May 17, 2019

Snapchat’s new gender-changing filter provokes strong reactions

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A Snapchat photo filter that lets people see themselves in highly feminized or masculine form has proven wildly popular. It's drawn a mixed reception, though, from people whose real-life journeys have taken them beyond the roles assigned to them at birth.

Between the lines: The filter has proved to be a surprisingly powerful tool for people to imagine themselves in another gender. It also has highlighted society's continuing challenges with understanding people who are transgender, intersex, nonbinary and gender non-conforming.

Driving the news: People around the globe were quick to not only use the filters on themselves, but also apply them to politicians, soccer stars and celebrities.

The big picture: While some in the LGBTQ community have been critical of the filters as making a joke out of a serious matter, others say the filters have allowed them to explore themselves in the safety of a digital world.

How it works: The filters, which are powered by machine learning and debuted late last week, transform a Snapchat user's hair, facial shape and other aesthetics to make them either more traditionally masculine or feminine.

What they're saying:

  • J.E. Reich, journalist, to Axios: "As a person who identifies as both queer and genderqueer (and who has not gone through any sort of medicalized transition), I found a sense of empowerment when using the 'genderswap' Snapchat filter. The act itself was something like staring into a possible world. It was a way to encounter a concrete image of what I would look like if I decided to pursue hormone therapy, and the actualization of this gave me the courage to admit to myself how much I want to. "
  • Kate Sosin, an LA-based reporter, to Axios: "As a transmasculine person who has not undergone hormone therapy, I have never been able to imagine my features changed by testosterone, and I was so curious to see myself that way. This was a glimpse of that. The other filter gave me a rare and odd opportunity to see myself grown up as my sex assigned at birth, which I haven't seen since I was in high school trying to perform that. I was also deeply curious about that." 
  • In a piece by Vice's Serena Sonoma, Dana Vivian-White, a non-binary speaker and trainer who serves on the board of Collective Action for Safe Spaces, suggested that most people are just using the Snap filter to play around with gender ideas rather than thinking about the realities of transgender or gender-non-conforming people. “Yet there’s a fine line between encouraging people to take gender less seriously and not considering trans realities or carelessly perpetuating misunderstanding about trans identities,” Vivian-White told Vice.

For the record: Snapchat declined to share statistics on use of the filters, but a spokesperson said the Lens team is working with others throughout Snap, including employee resource groups, to ensure its lenses are diverse and inclusive.

Our thought bubble: Different parts of our society are still in vastly different places when it comes to talk about gender. Some see it as a rigid binary to be enforced, others as a journey to be traversed, and still others as a source of humor. How one sees Snap's filter depends largely on the face staring into the selfie cam.

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