Photography and Sexism in the Skeptical Movement
Brian Dunning has a recent project called, The History of Knowledge created to celebrate a milestone in his podcasting history. The project is a musical history of sorts meant to show how pseudoscience and the popular music of the day were and are interlaced within the culture. I won’t discuss the musical content except to say that my experience of indie punk was not at all related to conspiracy theories but I suppose I could see how an outsider to the movement could unfortunately make that comparison. Instead, I would like to discuss the album art Dunning has used to promote his single entitled, Energy.
This isn’t the first time Mr Dunning has put up an image of an attractive woman while simultaneously insulting the majority of all other women present. He did it when he opted to show a woman he said was, “easier on the eyes” instead of showing the actual photo of the first woman to fly in space, astronaut Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova. He later apologized. One could assume it was a poorly designed joke and forgive his insensitivity to the plight of women in the sciences and in skepticism, once. We all make mistakes. But here he has done it again. And this time it is arguably more demeaning and insulting.
Let me make this very clear. This is not solely about nudity and the female form. In my opinion, there is absolutely nothing wrong with artistically done nudes of women or of men. The human body is a beautiful thing. I don’t even think there is anything wrong with much of pornography when placed in the correct context. So before anyone says, hey what about those calendars the Skepchicks used to make, allow me to make a clear distinction.
Let me first explain to any new readers that for many years the Skepchicks released a yearly pinup calendar comprised of skeptics.
And with the exception of the first year, we released two versions. One version with women and an equal calendar with men. We included all body types and styles. I have posted a few examples of some of the images for those who are not familiar with our calendars to the right.
Now back to the distinction I wanted to make. Images send messages. An image of a beautiful naked body can send a message of the joy of life or of shape and form and light and shadow or of love and tenderness or loneliness or heartbreak or many other informative and moving messages. What you add to the image can have a strong effect on it’s meaning as well. The placement of the nude in the surroundings can, for example have a strong influence on the tone and the meaning of the piece of art or in this case the photograph. Is the nude in harsh light? Is the nude in a soft or warm environment? Is it black and white or color? Is it a safe environment or is there an element of danger? Photographers and other visual artists utilize all of these ideas and more to send a message to the viewer. It is all about context. And Dunning’s image is reinforcing a hierarchy with men at the top and women as nothing more than submissive servants whether it was his direct intention or not. A man in formal wear standing in a stately and dismissive pose high above a completely naked woman on her knees serving him, sends a message that women are lower, stripped of intellectual value, completely objectified and in this particular image reduced to mere servants or tray tables.
Unless Mr Dunning has reversed the image on the flip side of his single, with the young woman in a tux and himself completely naked and on his knees serving her, than I do not see how this photograph can do anything but send the message than his view is that women are of a lesser value and merely objects to be used in skepticism.
Let me end by saying we too were criticized for the Skepchick calendars. Many people said that we were objectifying the women in our images even though we treated men in the same fashion. It can be argued that there is just no way to put out an image of a nude woman without reducing her to an object in a heavily male dominated arena such as the case with the current climate of organized skepticism. I acknowledge that it is a complicated issue but I still feel strongly that there are much better ways to do things than what we have been exposed to here.
What do you think?
Did Brian Dunning fail the women of skepticism, again? Is there just no way to show a nude in a positive light until we have achieved equality for women in science and skepticism?