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Stassa Edwards last wrote about the semiotics of Taylor Swift’s blondeness.
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Young Woman Using Smartphone at Sunset

Last week, purveyor of stock photography Getty Images introduced the “Lean In Collection,” a new collection of 2,500 photographs created in partnership with Sheryl Sandberg’s ever-growing empire. Meant to remedy the historic wrongs that stock photography has inflicted upon women, the collection–which promises to expand–currently touts photographs that “represent women and families in more empowering ways.” Since women have leaned in to nearly every inanimate object over the past year, it makes sense that stock photography should get the treatment, too.

The “Lean In Collection” is a good idea in theory. Stock photography is awful and awfully committed to inane gender stereotypes; types so bad that blogs like The Hairpin and The Cut can make photo galleries that look more like a surreal Cindy Sherman project than photographs appropriate for major media organizations.  But if  Women Laughing Alone with Salad or Women Wearing Boxing Gloves With Sexy Outfits—Or Nothing At All aren’t “empowering ways” to represent women, then what exactly does feminist stock photography look like? And what kinds of stock photography garners the approval of Sandbergian feminists?

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Mature woman with long grey hair, standing.

If we’re to believe the “Lean In Collection,” photographs of empowered women look a bit like Lean In’s vernacular sounds: Something in between inspirational affirmations and MBA-speak. The stock woman smiles introspectively while working at startups, stands inspirationally in front of sunbeams, has a meaningful relationship with Mac products, crosses her arms confidently in front of her, and challenges herself physically (Sandberg acolytes must love Crossfit). Her hair is always shiny and her smile is always introspective. She either wears power suits or the relaxed semi-wrinkled linen that signifies money. Her daughter is also “empowered” – she likes STEM – and is never sexualized. When her hair turns gray, she radiates wisdom and the self-confidence of mature knowledge.

Like all stock photography, the “Lean In Collection” reproduces generic ideals packaged for easy reproduction. But Lean In is not an ideology – it’s a brand that sells a message of “overcoming internal obstacles” in order to “acquire power.” And the stock women of Lean In are neatly assembled into the brand’s preexisting narrative: Empowerment is visible, tangible, and easily illustrated in a single photographic frame.  “You can’t be what you can’t see,” Jessica Bennett, contributing editor of LeanIn.org, told Mashable, “so if women and girls are not seeing images of powerful women and girls who are leaders, then they may not aspire to become that.”

Bennett’s point is an important one: Visibility is an essential component of power, and photography is central to that endeavor; think of all of the “selfies” that proliferate online or the debates over fashion photography’s use of Photoshop. But visibility is also more complex than Bennett and “Lean In” assume. Photographs, the French scholar Roland Barthes wrote, are a “message without a code,” illegible without the headlines or captions that accompany them. The contextual written lines “banish” anything outside of the photograph and direct “the reader… toward a meaning chosen in advance.” This describes Lean In’s stock photographs perfectly—they seem almost custom-made for the next story asking (yet again) if women can really have it all.

The Lean In brand itself is synonymous with upper-middle class labor and the leisure that labor affords, so it’s no surprise that the modern woman envisaged by the Sandberg set is largely white, straight, and free from the tasks of domestic labor. Visibility for women of color is more complicated.

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Three African women collect green tea leaves in the countryside of Uganda

Though a number of the photographs tagged “African American identity” depict black women in professional situations, a significant number feature African women in “native” environments, posing directly for the camera à la National Geographic and performing labor associated with the third world. When one compares representations of African-American women with their white counterparts, then the “Lean In Collection” posits very different norms for each. Women of “Indian and Asian Identities” fare similarly.  Needless to say, there are no white women depicted in “primitive” settings (the closest they get is camping).

If women of color acquire a somewhat uneven identity, then trans and lesbian women have an even more difficult time. There are no identified trans women in the “Lean In Collection.” Lesbians are depicted solely in domestic settings: they stand in kitchens, co-parent, and swing on porches. They are always part of a couple. That is, admittedly, far better than the typical stock photograph; much of the Getty image pool is dedicated to lesbians wearing sexy lingerie and languidly lying on crumpled sheets. But the range of photographic identities available to LGTBQ women is still limited, and they conform to an acceptable cultural narrative about gender and sexual identity.

The only common thread through each of the subcategories is motherhood. Its depiction is one that’s particularly tied to an upper-middle class ethos. Motherhood is generally represented as a leisure activity – women enjoy swimming in lakes and running through fields of flowers with their children. Frustrated women dragging their crying toddler to daycare have been banished to real life, as have childcare workers. In the fictional world of Lean In stock photography, childcare is always masterfully performed by fathers. This is a world in which daycare, nannies, and baby sitters have been rendered invisible. It is also a world that wouldn’t exist without that invisible (and often underpaid) labor.

Screen Shot 2014-02-23 at 9.54.04 AMPerhaps it’s not surprising that the “Lean In Collection” relies so heavily on flattened identities and invisibility. One could argue that it’s the very nature of stock photography. But the identities obscured here are of a particular type–the kind that might throw a wrench into the seamless Lean In fairy tale. Organizationally, Lean In has long demurred when asked about social and political policies that prevent women from achieving workplace equality. While the brand’s higher ups acknowledge the need for policy reform, they largely stick to their narrative of breaking down “internal obstacles” that prevent women from moving up the corporate ladder. Women of color, LGTBQ women, and poor women (groups that often have a strong overlap) face real structural discrimination that can’t be surmounted simply by trying harder.

Screen Shot 2014-02-23 at 9.54.35 AMThe photographs have been carefully curated to give lie to the brand’s consumer-driven philosophies. They exist ready to be downloaded to illustrate stories about female entrepreneurs who are “bold,” “visionary,” corporate success stories. These chatty stories already populate LeanIn.org’s website: pointers on how to divvy up housework, lean in to your marriage, and first person essays by stay-at-home dads. Absent from the website are stories about poverty reform or child care legislation – stories that might address structural discrimination rather than self-imposed hang ups. Like the stock photographs, they produce a kind of gender norm and prescribe what women should look like now.  But visibility’s relationship to “empowerment” is slipperier than that. Visibility can be a “vise,” as Barthes would have it, which locks in the predetermined, preventing us from turning away and seeing competing accounts.

The “Lean In Collection” has moved past the outdated gender stereotypes of Women Laughing Alone With Salad.  But its photographs neatly categorize the lives of modern women into a brand-friendly narrative. It’s a best a partial narrative—one in which the messy lives of all women aren’t all present.

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Stassa Edwards is a freelance writer and PhD candidate living in the Deep South. For more of her misguided opinions, you can follow her on Twitter.

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