Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Pictures and Patriarchy

(Cross-posted at Feminist Law Profs)

(Before you read this long post, read the original debate at PrawfsBlawg, about whether it's appropriate to remark that the new Prawf, Orly Lobel, is "easy on the eyes." Read in particular Prof. Ann Bartow's comments and the responses to her comments)

Is a picture really worth a thousand words? Having been voted "Most Likely To Be Verbose" in high school, I tend to favor contextualizing and descriptive words over brute pictures. Pictures give you a glimpse, but sometimes you want the whole story. Portraiture is a delicate art---the best artists (John Singer Sargent, Gilbert Stuart) attempted to convey their subjects visually the way a novelist renders his characters linguistically: regal, maternal, courtly, warm and human, etc. There is much "art," and by that I mean both artistry and guile, in attempting to convey something complex in a manner that may be captured in an instant by the human eye.

I will not deny that the best pictures convey a sense of narrative, making the viewer privy to the artist's sight and interpretation. But what kinds of pictures tell stories? I would argue pictures that capture stories, that is, events in progress, the movement of humans/animals/nature, or extremely symbolic visual images that speak of a lengthy history or show a story that needs no telling: a single cross burning, the dangling body of a lynched man, or a malnourished child.

But what kind of story does a picture of someone's face tell? I guess it depends on what expressions that face yields to the viewer, so that it is not so much a story as it is a state of mind. And of course, the viewer shall interpret as s/he sees fit. The viewer will bring his own story to the face. Think of the Mona Lisa--is she smiling or is she sad? (a great Nat King Cole song comes to mind) Dr. Pozzi by John Singer Sargent, or any of Gilbert Stuart's portraits of the Founding Fathers--we know the biographies, generations later, but we only see one instant, one expression in the picture.

But all of the above, whether painted or photographed, is art by the masters to be gazed at in posterity--again, as both artistry and artifice. Our mundane lives call for much less narrative and biography, and endures much less. We take pictures of ourselves and our families, sometimes spontaneous, most often stiffly posed. We endured the humiliation that was "school picture day" for many years in starched collars, pimpled skin, and metal-laced teeth. Each year produced an even more appalling approximation of what we knew to be our essential goodness and desperate dweebishness. At least our parents thought we looked okay. And as we grow older and create our own individual memories, we like to document them. Arms around the shoulders of friends and boy/girlfriends, the first road trip with your buddies, innumerable parties with really cheap alcohol. And we grow up to have our own families and take pictures of collective memories and subject our own kids to portrait day.

Not that portrait day ends when you reach adulthood. For the perpetual student (like me) there will always be the problem of the student ID card and the school's facebook (not that online thing). Once you get a job, there'll be that employee ID badge for some. And if you're a professor, you'll probably be asked to submit a profile of yourself along with a picture. Often it's just your most flattering head shot (no one, not even the least vain, wants to look bad). Most law profs, male and female, are in suits. Few achieve a casual elegance in their pic, although some submit pictures of them with their families to demonstrate a sort of Rockwellian domestic quality that you don't get when you read their articles on Sarbanes-Oxley. But mostly it's just "look at the camera and don't blink."

I've often wondered about the importance of the profile pic. Is the purpose to humanize the professor to his/her students or the general laity? By that I mean is it meant to attach a human form to an otherwise disembodied scholarly voice? Really, what purpose does the profile pic serve? It is not for posterity, like art. It is not to record personal memory, like the family photo. It is not to record a moment in one's development, like the annual school portrait. Like the book dust jacket pic, the profile pic seems to exist only for the benefit of people who wonder what the professors they read (on law reviews, on blogs) look like.

Why do we want to know? I confess that I've clicked on the school homepages of every blogging law professor I've read. Sometimes, I'll go to the trouble of looking up a prof of a law review article, but only if there's some other reason I want to learn more about the professor. I often click on the homepages to read more about the professor I'm reading--where did s/he go to school? (answer: Yale or Harvard) Who did s/he clerk for? What else did s/he write? So it's as much professional interest (and the self-defeating desire to see if I can even come close to matching my credentials to theirs and land a law prof job) as it is a basic, human need to see what people look like. We are visual beings, even those of us who are verbose and like to read. I can carry on an email exchange with a fellow blogger for months and get to know him or her quite well (in personal details and personality) and still feel like I wish I knew what he or she looked like. And I suspect providing an audience of readers your picture is a way to connect in a very real way with them. You may not be able to see your readers, but you are allowing them access to your image, so that they might know you. It is not a bad thing to want to be known, or share your likeness. Indeed, it is very sharing and humble. Historically, it was impermissible to look at a "higher being"--you bow before a king, and you do not look royalty in the eye without permission. You are allowed access to "their person" only at the king or queen's pleasure. I remember in high school it was advised not to look at some gang members in the eye, or you'd get beat up. Looking at someone is powerful, and allowing someone to look at you is a gracious abdication of that power to form a common bond of humanity. The only reason I don't provide my picture is the pseudonymity thing. It's not a bad thing to want to know what your interlocutor or author looks like. In fact, it's a very basic human desire. What matters is what you do with the visual information, and what judgments you form from it.

An appalling example would be the racist reader who discovers that the author of this fine paper was Black, and immediately begins to question the integrity of the piece, or immediately wishes to question the academic credentials of the author. Or in the converse, that racist reader believing an article to be less sound or meritorious because the author is Black. Actually, substitute for all the categories any of your choosing: anti-Semitic, sexist, homophobic (a category in which the author's identity may be easily "covered."). These are extreme examples however, and I'd like to think that they would be rather rare, particularly in the legal academic community (I would hope).

