[NOTE: I may be wading into perilous waters with this post, but I hope, whatever your feelings on these matters, you’ll read it all the way through and not just reflexively dismiss me as an unworthy ally. Your comments are welcome, preferably here rather than on Facebook or elsewhere.]
A few days ago, I saw an artist post a Supergirl drawing to his feed on Facebook. It was definitely cheesecake, so some folks would react to it like it was an assault on all that is holy, but it was just a simple pinup with an old-style sweet sexiness to it.
The first comment under the picture was from some guy who wrote, “More like SuperBITCH!!!”
I was taken aback. I’ve seen stupid. I’ve seen misogynistic. But what the fuck was in this asshole’s head when he wrote that? Did he think he was complimenting the artist’s work somehow? Did he think he was making a boisterous positive statement about the hot superhero in the drawing? Did he think what he was saying was edgy or cool and made him look good? What the fuck was he trying to communicate? Surely it wasn’t “I’m a pathetic shithead,” which was what I saw him saying.
I don’t know if the artist was annoyed, if he let the comment stand on his page, or if he might have even agreed with the comment (whatever weird message it held). But all of that was secondary to my confusion about what was in that guy’s head and the bleak disquiet I felt seeing him express it.
I posted the above on Facebook. Ironically, my very next post was apparently so misogynistic that it inspired another writer (whom I share real world friends with and have a good amount of respect for) to kick me off his friends list:
Make a chocolate Benedict Cumberbatch and that’s apparently drool-worthy. Make a chocolate Scarlett Johansson though and the night will be filled with torches and pitchforks and undergrad screeds.
This was inspired, of course, by the existence of an actual chocolate Cumberbatch which I was seeing posted all over my feed by leering women, many of whom, based on their comments, really liked the idea of eating them some Benedict.
My beloved Nydia posted a link about the dapper confection and commented, “Fun stuff! Now it would be fair to make a life-size chocolate Scarlett Johansson sculpture to please the boys too, lol.” And the two of us talked about how some people would flip their lids if the statue were of an actress, and if men were commenting all over the place about how much they’d like to eat her. In fact, some of the women drooling after chocolate Cumberbatch routinely complain about men objectifying women.
Thus was my post born.
Now, to be honest, I vacillated mightily about posting my comment. I knew it would probably offend some people, but I think some people are too easily offended and I try not to censor myself for their benefit. I thought it might get me kicked off a friends list or two, which I was fine with…until it cost me someone I actually enjoyed having in my feed. And I thought it might result in some discussion about issues of sexism and objectivism which are issues I’m actively parsing in order to figure out what I believe about them. I also thought the comment was funny. Whether it was or not is a matter of opinion, but it was certainly written with a light heart.
The first negative response: “Well, there’s a reason for that. People who look like Benedict Cumberbatch are far less often raped, paid 23% less, or beaten to shit by a spouse only to have the police suggest, ‘Try to work it out and stop bothering the neighbors.’ So while acknowledging your point in a Platonically perfect world, in reality I’m okay with choccy Ben and still a bit squicky with choccy Scarlett.”
Sorry, if objectification is objectively bad, then no one should do it. It’s not, logically, okay for one gender to do while complaining that the other gender should not. It’s not a matter of “punching up” and “punching down;” if it’s punching, nobody should be punching anybody. Bitching about it while doing it yourself is hypocrisy.
Now, understand that it’s possible to say “what’s bad for the gander is bad for the goose” without meaning that all things are thus equivalent. Certainly, if objectification is oppressive, women are far, far more oppressed than men, and men whining about women oppressing them is (usually) ludicrous. There’s no equivalency. But if the behavior is oppressive, it’s oppressive.
But is objectification oppression?
When I posted about the Supergirl drawing, and the blatantly misogynistic response it received, someone commented, “We cannot objectify women and then be surprised when it turns hostile.” But I don’t think that’s true.
I think we can, and do, objectify women (and men) all the time without it causing hostility in most people. We’re all objects to people who don’t know us. The first thing we notice about another human being is usually whether we’re attracted to them or not, and that determination may change as we get to know them but it never goes away. And we can’t help but assess a person based on the information at hand, which is often just a visual and maybe a cursory interaction.
We’re all sexual beings, and we’re attracted to what we’re attracted to. We give a lot of thought to what we’re attracted to, and we’re inspired by what we’re attracted to. And so, what we’re attracted to shows up in our art, and that is a natural, human impulse. So is fantasy, so is idealization.
Objectification isn’t the problem. Dehumanization is. The artist drew a sexy Supergirl, an object of fantasy and desire, but that did no damage to Supergirl nor to any actual women. He got pleasure out of drawing her, there was nothing disrespectful in the act, and a lot of the folks who saw the image probably enjoyed it. The idiot who sees it and reacts to it in a dehumanizing, misogynistic way isn’t created by the drawing, and neither it nor the artist have any responsibility for his reaction. He’s just a fuckwit and that’s on him.
None of which is to say we don’t have vast systemic issues as a culture which contribute to the formation of fuckwits like him and which are undeniably damaging to women (and men). Objectification certainly plays a role when taken to unhealthy extremes, but to blame it as an innate cause is, I believe, a red herring.
Do you disagree? I shouldn’t have to say this, but that’s okay. I am not going to demonize you for having a different take on this, and in an ideal world I wouldn’t have to worry about being demonized either. As I said above, I’m still trying to figure these things out, and I’m always willing to listen. But just because you think you’ve codified the definitions and terms of debate does not mean that you are correct, nor does it mean that everyone has to accept your definitions and terms. This is a big tangled knot of a subject. Maybe a sexy Supergirl picture really is an affront to women and to civilization and I’m just not able to see it.
Or maybe it’s not, and there are actually much bigger things wrong that aren’t actually affected by such a drawing at all. And maybe those are the things we should focus on.