Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in Washington and the author of the book “The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
On Sunday, college student Andrea Norton, just 20 years old, was repositioning herself for a photo, police said, when she fell to her death on a hiking trip in the Ozarks. The same weekend, college student Sydney Monfries fell to her death after climbing the Fordham University bell tower and sending out a video via Snapchat.
The coverage of these two tragedies has been less than solemn. Norton, some early news reports said, died taking a selfie (it actually seems she fell after doing what millions of Americans do every day: positioning herself for a photo in a beautiful place).
Meanwhile, Monfries died, according to one lurid headline, “while trying to get Instagram photos” (authorities have offered no indication that taking pictures led her to fall). Meanwhile, a major US network headlined a piece “Selfie leads to two women’s deaths;” elsewhere on the internet, commenters on the many news stories about these women’s deaths were remarkably callous.
The implication, framed subtly in the headlines and blatantly in the comments, is clear: These two young women were so self-involved and vain that they didn’t notice they were inches from danger until it was too late.
Certainly, there is something to be said for being present in the moment and actually enjoying where you are, rather than filtering the experience through the lens of how it will look to others on Instagram. It would probably be good for all of us to spend more time outdoors, with our friends and on adventures without a phone in hand to capture every moment.
But wanting to document your presence in a beautiful place or send your friends evidence of your mischievousness isn’t a capital offense. Most of us, I would guess, have done it many times over. And so it’s curious to see how the empathy of so many people evaporates when they read a story about a pretty young woman who died in an accident when that accident may have involved taking a photo of herself or her fabulous experience.
Women’s use of social media is perpetually ripe for mockery and critique. And like many people, I also cringe when I see a social media feed made up only of selfies or perfectly posed photos. There is a lot to life outside of your own face, and social media culture has fueled a kind of narcissism that is much more about one’s reflection and the need for affirmation than the connections social media claims to foster. Too many of us are performing too much of our lives rather than fully experiencing them. Too many of us are more interested in our own best angles than the complex and imperfect world around us.
But human beings have been documenting our own existence through images for a very long time, well before the iPhone or even the modern camera.
And we know that women experience sexualized harassment online with stunning regularity, and that women are judged negatively for sharing images of themselves. Perhaps it’s not surprising that, perusing the coverage of “selfie deaths,” it does seem to be primarily women who are mocked if something goes wrong in the perfectly normal pursuit of that documentation.
This is, unfortunately, on par with the general expectation that women will be effortlessly beautiful, and sexually appealing without trying to be too sexy. Young women, especially, are supposed to be pretty – but not advertise to the world the work it took to get that way; they certainly aren’t supposed to indicate that they know they’re gorgeous. For the many made uncomfortable by women evincing pride in their physical image, casting a tragedy as a selfie-related death may be a subtle way of suggesting the little narcissist deserved it.
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It’s an ugly impulse, if a common one. Stories like these are a good moment to pause and see if we can exercise a lot more empathy.
These were promising young women, each trying to document the life they were living – standing in front of a breathtaking view; sneaking into somewhere forbidden and fun. Instead of talking and writing about them as selfie deaths, a facile and judgment-laden category, we can talk about them as they are: Painful, shocking tragedies that pulled two bright young women from our world too soon.