As is the case with most things that Generation Z has come to take for granted, Madonna invented the blueprint for all the pop culture staples du jour–from the theatrical, chock full of production value stadium tour to wearing lingerie as outerwear to branding irony that the average American is too literal to understand (see: “Material Girl”). So is it any surprise that, in point of fact, Madonna also invented the prototype for what we now call the selfie?
It all began in 1985, with her first legitimate starring role (A Certain Sacrifice doesn’t count) in Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan. Establishing from the outset her predilection for self-involvement (albeit in a charming, fun-loving sort of way–unlike the sheer vacuity of most narcissists today who possess not even a hair of amusement), our introduction to Susan is in a hotel in Atlantic City. As her passed out lover, Bruce Meeker (played to corpse-like perfection by Richard Hell), dozes away, a bored Susan takes Polaroids of herself in excess, fanning some of them in her hand to see the final product and letting others simply fall to the floor by her snacks and playing cards.
She’s not completely self-consumed, however, even snapping a photo of Bruce for good measure. Leaving the photos behind like souvenirs–relics of her imprint on Bruce’s life–the hotel room floor serves as an analog Instagram, an explosion of vanity for anyone and everyone who happens upon it to see. As Foreigner’s “Urgent” plays in the background, the lyrics, “You’re not shy, you get around…sometimes I wonder as I look in your eyes, maybe you’re thinking of some other guy” highlight the tone of egoism. And yes, the aloofness Foreigner refers to is the exact expression a girl wants to convey in any selfie worth taking and sharing with the world of her various potential admirers.
Sufficiently satisfied with her tequila and encounter of “Jim” in the personal ads, Susan puts her selfie project aside to pack her things and tell a still sleeping Bruce, “It was fun, huh?” Little did she know, this act of boredom and restlessness would launch a thousand more photos like it in the future. And even though the concept can potentially be attributed to a few before her, Madonna is the true source of its vanity-laden meaning.
So even if Paris Hilton was being tongue-in-cheek (though one tends to believe she really is this conceited about the extent of believing in the things she’s “pioneered”) when she tweeted about celebrating the eleven year anniversary of creating the selfie with Britney Spears back in November of ’06, when the two were briefly thick as thieves, it’s quite plainly a laughable attempt at humor. I mean, Jesus, even Kim K hasn’t tried to lay claim to helming it in spite of putting out an entire coffee table book of her “self-portraits.” Maybe because she knows somewhere deep down that it would be like Romy and Michele trying to take credit for the invention of Post-Its.
With the character of Susan, Madonna single-handedly instructed us all how to take a sensual, yet “candid” selfie. But oh well, like so many, Paris has been known to attempt imitating Madonna’s aesthetics and accomplishments in the past. It can’t be helped when the Queen of Pop was long ago ahead of the fame game of her so-called successors.