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Snapchat Gender Swap Filter and Transphobia

Trigger warning: This article contains mentions of gender dysphoria.

Over the weekend IDAHOBIT (the International Day against homophobia, biphobia and transphobia, 17 May) was celebrated. At the same time, Snapchat has seen a resurgence in popularity since the platform introduced a new filter where users can do a visual binary swap of genders.

You may not see these two events as being in conflict however, because of previous and ongoing work with members of LGBTQI+ groups, I instinctively felt uncomfortable with a gender swap filter. Anything based on an archetypical male or female face carelessly reinforces the extreme cis gender binary imagery of what one has to look like to successfully pass as either.

As you’d expect the hyper-masculine appearance is square jawed, with stubble, short hair. To evoke femininity users are skewed to have big doe eyes, a narrow jawline, and long lustrous hair. Neither trans nor cis people fit neatly into these stereotypical binary images, but this app can feel like a mockery of trans existence. In no time it was used to create fake Tinder profiles for ‘fun’, while prompting compliments from others on how attractive you look as your digitally rendered alternate self. But could there be a positive aspect to the Snapchat gender swap filter where it is actually an asset to the trans community because it allows people to see them as they see themselves?

Psychology Today refers to gender dysphoria as an identity incongruence where individuals have experiences of “significant distress and impairment” that may alleviate in supportive environments where they are “allowed to express their gender in the ways that’s most comfortable to them”.

A pre-transition trans man from Liverpool, who prefers to remain anonymous, said, ‘Some trans people may find it helps them in some way to see a possible future self. Personally I felt a little uncomfortable but I think that’s because as someone who is routinely misgendered out in public I’m not very comfortable with photos of myself anyway.’

He also says that he only became aware of the Snapchat app from the online posts of friends, and is uncomfortable as the app ‘plays a bit much into gender stereotyping … I suppose it’s the progression from drawing beards or moustaches on photos of yourself.’

This Snapchat filter reminds me of the 2017 ‘Bob Marley filter’ that gave users instant Blackface. This new app seems like a repeat of previous slightly altered bad judgements of both the Bob Marley app and the Snapchat FaceApp of 2017.

Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites are awash with images and comments from people who both enjoy and dislike the Snapchat gender swap app.

Mycall, from Chicago, says, ‘Although done in jest, the app perpetuates ideas that are grounded in a gender binary and I don’t think it’s useful for a liberated world [it] simply erases non binary folks … and makes light of folk who don’t ‘pass’. Gender isn’t a swap.’

Mycall continues that as ‘a member of marginalized genders and sexualities community it imperative we work to get us all free.’ For members of the LGBTQI+ communities and people of colour, this app trivialises the spectrum of gender seemingly to give cis people the opportunity to become temporary gender benders for the laughs, this cannot compare with trans people going through a gender transition or the treatment of non binary people in society.

Anshika Khullar, speaking from Southampton, comments, I’m an AFAB [Assigned Female At Birth] non-binary person who experiences gender dysphoria as a daily part of life, and a little part of me was curious if the filters would alleviate my dysphoria, even if only momentarily, by letting me see myself with more stereotypically masculine features.

On the face of it, it seems like something light and frothy … only the second you look a little critically, you realise it isn’t that entirely. It seems to encourage the idea that there’s one prescribed and impossibly narrow way of being a man and a woman, which just isn’t true.’

Khullar also says that their friends commented that they felt adrift at best and panicky, and dysphoric at their worst because the highly gendered Snapchat app didn’t fit into who they are as people for whom gender is a ‘life and death struggle and well as a source of intense comfort and joy’, while swapping genders is still an amusing sideshow for the cis community.

Khullar continued, ‘I personally found the filters actually triggered my dysphoria more than alleviated it – it was just a reminder of the pressures trans people face every single day of having to ‘pass’ as cis. The goal for trans people has always been presented as rigidly binary-oriented; go from A to B, male to female, female to male … This filter just feels like more of the same.’

Stephanie Gray, a trans woman from the North West of England, says the app appears good on the surface as it raises the profile of gender fluidity, but as it also reinforces the binary gender construct, ‘The impact upon those who are transitioning could be catastrophic: they may feel they cannot attain the ‘ideal’ and destroy their confidence and, similarly, those who might be considering transitioning may feel they can’t and continue to struggle.’

As a person of colour, Khullar reflects that, ‘God, the first thing I noticed when I switched to the ‘female’ filter was how light my skin suddenly became. I’m a relatively light-skinned North Indian person to begin with, so I already have the privilege of never having faced colourism, but I’m still a person of colour living in England – my skin and my race is never something I have the privilege of forgetting about in day to day life. As soon as the filter showed me my ‘female’ face, I was instantly reminded that whiteness is still the ideal of what’s considered most desirable. Whiteness and femininity are inextricably linked because it’s another way white supremacy upholds itself as a system; black and brown AFAB people are frequently ridiculed for being masculine or ‘manly’ and further dehumanised purely because our femininity is not considered acceptable or palatable by the hegemonic standards.’

Khullar comments on the negative treatment of Caster Semenya, a cisgender black woman whose womanhood and athleticism is constantly called into question, because she doesn’t fit into the arbitrary, narrow ideals of what makes a woman a woman. They note that both race and gender are both tied together and it’s not possible to ‘examine one without the other, not when white people of marginalised genders still hold institutional privilege over black and brown people of marginalised genders.’ 

All of the five trans and non-binary contributors to this article comment that trans, non-binary, and intersex people are not generally encouraged to interrogate gender expression in the same way that cis people are in apps such as Snapchat’s gender swap, and this is an example of ‘the unequal power dynamics of why as the dominant hegemonic group their casually playing with gender is in and of itself an act of privilege that trans people … are not afforded and actively vilified for.’