Making Women Smile, Critics Scream, and Everyone Else Yawn

Some thoughts on that Apple gaffe and the banality of outrage.

At Apple’s big Event last week, Eric Snowden from Adobe got up on stage to demonstrate some new design and photo editing tools that will soon be available on the iPad. Giving the world it’s first glimpse of the features, Snowden stood at a podium, pinching and poking at his device. His work was shared in real time on a giant screen hanging center stage, and streamed to viewers around the world.

In matter of seconds, Snowden composes what looks like a print-ready magazine spread or professional web layout. With a few more pokes and swipes, he incorporates a photo of a model. Her image is cropped tight, and with a flick, Snowden makes it tighter still. The box she occupies is presented at once as small enough to fit in this man’s palm and large enough to fill an auditorium. But no matter how large it is rendered, the model is never allowed room for more than her face and wavy locks. She has no space to move or breathe. Her lips are painted bright red. Her skin has no lines, no character. Pure object, she looks more like a doll than a human, every feature referencing the notion of photogenic “perfection” that is Adobe’s stock-in-trade.

The presentation’s wow factor, the one-more-thing moment, comes when Snowden, with just a tap, “isolates” the model’s lips. A sliding scale appears on screen. As Snowden drags his finger up and down, he explains that he’s able to “give her just a little bit more of a smile.” And sure enough, whether she likes it or not, this woman is now smiling for in front of all of us. Her new look is met with enthusiastic applause and plenty of “Well how about that!” chuckles from the audience.

And also outrage.

As someone who enjoys a good Apple innovation, I was watching the Event carefully, even geekily. But I should also have been watching it critically, like I’m always telling my students to do. Only after the fact did I learn that the very moment that produced applause and chuckles, the moment that forced a woman to smile, also “stirred an outcry” online. As someone who values good feminist cultural critique even more than I enjoy a good Apple innovation, I’m embarrassed to say I hadn’t noticed anything wrong.

But on second viewing, the problem started to become clear. Perhaps it’s subtle to some of us — most of all to those of us who happen to be men, and as such have the privilege of getting to forget about gender inequities from time to time. But it’s real, and it matters — and it should matter to all of us.

So what was so outrageous about the Adobe presentation?

  • The female model’s face is aggressively cropped. The top of her head is chopped off so she fills the frame, making it possible to marvel at each individual detail of her appearance. She is, in a rather literal way, presented as someone there to be looked at, rather than a person who can have an idea of her own. This way of representing women is not new or unusual — and that’s the problem. It isn’t exactly about this particular photo at this particular event. The problem is with the incredibly pervasive pattern of visually presenting women in ways that suggest vulnerability to the gaze and a lack of agency. We’re surrounded by images like this. It’s one of many ways we produce and propagate the notion that women have less power than men. And here is Adobe and Apple, proud of their opportunity to present something new and radical. But they use the moment to reinforce a tired old worldview.
  • This manipulation is being done by a man to a woman, in front of an audience that’s disproportionately male, in the context of an industry where men far outnumber women. For a field that’s supposed to be all about innovation, the gender disparity in tech is absurdly old fashioned. Apple’s workforce is 70% male. And it looks like things are getting worse.
  • Let’s also consider that this is coming from Adobe, the people who brought you Photoshop. Photoshop is one of the most recognizable software names on the planet, having become a verb meaning ‘to alter a photo.’ We use the word as shorthand for the kind of visual manipulation done to nearly every face and body in nearly every ad or magazine, work performed for the express purpose of making viewers feel self conscious enough to want to solve their problems by buying things. Here we’re being offered a product that lets us do this manipulation to ourselves and for ourselves, effortlessly.
  • There’s no keyboard or mouse, only touch. Perhaps the problem is magnified because this is the iPad. The work is done with the fingers. Pinches, pokes. At this same Event, Apple also unveiled “3D Touch.” The next generation of iPads will not just know when you’re touching them, they will know how hard you’re touching them. Snowden’s manipulation of this model is eerily “digital” in the original sense of that word — it is done with the digits, the fingers. He forces this model to smile by tickling her.
  • And it’s so automatic. This new software has been set up to anticipate how this man will want to change this woman. It makes it so easy. The manipulation happens at the level of lips or eyes, no longer at the level of pixels. The user doesn’t have to have any special skill, and never needs to think about the nuances of how or why the image could be changed. The new technology feels democratic in the sense that it extends to all of us this power of manipulation — and yet that power is false insofar as the kinds of things we are able to do with it will have been defined in advance, and in accordance with cultural norms so pervasive that they often escape our notice.
  • And there were so few women on stage. This woman, being made to smile, was the first of the day. Earlier there had been a man on stage explaining how the Apple Watch will be able to measure fetal heartbeats — no need for a woman in that conversation, apparently. By the end of the Event, Apple had shattered records, allowing 3 women to speak on stage. Among 24 men.
  • Part of the problem is that no one stopped this. These events are carefully crafted. With the whole world watching, there is no room for gaffes. So it’s hard not to wonder how many people had to OK this demo. And to wonder how few of them were women.
  • And of course this is happening in a larger context where “telling women to smile” is recognized as form of street harassment that embodies all kinds of troubling notions about the relationship between men and women and the roles we play in public spaces. So at best, the presentation could and should be called “tone deaf.”
  • And, oh, did I mention that the name of this new app is “Adobe Photoshop Fix”? What, exactly, are we to believe had been broken?

