Swapping Gender is a Snap(chat): Limitations of (Trans) Gendered Legibility Within Binary Digital and Human Filters.


In May 2019 the photographic cellphone application Snapchat released two company-generated image filters that were officially dubbed “My Twin” and “My Other Twin,” though users and media labeled them as feminine and masculine,respectively. While touted in most commentary as a “gender swap” feature, these digital imaginaries represent a unique opportunity to consider what features contribute to classification of faces into binary gender buckets. After all, the commonly considered “male” filter makes various modifications—including a broader jaw and addition of facial hair—to whichever face is selected in the photograph.It does not ask and cannot detect if that face belongs to a man or woman (cis-or transgender) or to a non-binary individual. Instead, the augmented reality that it offers is a preprogrammed algorithmic reinscription of reductive gendered norms. When interacting with a novel face, humans similarly implement algorithms to assign a gender to that face. The Snapchat “My Twin” filters—which are not neutral, but rather human-designed—offer an analyzable projection of one such binarization, which is otherwise rarely articulated or visually recreated. Here I pair an ethnographic exploration of twenty-eighttransgender, non-binary, and/or gender diverseindividuals’ embodied experiences of facial gender legibility throughout life and with digital distortion, with aquantitative analysis of the “My Twin” filter facial distortions, to better understand the role of technology in reimaginations of who and what we see in the mirror.

Catalyst Journal