My Google Meet conversation with Nicole Morse in early December begins almost in media res: “we’re thinking about the dates April 12, 13, and 14, right?” they ask me, right after we wave hi to each other through the screen. For a second, I don’t know what they’re referring to — then I remember that just minutes before the call, we were texting about booking a hotel room together for an academic conference in the spring we’re both attending. I confirm the dates and we catch up for a few minutes before I press “record” to begin the formal part of our conversation.
Morse and I communicate on a regular basis: We met at an academic talk in the fall of 2016 when we were both PhD students in film and media studies programs in Chicago, after which we quickly connected over our love of queer and trans media and popular culture. I admired Morse’s fierce commitment to radical organizations like Black and Pink and the University of Chicago’s graduate student union, and hoped to learn from them what it means to be a queer and feminist scholar-activist. Flash-forward five years: Morse, now an Assistant Professor at Florida Atlantic University, and I are close friends and frequent collaborators. In addition to working together in conference panels and writing groups, we often share with each other how we navigate the joys and upheavals in our daily lives and relationships. While we talk all the time, I find myself excited about the opportunity to ask them key questions about their new book in this more structured way.
Selfie Aesthetics: Seeing Trans Feminist Futures in Self-Representational Art is a book about selfies and our relationships to them. In the book’s Prologue, Morse writes, “I want to tell a story of selfies that strays far from how they are popularly understood.” The story Morse tells is about the political potential of selfies we take, post, and look at, and particularly the trans feminist politics of selfies taken by trans women and transfeminine people. By exploring how we look at selfies — and really, how we look at each other — Morse envisions a trans feminist future in which the material experiences of trans women and transfeminine people are taken seriously.
Why selfies? Morse shares:
“The project really began in 2014 when I was spending time on Tumblr. I was looking at and seeing a lot of selfies, and in the communities that I was in on Tumblr which were, you know, very queer and trans, I was noticing that selfies were operating differently from how popular discourse was describing them. So, rather than being this kind of narcissistic statement of ‘here, I am in this cool location,’ people were using selfies to document their own identity but also as a mode of relationship building: sending selfies to friends and asking for selfies. And this idea that looking at selfies and seeing someone else’s selfies was a meaningful social activity made me ask, what’s going on with these selfies? And why is this so different in this subculture from what I’m encountering in the broader public discourse?”
Morse is critical of popular dismissals of selfies as self-indulgent. “This is an opportunity to really challenge the stigmatization of selfies as, you know, feminine and frivolous,” they add. Instead, they see selfies as a crucial component of trans and queer digital networks and friendships. Selfie Aesthetics in part explores the relationships and ethical commitments that come into view when we take selfies seriously as objects of study.
The stakes are particularly high for self-representational images of transfeminine people, Morse argues, because of longstanding stigma attached to the now-discredited diagnosis of autogynephilia, a theory suggesting that trans women (and in particular queer and lesbian trans women) desire to transition to fulfill a sexual fantasy. Morse notes that embracing femininity and self-representation is a way to challenge this stigma. “That was actually the kind of activism that Zinnia Jones was doing that originally drew me to her work. She was challenging people who had dismissed her as a ‘male sexual fetishist’ using this discredited diagnosis. She would challenge them, not by performing respectability politics, but by overindulging in her desire to take selfies of herself and enjoy the process of self representation and self-exploration.”
Morse explores similar themes via the work of interdisciplinary trans artist Vivek Shraya. “I was also really struck in an interview that I did with Vivek Shraya, when she described how a photographer who was planning to take photographs of her — so was seeing her as a viable, photographic subject — judged her and kind of scolded her for taking ‘so many selfies.’ And that illustrates this tension about, you know, who gets to authorize the gaze or the look, and what it means for people who are supposed to be spectacles, who are supposed to be objectified, who are not supposed to be offering their self-image, to take control.” Morse’s analysis of Jones’ and Shraya’s selfies in their second and fourth chapters explores how transfeminine artists negotiate the politics of visibility via self-representational art and media.
With that said, Morse doesn’t argue that selfies taken by trans and queer people are automatically forms of activism or that they are always resistant to oppressive norms of transphobia and homophobia. That simple reversal of expectations would reduce their complexity. “We’re never just fully in control, and particularly with digital media, selfies can stray far outside someone’s power to author their image,” Morse argues. When we post selfies online, we have to talk about the politics and policies of the digital platforms we use as well as how these images circulate widely.
