I saw this drawn on a driftwood log on the beach at the mouth of Big River, in Mendocino, California. I thought it was beautiful and intriguing and I took a picture of it.
And then I discovered that I was trying to decide if the portrait was male or female.
Male or female.
I went from zero to binary in about 1.5 seconds.
I have spent nearly sixty years in a system that used a binary model, and through my childhood and youth, a strictly binary model, to force people into a gender designation, so it isn’t too strange that my mind shunts over to that equation automatically. Noticing that, I could have dragged my thought process consciously back to looking at the face as it is, rather than pigeon-holing it as either/or.
I could have. Instead I did this.
Why? Well, I liked the eyes. I still do. And, by taking this photo, I made a decision about how I chose to see the sex of the character portrayed, because the eyes and hair registered to me as female.
As a photographer, I’m a hobbyist. If I lean in any direction, it’s toward art/scenic rather than photojournalism. The artist left their art out in the wild, which means they have relinquished control, to some extent, over how people (other artists?) interact with it. I don’t think there is any ethical concern about me editing the image in an image of my own in a completely different medium. It’s interesting to me that I chose to, and that I actually stood in front of this for several seconds thinking, “Male? Female?” as if it mattered, and then chose a way to interact with it that limited the work to one sex.
But Marion, it’s just a bearded lady.
“Bearded lady,” from the old carnie and sideshow days, identifies the figure as both Female and Other (hey, a bonus!) and is also a holdover that that old, old system. She’s a “lady” (female) but not a real one because she has a beard (male) so she is Something Else. (I wonder which public restroom a Bearded Lady would be allowed to use.)
It’s possible that the lines around the lips, the jaw and the chin aren’t meant to represent a beard at all; it’s just the artist’s style. But I don’t think so.
I think the artist of this portrait might be pleased that people like me stand in front of this downed tree, scoured by water, and wonder, “Male? Female?” Do many of us walk away with the decision that this face is both?
I did, but like most recoveries, I almost immediately faced backsliding. When I wrote this post, my first impulse was to title it Either/Or.