Late last week, the trailer for the documentary “Sticky: A (Self) Love Story” was shared on Indiewire. The documentary features footage of figures such as Janeane Garofalo, Larry Flynt, and various academics recounting societies’ masturbatory pasts and assessing where we are with public discourse of autoerotica today. Only two decades ago, Seinfeld‘s famous “The Contest” episode — in which masturbation was never even referred to by name — was considered risqué and bold, eliciting many tittering whispers of “Are they talking about what I think they’re talking about?!”. The fact that this documentary is coming out — in this era of “Feeling Myself” and “Love Myself” — seems to be its own statement that masturbation is just as much at the center of the zeitgeist as it is at people’s daily routines.
Meanwhile, another “self-loving” pastime — yes, selfie culture — is reaching, to an even greater extent, a self-parodic pinnacle of cultural relevance, with a federal judge just having weighed in on a macaque’s (yes, we’re still talking about that monkey) ownership of his own selfie-d image. Now that we know even monkeys enjoy selfies, it can be said that both masturbation and selfie-taking are often fairly routinized or casual tasks. And yet, in this cultural moment, both are venerated for their deliberateness and even radicalism.
Given our past of oppressive male gazing and sexual shame, the reactive exaltation of both acts is understandable — and indeed, the overturning of both the hegemony of the male gaze and sexual suppression is crucial. But it’s hard to tell how much either masturbation or selfie-taking are unequivocal paragons of “self-love,” as they’re often referred to.
The selfie has especially been a huge subject in the media for the last few years because of the pop feminist détournement of the act, reaching a height with very positive appraisals of Kim Kardashian’s book, Selfish. This discourse came in part in reaction to selfies having initially been pegged as self-involved or vapid — especially in denigrating terms by men — and the counterargument is of course that they’re a form of agency and self-as-opposed-to-societal definition. But Kardashian, who’s perhaps our greatest example of a self that’s ensconced in and inseparable from capitalist society, and an exemplar of the Debordian critique of “the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing,” seems just as much a suggestion of the cultural shackles the selfie places on selfhood as it suggests any liberating tendency. If Kardashian represents agency, it’s a form that can only exist from within the manacles of capitalism, where the self’s value is monetary, where self-worth becomes a full-time job, and where self-esteem therefore becomes stressfully hierarchized.
Like Kardashian, James Franco is another celebrity who, the more of him we see of his mercurially branded personhood, the more he becomes a symbol of digital era pop cultural omnipotence than a person. Speaking of his own love affair with selfies in the New York Times, he wrote, “In our age of social networking, the selfie is the new way to look someone right in the eye and say, ‘Hello, this is me.'” Is it?
It seems that, at least in part, the selfie further negates autonomy by demanding that the subject do the inevitable work of turning themselves into an object for the rest of society to do what it will with. Instead of needing to do the (sometimes obsessive) work of positioning oneself in ways that anticipate a gaze, shouldn’t the expectations and standards that lay within those gazes change? Is everyone else’s gaze really absent when you’re taking a photo of yourself to display publicly, both during the initial cell-phone angling and facial mugging, and later once the photo has been published on social media? In her essay on Carrie Fisher’s recent comments about people’s obsession with her appearance, Flavorwire’s own Sarah Seltzer wondered, “In our efforts to course-correct the pernicious white male gaze, are we replacing it with a female gaze that, in its own way, emphasizes external appearance and glossy success over substance and ideas? At the very least, it’s a question worth asking.”
Similar to the selfie, the wording surrounding masturbation as a symbol has become increasingly heavy on “self-love” and empowerment oriented. It seems that between the ’90s and the 2010s, the act has made a quantum leap from a cultural trope of shame (Ben Stiller masturbating in There’s Something About Mary, Kevin Spacey masturbating in American Beauty, and of course Naomi Watts weeping while masturbating in Mulholland Drive) to a motif of anthemic self-love. The trailer for the aforementioned masturbation documentary corroborates the earlier, shaming trend: “Almost every instance of masturbation in movies has been displayed as something someone would be embarrassed to be caught doing,” says an interviewee in voiceover.
And, similar to the language surrounding the selfie, one has to wonder exactly how much sweepingly positive language is dictated by a former negative. The greatest example of such hyperbole might be Hailee Steinfeld’s ode to the act, “Love Myself,” in which the actor/pop star sings, “I’m gonna put my body first/And love me so hard ’til it hurts/I know how to scream out the words/Scream the words.” This depiction seems more the result of the media packaging masturbation as a positive symbol than of masturbation actually leading anyone to scream their own name. Of course, if it’s not, well then that’s awesome. The act is of course completely individualized and multifarious — everyone has their own way of experiencing it, and for many, it’s not so much a matter of self-love as it is self-exploration. And, just as often, it can be completely rote, or even a frustrated-and-sad-as-fuck activity someone partakes in while wishing they weren’t alone. Dubbing it “self love” seems less a general truth than an understandable attempt to counterbalance the oppressive semantics that used to surround the act: namely, “self-abuse.”
But while “self-love” may be an inaccurate generalization, masturbation as a symbol of autonomy and negater of the male gaze holds up: it often has nothing to do with the male gaze, unless it’s exerting power over it by pulling it into its own fantasy. Unlike the selfie, which tends to exude false casualness and turns reality into a simulacrum of itself, the privacy of masturbation (except, of course, for the webcammed/deliberately public variety) ensures that it can look however the hell the looking feels best.
The casualness of the portrayal of female masturbation in UnREAL was a testament to this. “The scene frames Rachel’s masturbation as mundane, utilitarian, routine — which is exactly why it’s so special,” writes Emma Gray, Executive Women’s Editor at The Huffington Post. Meanwhile, Bust‘s Alice Lawton praised the diverse portrayals of female masturbation on recent television series — from the same UNreal episode, to Orange is the New Black to even the ever-sensational American Horror Story. Nicki Minaj’s/Beyoncé’s slow, slinky “Feeling Myself” is perhaps one of the best examples of the importance of giving an often nonchalant act — which has been stifled in public discourse for decades, especially along gendered lines — the nonchalant treatment it deserves.
In an era where the discourse of two acts formerly dubbed selfish or negatively narcissistic — predominantly through sexist judgement calls — has shifted to viewing them as cultural symbols of agency and affirmation, it feels crucial to question the authority of any mediatized hyperbole over how we experience everyday acts, especially when two inherently different acts are treated with the same verbiage.
Intrinsically, both acts’ relationship to society is somewhat oppositional: the selfie dresses its subject up or down to become society’s object. And though masturbation often involves porn or fantasy, it brings society/others into the whacker offer’s psyche for self-pleasure, then relinquishes them once they’ve finished. In the masturbatory act, it’s society that becomes the plaything, the fantasy, yours to do what you want with. To apotheosize masturbation as a symbol of self love may be stretch and an optimistic reduction, but to appreciate it as an autonomous, varied act of self-pleasure, does not. In this vein, depiction and discussion of it seems key to undoing a culture of particularly gendered silencing. Unlike the selfie, it bears the potential of being an act that allows people to retreat from society, to turn society into their own fantasy, rather than to be turned into a player in society’s fallacious, hierarchical dictations of self-worth.