Critique Co-Option and the Perils of Photoshop Criticism

A form of critique that has attracted much attention in the past few years is to show the ridiculous alterations women’s images undergo within Photoshop. This is a genre within the larger critique of photoshop disasters, but has garnered much attention because women are so frequently imaged and these disasters provide compelling and visible evidence for feminist claims about the unrealistic/idealized portrayal of women. (That is, such images can damage women’s self-esteem and health.) The site Jezebel has been chronicling such abuses for near years now. In 2009, this issue went viral when Boing Boing pilloried a ridiculous Ralph Lauren image. Boing Boing was threatened with DMCA takedown notices; they refused to comply, which resulted in even greater coverage, including in the mainstream media (via theStreisand effect). Since then, many sites, such as Feminist Fatale, keep their readers up-to-date on the latest monstrosities. Also, some celebrities have been much more forthright about the process, including Britney Spears “brave” release of before-and-after images.

However, recently, Cord Jefferson, cultural editor of GOOD magazine, posted an entry entitled “For Shame: Wired Goes Glam and Photoshops a Lady Scientist Beyond Recognition.” Jefferson complained that Wired should have not felt the need to Photoshop the first female engineer to appear on their cover:

Wired didn’t put Limor Fried on their new cover. What Fried actually looks like is below—she’s a normal young woman with a lip ring and an abnormally strong brain, and that’s worked wonders for her her entire life. What Wired put on its cover is an almost cartoonish Photoshop that caused one friend to look at these photos next to each other and ask, “That’s the same woman?”

Yet, the entry was updated with a comment from Fried in which she wrote:

You found a 3+ year old photo of me in Japan, after a 20 hour flight and short hair. The cover is stylized but that is really what I looked like. I was not ‘plasticized’ or ‘heavily photoshopped’. if I take off my glasses, have my hair done, and wear make-up its what I look like.

I had long harbored a minor suspicion that this type of critique had become so popular because it permitted men to participate – pseudo-legitimately – in intensely critical discussions of female bodies. In this exchange, and certainly in the resulting discussion elsewhere on the Web, what had once become critique simply became a means for discussing the attractiveness of female geeks in general, and Fried in particular.

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