Thoughts On Culture | The Relentless Tyranny Of A Visual World

The Relentless Tyranny Of A Visual World 

I was a kid when the first Star Wars movie (the first, not, you know...) was released, and I will never forget that first time that Han Solo punched the Millennium Falcon into hyperspace. Even my excited child mind knew that it was Hollywood trickery, but I was completely enthralled.

Gerd Altmann from Pixabay/CC0C

My brain and my emotions were convinced. That’s how movies work. We talk about the suspension of disbelief that’s necessary to the movie experience, but that suspension of disbelief works largely by one means: the visual. We’re hardwired to believe what our eyes see – no matter what we may know intellectually.

If it was something confined to movies and entertainment, it would be a tolerable situation, one without necessarily negative repercussions. 

But of course it’s not. It’s the meanings and connotations they carry, and in a preponderance of them, what ideas they serve to perpetuate. It’s the way we’ve decided it’s okay to sell things, to influence public opinion, and in general, overwhelm almost any other consideration by making something look good.  

It’s also about how we treat people, animals, and pretty much everything else. 

And, it begs the question: how can we pretend to navigate the world with anything like rationality when we are, in fact, enslaved by our senses, which in turn, connect directly to our emotions?

Alexa from Pixabay/CC0C

What do we see?

Neuroscience says that what we think of as reality is, in fact, a product of our imagination. We think we know what we see based on sight and other sensory information, but who knows whether that actually represents objective physical reality? Our brains, on their own, manufacture alternate realities every time we dream. 

Simply put, we use the same part of the brain to interpret all visual stimuli, whether that comes from inputs via our eyes, or from our imaginations. The processing goes on in the same place. That’s why both avenues of visual stimulation feel the same, and why we trust in what we see.

Science has also proven that we don’t actually see what we think we see to begin with. Our brains, in essence, scan the environment, and then fill in the blanks with what we expect to find. That’s why eye witness accounts are often so problematic and unreliable. That’s why it’s nearly impossible to edit your own writing.

Modern Hollywood film making is predicated on the dominance of image over, say, coherent storytelling (Ridley Scott and Prometheus, I’m most definitely looking at you). The multi-billion dollar success of that strategy is concrete evidence that the formula works. Essentially, they set up a series of big scenes, and then cobble together a bit of a story to take audiences from one to the next. While it’s on screen, we’re overwhelmed by the visual magic. We are completely roped in by what we see, and our brain blithely skips over logical fallacies. 

But, I’ll point out that in the age of streaming, when it’s common to view movies multiple times, that magic does dissipate. Over time, those logical fallacies will loom larger and larger. It’s as if the pull of the visual can be diminished, but only by repeatedly and consciously noticing the flaws. 

CihanU44 from Pixabay/CC0C

It’s all about basic design principles

On a personal level, I learned a great deal about the relationship between the most basic visual design principles and my acceptance in the broader world through modeling for artists – which includes sitting through years of art classes, and listening to many, many lectures about design and colour theory. It taught me that those involuntary responses to what we see affect people on a personal level.

Visual illusion is how painters create the illusion of space on a flat canvas. It’s all about how you create and play with emphasis, as well as emotions through colour.

When I began modeling for art classes, I had no experience (I lied about that), so I read up on it. What I read, as it turned out, was quite antiquated. Students were never to speak to models. Models were never to wear make-up or jewellery. I took that to heart at first, and so spent three to four days a week when I was working, for a period of those first several months, completely unadorned and wearing shapeless clothes.

My natural colouring is monochromatic. Like the Coldplay song, I’m kind of all yellow. Or, ivory, as makeup companies like to categorize my skin shade. But it’s not just my skin, it’s my hair, eyebrows – I even have flecks of yellow in my green eyes. (And green eyes are created by the presence of yellow lipochrome in the iris.) If you look at my face, you’d notice my nose, since it protrudes out at you.

After a few months of modeling completely au naturel, and navigating the world that way for most of my weeks, I began to feel somewhat invisible. It sounds strange to say that, on a podium where a circle of up to 30 people are staring at your naked form while they draw it. I felt like a lump of clay. A thing.

So, on days when I didn’t model, I became a bird of paradise – full make-up, jewellery, loads of colour.  I hadn’t gone to that extent in cultivating my appearance since high school, and it had an extraordinary effect on the way people treated me. 

Someone I’d known for a couple of years and saw regularly didn’t recognize me. And was suddenly very friendly.

When I wore certain shades of eye shadow, complete strangers would stop me in the street and mention my eyes. Every time.

Everyone was super friendly when I wore pink.

