When I recently found out that Mattel is partnering with stock image giant Shutterstock to produce a line of figurines based on popular stock photos, I was very intrigued. The toy-maker is best known for purveying pre-adolescent playthings, most notably the Barbie doll. This new move is part of an ongoing effort on Mattel’s part to diversify their image and broaden their consumer base – the figurines are targeted towards retailers like Urban Outfitters and Hot Topic that are popular with teenagers and young adults.
Stock images are bizarre, hilarious, and ubiquitous: the plaintively titled “Shutterstock Collection,” which transforms peripheral web images into 3-¼” 3D avatars, is grandly ironic. Several of the gestures depicted have become unlikely internet icons: the woman laughing over a bowl of salad, the young businessman with two fists in the air, the business woman with awkward hand to the side. However, the ostensibly banal terrain of stock imagery is enmeshed with stereotypes and harmful tropes. It is not hard to find a “sexy” female Halloween costume version of almost any occupation – chef, construction worker, secretary, scientist, butcher.
The overt sexualization of women is rampant in our culture, visible enough after a few Google searches (or a Super Bowl broadcast). Stock imagery is grossly tainted by this norm, yet there is a whole host of gestures common in stock photography that betray a more subtle, equally sexist agenda. I have located five that I find particularly interesting. This analysis focuses mostly on gender representation, but in the process I’ve noticed startling examples of racial and body image profiling that deserve more attention. My hope is that this investigation and others like it will force Mattel to reconsider their recent partnership, and encourage all of us to square up to the harmful elements of stock imagery.
The Superfluous Hardhat: Occupational Estrangement
My image research pulls examples from three major stock image depots: Shutterstock, Dreamstime, and 123rf. I also reference Google Images, where a search for a specific occupation like “construction worker” or “farmer” or “chef” typically yields a swath of stock images from these sites and many others. While the three stock websites all betray biases and misrepresentations, I have to say that Shutterstock’s search engine results are markedly less crude than identical searches on Dreamstime and 123rf.
I wanted to check out what a Google Image search looked like for a traditionally female occupation like nurse or elementary school teacher vs. a “non-traditional” (that’s Department of Labor official jargon) occupation like butcher or civil engineer. Not surprisingly, the results are gendered.
Much of the questionable representations and gestures that occur in stock imagery involve women in a “non-traditional” role. Here is what a “woman engineer” looks like on Dreamstime:
Along with the two hypersexualized tool vixens, almost every woman is wearing a hardhat in tandem with some kind of generic officewear.
Now consider the following, from 123RF:
The last two images are clearly doctored up – look at the lumpy inner thighs of the blonde woman holding the wrench. It’s rare to find stock images of women wearing the same rugged workwear as their male counterparts; images like these above are far more common. One could argue that putting a woman in a pants suit and giving her a hardhat paints her in the empowered role of a foreman or supervisor, but the effect is ridiculous en masse. Stock imagery generally prefers to highlight the mainstays of traditional feminine appearance – long hair, makeup, heels – at the expense of a job’s specific dress code or equipment. A search for a “woman scientist” often yields women in white labcoats and goggles peering down microscopes, hair billowing over their shoulders, a blatant violation of lab protocol. Women in all these depictions are visually estranged from traditional “male” work environments. Perhaps this tradition of imagery motivated Tim Hunt’s egregiously offbase comments about women in science, and the hilarious Twitter backlash that followed.
The Laptop in the Field: Idealization and Domesticity
After perusing hundreds of photos of young professional men and women, all the gestures, poses, and smiles began to run together. Then I came across this image:
It’s so absurdly idealistic, I figured there are probably a lot more like it. I was right. Go ahead and Google “woman laptop field,” take a gander, then try “man laptop field.” You’ll likely notice that the first three rows of hits for the men are mostly from a single photoshoot, that the images of women lying in a field with their devices are much more varied and fantastic, and that many of the male depictions are linked to agriculture and industry (i.e. there are tractors in the background, a levelled field with no flowers or trees).
The association of women with nature and fertility is a standby of Western culture, so the intersection with technology is not all too surprising. That doesn’t make it any less absurd. Let’s think about the first image of this section: there is probably no WiFi in that wheat field, no power source, it probably itches like crazy and the screen would be almost impossible to read without squinting. The image is pure fantasy. Going back to our male Google search, most of the men (if not wearing farmer’s garb) are dressed in suits, button-ups, polo shirts. The women, on the other hand, are wearing everything from jeans to jumpers to dresses, hoop skirts, halters and maxis. The field serves as a displaced home office, breakfast nook, coffee shop or sofa – mainly, the absurd act of bringing a laptop out into an open field is divorced from any conventional workplace signifiers, the field thus embodying a woman’s native environment, her home.
I know that this may seem like a stretch, and the whole trend fairly innocuous, but estrangement from the realm of “serious” work is a major theme in stock photography’s depiction of women. The laptop is just as superfluous as the hardhat; the women of these images become modern Persephone’s. Take out “laptop” and the imagery is suddenly ecstatic, religious, women in flowing white robes flinging their arms to the sky; replace “laptop” with “sitting” or “lying” and the poses are eroticized, gazes aimed seductively at the camera.
The Gun: Semantics, Sexualization and Social Issues
When you search “woman” in 123RF and Dreamstime, you get mostly busts of nude women, women in camisoles, women in white cotton blouses, women in lingerie, women in sweaters. Unlike for “man,” the professional, office-outfitted woman is mostly phased out by her underwear and sweater-sporting familiars.
