Opinion: Selfies

POSTED: 05/19/14 10:00 PM

We’re egocentric sods, that’s what we are and the selfie – those god-awful pictures people are taking of themselves and then show them to the world thinking they are so cool – is the ultimate expression of our egotism. Look at me! Look at me! I took a picture all by myself! Is that sad, or what?

This is the world we live in. Homeless people are withering away under our very noses, children go to school hungry and politicians, with their fat salaries and god knows what other sources of income, say that this is shameful. They take selfies too, by the way.

Sociologist Mark van Ostaijen writes in a column in the Volkskrant that selfies are the ultimate illustration of our desire for individualism “and Heleen van Royen understands that.”

For the uninitiated, Van Royen is a novelist who considers herself a neofeminist. She posed nude for Playboy together with her husband Ton in 2006. Van Royen, proponent of a lifestyle that is best described as beyond wild lives in Portugal. Calling her the queen of selfies would be an understatement.

Van Royen shows herself in more than 200 selfies in an exhibition in the Literary Museum. The pictures show the novelist in bed, in her bath and on her balcony. Some of them are not really selfies – they are pictures that show how van Royen is taking a selfie. Call us nitpickers, but there is a difference.

The selfie, Van Ostaijen grumbles in the Volkskrant. Van Royen speaks the language of our times, because there is no other word that has appealed more to the imagination during the past year. The sociologist refers to a couple of other trendy new words, like participation society, socialbesitas, and sletvrees (the title of a book by Sunny Bergman about sexual freedom). These words and many others cannot stand in the shadow of selfie.

The Dikke Van Dale – the mother of all dictionaries in the Netherlands – defines selfie as “a photographic self-portrait often made with the camera at arm’s length and published on a social network site.” Selfie became the word of the year in the Netherlands, England, and Flanders.

Its popularity got a boost from bastardized versions like the infamous stemfie (a photo in a voting booth), the zwerfie (photo of litter) and the prinsje (photo with a member of the Royal family). Recently, King Willem-Alexander asked comedian Freek de Jonge – a staunch critic of the royal family – to do a selfie with him. It was widely published in Dutch media.

Van Ostaijen notes that the selfie is more than a word, it is also an image. It is a kind of video language, a tool to show others something like, I was here, or, this is how I feel, or, this is what I want to get across, like Michelle Obama with her “Bring back our girls.”

But the selfie seems to become the victim of its own success. Once upon a time the expression was, a picture says more than a thousand words. The selfie turned this upside down; nowadays a word says more than a thousand selfies – and Heleen van Royen is exhibiting only 200 of them. Selfies surface everywhere, even when they are no selfies at all.

The journalist Julien Anthuisus calls selfies digital exhibitionism; social psychologist Roos Vonk sees the phenomenon as narcissistic and according to psychologist Martin Apello it is pure peacock behavior.

These qualifications also immediately hit Van Royen’s exhibition Selfmade in the Literary Museum. Exhibiting her collection would predominantly be exhibitionism, narcissism and obsessive. Those opinions, Van Ostaijen points out, highlight in particular the individual instead of the social side of the medal. Because (in Van Ostaijen’s opinion) a selfie is an expression of individuality and of sociability.

On the one hand the selfie expresses something very personal and autonomous of a unique individual – the taking of a self-portrait. On the other hand it expresses something very social, relational and dependent – something that reveals itself via social media to the world. As Heleen van Royen said in a Dutch TV program: “I love to share and I love to let myself be heard.”

Uhmm, we got that.

The popular use of the selfie mirrors how this society of highly individualized people prefers to see itself. If opportunity knocks, they first and foremost connect digitally to others. This way selfie is more than a word, it is above all an image. Our mirror image via a self-portrait.

The popularity of the selfie shows the collective need to translate ourselves. It shows the desire for individuality modeled in a collective image-language. Heleen van Royen understands that, but it pays every now and then to zoom out, Van Ostaijen concludes.

The selfies that pass our screens on the local level tell their own stories as well. They show not only how much people love themselves, and how much they want others to know this, they also show what some of these people have become. Vanity knows no limits and the Sint Maarten-selfie is the ultimate vehicle to express it.


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