Surely, then, there was something wrong with this moment, and it matters, and it’s worth noticing and critiquing and thinking about. We can and should do this even (perhaps especially) if we also happen to love new Apple toys. We can do this even if we suspect that Snowden is probably mostly a swell guy. And we can do this in full knowledge that this little “gaffe,” in itself, is far from the biggest problem in our world. But to do this, we need to engage in thoughtful critique that doesn’t reach too quickly for words like “outrage” and “offense” and “outcry.”

It’s not unusual for new technologies to feel simultaneously cool and creepy. Giants like Apple and Google and Facebook thrive by making sure we pay a lot more attention to the cool part. Thoughtful commentators and critics, on the other hand, understand that there are often serious issues to explore behind that creepy feeling. They know that those issues must be thought through — and not too quickly dismissed as empty paranoia, nor exaggerated naively into claims about the downfall of civilization. But if your goal is notto examine things carefully, and instead you want to drive web traffic by creating super clickable headlines, or reduce all analysis to what is Tweetable and Likable, then measured critique will be buried under much juicier claims that something is either life transforming or world destroying. Most things are neither.

A very trendy way to make critique, ahem, “trend” is to package it always as outrage, outcry, or offense. On the internet, it seems, no one can duly note orraise an eyebrow. They can only ever cry foul. While the language of offense and injury and grave injustice would seem to make a critical claim stronger, it usually has the reverse effect, making the critique sound hysterical. (And yes, I mean to dredge up all the gendered connotations of that particular term.) There are no shortage of truly outrageous and unjust things in the world, but these are, by their nature, sufficiently obvious that they hardly make for good headlines in click-driven commercial media. They aren’t exactly news. America remains deeply racist. The world remains deeply sexist. And so on. Not great headlines. This means that timely, clever, shareable features have to focus on much lesser offenses, and so almost by definition they must make an argument like this: “This little thing which you thought was fine is not fine!!!”

The Vox post that got me thinking about the Apple/Adobe gaffe did a fine job of pulling together some things Twitter users had to say about the moment, and bundled them together under the headline, “Apple’s iPad Pro demo stirred an outcry after a model’s face was edited to smile.” The headline got my attention, and I’m glad it did. But is “outcry” the right word?

It wasn’t surprising to see that the Twitter response to this Vox headline were rather dismissive, calling it "political correctness run amok," the work of "unhinged feminists." (I included a representative sample of responses here.

Here’s the thing. Framing commentary about the Event as “outcry” invites the language of “outrage” and “offense.” The inflated tone makes the critique all too easy to dismiss, and does a disservice to the critical observers doing the hard work of calling these things out in thoughtful ways.

Indeed, in confusing critique with “outrage,” we do with words the same thing Snowden does with pixels. We tamper with the emotional display of the feminist critic. Snowden creates a smile where there is none just as a straight-faced, perfectly serious observation is transformed into mouth agape, fist-raised, outcry. “Fixing it,” as it were, to better suit our needs and expectations.

It’s true. A lot of little things are not fine. And they are not fine in part because they point to the much deeper problems that we too often find difficult to notice because they are so deeply ingrained. The symptoms in themselves aren’t necessarily cause for outcry. This Apple Event, this Adobe product — they are not cause for outrage. But they are worthwhile subjects for critique. They are reminders of, and indeed an important component of, a bigger constellation of issues that are truly outrageous. When we make it sound like it is the symptom itself which is shocking, we look out of touch, nitpicky, hypersensitive. What might otherwise be valuable critique comes across instead as absurd political correctness. And sadly, no one who doesn’t already share some understanding of the bigger issues at stake will ever be convinced of anything. Outrage will be met with a yawn; crying foul becomes crying wolf. And important critical perspectives — rooted in the good and necessary belief that we must raise questions, provoke conversation, and inspire thought — will serve only to shut down debate and inspire, well, nothing at all.

This piece also appears on Medium.