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Jacinda Ardern and the scene of the selfie

Tuesday 22nd August 2017

Jacinda Ardern has become New Zealand’s own selfie queen, writes Dr Cherie Lacey.

Here are some things I’ve learned about Jacinda Ardern since she has become Leader of the Opposition: She likes drinking whiskey. She is contemplating getting a tattoo of Ernest Shackleton. A DJ set from her might include tracks by The Smashing Pumpkins, The Mint Chicks, and Tom Jones. She grew up Mormon. She makes a good martini (olive included). She’s annoyed by people eating chips in movie theatres. 

I’ve also learned that she’s incredibly positive. Her positivity shines through my computer screen every morning when I read the news. I open one site and there she is, smiling back at me. I open another, and there’s a short clip of her at a café, sharing a joke with a friend. She’s laughing, she’s relatable. I like her. I would like to drink whiskey with her.

I’m no political strategist, but it seems that Team Labour are doing their bit to contribute as much as possible to the aura of positivity, and popularity, around Ardern. Their new campaign makes liberal use of Ardern’s happy face in their social media posts and other media, which is used to great effect alongside the new, hashtaggable party slogan: ‘I’m with Jacinda’. She has become New Zealand’s own selfie queen.

I’m no political strategist, but it seems that Team Labour are doing their bit to contribute as much as possible to the aura of positivity, and popularity, around Ardern.

Let me be clear: this is not a critique of Labour’s strategy, nor the use of Ardern’s personality or appearance in their campaign. What Labour is doing (and doing well, in my opinion) is carefully crafting a sense of an intimate public, one that is centred very much on the life—both public and private—of Jacinda Ardern.

An intimate public works by breaking down the traditional (real or imagined) border between the public and the personal, and has been used to varying degrees of success by a number of political figures in recent years. Think of Obama, or Macron, or—especially—Trudeau, who was described by one media commentator as “the political equivalent of a YouTube puppy video”. Trudeau, who was accidentally photographed topless in the woods. Twice.

All of this works by creating a sense of closeness between the politician and the public. They need to seem accessible. They often need to be accessible through their social media accounts. I need to feel like I could drop Ardern a message and ask if she wanted to grab a whiskey. I need to feel like, although she may make an excuse for why she can’t grab a whiskey, she might actually reply.

To some, all of this might seem ickily stage-managed, and part of a process whereby politicians are increasingly subject to a process of celebritisation—or the reverse: in which a celebrity crosses over into politics. (In either case, as it’s been noted far and wide, the realms of entertainment and politics are growing ever more indistinguishable.) As Graeme Turner, an expert in celebrity, once noted:

“We can map the precise moment a public figure becomes a celebrity. It occurs at the point at which media interest in their activities is transferred from reporting on their public role (such as their special achievement in politics or sport) to investigating the details of their private lives”.

Jacinda Ardern is one of those political figures who has crossed over into the realm of celebrity. This is evident in the growing interest in (and exposure to) her private life. She’s “young, hip and exciting”, and she has at her disposal an extraordinary range of technologies and platforms for articulating that young, hip and exciting life to the public.

She invites journalists into her home for interviews. We get glimpses of her celebrity partner, Clarke Gayford, in the background, doing typical domestic jobs. We love that Gayford is doing the dishes in the background while Ardern is giving the interview. There are lots of laughs. Gayford might occasionally produce personal objects from the hallway cupboard with which to (gently and lovingly) embarrass Ardern. Ardern might mimic Helen Clark, but only in a non-offensive way.

What all of this points to, I think, is the emergence of a new kind of Ardern-centric public, one that is marked, very much, by a felt sense of belonging. As one writer put it (and I paraphrase), it is no longer sufficient for us to imagine we are a nation; we now need to feel that sense of belonging. Ardern invites that felt sense of belonging, and I think a lot of that has to do with the way she has so quickly created this intimate public around her. Heck, just look at the way she’s so often referred to in the media by her first name only. And how she seems cool with that.

Which brings me to the Jacinda Ardern Selfie—a sub-genre of the form which is fast becoming one of the most pervasive visual languages of New Zealand’s mass media during Election 2017. If we’re talking about technologies for the production of an intimate public, then selfies are right up there. They’ve been described as "engines of circulation and connectivity", and are understood as a way of creating a kind of emotional field around the self.

The emotional field Ardern is creating is, above all else, positive. They radiate with positivity. And they’re used generously by the New Zealand media, often times lifted directly from her own social media accounts and repurposed for one article or another.

But, even more often, what we get are images of her in the act of taking a selfie. Images of image-making. I first noticed this a couple weeks ago, when I read an article about the latest poll results. The site in question ran this story with a picture on the homepage (though not in the article itself) of Ardern, arm extended, smiling into a phone. Not a selfie itself, but Ardern taking a selfie.

This image of her taking a selfie went back to the very moment she was elected leader.

I think the image of Ardern taking a selfie was being used to convey the idea of popularity, a flashcard for the Jacinda Effect. It’s use with this particular news story wasn’t exactly jarring, but let’s say that it was jarring enough that I noticed. And it got me thinking about how familiar this image of her had become in the time since she was elected as Labour leader.

I scrawled back through media coverage of Ardern’s leadership, and noticed that this image of her taking a selfie went back to the very moment she was elected leader. On the afternoon Ardern’s leadership was announced Stuff ran with this shot, along with the headline "Jacinda Ardern promises relentless positivity as Labour Leader after Andrew Little quits".

I’m not entirely sure what to make of all this. Part of me thinks that the media might be—inadvertently or otherwise—playing into existing stereotypes about women (particularly young women) and selfies. It’s common knowledge that selfie culture is most closely linked to women, youth, and femininity, and often carries with it associations such as vanity, selfishness, and an obsession with appearance.

These notions have been recycled through popular culture for years, with the result that the ‘low’ status of one is used to reinforce the "low" status of the other. So, perhaps, Ardern’s "scene of the selfie" crosses over into notions of gender and power that are — like a number of things we have seen in recent weeks—problematic, to say the least. It draws attention to how she looks. It possibly feeds into talk about her lack of experience (read: her relative youthfulness). It leaves her open to criticism that she’s playing into populist forms of identity politics.

But, maybe that’s not quite the full picture. Certainly, there are moments when Ardern’s selfie-taking does appear highly gendered, and reinforces the "low" cultural status of youth and femininity, particularly in the domain of politics. But I’m also wondering whether these images reflect a growing fascination by the New Zealand media about the ways that Ardern is herself using her personal life as a political tool. And if this is the case, then all of these images of her in the act of image-making might be an intriguing documentation of Ardern in the interplay between the intimate and the public.

Or maybe that’s just the positivity talking. 

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Dr Cherie Lacey is a lecturer in Media Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, as well as a mum to two small children and one naughty dog.
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