My female readers will surely be familiar with the following scenario: you’re reading something, preferably nonfiction and not very formal, so that the author frequently addresses the reader to explain things, joke around, relate anecdotes, etc. Obviously you, the reader, knows that said author has probably never met you in his life (and it is a ‘he’ in this case), but nevertheless, while reading the book it’s expected that you and the author will form something of a rapport – an imaginary relationship, if you will – wherein the author is relating facts or a story to you and you’re indulging him because you find the subject matter and his way of relating it interesting.
Most of the time, it’s also assumed that anyone with an open mind and interest in the book topic would be welcome to read the book – and ostensibly, that’s true. I’m sure most book authors – certainly the authors of the books I read – are happy to get all the readers they can. Even if royalties and publicity were not motivating them, I want authors of things I read to have at least a nominal commitment to empathy and openness, with a distinct lack of hate or hang-ups vis-a-vis any particular group. There are plenty of authors who wouldn’t feel that way, but I try not to read things they write.
So. You’re happily zipping along, learning new things, wrapped up in the narrative, and then – BAM! All of a sudden the illusion that the author was speaking just to you, or had you in mind at all when he was writing this, is gone. The author has, completely unintentionally, revealed that the only readers he had in mind when writing this book were people like him – in short, people who were straight males. It’s not his fault, really – one of the hallmarks of privilege is that the privileged group is viewed as the default. In a joke, it’s never a woman who walks into a bar – unless, that is, the joke revolves around her being a woman. The majority of characters in books, movies, TV are men – unless there’s a reason for them to be female (like a love interest or to act as a gendered foil to a main character). And so on.
- It establishes the idea that everyone views women – and ONLY women – as sexually attractive and appealing beings. Of course, there are many women who are attracted to other women, but a good deal more are not, and as we’ll see later, I think it’s pretty clear that these authors are not directing their words toward queer women.
- Much more insidiously, it communicates the message that a woman’s primary value is dependent on her physical appearance. If she’s attractive, than she’s wonderful and deserving of rhapsodic waxings-on about her breasts and thighs and rosy cheeks (she should be honored!). If she’s unattractive (to the writer, of course), then she is an affront to humanity who should be stamped out , mocked, or at the very least locked away where no one can see her. By forever bringing up the topic of how a female character, celebrity, or other personage appeals to the author sexually, he unwittingly reveals his subconscious belief that women exist primarily for male consumption.
Women who are not sexually interested in other women get hit with a double whammy here, but anyone who doesn’t fit the template of “straight male” gets some shrapnel. Anyone who isn’t attracted to women (for example, gay men) suffers from number 1, and anyone who identifies as female is slapped with number 2. As one of the aforementioned double-hitters, I feel confident in saying that number two is much worse. Better to be ignored than actively belittled.
Want to see some examples of what I’m talking about? I know you do. Here are just a few of the ones that have given me a psychological hypnagogic jerk in the past couple of months.
- One of the blogs in my blogroll, Pharyngula, recently linked to a poster of Raquel Welch. Here it is:
PZ Myers, the blog author and an atheist, is notoriously scornful of any and all religious traditions, particularly Christianity. I’m not overly pleased about that, but I do have a particular problem with this post, entitled “A simple suggestion for improving the popularity of Catholic iconography”.
If the walls were draped with these, though, my reflexive rejection of the whole idea of church attendance might be softened.
I still wouldn’t pay any attention to the liturgy or the sermon or the hymns, though.
Somehow, I was also able to watch the whole movie that young lady was in without once grumbling about the banality of the plot or the ludicrous absurdity of mixing dinosaurs and cavemen, so she has proven powers in generating a willing suspension of disbelief, so I’m sure she’d be a perfect symbol for a religion.
Do you get it? He’s saying Raquel Welch is a hottie, and seeing her crucified would provide him with enough visual and mental stimulation to sit through a Catholic church service (and coming from PZ, that’s tantamount to having one’s fingernails ripped out). He’s also saying that she was in a crappy movie, but he was so enthralled by her sexiness that he didn’t even have time to mock her for it the way he should have. Isn’t Raquel Welch lucky?
