A couple of months ago, women started posting pictures of themselves with no make-up to various social media sites, using the tag #nomakeupselfie. At the same time, they publicly donated money to a cancer charity via text on their mobile phones. Soon, men started to donate money, too, but as #meninmakeup. This was not an organized campaign; the text-to-donate number was pre-existing. It went ‘viral’, as some commentators suggested, ‘organically’– the charity only started to promote the donation-spree that would earn them eight million pounds once it was well underway. Some sceptical commentators have asked what exactly the relationship between no-make-up selfies and giving money to a cancer charity is supposed to be. Others have debated whether making the connection was even ethically acceptable. But leaving these debates aside, what can the no-make up selfie tell us about everyday life online?
The selfie is commonly considered a feminine and a sexualized phenomenon; the no-makeup selfie only accentuates that by drawing attention to the absence of makeup – or the histrionic addition of it in the men’s charity version. Taking a picture of yourself on a smartphone means looking at yourself looking at yourself, in order to look as good as possible for other people. Evidently, men can do it too. This is not about women’s bodies as such; it is about a cultural artifice defined as feminine, and a way of embracing that artificiality.
In this way, the selfie can be read as a privileged example of what French critical collective Tiqqun call the ‘Young-Girl’: the Young-Girl, according to Tiqqun, is not a concept about female teenagers but one derived from their situation. Under traditional capitalism, young girls produce nothing, but must both consume products and turn themselves into sexualized objects for consumption. Today, we have arrived at a point where everyone constantly turns themselves into a product for consumption – social, sexual, at work – and prominently so via visual media. For Tiqqun, everyone has become Young-Girlified – even the pope. David Cameron, we can say, with his policy of never refusing to take a selfie with a passerby if asked to, is Britain’s first Young-Girl prime minister.
But self-commodification is hardly a new phenomenon. In Ben Jonson’s 1609 play Epicene, a husband complains about his wife’s spending on her face: ‘all her teeth were made i’ the Blackfriars, both her eyebrows i’ the Strand, and her hair in Silver Street. Every part o’ the town owns a piece of her.’ Everyone else in the play, male, female, or ambiguously gendered, will use whatever social prostheses they can muster to sell more favourably on the sexual marketplace. In Shakespeare’s King Lear, the king bitterly quips that his daughter Cordelia’s price has fallen after her filial rebellion, only to soon find himself on the heath and outside the family economy.
So what is different now? If the Young-Girl, for Tiqqun, is what they call the ‘model citizen as redefined by consumer society’, ‘a polar figure’ that orients society’s direction, then perhaps the selfie is the model activity orienting our behaviour in digital capitalism. We are invited to take photos by smartphones that so easily flick their cameras around at us, to then post them on social media platforms via convenient apps: not only to render our bodies objects for social consumption, but in order that we ‘self-valorize’. We post in a format that predetermines, as the basic element of exchange, the collection of ‘likes’ and ‘favourites’ to confirm the success of our digital labour – however quirky we might think it to be. As Tiqqun note: ‘each person is called upon to relate to themselves as value, that is, according to a central mediation of a series of controlled abstractions. The Young-Girl would thus be the being that no longer has any intimacy with herself except as value, and whose every activity, in every detail, is directed at self-valorization.’
Perhaps, then, there is an uncanny pertinence in the apparently random link between no-make up selfies and donating money. With make-up, and even more so, without, we know our selfies to be the most careful, artificially mediated product of our digital labour. And the financial transaction coupled to it, charitable or not, is a reminder that we turn ourselves into a sort of money online and offline – not just because companies are selling our data; but because we are daily encouraged to look at ourselves as ‘living currency’.