Fight­ing stereo­types one photo at a time

Marie Claire (South Africa) - - CONTENTS - WORDS LIN­DOKUHLE NKOSI

in­dulge me for a sec­ond. In three words, de­scribe who you are. My three words are: black, woman, writer. Now type your words into any search en­gine, and think about what you find. When I search ‘black woman’, there are two pic­tures of a naked black fe­male body within the first two rows of re­sults. At the top, some mag­i­cal al­go­rithm has sug­gested the sub­cat­e­gory ‘sassy black woman’. When I search for ‘black, woman, writer’, I see pic­tures of Toni Mor­ri­son, Chi­ma­manda Ngozi Adichie and other ac­claimed au­thors. Hardly any posed stock im­ages of a black woman writ­ing at a desk, in front of a vin­tage type­writer or a shiny new tablet. No stu­dio-lit photo shoots ei­ther.

Junot Díaz, award-win­ning au­thor of This Is How You Lose Her and The Brief Won­drous Life of Os­car Wao, ex­plained why.‘You guys know about vam­pires?’ he asked a room full of stu­dents at Rut­gers Univer­sity in the US in 2007.‘You know, vam­pires have no re­flec­tions in a mir­ror? There’s this idea that mon­sters don’t have re­flec­tions… [If] you want to make a hu­man be­ing into a monster, deny them, at the cul­tural level, any re­flec­tion of them­selves.’

Grow­ing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see my­self re­flected at all. I won­dered if there was some­thing wrong with me. So­ci­ety seemed to think that people like me didn’t ex­ist. Now, years later, I’m still try­ing to find my cul­tural mir­rors on tele­vi­sion, in mag­a­zines, on fash­ion run­ways, in pop cul­ture, in stock pho­tog­ra­phy.

For decades, fem­i­nists have taken the me­dia to task about its por­trayal and rep­re­sen­ta­tion of women. It ap­pears that women are un­der­rep­re­sented, and when they are vis­i­ble, what they are and who they can be is limited to the same tropes: ball-crush­ing lad­der-climbers, sexy sirens with power tools, har­ried women jug­gling do­mes­tic life and work (still look­ing sexy, mind you, if not still a lit­tle hun­gry from the salad they had for lunch). Our bod­ies are still used to sell burg­ers, cars and beers. Our brains, punch lines for jokes; our sto­ries, there for the per­sonal ed­i­fi­ca­tion of men. While pa­tri­archy is con­sumed, and there­fore en­trenched, at ev­ery level of so­ci­ety, talk­ing and think­ing about fem­i­nism has rarely hap­pened out­side an aca­demic sub­cul­ture.

Un­til now. Thanks to so­cial me­dia, con­ver­sa­tions pre­vi­ously rel­e­gated to lec­ture halls are now at our fin­ger­tips. It’s handed us the power to weigh in and at­tempt to change the tra­jec­tory of women and how we are viewed. Last year saw the me­dia spot­light fall on two con­tro­ver­sial fem­i­nist stars (both found them­selves on a TED stage at dif­fer­ent times and now on a YouTube chan­nel near you) try­ing to do the same.

‘Our bod­ies are still used to sell burg­ers, cars or beers. Our brains, punch lines for jokes’

Ac­cused of be­tray­ing fem­i­nism by, among other ‘sins’, nam­ing her world tour Mrs Carter (af­ter mar­ry­ing hip-hop artist Shawn Carter, aka Jay Z) and hav­ing a pen­chant for be­ing scant­ily clad, Grammy-win­ning artist Bey­oncé sam­pled Adichie’s own TED pre­sen­ta­tion, ‘We should all be fem­i­nists’ for her sin­gle ‘Flaw­less’. In be­tween lyrics that im­plore ‘bitches’ to bow down (yes, ‘re­spect that, bow down bitches’), sam­ples of Adichie’s speech on the track speak of women ex­pected to as­pire to mar­riage and taught to shrink, and of girls raised to com­pete against one an­other for the at­ten­tion of men.

Face­book COO Sh­eryl Sand­berg de­liv­ered an equally con­tentious pro­posal on how women should ‘lean in’ and try harder to bal­ance ca­reer and home, recog­nis­ing that they are of­ten the ones hold­ing them­selves back; that women pull back too early from their ca­reers and sell them­selves short.The talk spawned a move­ment and non­profit NGO called Lean In, a book of the same name, and a se­ries of lec­tures at var­i­ous ter­tiary in­sti­tu­tions. Her lat­est en­deav­our, called the ‘Lean In’ collection, a col­lab­o­ra­tion with Getty Im­ages, is an at­tempt to chal­lenge en­trenched sex­ism through im­agery. To­gether with Pam Gross­man, the vis­ual trends di­rec­tor at Getty Im­ages, she has co-cu­rated a gallery of about 2 500 pho­to­graphs rep­re­sent­ing women more mean­ing­fully. In an in­ter­view with The Wash­ing­ton Post, Gross­man ex­plains why this is im­por­tant. ‘The prob­lem is with gen­der clichés and gen­der stereo­typ­ing. We’ve seen a lot of im­ages of women and girls, not just in stock pho­tos but in the me­dia at large, that seem rather dated, clichéd, in­au­then­tic. And there are so many won­der­ful al­ter­na­tives. The collection has both new im­ages and con­tent we al­ready had. What we are re­ally look­ing to do is to high­light the strong­est con­tent. It’s not about try­ing to di­min­ish; it’s about ex­pand­ing hori­zons, in­creas­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ties for how women and girls can and should be rep­re­sented.’

But let’s get real for a sec­ond. Stock pho­tos trade in tropes and stereo­types. That is why they ex­ist. Fem­i­nist, writer and ac­tivist Bell Hooks had this to say on Sand­ber­gian neo-lib­eral fem­i­nism or, as she calls it, faux fem­i­nism. ‘Sand­berg’s def­i­ni­tion of fem­i­nism be­gins and ends with the no­tion that it’s all about gen­der equal­ity within the ex­ist­ing so­cial sys­tem. From this per­spec­tive, the struc­tures of im­pe­ri­al­ist white su­prem­a­cist cap­i­tal­ist pa­tri­archy need not be chal­lenged.’

The ‘Lean In’ collection ex­ists in the hope that women will be viewed dif­fer­ently while still op­er­at­ing within the sta­tus quo. No mat­ter how no­ble the in­ten­tions, the col­lab­o­ra­tion serves only to make the age-old sex­ist no­tions more palat­able. Sure, the pic­tures are friendly and ac­cept­able. Women with wrin­kles and muf­fin tops. Women with a higher melanin count. Women who aren’t fully able-bod­ied. Women on Mac­Book Pros, with tat­toos and ba­bies. Women, es­sen­tially, who are work­ing hard to achieve what they have. Women who have leant in, and are be­ing re­warded and ac­knowl­edged for it. But what about the women who can’t? Those still tar­geted by ad­ver­tis­ing, but whose func­tion isn’t deemed to ex­tend past de­cid­ing which wash­ing pow­der to buy? What about the ones con­tent to fo­cus on rais­ing their chil­dren, who have no cor­po­rate struc­ture or ti­tle with which to val­i­date their achieve­ments? Where are their mir­rors?

Per­haps I’m com­ing down too hard on Sand­berg et al. Any step, no mat­ter how small it is, is a step in the right di­rec­tion, right? Maybe I should be grate­ful that I no longer have to bal­ance on a steplad­der in a dan­ger­ously short skirt and high heels, or laugh alone with a salad.

‘Women pull back too early from their ca­reers and sell them­selves short’





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