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.