Perhaps “woman” is too domestic, too maternal? Try entering “feminist” into any of the above engines.
The sexy construction worker transfigures feminism into disturbing role playing fantasies; moreover, if “feminism” were not a featured tag, one would have no reason to connect the ideas with the image. The land of stock image becomes grotesque and dark when social issues and semantics get involved – here is a popular image for “abortion,” which can be found on most any stock image generator:
The Board Room & The Handshake: Infantilization of Women
Returning to the business world, the board room scene is the bread and butter of corporate stock photography. It is an extremely versatile form, supporting anywhere from two to eight figures in various poses and arrangements, with a seemingly endless opportunities for props – coffee cups, legal pads, flip charts, a carafe of water. Of course most of these photos become aesthetically identical, featuring a rotating cast of mundane gestures.
There is the “gesticulating chairman”:
The “shrewd skeptic”:
And the “lemme-see-over-your-shoulder” guy:
Among others. While all of the above are fairly benign as standalone representations of the business world, a troubling pattern emerges. Namely, women in these contexts are almost always presented as passive (usually smiling) observers or beneficiaries of male assistance. Often it is two women smiling at a computer as a man leans over their shoulders to type something or point at something on the screen.
The business meeting is one venue where you can count on a typically even distribution of men and women – in most cases, but not always, an older white man is seated (or standing) at the head of the table. The handshake that closes the deal, though, is a gesture that is exclusively shared between men, with women looking admiringly on.
Even when a cast of men and women are framed in identical poses, captions betrays a clear semantic bias: images of women are almost always accompanied with the tag “beautiful,” “gorgeous,” or “pretty” before any designation of occupational or social role. This also occurs with regard to skin color, body weight, age, emotion, etc. Stock imagery is extremely codified.
The Salad & The Banana: Politicization of The Body
“Women eating salad” and “women eating banana” are the two top Google searches when you begin typing “woman eating…” – they are well-documented, heavily-memed territory. Take a minute to search, if you’ve never done so.
Eating a salad is accompanied with a moment of pure, unabashed ecstasy; eating a banana is fellatio. Also note that most of the women at the top of these searches are attractive and fit and white. On Google, the first row of banana eaters seem to be wearing no clothes at all.
Now try “woman eating burger.” In case you aren’t actually trying this, here are the results:
There’s a lot going on here. The Google-generated modifiers – “sexy” and “fat” – are uncannily convenient representations of masculine culture’s demeaning polarization of the female body. Below this panel, once again, we see only thin, white, comically sexualized women.
Of course, this is not a new phenomenon. Not at all. These images shouldn’t be shocking. I bring them in now to underscore the politicization of the body that occurs in stock imagery. As you may have noticed, up to this point all the stock characters we have encountered are very fit, and for the most part, attractive and happy. This is a familiar trope of advertising at large. And as with commercial advertising, film, and television, overweight women are pigeonholed into roles defined by their size – this, married with the brand of metonymic caricature stock imagery permits, allows sadistic blowjob-food fantasies to appear in our otherwise benign searches. In this way, the closest aesthetic cousin to stock imagery is online pornography.
As I’ve noted, a person’s physical appearance – man or woman – is thoroughly reified through the use of tags and captions in stock image search engines. An olive-skinned woman is often accompanied with both “hispanic” and “asian” tags; an attractive woman is “beautiful” and “gorgeous” and “pretty” while a man is “handsome” or “elegant”; a “happy” person is smiling. A stock image generator like Dreamstime may not be the most vital index of culture, but a Google search certainly can be. Google “woman”. Now Google “man.” An ocean of white, fit, handsome and beautiful men and women.
Divorced from a proper noun, a specific place-name, event, reference, or modifier, a Google search is a landscape of ideals – even a charged word like “gun” produces no images of violence in its first page of results. This is where stock imagery moves in from the cultural margins – the image results embody a unit of language, a fitting reversal of the reification essential to its commercial usage. This process and its results are extremely important to our language and our culture, even if most of us don’t sit around Googling “man” or “woman” or “gun” or “carrot.” The Internet is a grand paradox: it grants the average person infinite access to incredibly grotesque content, yet also encourages any given user the ability to upload only their best selves. On Facebook and Instagram we typically see other people at their brightest, funniest moments, because that is what they want us to see (we mostly hear the unrest and quibbling and anger, I feel compelled to add). The same logic applies to commercial media. Stock imagery relies on stereotype to create clean, clear, metonymic triggers – because stock images are not often displayed en masse, and are not given active attention when scrolling and browsing, the aesthetics of the industry at large are not afforded the same scrutiny as, say, a Mastodon music video. Unlike the controversial twerking in “The Motherload”, the humor that stock photography elicits requires no agency on the part of the models – we cannot laugh with the happy office workers, only at. Flat caricature – stock’s bread and butter – presents social realities (and fictions) as monolithic and non-negotiable.
While the age of Google has let stock imagery establish a vice grip over the visual representation of our language’s most basic entities, characters, concepts and ideas, it’s reliance on user input makes a turning of the tide possible. Getty Image’s “Lean In Collection” is a great start, a library of images devoted to the powerful, un-idealized depiction of women. An alliance of conscious consumers, companies, and advertisers that is committed to dismantling fictitious idealism is not a difficult, but acheivable goal. Mattel has already taken a step forward with their body-conscious redesign of the Barbie, and thankfully, the “Shutterstock Collection” is complete bullshit.