We are at the end of an era characterized by the self-portrait. This claim is not provocative—we’ve lived as characters for some time and have all felt it coming. So let me rephrase, we live at the end of an era characterized by relentless anxiety around the self as a product: what it means, who owns it, what it costs, what it’s worth. The word celebrity suggests that this value can be quantified and, generally, stands as a catch-all term for the collective disorders (disembodied desire, objectified anxiety, schadenfreude as catharsis) underpinning a cult of self. As two of the leading lights in male egomania, Elon Musk and Kanye West, enter ecliptic phases of digital self-harm, we see that a long-standing crisis is coming to the fore of the treatment of ourselves as characters. The similarity of their breakdowns is uncanny and no doubt representative of a broader crisis in charismatic authority nationwide. Like failed children of the Lacanian mirror stage, the reflection of their own, simplified self-image precipitates a meltdown instead of a progression.
Yet this era was heralded years earlier, in 2007, when Britney Spears shaved her head and the onlooking public could only digest it as hysterical—the most misogynistic of characterizations. It now feels avant-garde: she assassinated her own character. Indeed, she reclaimed her self as something more than just a brand or commodity. By attacking her appearance (her hair, the root of so much aesthetic femininity) she drew attention to the ways in which our society attaches identity to women. In 2018, the ambivalence toward how to treat one’s digital self, how to create one’s “character,” is a particularly unwieldy knot for women. The collapse of the critical space between one’s personality and one’s online persona erases the distinction between self-expression and self-promotion. Every post now seems to fall into a dangerous trap.
We are currently confronted with questions that, until recently, seemed behind us. Is asserting self-love affirming and feminist, or is it playing into age-old misogynist reductions of women as fetish objects? Where do hashtag trends like “I woke up like this” and “celebrities without makeup” quite fit in? Do they acknowledge the pressures that women face in a gendered society, or do they simply obscure the means of beauty’s production? To break past this surface we must ask: where is the work? I mean, really, who seems to work anymore? All we see is women on vacation—cooly “off duty” in the day, beguilingly gowned at night. Studios and offices serve as backdrops for fashion shoots, not meaningful loci of productivity. All these women “woke up like this”: capturing and captioning themselves from the moment the dawn light began streaming in.
Consuming these images is stultifying. To be digitally femme means to bathe anxiously in the images of others and act impotently in response, liking a photo or congratulating others on their beauty. More stultifying is that this is done in spite of knowing the effort that went into each composition. The selfie is a cover-up, hiding both the means of its own production and the true self.
Selfies become even more difficult to fathom when one asks for whom they are made. Certainly not for the selfie taker, from whom they demand exhausting, self-negating labor, nor is it for the general viewer and their tepid responses. Perhaps they are for prospective mates, competitive friends, the general sphere of female spectatorship? Or maybe no one at all, maybe we don’t know who we want as an audience. Maybe selfies are what happen when a society sends a missive without a recipient. Like the interstellar radio broadcast “A Simple Response to an Elemental Message,” which sent human fears about the earth’s environmental destruction out into the universe and toward possible extraterrestrial life, self-portraiture today does not communicate unique truths so much as it reflects collective anxieties. But I don’t mean to bemoan social media (boring, it’s been done, everyone’s worried but no one will change). Really, I want to use that labyrinth to try to find a route back to an entirely different type of self-portraiture, one that offers an alternative (and more positive) interconnection between character, work, and the female subject.
I know such a portrait exists because I’ve seen it. I encountered it in a small gallery at Buckingham Palace, at the Portrait of the Artist exhibition last year. This painting’s texture and dimensionality immediately distinguished it from the rest of the work on display. My instinct was to touch it. What first appeared to be daubs of paint slowly revealed themselves to be stitches. This self-portrait is embroidered—thick, pastel threads so perfectly irregular as to resemble brushstrokes, instantly imprinting the creator’s individuality onto the canvas (or cloth, rather). Those hands, an artisan’s hands, are shown carefully stitching, one red thread looped loosely over the ring finger (married to her work?). What really affected me though, what I found inescapable, was the woman’s expression. She’s smiling, her eyes are bright and calm. She has a charisma that so often resists artistic capture, and her face expresses an internal life as opposed to a superficial character. This is a woman who understood the power of her work and the radical nature of depicting herself doing it. The confidence in her gaze weaves its own kind of spell, creating a sense of the artist regarding herself as she actively constructs her self-image. Enmeshed in that self-image, central to it, is the work. The work of the piece and the work within the piece are indistinguishable.