The icing on the cake, of course, is the information on where the poster comes from:
The photo was devised for the poster of “One Million Years BC” and reflected O’Neill’s view that the Sixties were a decade that “crucified” the ideal of womanhood because it valued women only for their sexuality.
Well, if only Terry O’Neill could see it now. For added kicks, be sure to read the comments, where dozens more of librul doodz talk about which movie stars they’d like to see naked in boring places for their convenience; on the rare occasion that a woman posts anything about objectification of women and how this post is particularly insulting in light of the fact that the Catholic Church hates women, they’re responded to with comments like this:
People who talk about objectification of women remind me of a conversation I had elsewhere on the net about men’s fascination with fire. […]
It’s a completely visual thing, and I’m a visual guy. I’m a physicist, and I can recognize beauty in the following things: logical solutions to mathematical or physical problems, the curvaceous appearance and motion of a woman, curvaceousness in automobiles, and fire. If I look at the motion of the flames in a fire, I think of a woman dancing with her arms over her head…the similarity is striking. It took me a while to figure out the emotional connection. It’s the way I’m wired, and I make no apology for it. I treat my wife like a human being, by the way. I’d never put her on a cross. Now, a pedestal…well, Venus…never mind. ;^)
Do you feel better? I know I do. Nothing better than nerdy guys explaining why they just can’t help viewing women as sexy objects for their gratification (it’s science!), in the same way that they view other manly things, like cars and fire. But hey – at least he lets his wife sleep in the house rather than the garage, amirite? [rim shot]
2. One of the worst websites as far as far as white, privileged, fauxgressive dudes go is Cracked – a site that I nevertheless read daily (shameface). The writers and actors on Cracked are all pretty liberal, open-minded, and funny people; the website’s content mainly consists of articles, lists, and videos of random funny things. It’s very easy to lose an hour or five reading articles entitled “The 5 Most Horrifying Bugs In The World” or “7 Species That Get High More Than We Do“. I mean, who wouldn’t want to know that? In their posts, the Cracked writers are usually fairly accepting and non-offensive, with a distinct paucity of “gay guys are gross!” or “poor people are lazy shits!”. However, they still manage to remind me, quite frequently, that the site is marketed towards men only.
Briefly put, the site never misses an opportunity (or fails to create one) to establish women as objects to be groped and/or ogled. Talking about stupid tax evasion strategies*? Why not throw in a topless picture of a “hot” woman and relate it to your article by including the caption “You can’t tax someone who isn’t wearing a shirt.…Right?” Writing about words in other languages that English should adopt? Why, there’s a plethora of possibilities to treat women like shit! You can:
- Expound on how horrible it is when a woman meets your attractiveness standards from behind, but when you are confronted with her face, causes you to snap out of your fantasy of fucking her and thus lose your erection (for bonus points, include pictures of what this theoretically ugly-faced woman might look like and mention the term “butterface“!).
- Sasy that a toddler grabbing a candy bar is exactly the same (and just as justifiable) as a grown man grabbing the breasts of a woman he’s never met, because sexual assault is funny! It’s even funnier when a woman’s body parts are as inanimate and ownerless as a piece of chocolate lying on the ground.
- Put in your gratuitous “cleavage picture” that manages to be Photoshopped into about 60% of your articles – this time, with a candy bar smushed between the girls, representing the apogee of male groping (food and boobs!)
See? It’s easy! As long as you publish the occasional woman-friendly article – perhaps Hollywood’s 5 Saddest Attempts At Feminism, or 8 TV Ads That Hate Women – you can hold your head up high and tell yourself that you’re a champion of equal rights everywhere. You can even publish articles that claim to be about recognizing double standards, but are really just an excuse to drool over women’s bodies, like Great Moments In Gratuitous Sci-Fi Nudity or The 6 Most Gratuitously Cleavaged Women On TV – it gives you an excuse to show lots of sexyhot pics and snidely intimate that any woman who shows that much skin is kind of a slut (because the FSM knows, it’s not like there’s a market for that!).
