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Ear to the Ground

What Reactions to the Obama-Thorning-Schmidt-Cameron Selfie Say About the Media

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Posted on Dec 11, 2013
tim ellis (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Salon’s Roxane Gay, who also commented on the biases revealed by this incident, states, “Though in most cases, the selfie allows us to turn the camera on ourselves, President Obama’s selfie at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service was a mirror, reflecting the biases people may not even realize they hold.”

A glance at U.S. media coverage of Nelson Mandela’s memorial service Tuesday will tell you only two important things happened: President Obama shook hands with Cuba’s Raul Castro and also took a selfie with the prime ministers of Denmark and the U.K. Neither of these nonevents should have received the attention they did, but the fact that they did tells us a lot about our media’s priorities.

As has already been pointed out, speculation over the Obama-Castro handshake is fruitless, but what the “selfie seen ’round the world” spurred was, in a word, vitriolic. A candid shot of the three world leaders posing for a picture on Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s phone while Michelle Obama looked away was posted all over the Internet. And, with an absurd penchant for drama and blatant sexism, the media went on to create scenario after scenario that demeaned two powerful women, as The Guardian’s Kayla Epstein puts it, into the “blonde, ditzy seductress and…the jealous, shrewish wife.”

That this was one of the most discussed aspects of the memorial of one of the world’s greatest leaders is just plain sad. Especially since other more telling things happened that actually involved the U.S. president, such as the crowd’s booing that revealed bubbling discontent toward current South African President Jacob Zuma.

The media’s overreaction to the selfie once again shows how quickly they jump toward misogyny, eager to reduce figures as significant as Thorning-Schmidt and Michelle Obama as though being embroiled in soap opera-like scenarios is all women can really do with their time and energy. What’s more is that all of these theatrics were almost certainly imagined, seeing as the photographer who captured the selfie says the first lady was laughing with the three only moments before the picture was taken. All in all, Epstein remarks, “when you look at all the players involved in this fictional telenovela, it’s really the media who failed to observe the proper decorum.” But one could argue it’s merely another example of the dramatic decline in the quality of media coverage that seems to only worsen with time.

—Posted by Natasha Hakimi

The Guardian:
Unless you have consigned yourself to a life of hermitage, you’re likely familiar with the pictures captured by the intrepid photojournalists on hand. Obama, British prime minister David Cameron and Denmark’s prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt scrunched together in the stands of the FNB football stadium and took a picture together with a cell phone belonged to the latter. In 2013, this action is known as a “selfie” (although whether it was technically a selfie was a subject of hot debate).

The media, as it is wont do in these situations, lost its mind.

The photo elicited vicious delight across Twitter and the internet’s major media publications for two reasons. The first had to do with a popular Tumblr blog called “Selfies at Funerals”, which documented the rude trend among teens to take selfies at funerals. The leaders weren’t at a funeral, they were at a memorial service, but the internet isn’t fond of making such distinctions and the photo fit perfectly into an already viral meme. The blog itself even got in on the fun, declaring “Obama has taken a funeral selfie, so our work here is done.” I imagine Selfies at Funerals then proceeded to drop the mic and strut offstage (or write a commentary for the Guardian).

But the second media reaction was far more pernicious….

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