So about selfies... They were the Oxford Dictionary's 2013 Word of the Year. A recent conference I was part of (#TtW14) had an entire panel on them. And on a personal note, I mentored a student through an independent study of selfies over the course of two semesters.
Today, I want to talk about one particular selfie varietal: The Duckface. Specifically, I want to talk about the architecture of the Duckface and how it becomes the symbolic locus of control over feminine bodies within the context of compulsory visibility.[i]
To begin, here are a few definitions of Duckface from Urban Dictionary:
- A term used to describe the face made if you push your lips together in a combination of a pout and a pucker, giving the impression you have larger cheekbones and bigger lips.
- Stupid facial expression put forth by stupid women that don't know how to smile. The Duckface is made by moving both lips as far up and outward as possible. Commonly seen in photos of slutty women where the lighting is too high up or they're taking photos of them self in the mirror.
- A facial expression utilized by attention-seeking teenage girls in which they push their lips outward and upward to give the appearance of large, pouty lips.
Having established what the Duckface is, let's take a moment and think about what the Duckface does. Specifically, let's think about what it does to the face. As is clear from these definitions, one performs the Duckface by sucking in the cheeks and pushing out the lips. This makes the lips appear fuller, the cheekbones more prominent, and the eyes wider. It can also minimize asymmetry when taken from the correct angle. In short, this expressive configuration contorts the face in line with standards of feminine beauty.
Although one might employ the Duckface in any type of photograph, it is most commonly associated with the selfie, or a self-composed photograph of the self, usually using a mirror and/or front facing camera. This is a photographic product in which the subject becomes hyper-visible and, when shared through social media, open to comment and critique. This moment of hyper-visibility, importantly, must be contextualized by a larger culture of compulsory visibility.
The ease of self-documentation, the norm of frequent sharing, and the interconnectedness between representations of self and documentary practices of others, work to craft an environment in which the self is unavoidably on display. Within this context, the selfie becomes a way to claim representational control, to be at once the artist and the subject, to manage inevitable visibility with self-directed hyper-visibility. And yet, this moment of reclaimed representation simultaneously becomes a moment of scrutinization, as the media through which subjects share their hyper-visible images afford comment and explicit evaluation. What women do in this hyper-visible and evaluative moment is deeply telling. And what Duckfacing women do is contort the face into a caricature of femininity.
The propensity to utilize such a facial contortion, one that renders the face acceptably feminine, is rooted in a cultural value system in which physical beauty is deeply connected to self-worth. And yet, displaying this acceptably feminine mask comes at a cost. Indeed, the Duckface is the target of much social derision. For instance, there is an anti-Duckface Tumblr, an anti-Duckface Facebook coalition, and anti-Duckface memes galore.
We see a tension, then, between the felt need for proper feminine bodily performance, and the devaluation of those who engage in this performance.
The Duckface is therefore both a product and a site of feminine control. It is forged through standards of beauty, made all the more relevant in an era of photographic disclosure, and then punished for its inauthenticity, for its effortful display of that which is supposed to be effortless. The Duckfacing woman becomes a conspicuous symbol of how sexism, patriarchy, and misogyny work upon the body. However, instead of confronting sexism, patriarchy, or misogyny, we confront the symbol in its own right. We punish the woman who contorts her face, admonish her for showing us, through her pouty lips and artificially protruding cheekbones, what a controlled body looks like.
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This post originally appeared on the Cyborgology blog.
[i] I look specifically at the architecture of the Duckface. For a broader discussion of Selfies and control over the feminine body, see @anneLBurns excellent presentation from the #TtW14 pics panel, linked in the first paragraph above.