To Change How We Look at Women, Change How We Look at Men

Sheryl Sandberg’s new photo partnership aimed at depicting women in more empowering ways features a lot of men. Men with Baby Bjorns, that is.

National Journal
Lucia Graves
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Lucia Graves
Feb. 11, 2014, midnight

Any blog­gers who’ve ever tried to pair a stock photo with a story know the lim­its of the genre. There’s the cheery wo­man serving her blond chil­dren break­fast in a sun­lit kit­chen; the wo­man in a black power suit, climb­ing the cold stone steps of ca­reer­ism; the wo­man at her desk jug­gling a baby and a laptop, maybe also a spat­ula.

Fem­in­ist blog­gers have en­joyed pok­ing fun at these hack­neyed im­ages for quite a while now (think Edith Zi­m­mer­man’s “Wo­men Laugh­ing Alone With Salad” clas­sic in The Hair­pin or Emily Shor­n­ick’s com­pil­a­tion of pseudo-fem­in­ist stock pho­tos in The Cut). Now it’s reached the at­ten­tion of people in­clined to do something about it.

On Monday, Sheryl Sand­berg’s or­gan­iz­a­tion, Lean­In.org, an­nounced a part­ner­ship with Getty Im­ages, one of the biggest pro­viders of stock pho­tos, aimed at de­pict­ing wo­men in more em­power­ing ways. “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,” Sand­berg told the The New York Times. (Note: Getty provides most of the ed­it­or­i­al pho­tos used by Na­tion­al Journ­al.)

There are 2,500 pho­tos in the col­lec­tion and a lot of at­ten­tion has been paid to the wo­men who’ve been por­trayed as sol­diers, paint­ers, and weight lift­ers, tat­tooed and wrinkled and covered in sweat. But just as im­port­ant to the pro­ject, and so far largely ig­nored, is the role of men. One photo por­trays a dad with his daugh­ter thrown over his shoulder un­der a leafy green can­opy; an­oth­er shows a fath­er skew­er­ing a roas­ted marsh­mal­low to help his daugh­ter make a s’more; a third shows a fath­er lift­ing an ad­mit­tedly dis­gruntled baby in­to the air and kiss­ing her fat cheek; a fourth shows a dad chan­ging his kid’s di­aper.

It’s the visu­al co­rol­lary to what The New Re­pub­lic‘s Marc Tracy de­scribed in his piece about the rise of the so-called “Daddy Wars,” wherein men be­gin to ex­pose them­selves to the same work/life bal­ance pres­sures wo­men have been grap­pling with for dec­ades. We see it in the found­ing of Kind­ling Quarterly — a journ­al de­voted to the sub­ject of fath­er­hood foun­ded by two Brook­lyn­ite thirty-somethings — which was sub­sequently writ­ten up as a “Talk of the Town” sub­ject. We see it in Es­quire in Richard Dorment’s re­sponse to Anne-Mar­ie Slaughter’s “Can Wo­men Have It All” clas­sic: “Why Men Still Can’t Have It All.” And now … we see it in stock pho­tos.

“One of the quick­est ways to make people think dif­fer­ently about something is to change the visu­als around it,” Cindy Gal­lop, who star­ted the United States branch of Bartle Bogle Hegarty ad­vert­ising agency, told The New York Times. “The thing about these im­ages is they work on an un­con­scious level to re­in­force what people think people should be like.”

This won’t stop people from writ­ing ter­rible think pieces about wheth­er wo­men can work and have kids and not be ro­bots or evil-power Smurfs who crush men un­der their pointy heels. But at least the au­thors of those stor­ies (and oth­ers!) will have some bet­ter pho­tos to choose from.

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