The stock photo accompanies an article about Germany’s legal recognition of intersex infants. Even though the photo has been chosen to embody the “third gender” mentioned in the headline, we have to begin by calling the figure in this photo a woman, for we cannot see a third gender until we define one of the primary two. The woman has porcelain perfect skin. Hair helmeted in a glossy pixie, she wears a stiff white shirt like a cross between a chef’s uniform and a spacesuit. (All the great sci-fi writers have known that the future of gender is a space-age matter, and so does this woman.) With a finger white as the tracks left by the moon she traces a translucent box hovering in the air in front of her. Is the box gender itself? She is outside of it, but she also appears to be able to move it at her whim. She does not smile, nor does she frown. Instead she is intent, full of purpose about the task ahead of her: she has to embody the Future of Gender. Too bad for her that we can only speak of the future in the language of now.
Lately I have become interested in stock images, specifically in stock photos supposed to represent gender neutrality. Even conventionally gendered stock photos are designed to remove specificity. A stock image is a photo of a conceptual container—“woman at work smiling”—instead of a particularity—“Linnea Jessup smiles at her computer at re/max Realty on 23rd Street.” The stock image container is supposed to be able to convey the essence of its shell (woman, work) while avoiding the messy precision of time, context, and social location. Yet few stock photos attempt to remove gender, perhaps the most basic lens through which we see the world. The ones that do are illustrative in their failure. Experiment: type “androgynous” into the Corbis search engine and see if you can will yourself outside gender.
Clarence Orsi is a graduate of the PhD program in writing at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. His essays and fiction have appeared in publications including the American Literary Review, the Believer, Chicago Review, Cincinnati Review, and n+1. He teaches writing at Cecil College in northern Maryland and lives in Baltimore.