Sitting down to write this blog I began with some confusion as to where to physically put it. As a lot of you know, I write about all things books and literature over on www.dogeared-reads.com, and at first this post would appear to have a place over there, inspired as it is by an event I attended at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. On second thoughts I realised it could not find its home there as the topics I need to cover are wide ranging, venturing far away from bookish discussions and are likely to lead me to getting quite heated, and dare I say it, beginning to rant. If you read the sporadic posts that happen over on here you will know ranting has found a place among these pages.
On Sunday I went to an event at the festival, which I attend each year, called ‘Is The Selfie Really Selfish’. To make this blog as clear as possible I am going to copy the exact event details advertised, word for word, and the description provided of the chair person Emma Gannon. This means you will then be presented with every bit of information a purchaser of this event would have been provided with before getting a ticket and then attending. So the event itself:
From Frida Kahlo to #blacklivesmatter, we look beyond Kim Kardashian and the infamous duck pouts of social media to examine the long history of self-portraiture and discuss the power and capacity for change that documenting one’s image can hold. Art historian and author of Seeing Ourselves: Women’s Self Portraits, Frances Borzello discusses the many incarnations of the ‘selfie’, from Renaissance portraits to the digital age, with blogger and Healthy.Happy. Hot. founder Michelle Thomas and Festival Guest Curator Emma Gannon.
and the info on Emma Gannon:
Emma Gannon is part of ‘generation slashie’ – an author, speaker, digital consultant, podcaster and founder of award-winning blog girllostinthecity.com. She’s the former social media editor of GLAMOUR and has been published everywhere from The Guardian to Teen Vogue to MTV. This year she released her debut book CTRL ALT DELETE: How I Grew Up Online, published by Ebury. “I’m over the moon to be a Guest Curator for Cheltenham this year. Every panel and workshop is very close to my heart, discussing the impact that our increasing dependency on the Internet might be having on our careers, creativity, connections and overall well-being.”
On a crisp, Autumn day the Cheltenham audience took their places in a smart tent named ‘The Inkpot’, sat our bums down on the padded chairs and readied ourselves for the hour of discussion. I think it is fair to also talk about who made up that audience. I would say the majority were women, white and in age range of 40 – 75, although there were some that fell out of this range with younger audience members being in their teens and myself ticking the early thirties box. Getting to/living in Cheltenham and being at a literature festival you can usually expect some pretty high levels of privilege going on.
After introductions were made the event began with Frances Bozello running the audience through a ten minute slide show of female self-portraiture through the ages. It was fascinating to hear her speak on how, over time, the way women would present themselves on the canvas had changed, gradually moving away from the rules imposed on them by society, always looking pretty and demure, to eventually showing themselves in their painting overalls looking confidently into the viewers eye. It definitely made me want to have a read of her book and I plan to look this up soon. Frances herself admitted that she had only tried using Facebook once around 10 years ago and had that social media presence for precisely one day as her daughter deleted her account! She also confessed to never having taken a selfie and was intrigued to hear all about how this has become such a hot topic in regards to young women’s lives online, she often deferred to comment during the hour as she said she was enjoying learning so much from the other two panellists and wanted this to continue.
We then moved on to the more digital age of women representing themselves (I would just like to add here that men using this medium was talked about but as a whole the discussion did focus on the female angle, this felt natural to me as the panel were referencing a lot of their own experiences online). Michelle talked about her time online, if you do not know her story she received a huge amount of attention after she talked online about a horrendous date with a man from tinder. You can read her wonderfully written account here but to sum up briefly, they went on the date and he said she was perfect/wife material and he could be with her forever…if she was thinner. I KNOW. Pick your jaws off the floor and take a moment or two to compose yourself from the rage now simmering within. On ‘Sails Her Ship’ I am more than happy to say – PRICK. We moved on to talk about how young women now leave their house ‘selfie ready’, with so much make up on they can actually look slightly odd face to face but on camera this comes across as being perfectly sculpted, you too can appear highlighted and defined just like a Kardashian. Michelle spoke to how she liked to use her social media/Instagram account to not only show herself in times when she is dressed up and with her make up on, but also more authentic pictures of her in her pjs and the like with a fresh face (or a hung over face! I know there are plenty of those over on mine!)
