Written by New York Post reporter Kyle Smith
This was the week the word of the year collided in slapstick hilarity
with the picture of the year. Selfie! It’s the concept of the year.
Maybe — given its accompanying connotations of technology, media,
instantaneous global transmission, carelessness, solipsism, frivolity,
youth, inappropriateness and ironic juxtaposition — it’s the concept of
Selfie was last month proclaimed word of the year by Oxford
University Press (take that, “twerking”!), whose word-use metrics showed
a 17,000% jump in usage since last year. Oxford defined the word as “a
photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a
smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.”
Three weeks later, President Obama starred in what is now the most
infamous selfie of all time, one taken by a pretty, party-faced blonde
named Helle Thorning-Schmidt, who turned out to be the prime minister of
a country experts have identified as “Denmark.” Flanking her in a
photographer’s snapshot of her selfie were Obama and, to her right, in
the Kevin James role as chubby-faced sidekick of this farce, the
Prime Minister David Cameron, the oaf who once left his
8-year-old daughter alone in a pub.
Let’s not understate the magnitude of Obama’s accomplishment. For
this to become the Selfe of the Year of the Selfie took some doing.
Let’s review the competition.
Less than a week earlier, on Dec. 4, The New York Post’s front page featured a
snap of a woman who was taking a selfie arranged to include, over her
left shoulder, a view of a desperate man who was apparently preparing to
jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. (He was talked out of it). The woman
taking the selfie was half-smiling.
Among the other selfies included in The Post’s essential selfie Hall
of Fame were: a guy laughing and giving a thumbs-up with a crumpled car
visible in the background (caption: “Other persons car accident selfie”)
and a guy making a mock-horror face while photographing himself at
Auschwitz. A Florida high-school student took a selfie that included his
teacher going into labor in the background.
Others who appeared to have a real shot at starring in the selfie of
the year included Bashid McLean, 25, of The Bronx, who took a selfie
with the severed head of the person he had just murdered, who was also
his mother; and the deranged actress Amanda Bynes, who chronicled and,
via Twitter, publicized her continuing breakdown with topless selfies.
Yet Obama’s selfie still managed to top them all. Why?
Candor. This is a president who is so fiercely protective of his
image that dozens of media outlets, including The New York Times,
Washington Post and ABC News, signed a letter of protest blasting the
White House for barring news photographers while instead issuing its own
carefully vetted press-release images. Usually when an image does
escape the vault, it’s because it makes Obama look good. No, not good:
Heroic. World-historical. Suitable for framing, autographing or
carving into a mountain. One such publicity portrait, often mistaken
for a news photo, was a shot of Obama visiting the former Robben Island
prison cell of . . . Nelson Mandela. Journalists were barred from the
event lest they disseminate an image that didn’t fit the occasion —
Obama yawning, or smiling, or checking the White Sox score. Catching
Obama off-guard is tricky: His guards never take the day off.
Inappropriateness. This was an occasion to mark the death of a great
man. And yet Obama is using that devilish lip-biting half-smile that
Bill Clinton used when he wanted to play the charming rascal.
Thorning-Schmidt’s pose is even more celebratory. Her caption reads,
“Whoo-hoo!” Her thought balloon adds, “Who says Norwegians have all the
fun!” Cameron just looks like Cameron, sheepish and hoping to be allowed
Sexiness. Who knew that frosty Denmark was led by the anti-Angela
Merkel? Who knew Obama was friendly with this Jennifer Lawrence of
statesmen? Who knew David Cameron just liked to watch? True, just
because a married man takes a picture with a colleague who happens to be
attractive and female doesn’t mean there’s a charge of flirtation in
the air. And unlike some Democratic presidents, President Obama is by
all accounts a devoted husband and family man, not a lecher. But if
photos didn’t lie, what good would they be?
The woman wronged. It’s a photographic miracle when you can catch an
event and a reaction in the very same frame. When that reaction fuels
gossip, so much better. Michelle Obama’s Grumpy Cat features gave the
picture an effect it would have lacked if she had been smiling or even
President Obama was a natural to star in the Selfie of the Year. He’s
associated with youth; so are selfies.
