Masked and Anonymous

Face swapping is fun, funny, and phobic about self-transformation

It’s fun to try on new faces. We’ve been doing that for a while, with makeup and makeovers and makeover sites, with innumerable forms of self-manipulation and body modification. Some have done it permanently; some as a form of temporary play. And now we do it digitally.

We swap our faces with those of babies, or celebrities, or people of different genders or skin colors or abilities. We swap our faces with other members of our families, or our friends, or our enemies. We swap their faces with those of others, known or unknown to us. We swap with inanimate objects, like dolls or tacos. And it works because it doesn’t work at all. It’s imperfect, and it’s supposed to be: The glitchiness of face swaps reminds us that our face is our own, indexed uniquely to us, even if what it means can be recontextualized.

While early versions of face-swap apps have been around since 2013, they have risen to prominence more recently with a number of new apps, including Face Swap Live (among the top paid apps on Apple’s App Store earlier this year), Masquerade (which Facebook recently acquired), and the popular set of in-app lenses in Snapchat, which are continually being updated. These apps don’t necessarily operate in real time, with only the faces in a given frame. You can also swap between stock or stored photos and what’s in your camera’s view, or swap between two stock images. You can switch your face with a celebrity, or switch two celebrities with each other. You can switch your dog with a more famous one.

This versatility seems to open up new possibilities for play (turns out Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway actually look quite good as each other) and critique (consider the memes of Donald Trump’s face being swapped with Hitler’s). Yet we have always been able to cut and paste and transpose — first with scissors, then with cursors — and not just in obvious collages. Apps and social media platforms have just made image manipulation easier and more common, foregrounding how we are always manipulating not only our own self-images but images generally.

Swaps use the face to look past it, switching faces to show what the surface obscures and to unveil what might be the same beneath the skin

Portraits have always been manipulations, in a sense swapping a sitter’s face with an idealized (or perhaps satirized) version from the artist’s mind. And self-presentation — through all visual media, including non-screen interactions — is always a kind of self-portrait, a performance of the self, a self-fashioning. The self is always a selfie.

While we are more or less self-consciously performative in any given moment, we are never unmediated. Part of the attraction of the selfie, certainly, is the opportunity to control the face we present to the world, even if we can’t equally control how it is seen. If we want, we can try to match the image we have of ourselves in our head with the one we present in an image, even if that image is fantastical, or simply fantasy. Face swapping extends this logic, augmenting the always performative selfie genre with a new, more explicit way to perform, lowering the barrier of entry and the risks of experimenting with the self. It’s experimental yet obviously reversible, with self-mockery and ironic distance built in. It lets us show our willingness to play with different levels of control over our self-image. We give up our face as a way of being ourselves.

With conventional selfies we share an idea of who we are to an unseen audience: The sharing occurs outside the frame. Face swapping brings the desire to share inside the frame. Giving one’s own face to someone (or something) else becomes a visual metaphor for the ways in which our lives are interconnected, for the links through which our interests and emotional investments flow. In offering such a pointed contrast to the supposed narcissism of the selfie, face swaps suggest how selfies in general can be seen as both an assertion of identity and as an act of generosity. They are fundamentally relational; they insist on an audience with the power to grant recognition, that can make sense of self-representations. They depend on people recognizing who we are — and who we are not.

The ubiquity of identity play obscures the line between revelation, reveling, and revolution. Empathy, envy, identification, and appropriation all intermingle. We almost don’t notice the transgressions anymore. They become comedic glitches, fascinating failures. Some face-swap images become popular precisely because they fail: They showcase the limits of technology in understanding humanity, as when faces are unintentionally switched with toasters, or breasts, or artfully arranged fruit. These are less about the face than our apps’ pareidolia — their ability to find faces everywhere — which seems to strangely mirror our own.

