My Internet Crush
Before I get to the serious bits of the post, there’s something I need to get off my chest. I have a little Internet crush on Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield. He tweets spectacular photos of Earth from space that will make you fall in love with your planet (follow him @Cmdr_Hadfield). He’s musical! He’s buddies with Captain Kirk! I think someone should use this guy as inspiration for a romance hero. Maybe the heroine could have a Twitter meet-cute with him while he’s in space. Kind of an ultra-modern epistolary romance. He could write a song for her. But then something would have to go wrong for them . . . .
I Object! Or Do I Objectify?
Thanks to Twitter, I’ve been thinking about sexual objectification this week. First, there was the Superbowl. In Canada we don’t get a lot of the cool ads, but my tweetstream was full of both complaints about ads objectifying women (we’re looking at you, GoDaddy!) and discussions of hot men in underwear–sometimes from the same people.
Then, there was the blog (I’m not naming it here because my point isn’t to call particular people out; it’s an example of a larger phenomenon) that celebrated Black History Month by spotlighting actors of African heritage in its “beefcake” post, a regular feature.
Both these things troubled me, as do all the “man-titty” covers in romance (and that term for them), especially the headless ones. And, to some extent, the tweeting and tumblring of hot men in various states of undress to which Romancelandia is prone. If it’s wrong to objectify women, isn’t it equally wrong to objectify men?
I’m not sure how to answer this question, except with more questions. For instance, are these images of men sexually objectifying? Are we objectifying men when we look at them? I think sometimes, unquestionably. This fascinating TED talk from Sociological Images contributor Dr. Caroline Heldman (hattip Carolyn Jewel), argues that images where a part of the body stands in for the whole person are objectifying, for instance. Headless, bare-chested men on romance novel covers would seem to qualify.
Heldman’s video (which is only about 13 minutes long and well worth watching) explains some of the harm that objectification can do to women: constant exposure to sexually objectified images of women leads us to “self-objectify;” to be more depressed; to evaluate our bodies constantly; and, in some cases, to enjoy sex less because we have difficulty being active, desiring subjects and disassociate during sex. But in a culture where women are far more likely to be sexually objectified than men, is the comparatively little male objectification that harmful to real men? I suspect not.
I don’t think all objectification of women is harmful, either, or that it is avoidable. I’m still working my way through this amazing post, “Towards a Definition of Eroticism,” from Remittance Girl (hat tip Amber Belldene). Her exploration of eroticism suggests that objectification may be an inextricable part of desire:
There are compelling arguments from Marx to Beauvoir and Foucault to suggest that the controls [on sexuality] set in place have simply institutionalized this objectification rather than avoiding it and, within the field of psychoanalysis, it is questionable as to whether humans possess the even capacity to desire without objectifying what is desired.
It’s not surprising that objectifying another, using him or her as a prop to satisfy our own desires, can be pleasurable. But I think that being objectified can also be pleasurable, at least for some people or in some situations. How much of a woman’s pleasure in feeling like a desirable object comes from being part of a culture where she’s told an important aim of her life is to be desirable is an open question. But does it matter? However instinctual desire is, I don’t think we can experience it in a way unframed by culture.
I wonder, then, if there are ways to turn the tables on a sexist culture, ways for women to enjoy sexually objectifying images of men, that are not demeaning or oppressive to men. Could equal-opportunity objectification, where both men and women get to play at being sexual subjects and objects, make objectification less harmful? Context probably matters again. Playing that game with someone you trust and know respects you is a different matter from playing it with someone who really regards you as nothing but an object. Playing requires an active choice to engage in the game, not just being acted upon.
I think the extent to which sex objects are commodified matters too. Women as sex objects are used to sell things much more often than men are–and women are sold as sex objects more often than men are. Remittance Girl points out that objectification and commodification of human beings is not always sexualized:
Certainly many philosophers warn of the dehumanizing aspects of using humans as sexual objects, but it must be said that this objectification has always occurred. It has not been primarily as a consequence of allowing our sexual urges free rein, but of economic predation. We’ve been using each other as beasts of burden since civilization began.
This, I think, is why the Black History Month beefcake bothers me more than Becks beefcake. There is, needless (or is it?) to say, a long history in the US and elsewhere of treating black people as objects to be bought and sold (and as highly sexualized objects), and in that context, marking Black History Month with a post celebrating the bodies of black actors is thoughtless at best.
I think for sexual objectification to be something positive and pleasurable, we have to be self-conscious about it, aware of these contexts, to ask questions about how and why we are deploying potentially objectifying images. Maybe not all of the time. Maybe most of the time we get to play uncritically. But every once in a while, I want to step back and ask myself just what I’m playing at.