13 January 2012

Mainstream Feminism’s Demand for Realism: On “Fotoshop by Adobé,” aesthetics, and posthuman feminism

This video has been making its rounds on feminist social media:

Fotoshop by Adobé from Jesse Rosten on Vimeo.

The video critiques, via parody, the standard practice of ‘shopping female images, both in the mainstream media, and in individuals’ own “private” photos of themselves (full disclosure: my partner ‘shopped our wedding photos, and that was in 2005). The underlying assumption in this video is that image alteration is a problem—at bottom, it’s deception, a moral wrong. It assumes that the only “good” images are realistic ones.

But why should photos be realistic? 

In this post, I want to complicate and ultimately critique the mainstream feminist view that image alteration is a moral and political flaw. In other words, I think mainstream feminism’s demand for realism relies on overly simplistic (and thus inaccurate) understandings of (1) how images work; (2) how people perceive images; (3) the role of fantasy in individual and in public life; and (4) the “naturalness” of “human” bodies. I’ll discuss each of these points in order.

(1): Photography as Art, or How Images Work and (2) How People Perceive Images

The “Fotoshop by Adobé” (FBA) video assumes that images have a moral obligation to accurately portray how women’s bodies really are in real life. The demand is for 1-1 re-presentation of a body in a picture. This demand rests on a complete misunderstanding of how images work, how they are made, etc. In other words, the creators and fans of the FAB video demand that images not be art (I use “art” here in the loose sense, to include things like craft and entertainment, not just “fine art”). That’s an impossible demand. It’s also based on a very, very old understanding of how images work, one that existed before the invention of concepts like “art,” “fiction,” and “fantasy.” 

The 1-1 re-presentation they demand is an unrealizable ideal. Even the weaker claim, “more or less realistic” re-presentation is itself a fiction. No photo, even photojournalism, represents the complete, unbiased, truth-the-whole-truth-and-nothing-but-the-truth. Some things are in the frame, some things are left out of focus. All photography is, to a certain extent, a lie. Every photo is an interpretation. No photo is objective. And no photo, no matter how high the resolution is, is an unmediated re-presentation of an IRL situation. Photography, and image-making in general, is a form of mediation. Sight itself is highly mediated, even when we’re “just” using our eyes and our brains. So, the demand for “objective accuracy” denies the mediating factors in image-making in general, and in photography in particular. Basically, this demand for “realism” wants the image to disavow its image-ness, and just be a mirror of “reality.”
If you think this sounds a lot like Plato’s criticism of the poets, you’re right, it is! Plato didn’t like the poets because they mis-represented reality; they were liars, b/c their work deceived people. Plato couldn’t distinguish between fiction and deception. Thus, because no image can be completely realistic, he condemned all images for being deceptive. Two plus millennia later, we often and relatively easily distinguish between fiction and deception, and have plenty of room in our culture for fiction, art, etc. So, I think the mainstream feminist demand that images be “realistic” is out of synch with broader cultural norms that tolerate, uh, art. We should be careful not to, in the words of Kodwo Eshun, "mistake anti-social surrealism for social realism."People don’t actually expect images to be realistic. We know they’re mediated, produced, faked, etc. In fact, feminist work in media studies is part of what contributes to the wide spread of this knowledge. The site “Photoshop Disasters” exists because people know that images are shopped, and they’re not accurate. The site makes fun of bad shop jobs that don’t successfully “fake” it.

So I don’t think the solution is getting rid of shopping. Image alteration is itself neither good nor bad, neither feminist nor anti-feminist. I think instead we need to make people even more familiar with image alteration, so they can spot it when they see it…in the same way that we teach students in our “Women & the Media” type classes to pay attention to camera angles, lighting, cinematography, etc. We shouldn’t get rid of art, or demand that images not be, uh, images. We just need to better image literacy. This guide from Lifehacker is a good start.