3. You know, sometimes jsut publishing the occasional article on women’s rights just doesn’t do the trick – either for lulling women into a false state of security or for reassuring any man that might get the occasion pang of guilt for viewing women as 3D porn clips. Sometimes, you need to actually state that misogyny is wrong, dammit, and will not be tolerated!
- I’d really rather you didn’t judge people for the way they look, or how they dress, or the way they talk, or, well, just play nice, okay? Oh, and get this into your thick heads: woman = person. man = person. Samey = Samey. One is not better than the other, unless we’re talking about fashion and I’m sorry, but I gave that to women and some guys who know the difference between teal and fuchsia.
- I’d really rather you didn’t indulge in conduct that offends yourself, or your willing, consenting partner of legal age AND mental maturity. As for anyone who might object, I think the expression is “go fuck yourself,” unless they find that offensive in which case they can turn off the TV for once and go on a walk for a change.
- I’d really rather you didn’t challenge the bigoted, misogynistic, hateful ideas of others on an empty stomach. Eat, then go after the bitches.
Yay! A religion that explicitly states its respect for women at the outset, rather than relying on history and tradition to treat them like crap or just pointedly ignoring the issue altogether! Of course, this religion has the advantage of being both a. fake and b. created in 2005, where we are all clear, modern thinkers and sexism is dead woohoo!
I was thrilled to discover the above excerpt. “This is why I list my religion as ‘Pastafarian’ on my Facebook profile!”, I thought. Finally, I can let my guard down and bask in the glow of being acknowledged! Aside from the slightly odious mention of “fashion”, I have nothing to…oh, crap.
The Pastafarian belief of heaven stresses that it contains a beer volcano and a stripper factory.
You know, I was wondering when this would turn into a Judd Apatow movie. But it feels like there’s still something missing…couldn’t we go a little further down this road?
Hell is similar, except that the beer is stale, and the strippers have STDs.
Theeerrre we go. This is much more familiar.
Even more interesting is the fact that in this afterlife, strippers are made in factories (like cars! or guns! or some other manly tool!) and the fact that they have STD’s is going to directly affect you, presumably by your having sex with said strippers. I think there’s a better word for that kind of sex worker, but I just can’t think of it right now. To be fair, the strippers in heaven are probably prostitutes too (I mean, it wouldn’t be heaven without sex with someone who doesn’t particularly want it!) but it’s different in that men don’t have to suffer from the consequences of the womens’ sluttiness. It’s much more preferable that a woman be completely sexully available and consumable, but to bear no traces of her actual whorish lifestyle. And who the hell are these “strippers” that end up in Heaven and Hell, anyway? Do people really think that it’s some women’s dream to be forced to be available to millions of drunk dudes for all eternity? I concede that they probably didn’t think this through; the strippers are merely part of the scenery – meant to entice and arouse, but not to have any inner thoughts or lives of their own. Now we’re in familiar territory.
4. When writing a memoir of some interesting experiences you’ve had, don’t hold back on the inner monologue! After all, there’s a reason your readers are perusing your book and not a textbook. Please, let us into the inner workings of your brilliant mind, and don’t feel at all self-conscious when writing stuff like this:
Iowa women are almost always sensationally overweight – you see them at Merle Hay Mall in Des Moines on Saturdays, clammy and meaty in their shorts and halter tops, looking a little like elephants, yelling at their kids, calling out names like Dwayne and Shauna. Jack Kerouac, of all people, thought that Iowa women were the prettiest in the country, but I don’t think he ever went to Merle Hay Mall on a Saturday.
Those fucking fat women. They are so disgusting. How dare they go out in public – on a Saturday, of all days. Because it is a given that:
a. All women in Iowa look like this
b. Looking like this is indescribably revolting
c. All women are subject to my evaluation of their physical attractiveness
d. If I ran the world, all women would pass said evaluation with flying colors
e. The fact that they don’t makes me vewy vewy sad 😦
You can surely understand my pain.
But wait! There’s some silver lining in all this! These vile bitches do have a use after all! They have daughters!
I will say this, however – and it’s a strange, strange thing – the teenaged daughters of these fat women are always utterly delectable, as soft and gloriously rounded and and naturally fresh-smelling as a basket of fruit.
