Changing the lens: what we can learn from #LeanIn and #Slanegirlsolidarity

Posted on February 15, 2014

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My weekly post over at Flamingo Pink is all about the exciting news that Getty Images has just launched the “Lean In Collection”, featuring more than 2,500 photos that celebrate the diversity and accomplishments of women everywhere. Women as builders, mothers, business owners, best friends, breadwinners; girls doing science experiments, playing sport and reading books.

These are all images we might see in real life, but they’re not often represented on our television screens, in our magazines or on our favourite websites. In fact, it’s worth considering some of these facts around women’s (mis)representation in our media to see just how significant the Lean In Collection really is:

These types of scenarios limit the way we think about the incredible capacity of human beings. That’s why the Lean In Collection (which, as stock pictures, will be shared and used more than regular photos) is a significant start in the right direction. Challenging the way we represent ourselves – whether it’s expanding our view of what women are capable of, inviting new narratives around what it means to be from a particular place or social background, or just shaking things up with something that steps beyond our usual expectations – all of this is essential to building a more compassionate and insightful society. When we share diverse and complex stories, we see differences and we see similarities. This helps us to feel empathy, to connect and to take action for a shared social good.

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As I was writing this week’s post, I couldn’t help but think back to the terrible events that unfolded last year around #Slanegirl, when a woman and two men were captured in sexually explicit photographs at an Eminem concert in Ireland. The images and abuse, particularly towards the woman, went viral and it became a sad example of how powerful images can set and affirm limited expectations at the expense of more complex truths – this is exactly what the Lean In Collection is trying to change.

I thought it was worth re-sharing a cross-post from Flamingo Pink of what I wrote last year about #Slanegirlsolidarity – like the Lean In Collection, it highlights why we need to respect everyone’s right to represent themselves the way they would like to be received, rather than receiving people for what we assume they represent.

This is just the start of a much bigger conversation!

In an age of pictures

Let me reiterate that Twitter post — there is nothing inherently wrong with sex. What was inherently wrong about the #Slanegirl incident was that none of the people in the pictures — irrespective of age and gender — had given permission for those photographs to be taken and shared.

In a digital world where everything is instant, our days are no longer measured by time but by the photographs we take of ourselves spending that time. It’s not enough to go to a music festival, there must be pictorial evidence that we were there too. So we post the evidence on Facebook or Instagram, and measure the worthiness of an event by the number of Likes the photo gets.

The way we judge ourselves and the world is captured in the photos we take and share, and that is why taking and sharing photos without someone’s consent is such an immoral act — it violates their integrity and by taking part in that, also undermines our own.

When fleeting moments in a public space can be captured permanently and shared immeasurably, we need a clearer set of ethics about what’s wrong and right to photograph. Just because an event is taking place in a public space does not make the picture of that event public property — how many of us have had to do a sneaky un-tag on a Facebook photo that didn’t quite match the public persona we’d like to present ourselves as? For #Slanegirl, this is exactly the same, except there’s no un-tag.

It’s a matter of speaking

So if the issue with #Slanegirl was that the photos shouldn’t have been shared in the first place, then what has that got do with gender inequality? Everything.

Oscar Wilde once wrote that “Everything in the world is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power” — #Slanegirl is about the position of power granted to men in a world where, in many cultural contexts, a man having sex (publicly or not) is called a hero, while a woman doing the same is labelled a whore.

This attitude was captured in the abuse hurled at #Slanegirl over the past week, while criticism of #Slaneboy was absent.

That’s because #Slanegirl was much more newsworthy. There’s an old journalism adage that argues, “Dog bites man is not newsworthy. Man bites dog — that’s news”. In other words, we pay attention to the things that exist outside the norm. A man being a hero, having sex — well that’s supposedly just the way the world goes. But a woman having sex publicly, with more than one man? That’s a point of conversation because it disrupts the norm — sadly, our society is still uncomfortable with women and sex and therefore it’s considered ‘wrong’ or ‘slutty’ for a female to be engaged in a sexual act.

#Slanegirl’s silence

Let’s be clear — we don’t know anything about whether the woman in the photograph is willingly performing oral sex, or whether she is getting any pleasure from doing so.

We do know that she was pictured kissing one of the same men earlier that day, while he touched her sexually. We also know that she’d made a sexual assault complaint at the same festival that was unrelated to the men in the shared photographs. It’s also been reported that she was taken to hospital in a state of distress after the pictures went viral.

A key problem with these pictures is that they’ve reinforced the idea that women are spectacles to be gazed upon, rather than individuals with agency and power. In film theory, the “gaze” is basically the outlook of the camera. Writer Laura Mulvey argues that women are always the objects of the gaze, never the possessors of it — an idea which renders women as disempowered more broadly. She writes, “The camera almost always assumes the gaze of the male. Therefore it is he who moves the action while women have little access to the camera and/or control of the narrative”.

Because of the way the situation was shared and spoken about, #Slanegirl has become a spectacle — a blank canvas on which people (yes, men and women) can cast moral fears around women being sluts; or project assumptions about women (especially ‘girls’) being vulnerable and therefore victims. Both of these assumptions disempower women and overlook the complexities associated with pleasure, desire and identity.

Here’s a thought — how about we respect everyone’s right to represent themselves the way they would like to be received, rather than receiving people for what we assume they represent.

#Slanegirl is every woman who has ever been ignored, silenced or labelled. Let’s change that.

All images on this post courtesy of Getty Images.

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