On Sunday I was on a panel called Is the Selfie Selfish? chaired by Emma Gannon. I was joined on the panel by Frances Borzello, art historian and author of several books on the subject. Frances is an expert in self-portraiture through the ages, but fascinatingly has barely any internet presence herself. She also has a filthy laugh and declared herself “one rackety woman”. Emma and I fell in love with her instantly.
The discussion promised to “examine the history of self-portraiture and discuss the power and capacity for change that documenting one’s own image can hold”. Frances galloped through a brief history of portraiture for 15 minutes, we took questions for another fifteen, so we had 30 minutes to dissect the last decade of contemporary culture to an audience of two hundred people ranging between 11 – 80 years of age. We tried to pitch a level of discourse that was accessible to everyone; conversational and informal. Admittedly, I alienated two-thirds of the audience when I declared “while Millennials may be lazy and entitled, at least we didn’t cause two recessions”, but on the whole I think we did an admirable job.
After Frances expanded on how woman artists in 19th century portraiture modelled their self-portraits on those of their male contemporaries (or didn’t), she opened a conversation on men who take selfies now, and whether they’re statistically overtaken by women. I was in the middle of replying that accusations of millennial vanity and narcissism always seemed to be aimed at women and girls when it happened. A VERY angry woman started waving her arms and yelling “THAT’S NOT TRUE”. She was given a microphone (at the panel’s insistence) and declared that she needed to compose herself before “something really rude” that she’d regret. She was visibly shaking with anger. She told us how inane the conversation had been, how only Frances had touched on anything with any resonance. “This whole thing has been so UNSOPHISTICATED” she blasted, to a ripple of applause.
Quite what this cohort of the audience were expecting when they spent £8 on a ticket for a discussion which promised to “merge art history with Kim Kardashian” I don’t know. Perhaps they’d seen the wonderful Claire Balding and Jilly Cooper in conversation, and expected the same level of discourse from two writers at the beginning of their career. After the discussion numerous complaints were made because Emma, as chair, hadn’t defined what a selfie was at the beginning. Each of these complaints were from people who clarified that they, of course, know what a selfie is, but they were appalled that we hadn’t taken a fraction of what little time we had to observe a formality. Perhaps they’ve been educated in How To Debate – A+B+C= Successful Discussion. I haven’t. Imagine explaining to a 12-year-old what a selfie is. I don’t think my 31-year-old ego could take the withering stares of the girls who excitedly gathered around me at the end of the talk to show me their Instagram accounts – the fake ones their parents follow, and the secret account strictly for their cool friends.
I can’t help but suspect a vein of snobbery. They weren’t expressing disappointment at the content of the debate. They were angry with the format. As one twitter user put it “what is it about talking in a way that everyone can understand that gets people's goat?”. I doubt they’d have kicked off so much if they’d paid £70 for an opera ticket and didn’t like the direction. They certainly wouldn’t have heckled. It’s perfectly acceptable that they expressed their opinion. But the resilience, lack of respect and outright hostility we were met with was shocking.
I mentioned that there was little or no feminism visible in the mainstream media in the early 00s when I was a teenager, and that our generation are responsible for starting a new conversation that was accessible to every girl in the country through her phone. The same woman huffed “Err, feminism wasn’t INVENTED 15 years ago! WHAT ABOUT NAOMI WOOLF?! (brilliantly, she tailed off with “I mean, I don’t like her, but still….”). My point was that when I was a teenager I struggled to find contemporaries who were interested in feminism. Now my generation has created a world where Topshop tell t-shirts declaring THIS IS WHAT A FEMINIST LOOKS LIKE. Those 12-year-olds in the audience have easy access to the work of women like Caitlin, and Lena, and Paris Lees, and – SOD IT – ME AND EMMA GANNON ACTUALLY – and a million other smart, funny women all over the internet, in a way that previous generations never had, unless they were exposed to feminism by their parents or at school (I certainly wasn’t). WE DID THAT. Congratulations if you can name-check every prominent feminist author published in the last forty years (and I absolutely thank each and every one of them, whether I agree with them or not, for paving the way for us). It must be exhausting to know so much more about a subject than others. But that’s not the way to capture young imaginations and engage young minds.
Frances mused on what skill a selfie takes, before declaring that she’ll never take one. She doesn’t want to participate in that element of youth culture, but she’s engaging with it and respectful of it.
If a speaker doesn’t engage with a topic as you’d prefer, please ask a question and (and this is the really important bit) listen to the answer. You might not like it. You might find it facile, or insipid, or boring. Fine. You pays your money, you takes your chances. But buying a ticket does not allow you to dictate the way we communicate. Nor does being born at a particular time. Your opinion isn’t more important than anyone else’s.
That said, I must say that otherwise I had a lovely time at the festival. I met some gorgeous people, including MY IDOL FOR HALF MY LIFE, Marian Keyes. She was just as LOVELY as you'd expect, and the chance to shake her hand and thank her for her work more than made up for the verbal bashing I'd received earlier. So, Cheltenham, thank you for that. I hope to see you again next year.