Oh, thank God. I thought for a second you wouldn’t be able to wax rhapsodic on how hot some girls are (My day just doesn’t feel right until some dude on the street composes an impromptu sonnet to my nipples). We wouldn’t want that. What’s that, you say? There’s a fly in the ointment?
I don’t know what it is that happens to them, but it must be awful to marry one of those nubile cuties knowing that there is a time bomb ticking away in her that will at some unknown date make her bloat out into something huge and grotesque, presumably all of a sudden and without notice, like a self-inflating raft from which the pin has been yanked.
Aww, that’s too bad. It must be awful when people women get older and aren’t as springy and glossy and nubile as they were at 16. Who knows how their husbands deal with it? I know I couldn’t handle it if my wife showed any physical signs whatsoever of aging, childbirth, or living with an idiot (“why does she have such frowny wrinkles?“). I could go on about the stunning amount of fat-hate, and the lecherous and literal salivating over barely legal (if that) girls by a self-described 36-year-old, and above all the assumption that any female within his range of vision exists solely to strike his fancy, but I won’t. You know the drill. I would also like to note that in the book from which I took this excerpt, no woman that is not related to the author escapes being described primarily in terms of her physical beauty and/or potential fuckability. We know where his head’s at!**
5. This was a kerfluffle that stirred up the science blogosphere about a month ago. Long story short – a blogger who used to post on ScienceBlogs got a new gig posting at Discover Blogs. Huzzah! In an introductory post, a photo of her and her co-blogger was posted. Sheril is someone who is very conventionally attractive, so…I think we can all guess what came next.
Comrade PhysioProf blogged the saga, so we’ll take quotes from his post***:
The first comment arrived fewer than 30 minutes after the welcome post was published:
I’ll be the first to say that Sheril is quite fetching.
A couple hours later this gem was published:
Having not read any of their material, I am supremely unqualified to comment on any of their writings.
But, as a living breathing male of the species, I look forward to any article with Sherils picture attached.
Any person that tried to say something along the lines of “commenting on women’s physical appearance when it has no bearing on the matter at hand isn’t a compliment, it’s being an asshole”, they were accused of being humorless. and as we all know, calling a feminist humorless is one of the most common ways to try to get her to shut up. The female blogger in question, Sheril Kirshenbaum, posted a response to the events a couple days later, where she explained exactly why and how the events that transpired were offensive and did, in fact, matter. Of course, some people still didn’t get it and went on about how women should be happy to get any compliment they can, even if they don’t like it (compliment FAIL).
The main point here is that by focusing particularly or solely on a female blogger’s beauty, male commenters once again established The Way Things Are: women are pretty, and men look. A lot. And make creepy comments.
6. A couple of weeks ago, Pharyngula did a post about a Quebecois student who was allegedly discriminated against because of her sexuality****. The story was quite appalling, with the following quote making up the meat of the problem:
I feel that maybe Nursing is the wrong career for you. As a nurse, I have to advocate for my patients, and i feel that female patients will be uncomfortable having a lesbian nurse caring for them. You do not provide a sense of security to patients when you keep important information from them. Your sexual orientation is something important that patients have a right to know so that they can decide if they wish to have you as their caregiver. I myself am not homophobic at all, but I would not want a lesbian nurse caring for me when I am vulnerable. I would just not feel comfortable with that.
I think it might be best if you see student services to explore other career options that do not involve physical interaction, and intimacy. It wuold look better if you left nursing out of your own accord, rather than get kicked out.
So – infuriating, yes? Clearly (and I could go on about how people think they can just be squicked out by LGBT people and still not get called homophobic/transphobic, but I’ll save it for another time). The vast majority of commenters roundly condemned the author of this e-mail, who was the instructor of the recipient and had failed her in a class. Many shared stories about finding out some healthcare provider was queer and not having cared, or pointed out the hypocrisy in that the instructor presumably didn’t have any problems with, say, male gynecologists. Most said that even if they hadn’t up to that point, if they found out that they were being cared for by a lesbian nurse, they wouldn’t care in the least.
