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Dis-playing Gender Identity. The Social Value of Face in Gender Swap Apps

Second session: Facing FACETS (University of Turin)

31 mrt. 2023

Francesco Piluso, University of Turin

An increasing number of AI face apps that turn portrait pictures – especially selfies – into special effects, such as face and gender swap, have become a popular trend in our social media platforms and communities, rising controversial issues beyond their apparently playful intent. The primary ludic function informing the use/consumption of such apps and sustaining the value of the produced images opens to further signification and valorization of the images themselves. In many cases, the gender-swapped faces generated by the AI assume an existential value and meaning for the users, who have the possibility to reimagining and reperforming their gender identity through the manipulation of their face digital image: an artificial and virtual prothesis able to extend and actualize the latent space of identification. At the same time, the social availability and disposability of such images (critical value) risk to trivialize the subjective and highly complex process of sexual and gender transition undergone by many people in their own material body in real life. The aim of this paper is to point out the ambivalences and the possibilities opened by face and gender swap apps for what concerns the issue of gender identity. Through the analysis of a corpus of digital images generated by such apps – with a specific focus on their ludic and reflexive aspect in terms of (uncanny) exaggeration of male and female facial traits – we argue that these trans-faces, far from operating a flawless passing from a gender to the other, constantly dis-play the social construction and deconstruction of sexual and gender identity.

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