Text: Jens Persson, August 2017
At the start of his journalistic career, Tomas Gunnarsson, also
known as the 'Gender Photographer', found himself in a work
environment that could best be described as stereotypically macho.
The entertainment and tech magazines that he worked for promoted a
clichéd objectification of women. They still do in most cases. His
journey since has been one of actively promoting change by creating
awareness. On August 30th, he spoke to students at UID about how
images, media and design contain certain messages about gender.
What do they tell us and what does our perception of them say about
With various eye-opening examples of images and products that
cement sexist values, Tomas Gunnarsson showed UID students, old and
new, that few of us are immune to reproducing traditional norms.
Some demonstrations were overt, like the male nail polish that was
promoted as something akin to military armor. Others less so,
demanding that students challenged hidden, inherent prejudices that
we all carry.
Tomas Gunnarsson presented a simple technique to help reveal
such shortcomings. By using the gender-swapping method, meaning
that you simply switch the gender of the person in the image, it
often becomes blatantly obvious how differently men and women are
portrayed. A man swapped into a position traditionally held by a
woman, for example leaning onto the woman's chest with a tilted
head and a slightly submissive smile, would be deemed if not
humiliating, surely surprising and unprecedented.
So how does this apply to design one might ask? Well, besides
from the commercial and promotional material tied to the products,
which almost always contain images of men and/or women, the designs
themselves may carry aesthetics that say something about how its
maker views gender.
"Gender-swapping is an effective tool to keep in mind, not just
when it comes to images but also design. Does a certain product,
like say a power drill, carry so-called manly features? Or does a
kitchen appliance have traditionally female characteristics when it
comes to shapes and colors? It would be exciting if designers
become aware of these matters and reflect upon them throughout the
design process" says Tomas Gunnarsson.
The seminar concluded with a workshop where students, through a
number of exercises, got to confront stereotypical images in a
design context. The broad international student base made for
lively and engaging discussions. Some were more familiar with the
terminology surrounding discussions about gender, others wondered
if this was a typically Swedish topic. Either way, most students
seemed to enjoy the opportunity to challenge their own
preconceptions about gender without much prestige.
So, what is the take home message for UID students here? I asked
the 'Gender Photographer', Tomas Gunnarsson.
"I hope they stop going with their gut feeling. For example,
when thinking 'this product image would look good with a man in it'
they could ask themselves why they think like that. Is it because
they've seen this picture a hundred times before? Wouldn't a woman
be just as suitable? Our gut feeling causes us to reproduce the
norms we have been fed. This means that to be aware of gender you
often have to be counter-intuitive. I hope that is a notion that
they take with them, quite simply to not be so comfortable when
thinking about these matters. Challenge yourself!"