that an image of two young girls taking a selfie wasn't historically or culturally important.

Yet, the 'teen girl selfie' actually has huge cultural significance. For today's young women, the selfie can be a powerful tool, and allows teenage girls to define and express their identities and voices on their own terms.

“This is a generation of Rowan Blanchards and Amandla Stenbergs, teen girls who create art and write and argue with the best of them, and, yes, take selfies," editor Emma Grey wrote on the Huffington Post. "If young women are in control of their own public-facing profiles and their own words and their own interests, why shouldn’t they have control over images of themselves?

In July 2015, Derek Conrad Murray, an art theorist and assistant professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, published a paper arguing that the selfie was a valuable and politically-charged means of self-expression.

Murray also observed that discussions about selfies often brought up sexist stereotypes.

"Most talk of selfies is focused (unfairly) on young women, forming into a critique of their apparent narcissism as a kind of regressive personality trait," he wrote. "The young women themselves often characterize the selfie (on social media sites) as a radical act of political empowerment: as a means to resist the male-dominated media culture's obsession with and oppressive hold over their lives and bodies."

Adults take selfies for similar reasons.

Author and Gizmodo senior science editor Jennifer Ouellette recently published the book, "Me, Myself and Why: Searching for the Science of Self," which explores how we fulfill the psychological need to define our identities in and outside of cyberspace.

"Your Facebook page, for instance, is one gigantic identity claim," Ouellette told NBC News.

"I think the selfie phenomenon is a different version of that," she added. "It is definitely a way of saying, 'Here I am. This is me.' It's a mirror kind of thing, particularly since people often turn the camera on themselves.'"

Selfies have inspired such a wide breath of news controversy, research, and academic writing — is a statue really all that outlandish?

Despite the massive backlash, Lindsey Davis, Sugar Land's cultural arts manager, stood by the selfie statue.

“People seem to be very focused on selfies, but it is part of the larger sculpture donation,” she told Houston radio station KTRH. “I think seeing it in the context of the full donation will probably please people.”

The sculpture also had a few fans in Sugar Land, who celebrated by taking selfies of their own.

[h/t Dazed]