What Ellen’s Oscar Selfie Tells Us About Fame

If you trekked through the slow-motion slalom that was the 2014 Academy Awards, you were treated to one of the dullest Oscar hosts in recent memory. Ellen DeGeneres, as affable as she was, was in Franco-Hathaway territory as she made cliche’d jokes about the film industry and bantered about her frequent wardrobe changes. She was dry, flat in tone, and rivals only Jimmy Fallon for aww-shucks attitude in the face of peak celebrity. She was the uncooked pasta of Oscar hosts.
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Then it’s a bit astonishing that her selfie–taken with Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Brad Pitt, Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, and just about anyone else you could name (though it’s very symbolic Leonardo DiCaprio was snubbed even in this)–became the most tweeted tweet of all time, beating Barack Obama’s “Four More Years” tweet after his re-election.

It was an honest moment, to be sure. The smiles and laughs caught on Ellen’s iPhone are a genuine appearance of these stars personalities; even the plasticine Julia Roberts seems to be having a good time.

But it’s quite odd that actors doing what they do–staring into a camera–was the most human moment of the night. And the selfie-as-humanizing tactic has grown elsewhere: see Stephen Colbert’s shot with Jimmy Fallon on the latter’s first Tonight Show or the made-for-Reddit selfie taken with President Obama, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Bill Nye. The celebrity selfie has its own tag on The Huffington Post and the photobomb, the selfie’s deranged cousin, has also moved to the red carpet.

I don’t mean to repeat the same tired phrasings of what the selfie means; it’s people showing off who they are and what they’re doing, just like the every other aspect of social media. It’s not, as sociologist Ben Agger once called it, “the male gaze gone viral”. Nor is it a  “chance for subjects to glam it up, to show off a special side of themselves” as said by James Franco. It’s self-aggrandizement, an aspect of our culture that now looms so large I might as well be shouting at the clouds for being so damn fluffy.

But a cultural force it is. According to Samsung–now the top manufacturer of mobile phones on the planet–30% of photos taken by people 18-24 on their phones are selfies. So if we, the peons who were not invited to the Oscars, are all doing it, why wouldn’t celebrities jump onto the wagon to make themselves appear more human and less god-like?

The irony, of course, is how far we’ve come from the days where your photo appearing in the newspaper was a huge deal. The Digital Age has given us the ability to post our image wherever we damn well please. We are all empowered with the gift and curse of  potential instant fame. It’s reminiscent of the famous scene in Steve Martin’s The Jerk, who’s dimwitted character proudly acclaims his name in the white pages only to thereby become the random target of a sniper. It used to be having a photo of yourself anywhere but a photo album or a yearbook made you less human and more immortal. Now the most famous people in the world crouch in front of a camera, begging for humility from their rectangular god.

Of course, the format, not the product, is why Ellen thought the selfie would be such a humanizing moment. Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t need a selfie; she has the eyes of the world on her at all times including the shutters of hawk-like paparazzi. We take selfies mostly because no one else cares to snap a photo of us at our proudest moments, whether it’s at the gym or the Grand Canyon. Celebrities don’t have this problem.

The star-studded selfie is a future artifact of our times, an era within which we are as pandering and fame-seeking as the celebrities who make a living of it. When we see Jared Leto struggling to fit himself in the frame over Lawrence’s shoulder, we see ourselves with our friends, trying to capture a special moment as well as how special we believe ourselves to be. But few–if any–of our digital self-portraits will reach the levels of fame seen last night. And that’s fine! We can’t all be famous. But we’ll be damned if we stop trying and celebrities would be only less human if they stopped trying, too. TC mark

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