'Selfie' Is Like 'Pygmalion' with Cell Phones

One of Selfie’s biggest sins is how tone-deaf it is about social media and those who use it successfully.


Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: ABC
Creator: Emily Kapnek
Airtime: Tuesdays, 8pm ET
Cast: Karen Gillan, John Cho, David Harewood, Allyn Rachel, Da'Vine Joy Randolph
Air date: 2014-09-30

There's an art to picking a name for a TV show. Good titles are resonant and memorable, rather than trendy or short-lived. Selfie, the name of ABC's new sitcom, is decidedly trendy. Everyone from your grandma to your six-year-old takes selfies now, which opens up the term for easy mocking.

Still, we can imagine the appeal in an executive's mind: selfies have become symbolic of a growing self-absorption in cultures where cell phones are ubiquitous, shorthand for needs to examine and share everything that we do, no matter how trivial or private. Of course, social media gave us the tools to accomplish this, but the zeal with which we have embraced them cannot be credited entirely to Facebook and Twitter.

So the time is right for a TV show to skewer our love of all things Internet. Unfortunately, Selfie has such an uninformed view of the cultural landscape that it only draws attention to how little it has to say when it purports to act as social commentary.

Eliza Dooley (Karen Gillan) is a social media celebrity, with 263,000 followers, who appears to post mainly about her own sense of fashion. She works as a successful sales rep for a pharmaceutical company. It makes sense that a woman who understands sales would apply those principles both to her job and her online image. On another show, she might have been a hardnosed businesswoman who has willed herself away from a past as a scared wallflower to become a confident, if flawed, icon. Her experience might have been complicated or invite viewers to reflect on their own uses of social media.

But on Selfie, Eliza is not complicated. She's a one-dimensional narcissist who doesn’t understand that her followers are not her friends. Early in the first episode, she experiences a public humiliation involving bodily fluids that is thoroughly documented on social media by a plane full of her co-workers. It is the type of video clip that would go viral. For Eliza, the embarrassment is reminiscent of a former childhood awkwardness, and it leads to some soul-searching about who she has become.

That self-reflection has limits. When Eliza decides she needs a makeover, she turns, for completely irrational reasons, to Henry (John Cho), a colleague in her office who is credited with convincing the general public that a drug that was hurting children is okay to use. Selfie ignores the questionable morality behind that accomplishment, as Henry is presented as an arbiter of right and wrong, at least for Eliza.

In his judgment, spending time on social media is the greatest wrong imaginable. Never mind the fact that rebranding a drug with a tainted image would have required an extensive and probably quite cynical media offensive. IRL, it doesn’t help the show’s cause that ABC is promoting it on every social media platform imaginable and is not about to tell the stars to stop tweeting to their own hundreds of thousands of followers.

Beyond such hypocrisies, Selfie’s biggest sin is how tone-deaf it is about social media and those who use it successfully. First of all, while it's possible that Eliza is capable of being mortified, it's just as likely that a savvy internet personality would use a viral video, embarrassing or not, to grow her presence. But this is not the message that the show wants to send.

The point here is that maintaining an online presence has no value in the real world and leads a person to be unable to understand basic social niceties, like caring about other people. Eliza is selfish and uncaring, but it is lazy and dishonest for Selfie to pin all of that on social media.

As Selfie makes social media the root of all evil, it also takes aim at other targets, most obviously in its choice of character names (on top of the show's name. Henry and Eliza establish the show's ongoing allusions to Pygmalion, or its better-known incarnation, My Fair Lady, both telling the story of a sophisticated man teaching an uncouth woman to be a lady.

It may be that someone once hoped that allusions to classic source material will conjure up fond memories of a lighthearted musical about two very different and entertaining people thrown together, rather than the competing interpretation, which is that Selfie is misogynistic when it comes to gender and class politics. It appears that Selfie is not interested in class at all, which might be why it leans so heavily on social media as a straw man rather than turning to the original explanation about why Eliza needs to be "fixed".

Still, as in Pygmalion, that fixing works both ways. By the end of the premiere episode of Selfie, both Henry and Eliza are transformed into different and far more appealing characters, a little less one-note than they were just 30 minutes earlier. This transformation is promising, suggesting that the show will be about two very different people making a connection with each other, after all.

Maybe ABC’s social media strategy should include posting only the last scene of this episode and pretend the rest of it never happened. That, and changing the title.


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