(3) The role of fantasy in individual and public life

The mainstream feminist pro-FBA position holds either (a) that all ideals are normative (i.e., things ought to conform to the ideal), or (b) we should renounce all fantasy and the reality principle should rule. I, on the other hand, think we need non-regulatory ideals, fantasy, un-reality, surrealism, etc. In fact, the only way feminism can be broadly compelling is if it meaningfully engages our fantasies, or ideals, our imaginations, etc. Feminism needs room for fiction, fantasy, speculation, and other non-literal forms of expression.

Regarding (a), that all ideals are normative: Not all ideals imply an ought. [Even theorists who problematize normative ideals recognize that there are other, non-normative kinds of ideals.] Perhaps I like swimming and in an ideal world I would have gills so I could swim more. But this ideal doesn’t imply that I or any other human have gills. It’s just a nice idea. Superheroes offer us idealized versions of character, bodily ability, gendered bodily appearance, etc., but these are not normative ideals. If superhero stories tell us anything, it’s that being the ideal actually sucks, because ideal instances aren’t normal (most people are far from ideal); the best superhero stories show us the problems with the normativity of these ideals. So I can have ideals about beauty and bodily aesthetics that aren’t normative; admiration doesn’t automatically translate into normativity (so, to be technical, this is pretty much rejecting Kant’s idea about the subjective universality of beauty). 

Regarding (b): we should renounce all fantasy and the reality principle should rule. While on the one hand I think this is a straw-man version of the mainstream feminist argument—i.e., I don’t think those who hold this position actually intend to make this claim, or realize that it is the logical implication of their position—on the other hand it is the logical implication of their claim. When you launch a “campaign for real beauty” (which I know is a corporate schill, but many mainstream feminists unproblematically embrace it), you imply that we ought only see/admire “real” images of “real” women. There is no room, in this campaign, for “unreal” or “fantasy” beauties, for speculative or imaginative female embodiment. In fact, the demand that everything be “real” imposes its own normativity. It has to lay out criteria for what counts as “real”: you gotta, for example, have pores or wrinkles, or be of a specific body proportion/size, etc. Rather than critiquing beauty norms about “real femininity,” it just lays out a new set of norms about what counts as a “real” woman. Aren’t ads that explicitly claim to present “Real Beauty” more normative than fashion shoots staged, contrived, highly stylized scenes? At least the latter don’t make any claims to what counts as “real.” They’re pretty fake, actually.
And it’s the fakeness and, well, weirdness that I love about obviously photoshopped ads. Take, for example, the infamous Ralph Lauren images:

These are obviously altered pictures: these women’s hip bones are as wide as their cheek bones! These images are positively surreal. The website Photoshop Disasters wouldn’t be successful if people weren’t able to discern wildly (and sometimes even subtly) “un-realistic” images being passed off as “realistic” ones. The point with a lot of fashion photography and advertising is that it’s not intended to be real in the first place: the fashion and advertising industries hook us by selling us fantasies. We know we will never get a plate of food that ever looks as juicy, fresh, and delicious as the one we see in the advertisement. I also know that even if I buy Cover Girl foundation, I’ll never really look as great as Ellen DeGeneris does in those ads, because even Ellen doesn’t look like that IRL. But that doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t have slick, or even wild and crazy ads, fashion spreads, etc.

(4) The “naturalness” of “human” bodies

The FBA/mainstream feminist view on the “reality” of images normalizes certain forms of “human” embodiment. It relies on the naturalistic fallacy—i.e., the view that “natural” = “good.” For example, the video critiques shopped makeup ads with the line: “My skin feels like plastic!” The assumption here is that plastic is bad. But natural isn’t always good, and artificial isn’t always bad. Death and cyanide are natural, just as medicine and feminist theory are artificial. These mainstream feminist critiques of image alteration assume a humanist perspective that is both logically problematic (as I just mentioned) and often ableist and transphobic. This humanism posits a norm for what counts as “real” human female embodiment. It has a rigid conception of what counts as “real” human female embodiment, and marginalizes women (and men, and trans/genderqueer people) who practice alternative forms of embodiment, and who often rely on artifice to maintain their bodies. What’s so bad about plastic skin? Prosthetic limbs have plastic “skin”. What’s so bad about artificially crafting your ideal face with makeup, or even surgery? Transwomen and transmen do this.

