Saturday, June 26, 2010

Objectification is Objectification

I am catching up on some blog reading and I just came across the post "Why Shameless Objectification Can Be A Good Thing" on Jezebel and a few points the author made rub me the wrong way.


obectification - meat, originally uploaded by jonnybaker.

First of all, I think the word "objectification" is being used incorrectly in this post. There's definitely the possibility it's being used as sort of tongue-in-cheek, but if so then I think that should have been made clear at some point (especially considering the title). There is a difference between admiring the looks of someone and reducing that person to an object. Thinking someone is hot is not by itself harmful. We're visual creatures. It should come as no surprise that when we look at the myriad of different people on the planet we find some of them attractive. The problem is when we forget that the person we're ogling is a human being with feelings and thoughts because we've reduced them to basically a conduit of our attractiveness. Conflating objectification with physical beauty is wrong.

1. The author's first point is that the context in which men and women are objectified is so different that they can't be considered the same basically.
In our current universe, men do not have trouble being taken seriously based on their looks or perceived sexiness, nor is their worth in society primarily judged by them...They will not be told their primary value is based on whether women want to fuck them. They will not be paid less on the dollar or subject to violence in representation or acts. They will not be treated like meat or chattel. Period.
Obviously I agree that the objectification of men is different then the objectification of women, but what I feel like is being ignored is the reason why the objectification of men is not as harmful as doing so to women (on a societal level at least). Mainly this is because women simply do not have the power dynamics to make it so, but not having the power to make men's complete worth reduced to their looks does not mean objectifying them is totally okay. It just means that the repercussions of that objectification are not as obvious or widespread. So yes, context definitely matters. But it still doesn't rationalize dehumanizing anyone.

2. Then there's the idea that since these men are in "peak physical shape" that we should appreciate that.
The culture at large is celebrating these men's bodies for their skill, agility, and strength — achieved partly through genetic blessing, yes, but also through training and hard work. It's true that this is setting up an ideal that most men cannot and do not achieve, but as ideals go, one achieved through activity and, it seems, fun isn't so bad. And presumably no unhealthy starvation or surgical enhancements were involved.
I don't like this line of thinking because it seems to imply that objectifying athletes is okay because we assume that they got their bodies in a way we find acceptable (unlike that chick with the huge fun bags right?). It also ignores the feelings of men that cannot live up to the ideal that the author claims "most men cannot and do not achieve." I don't want this post to sound a bit like I'm whining on behalf of teh menz, but it is completely hypocritical to say we should ignore our personal responsibility for setting unrealistic beauty standards for men and then turn around and be pissed that we'll never fit into the unrealistic beauty standards for women. Objectification, of anyone, promotes a standard of beauty that will exclude people.

3. The authors last point (I'm skipping two of them since I don't think they're relevant) is that by women voicing their appreciation they are fighting against the idea that women aren't as visual or sexual as men.
Everyone keeps telling us that women aren't visually stimulated and are cuddly balls of empathy and need a narrative. I suggest they check out some of the comment threads on #shamelessobjectification. There is something liberating about a woman expressing her pleasure in looking at a man's body as she sees fit.

That pleasure can make some people uncomfortable. One reader wrote about watching a match at the gym: "The men routinely spend their time ogling (and yes I do mean ogling, they make now bones about it) women in the fitness magazines. However these same men were distinctly uncomfortable and put out that we women were cheering and enjoying the Greek footballers taking off their shirts. Double standards? I think so." I do too.
First of all, I love how someone who is quick to disregard their own double standards as being essentially unimportant is also quick to point out double standards of other people. In the very same post even. That's just hilarious to me.

Beyond that I don't know if I agree with this point though. It is nice whenever women feel free to express their sexuality, but I don't think being a women should excuse me from thinking about the repercussions of my behavior. That seems just as coddling as supposing women don't get lustful. It also disregards the fact that many women are capable of ogling people in completely healthy ways.

This comment is pretty much the gold standard of comments and expresses my ultimate point perfectly:
The problem with objectification is that it pushes forward a very narrow ideal of beauty that people hurt themselves to achieve, women in particular have this problem at huge levels. Men have it too, but they are allowed far more variation in acceptable body-types or are allowed to be judged on other merits if they fail to be suitably attractive. This however does not make this somehow not a problem. I dislike how this piece just sort of handwaves away men who feel inadequate about their bodies because they don't look like what society tells them a man should look, essentially erasing men with things like eating disorders. This article is working really hard to say "objectification is okay when we do it". It could have just as easily said that there's, ya know, nothing wrong with admiring or fawning over someone for their physical appearance, provided you don't expect every other person to conform to this narrow standard of beauty or place all of their value in their appearance.
See, this post isn't really about defending men at all. It's about the idea that any harmful behavior, whether perpetrated by women or men, should be called out. I think a good example is the idea of "reverse racism." While any racial prejudices that people of color have towards white people will not be able to impact white people in any systematically substantial way (since whites are the dominant group), those prejudices are still pervasive to any attempt to move forward or ease racial tensions. Sexism falls into the same category. Just because women have the short end of the stick doesn't mean sexist behavior doesn't go both ways. While one group has the power to make those sexist feelings much more felt, both are damaging to society as a whole.

In the end, if we all just acknowledge that both men and women admire attractive people, and that there is a difference between admiration and objectification, then I think we'll be okay. But objectification is objectification and lack of power does not mean lack of responsibility. How can we demand we be treated a certain way when we don't treat other people in kind. I may not have the power to stop women from being treated as objects in almost every ad and billboard I come across, but I do have the power over my own actions.
"How wrong it is for a woman to expect the man to build the world she wants, rather than to create it herself." - Anais Nin
Ok, so this post is starting to get long but I also want to point out that some women do actually watch sports because they like to. While I'm sure hot men are a plus for some, I feel like Jezebel's attitude toward the World Cup (no sports commentary only athlete ogling) reinforces the idea that women don't like sports. I don't like sports so you definitely won't see anything about the World Cup from me, but if I did a whole series on male athletes in the World Cup I don't think it would be such a stretch to assume I'd talk about, or at least link to, some actually World Cup coverage.

Note:I want to make it clear that I do not actually think Jezebel is objectifying these athletes (since they haven't reduced them to simple sex objects). But the idea that if they were objectifying it would still be okay since they're women, bothered me.

4 comments:

  1. Yup. I was also rubbed the wrong way. I commented as such.

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  2. As I was reading this, I was thinking the reverse racism angle too. Then, you mentioned it. I see it much the same way.

    I do, however, differ slightly on my views of men being more accepted regardless of their appearance. My experience is anecdotal, at best. But I have noticed a marked difference in the attention I get from women between now and a few years ago when I was in peak physical shape, teaching martial arts. It seems more women liked that me than the current me...well, more of them flirted with me then, anyway ;-)

    I agree also that noticing and liking the opposite (or the same) sex is not necessarily objectification. I refuse to feel bad for liking me some women!

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  3. Brit: You summed up my post in a few sentences. lol

    Mac: I've always thought that the pressure for men to be the bread winner and financially successful is more on par with the pressure for women to look a certain way. If a man is considered unattractive but successful, then the looks come second. For women looks never come second.

    People who are considered attractive are treated better all around, but men still have other characteristics they can fall back on like success and humor. Just look at famous actors and actresses. There are far more "unattractive" male actors, especially comedians, then female. Plus most male actors don't feel the need to pose half naked in Maxim magazine. That being said, I would never disregard some one's personal experience with the pressure to look a certain way. It sucks all around.

    And don't ever feel bad for appreciating beautiful women! haha Anyone who says otherwise is setting an unrealistic expectation and bound for failure.

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