But other face swaps expose the potential limits of users’ imaginations when it comes to faces. Strong reaction to face-swap images can suggest a strong attachment to visual markers of identity and a deep-seated resistance to having them vexed. The face, if rendered infinitely swappable, may cease to invoke the relationality and recognition that is, according to philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, the origin of empathy and ethics toward the other. But face swaps still demand recognition of the other; it’s just that they decenter the face itself, calling attention to the person behind it. Swaps use the face to look past it, switching faces to show what the surface obscures and to unveil what might be the same beneath the skin.

Face swapping is a new way to play not just with the self but with other cultures and traditions. Tourist destinations like the World’s Fair or Epcot Center have long offered the opportunity to consume other cultures à la carte, but face swapping conflates the landmarks and quotidian artifacts of another cultural tradition with the appearance of members of that culture, allowing aspects of identity to be claimed as a kind of prop. With just one filter, a user can appear to inhabit Bob Marley, but of course, being Bob Marley (or anyone else) isn’t as easy as all that. Face swaps can repeat, if not compound, the insensitivities of culturally appropriative Halloween costumes. Halloween costumes require physically trying on other modes of being, putting the wearer’s body on the line to a degree, but face swaps permit appropriation without the lived inconveniences of inhabiting them, carrying them around. Face swaps offer the opportunity to instantaneously adopt otherness wholesale and then — in a move impossible for those not in a position of cultural power — give the otherness back.

Some swaps seek to garner attention by aiming for the greatest contrast in what we imagine to be core identity categories, switching races, genders, ages. These supposedly transgressive swaps seem to highlight that, as deeply personal and intimate our face is to us, other qualities can trump our specific facial features socially and dictate how we are regarded. The same face in different skin, or with different gender markers, or across age categories, is posited as more uncanny than a face swap between two people inhabiting the same broad categories. This constructed experience of “wrongness” can validate and reinforce the rules and boundaries of specific social groups and, more problematically, broader power relations and social prejudices. Similarly, using face swaps to see how one might “pass” can also reinforce these prejudices. As Sara Ahmed has argued, passing does not undermine racial categories so much as underscore how robust they are. She asks, “In what ways is ‘passing’ implicated in the very discourse around tellable differences?”

Face swaps, unlike Halloween costumes, permit appropriation without the lived inconveniences of inhabiting them, carrying them around

Would-be viral swaps often play this game of tellable differences. Mary Zaborskis’s analysis of the reality show Toddlers in Tiaras suggests that its popularity is linked to its depiction of “age drag,” drawing on deeply held orthodoxies about what constitutes age-appropriate self-presentation around sexuality and gender: “The reason this show makes us uncomfortable — and makes it impossible to look away — is because these children subvert accepted truths held by adults upon which gender and sexuality pivot: that (a) children are supposed to be asexual and that (b) age, gender, and sexuality are inextricably linked and follow a conjoined, synchronized narrative.” Face swaps can seek popularity along similar lines, using various forms of drag to compel attention.

But #notallswaps. Appropriative contexts insist on the abnormality of a swap, which ultimately reinforces the supposedly normal arrangement of what is. Other swaps work differently: Some are critiques, some are jokes, some are gestures of love. Many of the swaps social-media users share reflect an intimacy among users, not a trespass. Sometimes face swaps are compelling precisely because of a closeness, visual and emotional, between those whose faces are swapped.

Swaps may demonstrate the ways that the face is not merely the embodiment of social identity categories but rather a canvas for registering the slight differences that make us unique to ourselves. You might swap with a friend who already looks a lot like you to see which facial features register as personal and intimate, as specific to you.

What the swap may reveal, though, is how superficial and tenuous an identity anchored in a face really is. Face swaps reassure us that we look totally bizarre with a different face, but it doesn’t quell any anxiety that our personality may only be skin deep. If we were to lose our face, would we still be recognizable on any level?

Swaps resolve any fears that our face might be generic, but at the expense of a new fear — that faces can’t be seamlessly switched without necessarily implying the same is possible for the underlying identities. The fact that we look so strange with another’s face suggests the unsettling possibility our own identities may not run any deeper than that. We recognize what we are not in these images, but they don’t make it any clearer what we are.

