Making pictures less sexist

SlateFebruary 16, 2014 

Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg’s nonprofit organization dedicated to helping women realize their career ambitions, may have had a minor stumble in profiling an anti-feminist on its Tumblr page, but it’s hard not to be enthusiastic about its new project that was announced this month. Using the kind of corporate rah-rah skills that Sandberg highlighted in her book, the organization is partnering with Getty Images to create a special stock-image file that manages to evade a lot of the sexist traps prevalent in many stock photos, which are often outdated.

So that means no images of mothers with briefcases coupled with sad babies here. No high-heeled feet crushing hapless men, either. Work images of women will mostly show women doing their jobs in natural-looking poses, often wearing business casual clothes instead of power suits. Images of women exercising are focused a little more on showing effort and less on showing how pretty they are. Excitingly, family imagery shows much more diversity, including – gasp – images of men caring for children.

As a writer for the maw that is the Internet, I’m super excited about this new project. No longer will I have to run an image of a woman in a power suit climbing a mountain to illustrate my post about female CEOs, or a woman in lingerie wearing boxing gloves to represent the modern woman’s experience. But anyone who reads anything – websites, magazines, ads – or, really, just looks at the pictures – is going to benefit. As Sandberg told The New York Times: “When we see images of women and girls and men, they often fall into the stereotypes that we’re trying to overcome, and you can’t be what you can’t see.”

Images dramatically shape both our intellectual and emotional understanding of the world, which is why we use so many of them in the first place. As more media moves online, this is only becoming more true. Sadly, many people often just scan headlines and look at pictures, so what kind of imagery we use counts for a lot. If feminism is frequently illustrated as being anti-male (that woman in lingerie is wearing boxing gloves to punch out a man), then people start to buy that negative stereotype. If we never see images of men changing diapers or carrying babies around, then is it any big surprise if men in real life worry they'll look emasculated if they do those things?

This is just one project, but I hope it will be popular enough to encourage Getty and other stock-image organizations to expand their pile of images to flout traditional gender roles and portray women in naturalistic, positive ways. If they can’t do it for the high-minded feminist purposes that Sandberg has laid out – saying, “Do we partner into sexism or do we partner against sexism?” – then please do it for your online writers.

Marcotte is a Brooklyn-based writer and DoubleX contributor. She also writes regularly for the Daily Beast, AlterNet, and USA Today.

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