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Getty Images: Still Kinda Sexist?

By Michael Connor

Portrait of a confident businesswoman

This week, LeanIn.org and Getty teamed up to release a new collection of 2,500 stock photos that aim to "represent women and families in more empowering ways." The need to do this was quite clear; stock photographs had become something of an internet sensation for their lingering embrace of a range of visual clichés, many of them sexist, such as the notorious "Woman Laughing Alone With Salad." As depictions of broadly-applicable situations and people that could be used in a wide variety of publications, particularly for marketing purposes, stock photographs claim to represent generic ideals for easy illustration. Their effect is, in fact, the inverse—it is specific ideologies they illustrate, in order to continue their reproduction.

This ideological function has made stock images important raw material for many artists and internet commentators over the last few years, resulting in a cottage industry of image essays and Tumblrs that have taken on meme status. The website Know Your Meme cites the blog Awkward Stock Photos as the first "curation of awkward stock images," but an earlier and genre-defining example is artist Guthrie Lonergan's The Artist Looking at Camera (2006):

When this video first came out eight years ago, it was hard even to assimilate, let alone address, all the layers of class, race, and gender stereotypes embedded in Getty's depiction of artists and their work. It has become easier to understand over the years, easier to look at, as we've collectively worked through the weird implications of stock photography. 

As this discourse began to crystallize, its critique took a new turn with the Rhizome-commissioned DISimages project, a fully-functioning stock photo website created by artists. DIS re-imagined the "generic ideals" represented by stock photographs through the lens of polymorphous identity, gender-wise and otherwise. Some individual works, such as Maja Cule's Laughing Alone with Salad series, directly address Getty Images tropes. More generally, the photos decimate the coherent identities of Getty's subjects, who can be so neatly categorized, more accurately reflecting the way in which identity under neoliberal capitalism is continually assembled and re-negotiating from existing cultural fragments, many of which are brands.

Mature woman with long, gray hair looking away

The results of Getty's partnership with LeanIn do not match the sophisticated understanding of identity that we see in DIS, but mostly they're fine. We see different body types and races, different types of jobs, more real-looking social interactions. But there is still something very specific, and OK, a bit personal, that bothers me about this new, "empowering" representation of women and families. The modern Getty woman goes to Crossfit and surfs and jogs. She works at home on a computer, in a factory, in a hair salon. When she's young, she's beautiful, but not oversexualized. When she's old, she radiates strength and inner peace. Her husband watches the kids, as do teachers and grandparents. 

It's more interesting, though, to think about what's missing. Nowhere in this collection of 2,500 images are there any representations of formal child care. Adults with children are identified as pediatricians, mothers, fathers, and grandparents, but never as babysitter, nanny, or au pair. LeanIn is a world without day care. 

These images come down in the middle of the "debate" about whether women "can have it all," whether they can balance children and career. Some people have argued that they can't, others have argued that they can. The most pernicious argument is represented by the phrase "Lean In," which suggests that women can have it all, if they just try harder. 

Two women doing pushups with dumbbells in gym

Of course, this whole discourse is problematic through and through. First of all, in a more egalitarian society, we would be asking, "can parents have it all?" Second of all, it's a kind of class war to place so much emphasis on individual parents' responsibility, diverting attention from a broader issue: the lack of high-quality, state-supported child care. As it is, only the very affluent or those with ever-present, completely healthy grandparents can have a realistic family life and financial stability in the US today. Until we have that, parents never will be able to keep up with the constant labor, professional and affective, expected of them, and this burden is borne disproportionately by women. In the face of deep structural issues in American society, "Lean In" whispers in women's ears, "You're not working hard enough" (and, well, "You should be working to sustain our dominant class paradigm"). By omitting the most essential ingredient to the happiness and mental well-being of a parent of any gender—child care—this photo collection supports that socially destructive message.

Getty Images' "Lean In" collection may have moved past the outdated sexual politics of "Woman Eating Alone with Salad;" now they reinforce the conditions that keep women oppressed in a more insidious way. How contemporary.