StockSnap from Pixabay/CC0C

I was also writing as a freelancer at the time, and at one point, chasing down photographs for an art show I was covering. I’d contacted the person in charge of media at the art gallery in question several times, and he kept brushing me off. For two weeks, his answer was, “Come back in a couple of days…” Meanwhile, the show was obviously already open, and the timeliness of a review quickly dwindling away.

Then, one day I went into his office on my way home from running errands, on a day that I wasn’t modeling, and his eyes widened when he saw me. He was attentive, smiling, and look at that – he had the photographs right there in his desk drawer. 

On the way out, and deeply puzzled by his about-face, I hit the ladies’ room. It was when I was staring into the mirror that it dawned on me. I was wearing make-up, dressed up, in full bloom as it were. 

All of it is explainable by visual design principles.

    • The eye is drawn to the area of highest contrast – making my eyes pop out instead of my nose, for example, when I wore eye shadow.

    • Contrast can be created by light/dark, or by complementary colours – strangers freaked out over my eyes when I wore a purplish shadow with a lot of red in it, red being complementary to green.

If I, in my fair-skinned whiteness, experience the whims of others depending on what colours I wear, it throws the everyday effects of racial prejudice, which always has a visual component, into high relief. I learned that it was really quite easy for me to manipulate my image for the occasion; I could be either invisible or highly visible, accessible or inaccessible, at the whim of styling my wardrobe and make-up. 

PIRO from Pixabay/CC0C

If my skin were Black, Brown, or otherwise non-beige, I wouldn’t have those options.

Modeling, and a very brief dip into acting, also allowed me to see objectively why I have been typecast by the world. I saw how other people see me, which is at odds with the way I see myself. According to Hollywood casting logic, I should be a teacher, somebody’s mother/sister/aunt. A second grade school teacher. Not the leading lady, not by any means. 

So, I’ve had to cast myself, and there’s always been a degree of resistance.

It’s amazing that an industry that claims to be creative goes out of its way to regurgitate the same stereotypes over and over. And again, when it comes to race, it’s so much worse than annoying. It’s about how very few positive portrayals of Blacks/Asians/Arabs/Muslims means that those populations encounter suspicion and hostility routinely from everyone from store clerks to police and the courts. 

It works to perpetuate every bad stereotype. Whatever you see often enough, you accept as true. That’s a direct consequence of a culture where what we see is manipulated and modified on an ongoing basis. The more we go online, and certainly, in a metaverse universe, the more manipulation is possible.

What’s the alternative?

One of the things I enjoyed most about teaching online is that it entirely removes the influence of appearance. Often, I don’t know what gender my students are, and it doesn’t matter – it shouldn’t matter anyway, but in any classroom, you can observe bias based on appearances at work.

After all – how do you choose a teapot? A dog? By the way it looks.

Our response to what we see is involuntary to a large degree. It’s emotional, and not rational. So, what, if anything, can be done about the bias anyone who is sighted is subject to?

There’s education. Can we adequately prepare children for a world where they are led by what they see, even before they can formulate the analytical reason to really conceive of it? Perhaps the effects can at least be mitigated.

Can we ever get Hollywood to rethink the casting logic that is linked to racism, fatphobia, and ageism, and is locked into eurocentric beauty ideals? Any kind of change in society will be hard to put into motion if our relentlessly visual media keeps throwing the same old ideas back at us.

In the real world, for example, murders are rare, yet about half the crimes we see committed on our favourite TV shows are murders. It persuades the general public that we live in a world that's more dangerous than it really is. What could happen? Increased military-style police budgets, perhaps?

Should manipulation by visual design be allowed if it’s in the service of influencing consumer demand? There is no real free will or caveat emptor when you don’t even know what to protect yourself against. Subliminal advertising has been around for decades. Why is that kind of unconscious manipulation legal? 

Why are advertisers allowed to wield this weapon we have no defense against?

The best/worst part about this scenario is that we, as a society in North America, are both aware of this phenomenon, and in complete denial of it, all at the same time. We act as if we can trust our institutions to treat us impartially, and make “informed” consumer choices, and at the same time, insist that it’s necessary to wear uniforms, or adhere to dress codes – or get women to stop dressing so sexy if they don’t want all that attention. 

It weighs heavily when it comes to gender and race discrimination. 

Two dimensional

Emphasizing the visual in our culture has fundamentally changed how we see ourselves.

Since the arrival of photography, then television, and then accelerated exponentially by the Internet, we’re constantly bombarded with images – two-dimensional images. If you were asked to think of an image of yourself, right this minute, chances are what you are thinking of is a two-dimensional image. It’s a posed picture, probably Photoshopped and filtered – the last one you uploaded to Instagram. 

It’s kind of ironic that, in a visual culture, we’ve lost the very sense of what we actually look like.