All Play and No Trouble: Gender in the ‘Switcheroo’ Photo Series

Remember that J.Crew ad of a woman painting her son’s toenails caused a moral panic in 2011? That this could become a controversy was a bleak reminder that a lot of people are still heavily invested in normative, binary notions of gender—boys wear blue, girls wear pink, that’s just how it is and it needs to stay that way. This seems to be the context in which Hana Pesut’s ‘Switcheroo’ series became viral. Pesut photographs (mostly) couples twice against the same background: once, in their own clothing, and the second time in each other’s. The products of this process, we’re told, are ‘gender-bending,’ ‘playful’ and ‘quirky.’

Intentionally or not—Pesut has said she is “just hearing everyone’s own interpretations rather than putting an idea out there of what I think it should be”—the series does have the potential to offer at least a lighthearted commentary on gender roles. After switching clothes, women tended to show as much or less skin than before, whereas several men bear unusually exposed shoulders or legs. Some viewers may realize for the first time that what’s marketed as women clothing tends to be more revealing; that this plays into the sexualization of women’s bodies is hopefully the next step in the thought process.

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Moreover, the clothing switch highlights the gendered nature of androgynous presentation. In many of the post-switch photos, the women seemed like they could, in fact, be wearing their own, everyday clothing, because it’s generally considered acceptable for women to wear pants, baggy hoodies, sneakers, or other attire generally coded as more masculine. A man in a dress, far from normalized, produces quite a different effect.

When asked about “tolerance of gender neutrality” in Western culture, Pesut answered that “my mom told me that when she was a kid she wasn’t even allowed to wear pants or jeans; she had to wear a skirt or dress.” She adds, “It wasn’t acceptable then for women to be wearing men’s clothing and vice versa but now it seems that almost anything goes.” But as her photos show, this isn’t the case. While many people wouldn’t look twice at the women in the post-switch photos, some of the men would be hard-pressed to avoid stares or verbal harassment, and could be at risk for physical assault. 

Which brings me to my issue with these photos being paraded through the social media networks and described as ‘quirky’: for many non-binary, genderqueer and trans people, dressing in clothing not marketed to the gender they were assigned at birth is not a fun experiment for which they will receive Internet brownie points. It’s their lived experience and their expression of their gender.

So if ‘Switcheroo’ is ‘playful,’ then who is allowed to engage in this kind of play? If the foundation of the project is what appears to be gender-normative, straight pairs of men and women, then people who do not hold that privileged combination of identities are excluded. Sorry, everyone else—you can watch this round.

Descriptions of the series take this exclusion a step further by solidifying the anxiety around people who actually wear the ‘wrong’ clothing: Colossal, an art and culture blog, notes “the seemingly nervous faces of cross-dressing in public” (Cross-dressing, so embarrassing, hope nobody thinks I actually dress like this!); Margo Mortiz, describing her similar Bold Italic Project, writes that “when the couples came out and saw the other in their clothes, their reactions ranged from slightly nauseated to oddly intrigued” (Because masculine people in feminine clothing are just kind of gross, you know?). She concludes that, “After trying on their partners’ threads, everyone seemed relieved to step back into his or her own, and walked off reminded that they liked each other just the way they were.” 

If this was also the take-away for some of Pesut’s participants, then these projects reinforce rather than complicate binary gender normativity. Which brings us back to the premise of the series—heterosexual couples who present themselves normatively according to the binary gender they identify with. When Buzzfeed presentssignificant others [who] begin to resemble one another” as a novelty, they erase the couples who do already resemble each other—which are not only or even necessarily same-gender couples, but any pair in which there is not one person who presents as feminine and one who presents as masculine. My Modern Met writes, “the visual experiment is especially effective when the pairs are extremely different, in terms of gender, height, and style,” reflecting the common fallacy that couples are constituted by this ‘balance,’ and that sexual attraction relies on difference.

It may be tempting to argue that despite its perpetuation of the gender binary, that ‘Switcheroo’ and similar concepts still illustrate Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity within the heterosexual matrix. Butler frames gender as something we are constantly doing to produce the effect of gender rather than something we intrinsically ‘are.’ But what we see in these photos is gender being performed, and the difference is slight but crucial. As Judy B. herself explains, “It’s one thing to say that gender is performed and that is a little different from saying gender is performative. When we say gender is performed we usually mean that we’ve taken on a role or we’re acting in some way.”

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Indeed, given that the pairs switch physical positions and often also take on each other’s poses make the ‘play’ taking place here seem more akin to dress-up or drag rather than, as Elle Cananda put it, “a charming fluidity.” Nothing about gender is complicated through these series; most viewers, I would argue, will look at the photos and register them as a man in woman’s clothing and a woman in man’s clothing. The essential, binary categories remain undisturbed.

That’s the crux on my criticism of ‘Switcheroo’—it appears on its face as a progressive, hip social commentary but relies on the contrast between genders, on what is ‘obviously’ still a man in woman’s clothing and vice-versa. J.J. Levine’s 2009 ‘Switch’ series, on the other hand, provides a much more thought-provoking visual experience. Using the trope of the prom photo, Levine switches a pair of models to produce two photos, and in doing so manages to make the boundaries of gender fuzzier rather than clearer. In several of the photos, the same model is barely recognizable from one photo to the other, and it is often difficult to read what the model’s gender ‘really’ is. The discomfort we feel when we find ourselves trying and unable to put someone in a binary category forces us to reflect on the importance placed on, and the criteria that constitutes, the legibility of someone’s gender.

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Though Levine was speaking about their series ‘Alone Time,’ in which a single model is used to produce two gendered subjects within the same image, that they described their aim as “to make visually confusing and intriguing images that call ­­into question the legitimacy of the gender binary” remains relevant for ‘Switch,’ as well. Whereas ‘Switcheroo’ and its derivatives rely on an essentialist understanding of bodies as gendered in order to function, Levine aims to demonstrate a “single body’s capacity to engagingly and believably embody either gender.” This is not just an artist’s immaterial vision, but an urgent political imperative as people are assigned to correctional facilities of the gender they do not identify with, denied access to healthcare, and attacked on the basis of the unbelievability of their embodiment of their gender. In this context, ‘Switcheroo’ doesn’t bend gender at all, but keeps it firmly in place.

By Sophia Seawell, Co-Editor-in-Chief

Images from My Modern Met, Buzzfeed and JJLevine.ca

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