Tag Archives: objectification

“Wingman”

wingmanPeople love to ask me if I think X is sexist.

Generally, if you have to ask, if not outright sexist, it’s probably inadvisable, tasteless, or easily misinterpreted. Sometimes something–an item, promotion, label, campaign–isn’t sexist when taken on its own, but contributes (often by accident) to reinforcing stereotypes or perpetuating inequality.

“Is ‘wingman’ a sexist term?”

Thus began this week’s trip down the Urban Dictionary wormhole that finished in my essay for Role/Reboot about the cult of the wingman, the origin of the term, and whether we can salvage it from the pick-up artist misogynists.Screenshot_7_30_14_3_49_PM

 

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Feedback on Sexy-Soccer-Player Debate

Last week I wrote about the Sexist Thighs genre of World Cup listicles, the ones that zoom in on rippling muscles and rank the “best” of the body parts. In my essay, I tried to walk the fine line between acknowledging the problematic double standard of sexualizing female athletes (which I frown upon) and male athletes (which some people say is A-Ok because it’s only every four years and guys don’t get this all the time and blah blah blah…), while simultaneously arguing that contextual differences around male and female bodies mean we can’t measure objectification from an even playing field, because there isn’t one.

I wanted to share some feedback I got from all directions, because I think the complexities of this issue are many and there’s plenty of stereotype to go around.

From A, who felt generally in agreement, but took issue with my characterization of how much easier men have it in the media landscape:

“Young men are constantly bombarded with images of what a “sexy” and “successful” man looks like. Society has also conflated sexiness and career/financial success. Those who are good looking are successful in their careers and vice versa. This ultimately stems from a standard of beauty put on young men by fashion outlets (Abercrombie), TV (Don Draper), politics (Aaron Shock), and sports (Tom Brady). Just like it is somewhat easier for you wonderful, smart women to be successful despite certain gender stereotypes there are men who struggle against the “watch sports, let women cook, go into finance drive fancy cars blah blah blah” measure of success that is put upon up.”
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From C., who felt that the athleticism displayed by world class athletes (male and female) makes for healthier idolization than, say, regular old hot people:
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“The world cup is THE global sporting event. The men who compete in it are incredibly talented athletes and have the bodies to match. It’s not just that they have great thighs but that they are strong and coordinated. Also, part of what has been great about those lists is how diverse they are compared to the average “hot celebrity” compilation…But let’s flip it. Say there’s a women’s sporting event big enough that lists are being made about hottest female athletes (I’m sure this happened in the Olympics). I’m actually not upset about a slideshow that draws attention to the bodies of female athletes who are strong and capable…I don’t think you need to defend men from pictures of world-class male athletes any more than you need to defend women from pictures of world-class female athletes. These are people in the best shape of their lives who have worked really hard to get that way, and that’s a thing to admire.”

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C’s point is very interesting, and in general I’m much more in favor of fawning over what bodies can do vs. how they look, even though those two things are very related. I used to have this amazing coffee table book of photography of athletes with lineups of champions illustrating the range of physiques that can accomplish crazy feats:

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If that’s what we were talking about when we talk about “athletic physiques” then I’m all for it, because it truly prioritizes achievement over aesthetics, but that’s almost never what we’re talking about. Just as we don’t celebrate the physiques of weightlifting women in mainstream media, we don’t celebrate the 114lb, 5’2″ physiques of male marathoners either. They may be champions, but they don’t fit the “hot body” model we’ve come to expect.

Even when we talk athletic excellence, we are usually limiting our body worship to bodies that fit within the cutout of what we are already told is attractive. It doesn’t matter that Taylor Townsend is a tennis star, her body doesn’t look the way we think “fit” looks, and her sponsorship options already reflect how “confusing” people find that gap.

All of that is to say, soccer players are an interesting test case because they are athletically gifted and also perfect fits for what we have already deemed the “ideal physique.” I’m not sure we can separate those things and say that our adulation is about fitness rather than abdominal definition. And if it is about abdominal definition, then we have to own that, and we have to defend that, which personally, I’m not prepared to do.

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The 17 Hottest World Cup Players with Freckles*

*This is not a list of sexy soccer players.

Half of you are very disappointed that there is not actually a gallery of freckled soccer stars, and the other half of you read the title and were like… is she for real? No, I am not for real.