The chat carried on to how there is this wave of women out there now encouraging young girls to be themselves, to not feel this pressure to be ‘perfect’ or ‘selfie perfect’ everyday of their lives, women like Caitlin Moran, Nimco Ali, Bridget Christie, Sara Pascoe – the list goes on. Now I was totally engaged for this first half hour, this is an area I am really interested in and have read a lot about so I like to think I am well versed, but I still found this debate lively, entertaining and thought provoking, it was ticking all the boxes for me…apparently, not for all. A couple of rows directly behind me a voice pitched up ‘no no no, excuse me, I just have to say something, I just have to, this is making me so angry’. Now obviously the panellists heard this and I think Emma handled this interruption perfectly. I would likely have mumbled, panicked, turned a shade of red and tried to carry on somehow (PLEASE nobody come to an event I am talking at and test me on this!) but with total calm she said that actually it was time to go to questions anyway so if the house lights could be raised the lady could have a microphone and speak out. Now when handed the microphone she said that she couldn’t actually speak then as she was so angry she would say something inappropriate (I may be totally wrong here but the thought that entered my head was – your intention is totally to speak here you just want to make some dramatic kind of introduction to yourself, your very ‘informed’ self as I was about to find). Encouraged by the panel to still speak as they wanted to hear what the woman had to say no matter what she then carried on. I would like to relay what she said succinctly but I don’t think I can, I can get the main feel of it across to you but to be honest it was a heated moment, I was in the very front row so a matter of feet away from the panel and the comments made felt very aggressive to me and I just found myself somehow wanting to shield them as I hate seeing people spoken to in a manner like that in any situation. I am all for debate and challenging conversation, but my goodness I am just as much of a cheer leader for being polite and considerate to others.
The reasons for her unhappiness were that the conversation was ‘unsophisticated’ (other than the first ten minutes), that the concept of authenticity in selfies had not been explained (‘I mean – you haven’t even explained what you mean by this supposed authenticity’), that women had been described as narcissistic, and that it had been said that the women mentioned above reaching out on social networks, providing alternative viewpoints to young girls, were where feminism had begun, that Generation X (of which I am a member) had invented it. I also think she had taken serious umbrage at another point. Michelle has made a tongue in cheek remark about how people often view our generation as lazy, on social media all the time taking pictures of ourselves – possibly not understanding the communities we are building there and the positives that are happening, and anyway, our generation weren’t the ones to cause two recessions and make it so nobody could ever buy a home again. This had made me really laugh, no matter what your view point on politics or economics it is a fact that our generation are the first to experience a decline, and a serious one, in living standards and economic status due to what has happened with the generation that has gone before us. Me thinks this lady did not like this moment!
Michelle really seemed to bear the brunt of this and calmly gave her response once the woman had finished. She discussed what she meant by authenticity (which, I am sorry, I think was blindingly bloody obvious already from the discussion and was just a case of somebody wanting to quibble over semantics), that she did not think women were narcissistic but that society/the patriarchy sometimes viewed us as that way (and this is true, she never once said we are narcissistic, if she had I would have noticed and been annoyed!) and she also tried to explain to this woman that in no way was she saying that feminism had just been invented. To be honest I don’t think her answers were really falling on ears that wanted to listen, I think the woman had decided to be annoyed and now that was her stance she would not back down on it. Michelle then said as for sophistication, well, sorry, but she guessed she just wasn’t sophisticated.
The event carried on with questions from different members of the audience, some great thoughts and points made throughout, especially one by a 12 year old who talked about how selfies were a way of seeing her and her friends ‘out there’, when they are not represented in the more traditional forms of media. When the event ended I had to dash to the panel just to say how much I had enjoyed their discussion, it felt really important to me that they heard voices who had gained a lot from it and found it a really great event.
