“There’s this idea that if a man enjoys a photograph of a nude woman or if he likes your short skirt, he’s taking something away from you,” actor and model Emily Ratajkowski was talking to Harper’s Bazaar. “When I post a selfie and someone comments, ‘Oh, sure, go ahead and reclaim your sexuality, I got my rocks off,’ that’s not my problem.”
“Whoah!” I can almost hear readers cry. Not her problem? Maybe not her particular problem, but how about other women? Especially those who don’t enjoy being preached at by models, porn stars and a miscellany of other women who are relaxed about men ogling at them — just as long as they get paid for it. Ratajkowski could be contributing to what others regard as a problem for every other woman.
What might have been, 10 years ago, an unfamiliar, perhaps even arcane term understood by only a few feminist scholars, is now part of our everyday vernacular: objectification. We use it all the time. It’s been given fresh impetus by the #MeToo movement that emerged in the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein scandal.
When #MeToo identified objectification as one of the most bedeviling problems for women, it wasn’t a new argument. It had been circulating for a while, but after the tide of disclosures that followed the Weinstein revelations, the credibility of the argument strengthened — though, of course, it is virtually impossible to verify.
A Little More
There’s a little more to the #MeToo-influenced model of objectification. A culture of sexual objectification is apparent everywhere we look. Women are presented in a way that deliberately reduces the importance or prominence of all features apart from their sexuality. The ubiquity of images of women presented in this way has contributed to sense of male sexual entitlement. Surrounded by representations of glamorous women, with no apparent capacity for anything other than sex, men feel permitted to do as they please and in a way in which their misdeeds are disregarded. Some women are consciously complicit in this, while others, particularly those in the entertainment industry, are reminded, often surreptitiously, that they should take special attention to their physical appearance.
“My question is why do young girls want to be portrayed in that way?” That wasn’t my question, but Mel C’s. The Spice Girl, known for wearing sports gear on stage, was wondering out loud why the girl band Little Mix dress sexily. “They are getting more provocative,” she believes. In their supercilious, in-your-face exuberance and their eagerness to bring new dynamism to the analysis of sexual objectification, critics appear to have overlooked the degree to which some women are as indifferent as most men.
Ariana Grande is another artist who’s been singled out by a more mature performer — in her case Bette Midler — though Midler is not the only person to have noticed Grande’s erotic performances. “Expressing sexuality in art is not an invitation for disrespect,” Grande has responded. “Just like wearing a short skirt is not asking for assault.”
The argument runs along the lines that the inclination of some men to behave toward women as if they were objects rather than subjects with thoughts, feelings and agency, has been encouraged by the entertainment, fashion and music industries — all are as culpable as the sex industry. Some actors aren’t impressed. “We’re projecting a very unrealistic body image … I find myself with actor friends — after we’ve done a kind of barely eating, working-out-twice-a-day, no-carbing thing for these scenes – looking at each other going: ‘We’re just feeding this same shit that we’re against.’”
— British Vogue (@BritishVogue) April 20, 2019
The words are those of Richard Madden, winner of best actor in the 2019 Golden Globes, for his role in the BBC series Bodyguard. In an interview with Vogue magazine, the British actor complained how he’s been offered many jobs on the condition he loses weight and “get to the gym.” His point, though by no means an anti-feminist one, is that the objectification doesn’t affect only women, “it happens to men all the time as well.”
It probably does. Do they care? David Beckham didn’t seem bothered when he let his figure ornament countless advertisements in the 1990s. Underwear, whisky, marker pens, motor oil, you name it: Beckham’s image helped sell them all. Self-aware, slightly conceited and attentive to his appearance, the metrosexual personified by Beckham was straight and saw no need to dissemble his interest in grooming products or even his vanity. Other Adonis-like celebs walked into advertisements, seemingly unaware or unafraid of the dehumanizing dangers ahead.
The famous shot of Daniel Craig in sky blue swimming trunks in the 2006 film Casino Royale became one of the images of the noughties. George Clooney appeared in swimwear on the cover of Vanity Fair. He also advertised coffee, watches and scotch. Madden seems to be the first man to murmur a protest, leading us to the inescapable conclusion that men are active abettors in their own objectification. Perhaps they don’t mind being used. Should they? When Madden said, “It doesn’t just happen to women, it happens to men all the time as well,” he may have been right. But does it matter? Or does it matter less? Less, that is, than women’s degradation to mere objects. After all, not much turns on it: There appear to be no far-reaching consequences that harm men.
Men’s objectification is different. Even before metrosexuality, men, young and old, were staring at the mirror and, like Narcissus, falling in love with their own images. There’s nothing disempowering for men to gorge on supplements or steroids, and frequent gyms in their efforts to build a buff body. You only have to look at Love Island or Geordie Shore (the British version of Jersey Shore) to see strutting young men who appear to prioritize their physical appearance over everything. And, even allowing for Madden’s uncommon protest, men have cooperated fulsomely.
Practically every woman and man in the public eye dutifully describes him or himself as a feminist and can usually recite some feminist precepts, the obvious one being that women have — or should have — the independence to make their own decisions in much the same way that men have had. Presumably, if women or men choose to exhibit themselves in a way that accentuates their sexuality, that their business. And, if, as Ratajkowski maintains, those images (of women and men) are used in a way that gratifies consumers sexually, that’s not their business. Does this constitute wanting it both ways? It means you want to display yourself and abrogate responsibility for how the display is used.
We end up predictably with a divided womanhood, with some women insisting freedom of choice gives them prerogatives denied women for centuries, and others denouncing them for using those prerogatives carelessly. Men can argue all they like that they’re not owners of their own destinies and are obliged to succumb to the imperatives of objectification just like women. But this is an irony-rich cop-out. It’s like prison wardens pointing out they eat the same food as the inmates, neglecting to add that they have home-cooked meals after work. There are always delicious and nourishing alternatives for men.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.