This week’s Role/Reboot piece is on the ubiquitous World Cup Hot List… hottest thighs, hottest abs, hottest butts, etc. etc. etc. and man I’ve been getting feedback in all kinds of directions. Half of you seem to think I’m going too hard on the lists, and that there’s nothing wrong with appreciating some chiseled pectorals in list format on Buzzfeed. The other half of you think I’ve overstated what I believe are the differences in how we view male and female bodies, and that men actually have it much harder than I’m giving them credit for. Can’t win ’em all.

Later this week, with permission, I’ll post some of the feedback, but in the meantime I would like to draw a distinction between two questions that I think are markedly different:

1. Is it, in general, okay to lust after (and document your lust for) attractive bodies, male or female? In other words, is there anything wrong with appreciating the human form in the first place? This is a HUGE question, with many pieces (short answer: no, long answer: it matters a lot what you do with that attraction and how you express it), that I’m not really prepared to answer right now. Similarly, the individual case of being attracted to someone is a lot less interesting to me than the macro trends on how we, collectively, as a society, treat bodies and beauty.

2. If you object to “Hottest Asses of the U.S. Women’s Ski Team” on the pages of Esquire or Vice because you find it reductive, demeaning, hypersexualizing, or reinforcing of problematic views about bodies, is it hypocritical to not object to the “Hottest Thighs of the Australian Men’s Soccer Team”? I think it is. I don’t think I can claim the first is an issue and the second isn’t, even though I absolutly believe that the media coverage of female bodies is markedly different than male bodies. The problem is not the same, but it is related.

Anyway, more an all of that and much talk of “shit buckets” of body coverage here:

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True Detective and the Male Gaze (Alternate Title: It’s No Fun to Be a Killjoy)

true-detective1This is a post about True Detective. There will be no spoilers.

You know…when I finished the final episode of True Detective, HBO’s bromance about a pair of mismatched Louisiana cops investigating the ritualistic cult killings that have long been buried by Bayou water and Spanish moss, I didn’t know what I thought. I knew that Matthew McConaughey acted the shit out of that part, and so did his ponytail. I knew that I admired the show’s gorgeous cinematography, great soundtrack, and brilliant pacing. I appreciated the creative timelines and complex, layered storytelling of the editing team. I know that this show was well made.

But the more I tried to articulate to other people what I liked and disliked, the more I realized that everything I liked was shiny surface crap, and everything I disliked was meaty substance. I read a lot of internet commentary, some that declared it a masterpiece, and some, like Emily Nussbaum’s New Yorker essay, that pointed out how shallow these eight episodes really were.

Let’s start with the “woman question.” Why? Because this is a blog about feminism and gender and media. Duh. Don’t like it? Leave.

The ratio of real female characters with feelings/opinions/emotions to naked prostitutes/strippers/floozies with no feelings/opinions/emotions is 1 to about a billion. Even the director, Cary Fukunaga, answered the woman question similarly in a NYMag:

“I mean, it’s true: the show wouldn’t pass the Bechdel test. That’s not necessarily a factor by which we should measure everything. It’s a story about two guys and that’s what it focuses on. It certainly does not focus on the women characters other than what it needs to to service the Hart story line.”

[As a reminder; the Bechdel Test isn’t a test of quality (good movies fail it, bad movies pass it). It is merely a test to see whether there are women of substance in a piece of media who exist as three-dimensional, autonomous characters who act with agency.]

Now, does everything have to pass the Bechdel Test? No. There is a place for bromances and buddy comedies and bachelor party narratives and war stories and sports tales and all of the other types of male-centric content. Those are good stories to tell. Remember Rescue Me? I loved that show. Ender’s Game barely passes it and that’s one of my favorite pieces of writing ever.

The problem is most of the stories that get told fail the Bechdel test, especially the “prestige” stories, the well-funded stories, and the oft-cited-as-art stories. So yes, it’s okay that True Detective, specificallydoesn’t pass Bechdel, but no, it’s not okay that so much of what is viewed as quality misses this most basic of thresholds.

Moving on. So, if I’m okay with the lack of substantive female characters on TD, where does that leave us? Male gaze. Sigh. Man, do I hate this one.

As a refresher, when we refer to “the male gaze,” we mean media that is created from a uniquely male point of view that typically uses aesthetic strategies that objectify women, reducing them to body parts and/or exaggerating sexuality, beauty, and femininity over a comprehensive set of human traits. It can be as simple as a camera shot that lingers on the breasts of an actress. It can be the ratio of male to female nudity (ahem, Game of Thrones). It can be anything that stylistically indicates that this content was made by men, for men, to the detriment of women.

