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Anatomy of a photograph

Updated: Mar 21



You have heard the story about how Caligula wanted to appoint his horse to the Roman Senate; well, the above photo shows about the same situation—this is where we are so far as historical stages go, decadent Rome. This photo has iconic potential, I can picture it on a website 50 years from now with the title: “50 Years Ago Today | When men were women”. Doubtless your grandson will look up and say: “Why did they let men pretend to be women in those days, grandpa?” “Well, little Jimmy, that’s a long story and I’m always awfully tired after lunch.”


The photo shows, to be clear, a strapping lad—with a physique quite different from the ladies next to him—who has become a champion swimmer in the women’s category. The photo appeals not just because it shows the stark differences in physiology between the sexes but because each competitor has an expression that tells a story.


The anti-trans brigade have imputed various emotions to the male-female champion: he gloats; he sneers; he shows disdain and arrogance. Really, he shows no such emotions. The boy’s face shows either awkwardness or, more strongly, discomfort—it shows a set grimace. He has to grim and bear it. Why? He should be happy, he should beam—he is the champion. I suspect that the audience may have offered only soft applause when his name was called as the winner, a subtle way to signal he really is not accepted as the legitimate champion; perhaps, as can happen, the audience radiates psychic hatred and disdain towards him. This is why he cannot smile, despite his victory; he can only grimly wait for the whole spectacle to be over—and it really is a spectacle. Inside, he probably does feel a little ashamed and quite miserable.


The girl in second place—the real winner, in fact—offers a bodily expression as if in prayer or as if to signal sleep. This is a relatively common female expression. What she says with this expression is roughly: “This situation is wrong and uncomfortable, and wrong in a visceral way. On the other hand, I have to live with it so *that’s life*.” Hence there is a slightly comic aspect to it, as if she has raised her eyebrow to say: “It’s crazy, but what can a girl do?” Further, the expression signals that she needs help from a man; if I saw a woman make this expression my interpretation would partially be: “Dad, I’m in some difficulty; not a mortal threat, but I need a man to sort this out, please. Is there a man here? Anybody?” The woman is in a situation where she needs someone to be more confrontational than she, as a woman, can be; namely, to confront the strapping lad to her right and say he did not actually win a women’s swim race.


The girl in third place, the very homely entrant from Texas, wears a ten-gallon hat precisely because she is the very homely entrant from Texas. As with a girl with very pink hair, she makes up for her minimal physical attractiveness with a bold wardrobe statement—girls want to be looked at, and if they are homely they achieve attention through dress. Her expression is the most comedic, ugly girls also being the only really funny women—again, an ugly woman can compensate for limited looks through culinary skills, sense of humour, and affection.


The Texan girl is still in competition—both aquatic and sexual—with her more attractive sister, but she also offers limited solidarity in this situation. Women will defend the sisterhood when it is under attack, especially from six-foot-something trannies. So the Texan shifts her eyes and visually says: “Ain’t this just the weirdest thing?” She is a mouthpiece for the audience and for us. We can imagine her, backstage, saying to the other girl: “This is just so weird, yah?” “Ya-ha. Isn’t it so weird though?” snips the second-place-winner.


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