Morse is most interested in what happens when we as viewers engage with selfies by closely examining the aesthetic strategies (hence, “selfie aesthetics”) trans feminine creators use to represent themselves. “What happens when you approach the selfie as a space for meaning-making between the creator and the spectator? And then how do we make those meanings?” they ask.
To find out, Morse spends a lot of time looking at selfies. They find that close reading, a mode of analysis that prioritizes the sustained and careful observation of the specific details of an image (what is shown and how it is shown), can allow them to explore insights and observations about trans feminine selfies. “I felt free to overread,” they share. “Just being able to dwell with an image and learn as much as possible about it, including things that go far beyond what the creator even imagined or intended like that, is such a pleasure. It’s such an opportunity and it is really a space of creativity. And it’s not at all the way that we’re supposed to look at selfies. Selfies are supposed to be consumed very quickly in passing as you scroll through a feed, unless perhaps you’re looking at a selfie by someone you love or a selfie of a dear friend or family member. So that question of love, and bringing love to the encounter with the image, that’s for me what close analysis enables.”
In their careful and loving close readings, Morse finds a number of themes in the selfies they analyze, and the chapters of Selfie Aesthetics are organized around these themes. The first chapter examines doubling as a visual strategy of transfeminine selfies, which they explain as “the ways that doubles, shadows, reflections, [and] mirrors operate in selfies. I argue that, that kind of persistent trope, which we can see across all kinds of selfies, within the selfies that I examine offers perspectives on trans experience that challenge some of the dominant narratives about transition.” For example, they look at images of doubling in trans artist Zackary Drucker’s selfies and self-portraits to explore selfies as “relational and messy” rather than just about the assertion of a self. Drucker’s self-representational artwork often stages her in relation to other people: her mother, trans elder Flawless Sabrina, her ex partner Rhys Ernst. For Morse, Drucker’s multimedia selfies demonstrate how we constitute ourselves through our relationships with other people.
In Morse’s second and third chapters, they analyze selfies as serial and improvisatory. They explain, “selfies aren’t singular, but are kind of accumulative and in dialogue with other images and that shapes, you know, how they’re taken up and how they’re understood. Selfies are also improvisational. So, they’re playful, they evolve, they’re responsive to situations [and] to other images and that, in dialogue, with seriality, creates a kind of opportunity or openness that creates the possibility of exploring new ideas. Not just reproducing what has come before, but being open to the unexpected.” Morse looks at sets of selfies created by artists like Zinnia Jones, Alok Vaid-Menon, and Che Gossett, examining in particular how these images suggest an ambivalence toward the politics of representation and an interest in constructing and theorizing the self, trans identity, and visibility otherwise.
Morse’s final chapters look at creators such as Shea Couleé, Vivek Shraya, and Natalie Wynn to “show how selfie aesthetics open up alternative temporalities and transformative futures.” What do they mean by this?
“When it comes to some of the dominant modes of trans visuality, we think about selfies as kind of chronological selfie timelines, transition timelines images, you know, in order over historical time tracing how someone has changed. But because of the way social media operates outside of intentional, curated timelines, we actually encounter selfies in a variety of nonlinear ways. They’re presented to us out of order. You can go back to an image, you can be surprised by an image…and so in looking at time, I was looking at the ways that artists like Natalie Wynn and Vivek Shraya use time and temporality, and then how those can be interpreted overall to challenge any kind of technological determinism, and instead, think about technological facilitation, what is made possible by the technology that produces selfies.”
The cover of Selfie Aesthetics provides an excellent example of the alternative temporality Morse finds in some of these selfies. The cover includes a screenshot of an Instagram post by trans artist Tourmaline, a mirror selfie accompanied by a caption that reads: “Future self peeking thru to say there’s still time to abolish Amerikka starting with the presidency, prisons and police.” The radical politics in Tourmaline’s caption gestures towards a trans feminist future, one that might already be visible in her reflection. “That image was a moment when I really started to figure out what the project was about, when I came across that selfie on Tourmaline’s Instagram,” Morse reflects. The mirror, the reference to the future, the radical politics – it becomes clear how Morse could read trans feminist futurity in the selfies they look at.