After a swap is shared, that specific, delineated self-performance is over. Little has been risked, and nothing has really changed. We go back to being ourselves, possibly reassured that it’s better that way.

Though how reassuring is it? In a world where faces are endlessly manipulable and manipulated, do we even know what people “really” look like? In a world where bodies are assessed according to prevailing social standards and always deemed improvable — by diet, by exercise, by surgery — is anyone’s present body more than a fleeting image?

Given the intensifying expectations of a perfect appearance, moments of digitally augmented self-improvement, captured in manipulated images, can offer some relief. But this comes with an awareness of how the lines between human and machine are increasingly blurred, and how the identity categories whose boundaries seem so firmly drawn have become more fluid.

In this context, digital manipulations of the face can serve a deeply conservative function. Face swaps can limit our imagination about what self-transformation can be, reducing it to surface-level stunts. Rather than changing attitudes toward identity markers and their constraints, face swaps re-enact constraint and play it for laughs. And it’s funny precisely because it isn’t treated as real and seems to remind us what is.

Communication technology — including reality-augmenting technology like face swapping — carries with it the ethics and structural constraints of its designers, its social context, its users, and the period in which it is made. But I also believe that it is polysemic: It bears within it multiple meanings and multiple possibilities. As it stands, face-swap apps don’t appear to seize upon the breadth of these possibilities. The most familiar examples of face swaps are not being deployed to expand our imaginations about what is possible in the realm of identity and materiality. Instead, they do exactly the opposite.

Rather than changing attitudes toward identity markers and their constraints, face swaps re-enact constraint and play it for laughs

Digital face-swapping may seem to be a form of transgressive play, but the game often highlights where the lines are drawn. It reminds us of how things ought to be by underscoring how wrong it appears when we change them. By challenging traditional ideas of what belongs to whom, the traditions themselves may be strengthened and the identity categories reaffirmed.

But not always. As with all performative play, there lies within face swapping the possibility to subvert structures of power by challenging the orthodoxies that underlie them. This would mean taking seriously a much older and less mechanized technology: drag itself. This would situate face swaps the way Judith Butler situates drag in Gender Trouble, arguing for its potential to decouple the naturalized links between, say, sex, gender identity, and gender performance, or any other seemingly inextricably connected features of the self. If, as Butler argues, identity markers like gender are not intrinsic but constituted by a “stylized repetition of acts,” copies without an original, then comedic face swaps, like drag, can prompt a “realization that all along the original was derived.” That is, any identity category is based on “an ideal that no one can embody.” The key is to use swaps as performances that either underscore counterintuitive similarities or highlight the absurdity of naturalized differences.

That’s vague, and purposefully so: I don’t actually know what this would look like, except to say that a subversive face swap would undermine the indexical nature of the face itself. It would force audiences — from intimate friends and lovers to unknown followers — to consider the nature of identity. It would ask us to look at the face’s relationship to the body, and the body’s relationship to its lived experience, as something that is neither inevitable nor voluntary. We can’t, it turns out, separate our faces from our bodies. But the ephemerality of the face in digitality could lend a new substantiality to the body.

It would also demand that we grant the importance of materiality while asking what fluidity — of identity, of the body, of appearance, of features themselves — might mean. Digitally swapped faces are always swapped back, but they still could point forward. Face swaps hold forth the possibility for transgressive experience, rehearsing once unimaginable possibilities of personal performance and play. But it is vital to take these rehearsals to the main stage.

Sharrona Pearl is Associate Professor of Medical Ethics at Drexel University.  A historian and theorist of the face and body, her most recent book is Face/On: Face Transplants and the Ethics of the Other (University of Chicago Press, 2017).  She is currently writing a book about face blindness and super recognition, forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press.  You can find her freelance writing in the Washington Post, Lilith Magazine, Tablet Magazine, Chronicle Vitae, Kveller, and in other places including her website, www.sharronapearl.com.