But let's move onto more subtle, but potentially invidious uses of visual information. What if a male reader sees a picture of a rather attractive law professor, and although he may respect her work, thinks only "wow, she's hot." Is he then ignoring her intellectual acomplishments and sexually objectifying her physical form? Is he, like most patriarchal society valuing only one part of the woman above others? Is the male gaze inherently and irrepressibly demeaning, demonstrating the hegemony of the male over the female, and alluding to the imbalance of political and sexual power? Is the male gaze always unwanted, or is it just more particularly so when the female professor wishes to be evaluated solely on the basis of her intellectual and professional accomplishments? Also, by evaluating her solely based on one axis of consideration--her attractiveness--the reader misses out the "story" behind the picture. No longer is she cum laude this, or editor of that--she's just a pretty face. And so between the picture and the profile, I'd rather the reader concentrate on the profile--if only to get a better conception of who I really am, rather than objectifying me into some essentialist, heteronormist fantasy.

I suppose the answer is to not post a picture--but like I said, there are other reasons for wanting to share your likeness with people and appear human in order to share humanity. In fact, is not posting a picture the answer? Does one elect out of the system of oppressive male gaze by discontinuing our association with socializing and humanizing forms and activities? If so, that's a crappy way out, and I'm not even sure it is a way "out." It seems like a poor choice to decide between objectification or being taken seriously just because you want to share your common humanity with others.

Yes, I admit, there is a "female gaze," although some feminists like Laura Mulvey argue that "the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification," and that besides, the female gaze is merely the co-optation of the male gaze. I would myself add that the female gaze is inherently different. While the male gaze objectifies and sexualizes, the female gaze is "emmasculated," that is powerless. Hear me out. It's a bit of a theory of mine. I would argue that while the male gaze is a reflection of male patriarchy's very real political, economic and social power over women, the female gaze lacks that same power (thanks to the patriarchy, of course). Thus, were a female reader of a blog/article see a male professor's picture and think/comment "Wow, he's hot," it wouldn't be the same objectification. In fact, her response might be diminished and patronized as being mere "schoolgirlishness." The male gaze communicates sexual and political power, the power to strip a woman of her intellectual credentials and essentializing her into a sexualized trope. The female gaze is just a cute little crush.

I will not deny that I have had professor crushes. Who among us hasn't? Contrary to stereotype, male students do have crushes. I was a TA for several classes, so to this I can personally attest, as do mine own ears when I heard quite a bit of banter at the lockers over this or that female law professor. I will say that my crushes are more intellectual than physical (not too hard, given the fact that in the aggregate, the law school professoriate will not win any beauty contests considering that half the faculty is emeriti wearing bow ties). And I will admit that, being human, in my human desire to know the face of my author or interlocutor, I have on many occasion personally remarked to myself their physical attractiveness. I am human. But I would never make such a remark on a public forum in which such a remark would not be relevant.

Part of wanting to be evaluated as a professional is acting professional yourself. What I may remark to myself at 2 am (when I often read blawgs and law review articles) is not something I would remark on the comments section of another person's blog--particularly if that blog was meant to highlight (but humanize) someone's intellectual contributions. It's like going to a colloquia and when the speaker is introduced, saying "hey, you're hot and smart!" in the "comments and questions" portion of the talk. No, I'm not just another humorless, "zero-tolerance" feminist (or maybe I am). I think there is a time and place for everything. For instance, I do not read a post or article by what I consider to be "handsome" law professor (I was going to name names, but decided not to) and laud his physical attributes in the comments section or in the letters to the editor of the newspaper. It just seems like an irrelevant point to make.

Being a mildly insecure person (not just woman) , I like external validation. I fish for compliments from my dates, train my kids to say "you are my favorite aunt," after cooking ask the rhetorical question "that is the best chicken you've ever tasted, huh?" and desperately seek validation from my professors and advisors that what I'm writing is of good quality (and the final validation of an "'A" is best). I am human. But I'm also a professional. I may actively and aggressively court compliments, but only when it's the proper place and time. I never ask "how do I look?" when I send out a draft of a paper or proposal. This is not to divorce my human, or "female" side of my personality from my "professional" role. It's just being sensible, professional and relevant to the topic at hand, and very, very conscious of our patriarchal society.

I think we all should be aware of the real objectification and devaluement of women's intellectual and professional contributions that goes on every day. Wage differences, the disparity in gender and race in the tenure rates at almost every school, the asymmetry of political power--these are very real. How we "look" at women, visually and conceptually, matter a great deal. "Pretty" women may be hired as secretaries over "unattractive" women, but it "may be a liability when women seek male sex-typed" employment" (think higher paying, "traditionally male," and managerial positions). It may seem innocuous, particularly if flattering, to make a comment about someone's looks, but in fact it's demeaning at worst, and distracting at best. Yes, we feminists can take a compliment (and a joke, for that matter). But it should be the right time for such a remark. And the best compliment would be if the other person conveyed true respect for our entire person--and in particular, our intellectual and professional accomplishments.


The comments thread at the original PrawfsBlawg post is still alive and kicking. In particular, check out Simon Dodd's comment that male law professors can be likewise objectified, and uses Article III Groupie as an example of this.

To this, I countered:

And with respect to Simon's comment, well, I too respectfully dissent. If you bring up A3G as an example of a "person" who would gratuitously comment on a male law prof's appearance, well, you should remember that A3G turned out to be a _man_, David Lat. This is an interesting bit of gender stereotype bending, as if Mr. Lat felt compelled to assume the persona of a "judicial diva" in order to make more risque and trivial judgments (bench slaps, judicial hotness meter, litigatrix). That is, to be more sexist and sexualizing, he probably thought it would be safer writing in the "female voice." But I hardly think that qualifies as a "turn the tables" use of the "female gaze"--it's just the male gaze in "drag." And in both cases, rather inappropriate and insulting.