Key for Morse is the encounter between the selfie creator and selfie viewers, who they imagine as collaborators participating in these processes of making meaning. “This is what I’m asking people to do when they look at selfies. Like ask, ‘what commitments are you bringing to this encounter?’ And so for me, I’m bringing a commitment as a trans feminist, a commitment to trans futurity, to trans liberation, and those commitments are going to shape what I see, what draws my attention, and how I interpret it.”
While some scholars avoid researching their own communities, for Morse it was a powerful experience.
“There’s a certain amount of stigmatization around ‘me-search’ in academia and researching something that’s tied to an identity. So initially, I had wanted to avoid anything that was too explicitly LGBTQ. I still in some ways ended up avoiding ‘me-search’ because I have been looking primarily at transfeminine artists and I’m not a transfeminine person. At the same time, broadly I’m in community with trans people of all kinds and so it’s certainly much closer to my own identity than I originally thought my scholarship would be. And I think that process of accepting that I could be part of the scholarship and accepting that that did not make the scholarship frivolous or pointless was tied into my journey to recognize selfies as a viable visual art form, because selfies are dismissed for being self-absorbed, for being too interested in the ordinary, the quotidian, and the self, and specifically stigmatized for being feminine and seen as feminine. So through accepting that this was something that I did want to study and that it was valid to study LGBTQ cultural work, I got to also work through some of my own thoughts about how I could show up in the work, what it meant to be a queer scholar studying LGBTQ material. And then finally honestly to explore femininity, as something valuable and powerful as a genderqueer person assigned female at birth who has a complicated relationship to femininity, I have learned so much about femininity and femme power from looking at this art.”
Toward the end of our conversation, I ask Morse what it has been like to publish this book about trans selfies in the midst of so much anti-trans backlash. “I really decided that this was an opportunity for me to weigh in on the issue of visibility politics which had been seen as automatically producing rights, safety, and progress,” Morse shares. “And say that visibility on its own is not enough because, and I think this is how I end the book, what matters is how we are looking and what we are seeing. For me, in my future research, the question [that] continues to be the question that I’m trying to unpack is: if we no longer assume that making a community visible or making a problem visible will automatically produce some sort of political solution, then how do we move toward the political outcomes that we desire and that our communities need to survive? And what does it look like to kind of cultivate the commitments that enable us to engage with media and mediation toward liberatory ends?”
Morse sees platforms like Autostraddle as a crucial part of this liberatory project. “Something that really helped me in moving into this project was communities like Autostraddle, queer communities that are invested in feminist takes on popular culture, where we allow ourselves to take what we love seriously and to take the ordinary, or you know, ‘unimportant things’ as something that matters for creating community, for creating ourselves. I was always an avid reader [of Autostraddle] and I think that shaped the way that I was thinking about selfies, as colleagues and professors kind of were aghast that I would consider studying something that seemed so not worth studying. But I was part of all these subcultural queer communities where we were paying attention to television shows, to social media, to memes, to jokes, to all kinds of cultural ephemera that were making our lives better making our communities stronger.” Their comments remind me of Autostraddle’s tongue-in-cheek Vapid Fluff content and No Filter posts that both embrace and playfully satirize celebrity gossip coverage. For Morse, selfies and trans feminist selfie aesthetics play a similar role: they facilitate the creation of transformative community between their creators and viewers.
A few hours after our conversation, I’m scrolling on Instagram and see a filter called “which bisexual r u?” I take a front-facing video of myself using the filter, and it decides I’m a “cuffed jeans bisexual.” I send the video to Morse, and then I realize I have inadvertently sent them a video that they might consider a selfie: an image of myself looking back at the camera and at the viewer. I think back on their analysis of trans and queer selfies: the political possibilities they hold and how we can harness those possibilities by taking selfies seriously and looking at them closely. I think about the power of queer friendships and the importance of building relationships in which we see each other and are seen. Perhaps if we lovingly view each other’s selfies — as relational, as messy, as ambivalent, as political representations of ourselves and our lives — we can help create a world in which trans and queer communities survive and thrive. A few minutes later they see the video I took and reply: “so accurate!!”