His campaigns leveraged the
frenzy and reach of social media: Ditto the selfie. And since much of
selfie culture depends on the ironic juxtaposition — the sublime and the
ridiculous, the sacred and the profane, the individual and the group —
the ultimate selfie would necessarily show the most powerful man on
Earth looking like a dork.
What more solemn occasion could there be than a service for the
contemporary Christ of South Africa? The operator of the Tumblr
collection “Selfies at Funerals” announced this week that it was time to
close up: “OBAMA HAS TAKEN A FUNERAL SELFIE, SO OUR WORK HERE IS DONE.”
“Selfies at Funerals” is an online compendium of inappropriate
portraiture, mostly of very young people on Facebook or Twitter being
delightfully/maddeningly solipsistic and ridiculous in the face of
mortality. “Love my hair today. Hate why I’m dressed up. #funeral,”
wrote one girl. “Killin the selfie game at pop’s funeral,” declared a
Obama’s selfie marched to the tune of a long-playing meme. All it
lacked was a caption reading, “South Africa is mourning but Denmark’s
P.M. is slammin!” or “Today Mandela is in heaven but at least we still
have Helle on Earth!”
Part of what makes funeral selfies so jarring is that the preening
subject of the portrait doesn’t realize he’s also the butt of the joke:
The individual in the moment is hilariously heedless of the greater
structure of society and tradition.
Can’t these young people and/or presidents realize that, even at a
funeral, it isn’t all about them? Funerals are supposed to be the time
when we put aside thinking about ourselves, our hair and whether we are
or are not killin it with our gangsta style. At least for an hour or
two, we’re supposed to direct our thoughts at the disappearance of
others, and if we can’t do that we’re supposed to at least shut up and
pretend, to be respectful — to maintain a Michelle Obama face.
Obama’s selfie took place not at a funeral per se, but at a
carnival-like memorial service that featured music, dancing and cheering
and took place in a stadium. Moreover, it went on for four hours. Who
can fake being sad for that long, especially when there are fun new
people to meet?
Yet the selfie seems very Obama because the president has put himself
at the center of so many tableaux that weren’t supposed to be about
him. After a thousands-strong national-security and military apparatus
tracked and assassinated Osama bin Laden, with the president’s input
more or less limited to saying, “Sounds great, go ahead,” he told us
about it in a speech that recast the operation as something that sprang
from his ingenuity and dedication, a postgame locker-room chat larded
with “I”s and “me”s (“at my direction” and “I determined”).
Days before the funeral selfie, the White House tweeted out a Pearl
Harbor remembrance that consisted of a photo of Obama laying a wreath.
Six days before that he honored Rosa Parks by tweeting out a picture of
himself sitting on the bus she desegregated. Nine days before that he
honored the anniversary of JFK’s death with a tweet of himself looking
at the fallen president’s White House portrait. Obama simply can’t allow
history to have occurred without airbrushing himself into it: He’s
Even as he struggles for footing on the American Olympus, though, he
is oblivious of ordinary folk and even his peers. Far from slapping
backs or twisting arms on Capitol Hill like LBJ or Lincoln, Obama seems
offended by the idea that he isn’t the only one who gets to make
decisions in Washington. He hates meeting with lawmakers (even those
from his own party) and prefers to connect with the world by either
giving speeches to faceless throngs of worshipers or complaining quietly
in Valerie Jarrett’s ear.
“The problem is that I’m the president of the United States, I’m not
the emperor of the United States,” he said last winter. “Mr. Obama,” The
New York Times reported in 2011, “has told people that it would be so
much easier to be the president of China.”
Obama is, despite all the “we” talk, as much of a loner as Al Gore or
Richard Nixon, and yet he wishes he were even more alone still — “the
emperor” in his palace who never has to come out and ask John Boehner’s
permission for anything.
Those pictures of him in Rosa Parks’ seat, in front of the JFK picture — he’s all alone.
The White House publicity operation seems to think that showing the
president by himself in a historical setting gives the president a holy
halo of dramatic importance. In reality, these pictures merely emphasize
his strange isolation — from the people, from his peers, from his own
The more he fails to shepherd, inspire and transform the nation, the
more he retreats into empty symbolism, photo ops and unscripted
frivolity. Obama’s is the Selfie Presidency.