Fighting stereotypes one photo at a time
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’
STOCK IMAGES, THEN
STOCK IMAGES, NOW
STOCK IMAGES, NOW
STOCK IMAGES, THEN