Redefining Gender Stereotypes in Contemporary America
In her intimate portraits of American youth, Scarlett Coten looks to challenge conventional notions of masculinity and remove any cliché or stigma associated with the model of manhood today.
Plan Américain is the second part of a larger study on the various nuances of contemporary masculinity. It is a prolongation of the work initiated in the Arab world, with this ongoing project devoted to a new territory: the United States. The aim of this enquiry is to raise questions on critical topics such as the notion of gender and identity. This central question about who is looking at who also raises questions on the necessity of alternative viewpoints, the notion of otherness, and empower the female gaze.
The question of individual liberties - at the core of my approach in an Arab world that was at the time shaken by the so-called "Arab Spring" (Mectoub) - appears no less relevant in a nation in crisis since the last presidential elections.
As the newest wave of feminism has galvanised women to rethink their place in society, the flip side feels just as urgent to address: "What does it mean to be a man today?" In the New York Times, a week-long series centered around this "urgent question in the era of Parkland, President Trump, and #MeToo", recently sparked quite a conversation about a redefinition of gender.
Michael Ian Black, in an article titled “The Boys Are Not All Right” states the fact that even if rigid gender roles are restrictive for everyone, redefining them has been mostly a one-sided effort. Women have spent the last 50 years tackling womanhood stereotypes but there has been no similar debate on what it means to be a man.
"America’s boys are broken. And it’s killing us. The past 50 years have redefined what it means to be female in America. To be a girl today is to be the beneficiary of decades of conversation about the complexities of womanhood, its many forms, and expressions. Boys, though, have been left behind. No commensurate movement has emerged to help them navigate toward a full expression of their gender… America’s boys are broken. And it’s killing us… I think we would benefit from the same conversations girls and women have been having for these past 50 years. I would like men to use feminism as an inspiration, in the same way that feminists used the civil rights movement as theirs. We have to start the conversation."
Since 2012 I have been challenging visual stereotypes of masculinity, taking part in what is now a global conversation on a crucial topic. Today's America is the subject of my focus since 2017, which will culminate in a series of intimate portraits of America I have encountered through strangers who have crossed my path. At each stop, I choose men on instinct and invite them to pose. The shots are most often fixed the next day and I always photograph subjects who are invested in this project, choosing specific locations for this experience to unfold.
By focusing on beauty and the vulnerabilities of a gender constrained by the stereotypical expectations of a now contested model of manhood, my empathic exploration of the many shades of masculinity, strives to remove any cliché or stigma of sensitivity, reimagining gendered identity for today’s world.
The aesthetics of the road trip is nevertheless present. The natural decors can be watched in every image as a portion of the American landscape. These fragments of landscape or settings - crossings of a fantasy and a reality that comes to collide with it - testify in their interlacing, of the experience of the road trip, to finally offer a representation of Trump's (dis)United-States.
In a world where showing vulnerability is stigmatized and deemed unmanly, it is crucial to disrupting reductive gender stereotypes towards a broader, more inclusive concept of masculinity. This body of work, by revealing through a feminist exploration, the young generation's search for identity, is joining the defence of "modern-day modern men" whose emergence probably have something to do with the current policy.
Words and Pictures by Scarlett Coten.
Scarlett Coten is a french artist based in Paris. Her work explores themes of identity, gender, and intimacy, mainly through photographic portraiture. Her last body of work is a photographic exploration of contemporary masculinity, started in 2012 in the Arab World, and more recently, the age of Trump, inspired her to continue in the United States. Coten’s work has been widely exhibited and recognised with numerous awards, including the Leica Oskar Barnack Award in 2016. Find her on PHmuseum and Instagram.
This feature is part of Story of the Week, a selection of relevant projects from our community handpicked by the PHmuseum curators.