Think about how we meet Maggie, Marty’s wife (played by Michelle Monaghan) in the very first episode of TD. She’s lying in bed on her side, facing away from the camera, butt exposed. We literally see her semi-naked body before we see her face, hear her voice, or know her name. Similarly, the first dead victim we meet is naked, which is crucial to the plot,  but the camera lingers on her ass, panning up and down her body. It is gratuitous as hell, unless you enjoy seeing naked female butts.

As Emily Nussbaum puts it, “TD was about the evil of men who treat women as lurid props, but the show treated women as lurid props.” Or, as I put it to a friend via gchat today, “it’s like… you don’t get props for being like RAPISTS ARE EVIL if in your very structure and dialogue and character, you are contributing to the culture that objectifies women and enables rape culture.”

You are either part of the solution or you are part of the problem. There is no neutrality, no “I’m just making a bromance cop show! This has nothing to do with gender politics!” I mark that position invalid; if you think you are contributing to the TV canon of greatness, then you don’t get to opt out of this conversation.  You will be judged on how you portray women and girls, as you should be. We are half of the goddamn population. That doesn’t mean you need to portray us as saints or angels, only that a show that visually treats women like objects doesn’t get to play the anti-rape culture card. Even if you catch the “bad guys” in the end.

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More on Miley

How many essays have you read about Miley Cyrus today? I think I’m up to 11. It’s like a gender studies bingo card: cultural appropriation, slut-shaming, female chauvinist pigs, shock politics, objectification of self, minstrel performance, etc. etc. etc. It was BAD, you guys, like… really bad.

There’s a lot of angles to take on a performance as awful as that one, and other people have written well about the racism. Some are slut-shaming like cray (looking at you Mika) and entirely missing the point (taking your clothes off is not the issue here… remember this epic performance in minimal clothing? Or this one?) At least, it’s not THE issue.

To me, her act was a naked and unappealing power grab from a young woman who decided to fake dominance by mimicking the least attractive traits of the big boys she envies. What are the hallmarks of male entertainer success? Decorating yourself with women, groping anything you want? An entourage of colorful people as props? To my mind, it was basically a 3 minute infomercial for Female Chauvinist Pigs, Ariel Levy’s stellar exploration of young women’s strange embrace of raunch culture. Thesis: I’d rather be the objectifier than the objectified, and if that’s not an option, I’ll just objectify myself before you do it to me.

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Complicated Feelings about Tourism, Harassment, Gender, Other Buzzwords

Screenshot_8_20_13_1_24_PMI have been thinking about this essay [trigger warning] about a white woman traveling in India a lot. Have you read it yet?  It’s making the rounds, but because I share her alma mater, it’s been tearing up my newsfeed. The gist of it is that the author, a college student studying abroad, was traumatized by the culture of sexual harassment, objectification, and assault that she experienced first and secondhand during her travels. She has since been diagnosed with PTSD. A sample:

I covered up, but I did not hide. And so I was taken, by eye after eye, picture after picture. Who knows how many photos there are of me in India, or on the internet: photos of me walking, cursing, flipping people off. Who knows how many strangers have used my image as pornography, and those of my friends. I deleted my fair share, but it was a drop in the ocean– I had no chance of taking back everything they took.

I’m having all kinds of feelings, so let’s do it this way…

On the one hand… This woman is entitled to her experience. I have also traveled in India as a single white female. I had a very different experience than the one she describes. Although I also had my picture taken a million times, had inappropriate questions asked, was stared at, and received two marriage proposals (which I politely declined), I did not experience any physical harassment. I felt that the stares were primarily based in curiosity, at my looks and at the audacity of a woman of my status to travel alone, not objectification.

When I first read this essay, I was tempted to roll my eyes. That’s a lie. I did roll my eyes, and I am now embarrassed that I did so. Part of me wanted to tell her to toughen up, brush it off. I am embarrassed by that response as well. Her experiences were different than mine (as mine are different from yours) and even if they had been similar, she is allowed to feel differently about the experience than I do. This seems obvious as I type it, but as I was reading, I was having an immature, judgmental, condescending reaction to her words.

