Don't Lean Too Close

A critical look at Sheryl Sandberg's not-so-new stance on feminism

Sheryl Sandberg is still doing her feel-good-corporate-neoliberal-faux-feminism thing, in case you’d forgotten her in the five minutes since her last project. This time, she’s paired up with Getty Images to produce 2,500 images of women and families looking “empowered.” The three most-searched terms on Getty’s site according to the New York Times are “women,” “business,” and “family,” yet the images that existed before Sandberg and Getty’s holy union were too wrapped up in stereotypical tropes of femininity. Enter Sandberg-Getty. 

Now the image database is chock full of images of women as surgeons, soldiers, hunters, skateboarders, and more. According to Jessica Barnett, a LeanIn.org editor, those involved with the project “wanted workplace images and images of girls, but most importantly we wanted characters and subjects who had agency. Women in powerful poses. Some of the women in the workplace are literally leaning in, leading discussions, in standing positions.” Equality in the workplace and the inversion of gender norms (shout out to the Getty image of the father changing a diaper) are certainly important goals, but buying into Sandberg’s latest project still feels like just that—buying into something. 

Criticism of Sandberg’s approach to feminism has been focused on its limited scope— her conception of feminism operates within the bounds of pre-existing misogynistic structures and does little to dismantle them. Sure, seeing more realistic images of the myriad roles women and men of all ages and races occupy in society is nice; but it’s hard to believe that the solution to centuries-long struggles against the patriarchy are going to find any relief in an existing corporate framework. Sandberg’s campaign is all about women climbing the mountains of office hierarchy (stock images of which there were many before this latest project), and seems unconcerned with the ways in which the corporate world itself might better serve us all. In a characteristically astute takedown of Lean In, bona fide imperialist-white supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy smasher Bell Hooks calls Sandberg out for her “faux feminism” and for her ideology’s lack of mobilizing activism against corporate workplace sexism.

Although Sandberg’s collaboration with Getty is less eye-rollingly naive than the Lean In phenomenon that swept the nation into a reverential tizzy last year, it does speak to an unfortunate tendency we have to lean in to hear the loudest, most commercial voices when it comes to feminism, and pay little mind to the ones most theoretically equipped to truly effect change.

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