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artfagcity 1 year, 5 months agoReply

I sent this article to listserve I was on, explaining that I thought it was notable. Rachel Sklar wrote back with some useful criticism and told me I should pass it along. Here it is:

I just read this and foundi t truly exasperating. I was expecting a really nuanced critique with examples for that kind of title. This was not it! (Not sure if I was supposed to watch the video embedded in the piece but I read articles for the words, and those words did not force me to watch the video.)(Also Paddy thanks for sharing and please don't be offended at how I am about to go off on this!)

This is the crux of the take on the images: "but mostly they're fine." Oh gee thanks for the tepid approval of 2500 images showing diverse women in diverse situations of strength and power! It seems the sole critique is that there are no photos showing a child with a nanny, or a parent and child with a nanny, or a babysitter - I am not sure exactly what is expected here. This piece, to me, is a retread of the same old critique of Lean In - that it's just meant for one type of woman, not for every single woman who could possibly live in the US or anywhere - and it is, as usual, directed with specificity and an impossibly high standard at one specific org instead of, say, at every single other stock photo agency which *also* surely does not have sufficient representation of modern-day child care.

I read lots of Lean In critiques and take seriously the ones which take critiquing seriously - granularly, with specific examples, addressed in context. This piece does not do that, at all - it just airily dismisses the actually pretty damn groundbreaking initiative here - and it's pretty impressive far-reaching consequences - and instead focuses on a small slice that is missing (with no evidence that there is a market for those images in the first place)(never mind that they are adding photos ongoingly).

And - do you want to be the person selecting those photos? What do the images of the childcare workers look like? What do the images of the parents look like? Are we looking for verisimilitude here or an ideal world in which private childcare workers and the people who pay for them are a rainbow of different colors? And while we are at it, where are the nursing home photos on Lean In? What color are the nurses changing the bedpans? That is certainly leaning in! I can't believe how ageist Lean In is!

Point being - it is NOT okay to headline this piece "Getty Images: Still Kinda Sexist?" then simultaneously say, "actually most of it is fine but one use case was left out." The right headline would be: "Missing From Lean In on Getty: Child Care Workers." But that wouldn't be half as clickable, right?

I am all for having these discussions but I grow really weary of them being constantly hooked on dissing Lean In - there are battering rams and there are scalpels, and that book was a frigging battering ram. And so is this Getty program! It drives me nuts at how much of the criticism around anything Lean In does is directed at how deficient it is at being a scalpel.

BUT - if you're going to throw shade for being a bad scalpel - then you'd best be bringing your best surgeon hands to the task. This article falls way short.


Jennifer Chan 1 year, 5 months agoReply

Agree. Analyzing an argument for what it leaves out and doesn't do, instead of what it achieves is kind of red herring imo.

The existing economic conditions demand women to be complacent with being overworked && underrepresented, overworked && parenting, overworked && un(der)paid in order to stay in work… I don't think radical refusal (of work) is an option for precarious positions many women fill in the cultural and service industry. Admin and teaching come with low turnover and little upward movement and such a heavy reliance on professional networks… can you really act out? I don't think <i>Lean In</i> was insinuating that women weren't working hard enough, but that they already do and that they could boast their skillz more without feeling like a target for negative attention. To Sandberg this seems like a change worth making.

I think dis images were made to tickle the artistic eye :)
It's photography about stock photography. They probably wouldn't be the first freelancers and advertisers would approach. I think this article could be stronger with suggestions of how stock-photography-proper could adequately and diversely represent women's working conditions…

Michael Connor 1 year, 5 months agoReply

I wrote this in a moment when it felt like the media was hooked on praising the Lean In collection, and I couldn't find any voices to the contrary. Since then, there have been much better critiques, like [url=http://the-toast.net/2014/02/24/lean-in-stock-photos/

The comment basically shows that my article was a failure, if people thought I was arguing that "LeanIn is not representative." I was trying to say that "LeanIn is neoliberal, and neoliberalism is bad for women."

Michael Connor 1 year, 5 months agoReply