Selfies, Baseball, and Misogyny

Now there’s a title I never would have imagined myself writing five years ago. It’s moments like these that really make me stop and think about how much life and society has changed in recent years, and ponder the myriad ways that it could change in the future.

Or, y’know, I could forgo the abstract contemplation and just write a blog post. Not everything needs to be taken so seriously.

For an oddly specific example of this principle, consider the remarks made by announcers during the Arizona Diamondbacks game on September 30th (you can watch the full clip here). By the next day, the internet was dissecting the exchange and deeming it yet another example of rampant and socially hegemonic misogyny.

Personally, I’m not really following the logic by which some of these people got from point A to point B, but I’m always up for a good, rational discussion. So, just like that title says, today I’m going to step into some uncharted territory for myself and talk about selfies, baseball, and misogyny. I’m sure it’ll be quite the wild ride.

I should disclose a few things right off the bat.

[Get it? Bat? Baseball pun? Man, I’m really knocking it out of the park here.]

I don’t take selfies because I don’t like how I look in photographs, pretty much regardless of who takes them. I don’t watch baseball because I don’t find it exciting, although I wasn’t really interested in football either until I started watching it, so maybe sports fandom just works on a Stockholm syndrome principle or something. Finally, I genuinely believe that I am not a misogynist, but I’ve also never experienced misogyny myself and I certainly don’t have the last or only word on the matter.

Alright, now that all of that’s out of the way, I’ll start with a rudimentary analysis of the role that selfies play in our society. Aside from challenging traditional rules of artistic composition, selfies are also widely accepted as having a distinct impact on feminism and gender dynamics in Western society. Unfortunately, there seems to be some debate as to whether or not this impact has been positive or negative.

Many feminist theorists laud the growing prevalence of selfies as indicative of a long overdue resurgence in self-love among women, in which selfies are taken both by and for the subject in a powerful demonstration of self-fulfillment and expression. Some have highlighted selfies as a radical embrace of “girl pride” that encourages women to feel good about themselves and their achievements. Indeed, at least one researcher has suggested that the act of “self-fashioning” (wherein the individual is confident they that deserve the self-recognition of taking a photograph) may be one of the most critical and beneficial aspects of selfie culture.

Others, meanwhile, have criticized the ubiquity of selfies as another way in which women willingly subject themselves to the male gaze by making physical attractiveness the only avenue for visibility. While someone may take a selfie as a demonstration of pride following an achievement — such as this photo of the first four women to pass US Marine Infantry training — the typical selfie only shows the subject’s face and upper body, emphasizing their appearance over all else. When these pictures are posted on sites like Facebook and Instagram, they can turn into “calls for affirmation” in which a person’s value is quantified in the number of likes or comments a photo receives, and physical appearance becomes a commodified asset to be leveraged for interpersonal recognition.

Psychological studies have also found correlations between a person’s selfie posting behaviours and their levels of narcissism and psychopathy, but it’s important to note that this correlation is much stronger for men than women, even though women post significantly more selfies on average.

Bearing this complicated assessment of the power of selfies in mind, let’s revisit that baseball commentary and the article that tore it apart. The more I look at that headline (the one that says the announcers “mocked” these women for taking selfies), the more I think that the author has fundamentally misinterpreted what the announcers were saying.

Selfies weren’t actually the main issue here.

Aside from a few comments about the faces the women were making and their use of churros as props (along with an admittedly tasteless impression/anthropomorphic spring noise about 30 seconds in), everything the announcers said would have been relevant regardless of what the women were doing with their phones. They weren’t railing against selfies in particular so much as the perceived obsession with technology that the omnipresent cell phones represented.

Consider the following exchange, which I think encapsulates the point and motivation of the announcers’ tirade (emphasis mine):

“Every girl in the picture is locked into her phone. Every single one is dialed in. Welcome to parenting in 2015. They’re all just completely transfixed by the technology.”

If those comments seem vaguely familiar to you, it may be because I addressed similar statements a couple weeks ago. This sort of moral panic over technology is nothing new among those who didn’t grow up with these levels of technology.

The two announcers featured in this game, Steve Berthiaume and Bob Brenly, are 50 and 61 years old, respectively. It should not come as any surprise that these two hold a certain confused disdain for excessive cell phone use when they still refer to it as “the Twitter” and one of them openly admits that he can’t even get his phone to take pictures.

Unlike the fearmongering tactics I discussed in that post two weeks ago, however, I don’t entirely disagree with the announcers in this case. Pay attention to what happens about 90 seconds into the video, when the batter hits a decent single and the crowd reacts with a moderate level of enthusiasm. The camera cuts back to the group of women and…nothing. None of them seem to care. None of them seem to have even noticed.

A writer for the sports blog SB Nation published a post defending the women in question, saying that everyone experiences sporting events in their own way, and “the only wrong way is not experiencing one at all.” I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment, but if the women in the video were that absorbed with their phones, were they really experiencing the game?

Two weeks ago, I concluded that both modern entertainment technology and “old-school” entertainment like sports have value. Neither one is intrinsically better than the other, and each can (and should) be enjoyed for their own reasons. However, trying to bluntly mix the two together often just leads to neglecting one, like someone who brings their iPad along on a hike and spends the whole time playing Candy Crush. In that case, as in the case of this group of women at a baseball game, a part of me wonders why they even bothered to show up.

These two announcers clearly care about baseball quite a bit if they’ve decided to dedicate their careers to the sport, so I really can’t blame them for being a little miffed when a group of people show such casual indifference as to completely ignore a game which they actively chose to attend just so they can spend more time on their phones.

So, to summarize, I don’t personally think that this is the blatant example of misogyny that many others seem to think it is. The concerns raised by the announcers are among the most common complaints raised about the millennial generation, regardless of gender, which is why I’m also not so sure about the assertion made in this article that the announcers “wouldn’t have been nearly as derisive” had they been focused on a group of men similarly engrossed by their phones.

There is definitely a conversation to be had about the nature and impact of selfies; as the evidence cited above demonstrates, such a conversation could be fairly complicated, but it’s certainly worth examining. I can understand the reasoning behind both of the conflicting positions, and I think that whether selfies are empowering or just another way to cater to the male gaze depends primarily on the person taking them and how they’re used. Maybe that’s an issue that I’ll revisit at some point.

As it is, I contend that the comments made by these announcers do not belong in such a discussion, because they’re fundamentally not about selfies, not about gender, and not about misogyny. They’re about the level of technological distraction that can prevent someone from being really present and enjoying their experience. It’s the same problem that trends like the phone stacking game have tried to combat.

I have no problems with people taking selfies, or using their phones in general, if that’s what they want to do. I also have no problems with watching baseball, even though it’s not something I’m really interested in. It just seems to me that, if you’re willing to spend your valuable time and money to go see an event, you may as well put down the phone every now and then and at least pay some attention to what’s happening.

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