All good stuff. However, the tone of a few of the comments took a decidedly squickier (and sadly, predictable) tone.
We have the concise and to-the-point innuendo:
Lesbian nurses, huh? I’ll take two. 3:o>
We have someone who, after another commenter pointed out that viewing actual lesbians as accurately represented by their porny counterparts is stupid, managed to bring it back to where it was All About Him and All Porn, All The Time:
“The sexual preferences of nurses may be a staple of porn films, but it is not the reality of health care.”
Perhaps not, but I’d like that to change, and as a male I like the idea of having a lesbian nurse, preferably two and I would even let them use the other bed in the room if it were vacant. I can’t imagine anything that would help me to recuperate faster.
I am documentary filmmaker doing preliminary research for a film about situations like this
Yeah, I make films about lesbian nurses too. Well, at least, I’d like to… So any lesbian nurses out there, please contact me, not the other guy who left no contact info. Oh drat.
The whole phenomenon of “straight guys luuuurv watching girls kiss” is so tired. It’s not about being appreciative, or aroused by a particular stimulus – it’s about assuming that the world revolves around the male quest for sexual fulfillment. I’d say about 97% of the lesbian porn out there is made by and for straight men – it’s about ownership, and appropriation, and domination. I don’t want to get into whether porn can ever be truly non-exploitative, but it’s clear that the aforementioned type is distinctly not. The problem isn’t just that many men are aroused by the idea of multiple women fondling each other for solely male benefit, it’s that those same men get super-pissed when they find a lesbian that doesn’t give them that satisfaction. Lesbians sometimes get off comparatively easy in terms of homophobic slurs that straight men throw around – gay men seemingly bear the brunt of homophobic mocking and taunting***** – but that’s only because the default assumption is that lesbians are HAWT! and want you to watch them have sex! Once that premise is lost, all bets are off and the harassment is just as vicious (if it hadn’t been before; see note). That’s where you get corrective rape in South Africa, or the recent gang rape of a lesbian in California. As the Victorian Legal Rights For Lesbians Group said,
A strong belief in the sexual entitlements of heterosexual men and the subordinate status of women in our society appears to motivate some men to attack lesbian women on the basis of the women’s apparent rejection of her ‘appropriate’ role; thus, anti-lesbian violence can be seen to be punishment for sexual autonomy.
Obviously, verbally objectifying someone is not the same as assaulting them. But what the two acts have in common is the entitlement – all women, even those that are demonstrably uninterested in me, exist primarily for my sexual pleasure. In the aforementioned thread, two out of three examples involved people taking supportive or helpful comments that were directed at the harassment victim, and redirecting the conversation towards them. Even one thread about something that doesn’t directly cater to male sexuality cannot be allowed to stand.
Also, this is just depressing.
So, there we have it! One overlong and convoluted post on how male writers – even supposedly progressive or egalitarian ones – manage to exclude women from their reading or viewing audience, without even trying. It’s evident that when writing pretty much anything, some of the author’s feelings about the topic are going to come out. That’s not the problem. Let me reiterate – the issue is not that some (most?) authors are male, or heterosexual, or horny, or some combination thereof. The problem comes with the assumption that all of their readers are those things as well, and the corollary that all readers will equally appreciate the reduction of women to sex objects, or the idea that their worth is concomitantly dependent on how well they fit into that role. Some authors out there will not care in the least, but maybe some will read this and think twice before doing so again.
Next up!: No Girls Allowed, Part 2: The Token Female
*I don’t have the energy to rant about Cracked’s frequent use of the word ‘retarded’ to mean contemptible or stupid, but rest assured, it did not go by un-glared at.
***CCP is, incidentally, a good example of a male feminist ally – one who is, by nature of his sex, given societal privilege, but works to overcome that privilege and combat sexism. Woot.
****This story now appears to have been partially or totally falsified, but it doesn’t diminish my point, as all commenters that I mention treat the story as if it were true.
*****Of course, words that are ostensibly “complimentary” but based in disrespect can be just as damaging as words that are more obviously hateful.