I have to admit, the date surprised me. 1779 in Great Britain—not yet the UK—was a time of drought, the American Revolution, the death of Captain Cook, and limited rights for women. However, a burgeoning cultural class was growing in urban centers and Queen Charlotte was taking a particular interest in female artists. It was during this time that Mary Morris Knowles moved to Birmingham and began to make a name for herself. Mary Morris Knowles: Quaker, abolitionist, poet, mentor, advocate for women’s rights and education. Self-assured, with a dry sense of humor, she was well ahead of her time. After the death of her newborn child, she wrote epic verse detailing a woman’s experience during labor. After a debate over women’s rights with Samuel Johnson (who dismissively called her a “little slut” while she resolutely argued that “there is no sex in souls”), she had her side of the story printed in Gentleman’s Magazine. When asked to engrave the inside of a tobacco box with a poem, she made visible the human cost of smoking, writing “may the hands which rais’d this fav’rite weed / be loos’d in Mercy and the slave be freed!” When told that women had no need to study science, she composed a satire on chemistry’s benefits to a housewife’s efforts at baking. Knowles understood how to effect change from the inside out—her work existed in the space between entertainment and provocation, beauty and rebellion. She saw her own place in the cultural context clearly, and she co-opted the culture that produced her, remaking it for her own purpose.
Which brings me back to her self-portrait. Almost. In 1771, the Queen had asked Knowles to copy a portrait of George III using her unique “needle painting” technique. When Knowles produced a beautiful interpretation of the painting, the Queen paid her handsomely and asked her to make another image of her choosing. Knowles chose to make the self-portrait, a witty answer to the Queen’s commission. It shows Knowles at work on the original copy, the George III image, expanding the view outside of the original frame. It has all the sly humor that usually accompanies metatextual pieces. But it is also a form of proof, an insistence on the woman behind the work. The image she is stitching is important, but the man it depicts is not—George, the sovereign (a man with a capital m) is just a blurry collection of threads, held together by this “needle painter,” by this woman who refused passive femininity. In this sense, Knowles is also a character assassin—she destroys her culture’s notion of the female “character” in order to reveal her own individuality, her inner character.
And then there is the tactility of the whole thing, the knowledge that each and every thread had passed through Knowles’s real fingers as well as her painted ones. Right after her wedding, Knowles wrote that she refused to become “a poor passive machine … a mere smiling Wife.” Needle painting is the antithesis of machine work. The insistence is on human artistry over a sewing machine’s productivity. Sewing was something that women were supposed to do to distract themselves, to pass the time. It was not serious, and it certainly was not work. Like the selfies of today, sewing was meant to be labor without a telos. Yet Knowles, through her self-representation, insisted on challenging the very concept of “women’s work.” Like the weavings Anni Albers would create almost two centuries later, Knowles’s embroidery deploys the palpability of homespun crafts onto the sphere of high art. Her depiction of the work in medias res legitimated it. She created a testament, both to her medium and to herself as an artist. And, testament-like, the resulting image bequeaths a wealth to the women of this generation, centuries later. It gestures at the importance of owning one’s image and showing one’s work, of laying claim to the process just as much as the result.
There’s something else tied up in the material of this, too, both physically and ideologically. Knowles’s threads weave together an image of a woman who’s pulling the strings. As Clifford Geertz would argue, the human is “an animal suspended in webs of significance,” in cultures of our own making. Melville’s eternal warp and woof. There is a way of understanding the individual as linked to those around her and trapped in this grand cultural weaving. If culture dictates the parameters of our thought, conversation, and art production, then it also binds us in place. What Knowles sought to do was not to thrash or cut those parameters, but rather to see beyond them and, in so doing, loosen some of their ties.
In our current moment, when the web is ever present and ever tighter, the knots that we are weaving around our own selves take on greater significance. In turn, they necessitate more careful examination in order to make the whole pattern more visible, more traceable. Instead of packaging our selves as commodities, can we regain control over our own image production? Can we break the machinelike monotony of these photographs, through which we have only tended toward crisis, and reintroduce a sense of tactility, of a handwoven thread? How can we repurpose “women’s work” as an artistic statement once more? Even if a perfect truth is impossible in any representation, there is power to be found within our self-portraiture. Knowles herself, at the beginning of her autobiography, satirically proposed to undertake “a slight sketch of myself in order to spare … [others] the trouble,” arguing that “if I am my own Biographer, tis no more than these several Heroes, Philosophers, Statesmen and Bards have been before me … As they wisely thought, so think I, that it’s … much more honest … to have drawn their own portraits.”
India Ennenga is an actor and filmmaker based in New York.