Catherine Opie, girl, tutu, house, kitchen

Empire State Realness: Photography and the New Normal: Jack Halberstam

When Suzanne Venker launched one of her many popular tirades against feminism, she chose an unfortunate image to illustrate her ‘big’ idea that happiness depends upon a general admission that men and women “are not equal.”

The image she chose was supposed to conjure traditional gender roles, the proper balance of masculinity and femininity; it was supposed to give evidence of the obviousness and the rightness of complementary and unequal genders; the image was intended to return us, the viewers and readers, to a simpler time and place when men were men, women were women, and families were happy places of symmetry, organic values, harmony and order. The image Venker chose, or that Fox News chose for her, however, was not as simple as it seemed and as the article and the image accompanying it made its way around some viral corridors on the Christian web, a quick investigation revealed that the loving couple in the photograph were far from your traditional wedding couple. The tuxedoed male figure and his bride, it turned out, were actually a butch-femme lesbian couple from Anchorage Alaska who were the first same sex couple to marry at the top of the Empire State Building.

The joke was definitely on Venker and while Fox News quickly removed the image from the website and replaced it with a generic male/female bathroom sign, the damage was done. Venker quickly became a comedic target for Stephen Colbert and other lefty pundits who had a field day with her advice to women to just surrender to men, to give in to their natures and to assume their rightful place behind rather than alongside their male mates. Venker, needless to say, continues her campaign for inequality undaunted and her website lists a slew of articles/rants with catchy titles like “the war on men,” “the flip side of feminism” and “how to choose a husband.” Of course, the fact that she describes herself as “author, speaker, wife, mother” implies that she does not practice what she preaches, and, instead of warming the hearth of the Christian homestead and working day and night to provide a full and comforting domestic experience for her beloved children and superior husband, Venker seems to be on the road, in the office and at her desk telling women to get back into the kitchen much more than she is womanning the stove herself and stepford wifing her way to domestic bliss/hell.

The real story here is about images and the ways in which they might tell stories that are quite at odds with the message laden opinion pieces they accompany. Images have ways of speaking, deceiving, undermining, selling, seducing and teaching. And when it comes to queer images, we learn quickly that the manifest is not the message. So, if we simply turn to the Empire State Building wedding photo that Venker used, we see an image of heteronormativity that only comes undone when a story is provided to accompany it.

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Published in Photoworks Annual Issue 20, 2013
Commissioned by Photoworks

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