I have been thinking a lot about the event ever since and it has had me thinking (bit of a Carrie Bradshaw moment there) over several points. I know, long blog post already right, but here we go.
What does ‘sophisticated’ even mean?! What makes a ‘sophisticated’ event?! Serving wine and canapes while we discuss 18th century art? A debate where panellists sit with cards and work from bullet points? More of a lecture? I honestly have no idea. Surely every single person out there could have a different take on this, and more importantly, who says an event has to be sophisticated? This may be what that women had wanted but what about everybody else? The event was exactly what I was looking for, relaxed, informative and lively. When you attend an event like this you read the description of the event, decide if you are interested and choose to go along on the information provided. There is no way you can dictate how it then moves on from that point. You don’t go to the theatre to see a take on Macbeth and shout out half way through because it is not the take on Macbeth you wanted to see. In this occasion we went to see a panel talk about a topic and they did so. A significant amount of time was always going to be given over for a question and answer session so at that point, if something you hoped to be discussed had not yet been covered, surely you then raise your hand and ask a question about it, you then get to talk through your points and then respectfully let others do the same with theirs – which most importantly – ARE ALLOWED TO BE DIFFERENT FROM YOURS.
There did seem to be something of a generational divide in the audience when it came to this conversation to be honest, with those who are Generation X and younger seeming to really appreciate the social media slant of the talk (which was always going to come, the title had ‘selfies’ in it). Now in no way do I want to suggest this was the case with every older member of the audience, my mum is a user of social media and I know would thoroughly have enjoyed the talk, but I do think this may have come into play in this particular circumstance. It felt like our generations relationship with the internet and the selfie was not being taken seriously and was ‘not sophisticated’, where as a discussion over art was just that. Can I also just add – I adore my art, I loved those first ten minutes equally.
In no way did Michelle suggest that feminism had just recently been invented with this new wave of social media. She did, however, talk about how this was a new type of feminism. How young women could be reached out to so easily now and these women were doing so through twitter/Instagram and are beginning to make huge changes. There was no denial of feminist teachings in the past but there is also no denying that these were not as accessible to vast swathes of girls at this time. A huge majority of girls have a smart phone now, not so many would have got themselves down to the library to dig out the latest Simone De Beauvoir.
As I say, a lot of the hecklers concerns/shouts seemed to me to come about from simply not listening thoroughly to the points made and a refusal to accept that a discussion about social media could be sophisticated or important enough to be discussed at a Cheltenham Literature event. Sadly Emma also received a hate email from another audience member after the event. I think this is wholly a sorry state of affairs where two people with feelings of great entitlement decided they should get an event/conversation exactly as they wanted it and were not prepared to open up to anything other than a narrow view point they had walked in with. And no matter what – be nice guys, it is not hard, people are doing their best, in their job and talking with only good intentions, there are so many other places your rage could be better directed.
As is clear, I like to direct my rage straight onto the page, so there it is, my summing up of *the* event of the weekend, like no other I have ever attended at the mild mannered, very proper literature festival. Time to go watch some tv, eat toast in my trackie b’s, all in a very sophisticated manner.
P.s. Some added extras, there is LOADS of extra content available to you from this post. Head over to Michelle’s website by clicking here and find her on twitter @onepoundstories and Instagram msmthomas.
Emma can be found on Twitter @emmagannon you can also find her amazing podcasts on iTunes (one of which is another event I attended at the festival with her interviewing Laura Bates – AH-MAY-ZING), she also has a corker of an email newsletter (feels like a mini free magazine to me!) to sign up to.
Keep an eye over on http://www.dogeared-reads.com where I will be chatting about her new book in the coming week, and also have a gander at lots of other booky goodness happening over there. You can follow us on @dogeared_reads
One last declaration, Emma and Michelle had nothing to do with this post, aren’t people I know well who knew I’d support them, I just wanted to say it how I found it. The Woman had nothing to do with this post either – and again I just said (typed?!) it as I found it.