Even more problematic is the way this position overlooks the fundamental artificiality of every human body. Body ornamentation and alteration is as old as human civilization itself. In fact, we wouldn’t have “bodies” without alteration, ornamentation, and artifice. Feminist and queer theory shows us that bodies don’t just naturally exist in some pure, unaltered state. “The body” is itself a socially constructed idea, and we only come to know, experience, and understand our bodies both as bodies, and as gendered bodies, through lots of training and artifice. [I make this point in the early chapters of my book.] Culture shapes bodies into bodies. All bodies are artificial, because they emerge, grow, and live in socio-historical situations. This is the point of posthuman feminism. “Natural” bodies don’t exist; if they were “natural” they wouldn’t be recognizable/legible as “human” bodies.

In sum, I find these mainstream feminist critiques of image alteration both philosophically and politically problematic. The demand for humanist realism both ignores the phenomenon of “art” and installs norms for what counts as “real” human embodiment. I actually think this mainstream feminist critique of image alteration is a very, very conservative position. It demands that we not imagine otherwise, that we not entertain wild possibilities, that we only stick to what everyone agrees is “real” (which is, of course, an agreement that doesn’t include everyone, and misrepresents the “reality” of a select privileged class as universal reality).  It is, in other words, what Ranciere calls “consensusdemocracy,” or what other thinkers call “neoliberalism.”

So, not only do I think we need more image alteration, we need more body alteration. Art is good. Fiction is good. Speculative fiction is great. Speculative embodiment would be super! Well, all lived embodiment is speculative, it’s just that some forms of speculation appear more wildly counter-factual than others, given norms about what constitutes the “fact” of human embodiment.  Instead of using body alteration to reaffirm norms for “natural human embodiment,” we should use makeup, surgery, clothes, exercise, etc., to appear more “fake.”


  1. Just following up from Twitter since I couldn't contextualise my 'Hmmm' in 140 characters ...

    At the moment I'm on leave with a beautiful but noctural 7 week old and a 3 year old in the house. Looking at our toddler and his friends, cousins and so forth, I can see that all of them are forming body images and perceptions of ideals and realities at the moment. While I certainly don't suggest that all non-realistic body images are harmful (almost no cartoon/animation bodies are realistic, but this doesn't make them harmful since, as you say, often the difference and the distance from realism is useful reminder that these simply aren't 'real'). However, photoshopped images are much harder to discuss and understand for young people. And while, as parents, we're careful to discuss and help our toddler interpret what he sees, as are other parents we know, something like photoshopped wastelines or blurs to removes body hair or whatever are much harder to discuss.

    I take your point that MORE art or, more precisely, MORE AWARENESS might diminish the harmful body image impact somewhat, but I'm not sure at what age that point is easily received, but the consideration of age is an important one.

  2. Hi Tama,

    Thanks for your comment! I appreciate your nuanced take on this issue, as the "What about the Children?" is most often used very bluntly for very conservative ends (Edelman and Berlant have discussed this at length, just to give two examples).

    Ultimately I am suspicious of the idea that "natural" or "real" bodies even exist...if only for the fact that things like sex and gender--or even hygiene--aren't even themselves natural; it takes a lot of work, learning, and artifice just to live in a body. If people want to have hairless bodies, let them, that's great! Body alteration is itself a condition for human embodiment; part of "culture" is molding bodies into "workable" and "legible" forms.

    SO, my underlying point is: Images and body modification/discipline are not themselves the problem. Images and body styles are, in themselves, neither good or bad, empowering or disempowering. It's the _context_ in which they're performed and interpreted that make them helpful or hurtful. So it's not the images themselves that are the problem--PATRIARCHY is the problem, patriarchy is what makes an inherently neutral image or practice harmful. Focusing our attention on images or body practices is in fact a red herring--a red herring that only serves patriarchy, by diverting our attention away from the underlying cause.

  3. Interesting perspective. A little too art focussed, and not real world focussed for me to give it much credence, though. Most women are just trying to live, not get all high minded about how they can alter images or their physical selves. I don't know that girls with eating disorders should be sent a message that 'discipline' over their bodies is something to strive for.