On the other hand…She’s not a soldier. She’s not an aid worker. She’s a tourist. She can leave, so leave. She has all of the resources to stop the source of her trauma. She doesn’t live in India. She is not a resident who contends with the threat of rape and assault on a daily basis without the benefit of a return flight. Her harassment might be amplified by her red hair, but as recent tragedies would suggest, Indian women and girls are in no way immune from the the treatment she received. She is now back in the United States receiving treatment for PTSD. Her essay doesn’t acknowledge that this is a perpetual state for many; is PTSD even an acknowledged illness in India? She is lucky, as am I. We get to globe-trot, we get to explore, we get to be the solo lady travelers. We live in countries where we can vote and drive and have sex without being stoned and wear what we want and live alone and call the police when we need help and work and so many other things.

On the other hand… Sexual harassment is never okay. When one travels, there are obviously customs that are different in the countries you visit and, within reason, it is healthy and respectful to try to observe them. You should not travel expecting to recreate your experiences at home wherever you go; a Big Mac is not a Big Mac in India, it’s made of chicken and it’s called a Maharaja Mac. There may not be hot water. There might be bugs. It will smell differently, etc. etc. etc. But, sexual harassment and assault are not acceptable, even if they are more common in some parts of the world than others. While a “When in Rome,” attitude is usually a plus, “When I’m in Rome, I’ll get groped on the train,” is not cool.

I’m ashamed that I shrugged at her experience. I almost threw her the most insulting, patronizing response to her trauma, “What did you expect?” WHOA, Emily, NOT OKAY. You’re wearing yoga pants, what did you expect would happen? You’re drinking and dancing, what did you expect? You’re pretty, what did you expect? The “What did you expect” is a close cousin of “You were asking for it,” and we know that you are NEVER asking for it and that that is a line for the weak and the cowardly.

On the next hand… I can’t help but think about my own experience traveling in India and elsewhere. My experience has been overwhelmingly positive with a few blips of shittiness here and there and consequently my instinct is to declare that this makes me a “better” traveler than the author. My second instinct is to call bullshit on myself. Differentiation–“she’s not like me”–is the classic first step in victim blaming. If she’s not like me, then she’s somehow responsible for what happened to her, which would never happen to me,  because we are fundamentally different, and on and on. It’s a common defense mechanism to help calm the fear that it could happen to anyone (because, intellectually, we all know… it could happen to anyone).

There are at least three other hands to consider … (please feel free to add in the comments!), but I’m tired of talking about this. I am sympathetic for her experience. I am irritated at the essay’s “plight of the white woman” vibe. I am even more irritated that I identify with it. I feel pretty helpless in the face of the level of harassment and assault in India. If I’m honest, I feel pretty helpless in the face of harassment and assault here at home too.

So yeah, there’s that. 

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“Don’t take my picture,” “Come on! You’re at the beach!”

I’ve been thinking a lot about Tuesday’s post, trying to find a better way to articulate what bothers me about the hotties of Occupy Wall Street blog. I keep returning to this experience I had on a beach last summer:

I was standing on the boardwalk, one hand waving down the path, the other on the phone with a friend who was trying to find me. I was barefoot, in a bikini. People streamed by me, paying me no attention. A guy in his forties walked a few paces past me, then turned and stopped. He had a camera in his hand, and he started talking my picture.”What are you doing?” I said, “Don’t take my picture.”

“Whatever,” he said, grinning, and snapped another photo.

“I said, ‘Don’t take my picture!'”

“Come on,” he said, “You’re at the beach!”

I told him to fuck off, and he eventually did. I was shaken, and pissed, but I didn’t know what to do. Now this guy has pictures of me in a bathing suit that I did not say he could take. For all I know, they’re on a “Ladies at North Ave Beach” blog.

His “Come on! You’re at the beach!” was what sealed it for me. In his mind, my very presence was enough to justify being objectified. We’ve already talked ad nauseum about how a person’s clothes or demeanor never justifies rape, and I’m not equating having a picture taken to sexual assault, but the principle is the same. Whether I caused it or not, his desire or arousal is not my problem, and he has no claim to my person or my image to satisfy it.

While Steven Greenstreet’s motives seem purer than my beach photographer’s, his site is guided by the same principle. Paraphrased to the max, it goes something like this: I find you attractive, therefore your primary purpose is to be my eye candy, and I will treat you accordingly. Snapping mega-zoom photos for a “hot girls” blog or stealing a beachside bikini shot for God knows what are both just variations on a pretty ugly theme.

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