I came across a set of pictures I took a few years ago - selfies in fact taken with a good friend of mine. I kept (and posted) the pictures despite the fact that she informed me - with her usual frankness (no brutality attached) - that I do not know how to take a selfie. For some, this may have been a point of shame, but for me this information was not unwelcome or surprising. I take pride in not being able to fulfill the obligations of pop culture acceptability. If a book is really popular, I avoid it. If everyone is watching a show, I wait until season 3 to start. (Let's not unpack this - maybe the easy explanation lies in how the "cool" kids treated certain types of boys. Maybe those certain types of boys did not want to be associated with anything "cool" after a time. Maybe.)
One evening while enjoying tapas at one of my favorite restaurants with my then boyfriend and one of his coworkers who considered himself quite the proficient amateur photographer, this coworker kindly informed me that I must not be very photogenic - I'm too uptight and self-conscious. This was the first time I met him - the boyfriend made no attempt to defend me, what a joy. I took it personally - the more offended I became, the more closed-off and awkward I appeared, proving his point - much to his smug satisfaction.
This was years ago now. I used to be mortified when someone told me I should smile more or asked me why I looked upset when I was just sitting there deep in my own thoughts. In her autobiography, "Offstage," Betty Comden (shown above) wrote that she received the same criticism from her children - she told them it's just the way her face looks, not a reflection of her emotional state. But it was when I read these lyrics by Ani Difranco from "Evolve" that I began to reconcile myself to my own visage and appearance:
"I walk like I'm on a mission
'cause that's the way I groove
I got more and more to do
I got less and less to prove
It took me too long to realize
That I don't take good pictures
'cause I have the kind of beauty
Image has become more important than ever for the artist in the age of selfies. Universities and conservatories offer classes in how to brand yourself (we are now cattle - moo! - branding ourselves - ouch!). I have been in casting meetings for shows where the decision to hire someone has hinged on the number of Instagram follows he/she has. If you browse through the suggestions on Instagram, you will likely find members with hundreds of thousands of followers - on their page will be an array of selfies - no other content to speak of, perhaps an ad disguised as a selfie or a picture with someone else who will equally promote them. If you go a step further and study the gay versions of these self-aggrandizing profiles, body image becomes even more paramount. Young or old, a six-pack is required (unless bulking, duh) to enter into these treasured existences of monthly Mykonos vacations, protein shakes, and parties where the only necessities are tiny shorts, mobile phones (for selfies), and little blue pills (or whatever color is currently popular - I'm sure there's a rainbow array of choices).
And what does this image represent? These gym (and steroid) produced bodies? Health? Athleticism? Or just look like these things? Image, image, image. As Edina says on Ab Fab while perusing several magazines in order to choose a kitchen design (to replace the one Patsy burnt down) - "I want people to think I'm ALL these things." To be our most happy (gay) selves, we must pretend to be the image of masculinity we developed in our formative years. Childish boys dancing around in packs of lookalikes pretending to be the men they always wanted to me. But then we're used to pretending aren't we? Even dancers in theatre - thanks to social media and, if I may say, certain fundraising efforts aimed at exploiting the bodies (and the lust for the bodies) of such dancers - even these actual athletes have changed the way they approach fitness in order to conform to this overinflated anti-effeminate, muscle-bound model of masculinity - to the point where one wonders how they can pirouette at all without falling forward for the weight of the pectoral mounds.
My own Instagram is filled mostly with objects or places I encounter along the way through life. I'm not sure I have even one selfie in the mix. At some point I need to get headshots for my career - how I've avoided it so far must be no mistake and related directly to my own self-consciousness (see the above story - he will NOT be taking the photographs). I used to say I don't show up on film when someone wanted to take my picture - but with digital photography, that pretense loses its modicum of veracity (let alone humor). I'll leave you with Ani to enjoy below. As always with her songs, more than pop songs, listen to the words!
The scene above is of course from Lewis Carroll's 1871 book, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. Alice has just helped a disheveled White Queen with her disobedient shawl and her unruly hair, and the queen has proposed taking on Alice as a lady's-maid. When offered jam on any day except to-day, Alice becomes befuddled by the queen's seeming illogicality but (in my favorite line) the queen assures Alice that her confusion comes as a natural result of living backwards - and in fact can make one "a little giddy." (Giddy denotes a feeling of disoriented excitement but literally means possessed by a god.)
I've been thinking about this section of the book for the past few years as I wrestled with my acceptance, banishment, and (healthier?) re-introduction to the numerous and sundry social media platforms. Confronted daily with the frowning zombies staring into their own palms while thumbing through thousands of digital pictures, twitter feeds, or facebook pages on the subway, at a restaurant, in a car, walking down the street (into traffic), etc., (LOOK UP!!) I have assumed something of a hobby-study: deciphering what kind of joy these "users" believe they feel in this catatonic state. In what timeline are they experiencing the joy? Is it in the future when the friend, whose picture they "liked," "likes" theirs back as a reciprocal act? Is it in celebration with their past-self friend - as if double tapping a picture is anything more than a fleeting gesture, saying: what a great, staged moment that was? (Remember when you dreaded sitting through a slideshow of holiday snapshots?)
And what of the poster? Are they capturing this well-lit, overly overjoyed version of themselves eating a taco with the love of their lives (#blessed) for the joys of the future "likes?" Or to "remember" the moment for the self-congratulatory euphoria they feel when flipping through thousands of their own digital pictures on the subway, at a restaurant, in a car, walking down the street, etc. etc.? Celebrating a false past, never experienced only OBSERVED?
How do we live in the now? Can now be experienced or is it such a minuscule cross-section of time that one can never be in it but only on either side of it? How far away from now can we experience the now and still be in the now? Actors in the theatre are taught to "live in the now" while onstage, to experience the character's reality in each moment. As a conductor in the theatre, I have to be attuned to the present in order to keep the many individuals in concert with each other during a performance. My piano teacher used to reprimand me for restarting a moment if I made a mistake - I've learned to experience the mistake and continue, but that took years of playing to achieve.
How many times have you been to a wedding and witnessed as attendees watch the bride's procession through a screen? How about a concert? Or a party? We have always learned from the past. We've read stories from the past. Attended plays from the past. And looked at pictures from the past. But that is not what is happening in social media use and consumption. When someone photographically captures(!) an experience in order to relive it later, they have stepped through the looking glass and into a temporal quagmire. In order to re-live an experience, one must live it first. While collecting the information through the filter of a device, the moment that should have been experienced has instead been viewed - in the same manner in which that person intends to consume the material later.
If you have never experienced the life moments you record, how can these posts be a reflection of you? We share experiences we have never experienced. You live on either side of the picture - but suspend an artificial representation of yourself (or your experience) in between. You wait to see how many viewers you get, how many likes, how many retweets. You celebrate your past self, who is not really you because you were never doing the deed you captured, only posing or demonstrating the behavior - perhaps redoing the shot many times to get the perfect angle and lighting. You wait to find out the worth of your future self, existing through the acknowledgement, acceptance, and virtual love from others.
Is this how we must live now? Tree in the forest living. If no one likes my picture, did the event happen? I've considered not putting this out - these are just my initial thoughts on a much larger societal shift in how humans "interact." I used to think people were living in the past on their phones - but now I think it's both the past and the future. At any rate, click below and please enjoy Carol Channing singing "Jam Tomorrow" from the 1985 TV mini series version of Alice in Wonderland - songs written by Steve Allen.