I am usually quite adverse to wandering into the minefields of sexual politics. On no other subject is every single word you commit to print scrutinised so ruthlessly. I learned long ago that even a completely ironic, satirical piece will invite scorn and being labelled a bigot and a misogynist. And don’t even try to point out that you were only trying to be funny, it won’t fly. So, I sit by day by day and do my best not to weigh in on the latest story or editorial that pops up bemoaning the latest sin in the male rap sheet of chauvinistic shame. The many indefensible crimes of the penised ones.
Recently, SMH published a piece by Clementine Ford entitled ‘How to demean a woman’, which says it all really. Long story short, Ford rightly criticised Zoo Weekly’s Facebook photo feed that asks its 33,000-strong band of boofheads to choose between two scantily clad women. One particular example (and a kind of bizarre one, even for Zoo) asked users to choose between top or bottom half of a woman, and explain why. No prizes for predicting the resulting outpour of painfully unfunny sexist ‘jokes’, uncouth remarks and general meat-headedness. Given the context, it’s hard to be shocked. As NME is to musos, Gardening Australia is to greenthumbs and IKEA catalogues are to anyone moving house – so Zoo Weekly is to boofhead bogans. It exists purely on the profitable earthly elements of ‘blokedom’: beer, women, cars and sports. It shares the same shelf as trashy celebrity mags and those thick, scented, glossy numbers that will always advertise 50 ways to be thinner, 36 ways to improve your sex life and 128 must-have shoes. In other words, it’s endlessly-recycled, one-dimensional crap.
I choose to ignore all that nonsense. I don’t believe that such blatant objectification is a good thing – nor do I agree that it’s fair to use these blokes mags as a brush to tar all malekind. Likewise, men can’t point to celeb pulp to label all women as mean gossips. I just choose not to rub grubby shoulders with the respective audiences. But Ford also raised an important issue related to all of this. A side that she certainly described with ruthless verbosity – but didn’t really explore.
“Unfortunately, this isn’t just about the antics of a bunch of perpetually juvenile men and their light-hearted fondness for female objectification. It’s also part of a much broader attempt to limit the roles women are allowed to play – to offer a retro system of reward for those who play along, and punishment for those who don’t. It explains why a handful of fans and commenters on Zoo Weekly’s Facebook page are women, why so many of them send free photos of themselves in g-strings and disembodied poses… The world is full of the kind of female chauvinist pigs that Ariel Levy wrote about in her polemic of the same name; women who prostrate themselves before a cavalcade of men, whose mutually shared view of their value is inherently tied up in female willingness to subjugate itself for approval.”
The point she makes is this: the little ‘Left or Right’ game set up by Zoo exemplifies an unfortunate trend that demands we objectify ourselves to achieve urgent ‘validation’ from the opposite sex. Yes it does and it reveals the aching absence of simple respect. I also agree that it is in no way does ‘empowerment’ even warrant a mention. The women who offer themselves up to the altar of perve don’t legitimise the practice any more than they earn themselves any respect. However a problem here is that Ford seems to imply that this is a scenario unique only to realms ruled by male opinion, such as Zoo. She offers no other examples of how immediate objectification is a universally human trait – and that online media just so happens to be the perfect arena to view it in all its gruesome horror. This, to me, is problematic, because it adds more weight to the perception that ‘objectification’ is a specifically gendered concept; that as if by default men are lust-driven perpetrators while women are vulnerable victims. Such perceptions do nothing to help us better understand the roots of the issues of true sexist discrimination. Sexism is far more pervasive than simple female objectification. It’s denying opportunity, perceiving inferiority, stereotyping, manipulation and so on. Bringing up endless examples of objectification in motion is just going for another whirl around the rhetorical ‘body vs substance’ carousel. Can all this ‘Left or right?’, ‘rate me’, ‘who wore it better?’ objectification of our bodies just be the fault of institutionalised patriarchy? Not quite. The blame rests with that age-old human flaw that befell great emperors, lovers and thinkers long before magazines or Facebook could: narcissism.
The word objectification has just about become a loose synonym for ‘misogyny’. By definition, to objectify something is to remove all the intangible qualities from something and present it as purely an object. A thing, externalised, understood only by sight, touch, sound and smell. Artists do it to deconstruct a concept. Directors do it to dress a set. And we ourselves are all objectified in some way- guys and girls, by guys and girls. We simply cannot say that we don’t instantaneously – almost subconsciously – judge a person of the opposite sex with the receptive tools of our anatomy. It’s just how we work. Degradation, though, is judging someone only this way. To demean someone is to ignore the higher values we humans (should) require for meaningful relationships: intellect, empathy, honesty, patience, loyalty, devotion, charisma and so on. Qualities of character that are invisible to our senses, but are felt by the heart and the mind. The problem is these values pretty much universally lose the struggle for attention when up against abs, breasts, biceps and booties. On paper, anyway.
It’s wrong for someone to morally castrate themselves and act as it they are above their own instincts of attraction. What differentiates those who really do see all women as Zoo attractions, and the rest of the rational, reasonable world, is how far-ranging and complex our instincts go. The science on how tethered we are to mammalian needs is a controversial one. However, while I believe we are upright beings with the gift of rationalisation, incomprehensibly complex instincts and the ability to invent microwave popcorn; there’s no denying that by the very laws of biology we are bound to satisfy certain needs. Not just popcorn cravings. If you are to believe that we are very much prone to animalistic impulse, the idea that we are in perpetual competition with one another might offer an explanation to why we are driven to act certain ways. To an extent, I believe it. We don’t beat our chests and toss leaves about the forest floors – but we still (to varying degrees) fuss over our appearance and feel the pressure to be attractive, to be worthy. It also goes some way to explain the phenomena of jealousy, rivalry and intimidation. Again, the difference is how far we can distance our evolved, sophisticated selves from the egocentric, jealous, lusting creature lurking deep in our DNA. We can’t hide from our feelings – but most of us can (and should) conquer them with our big, rational sexy brains. The lack of respect these men show towards women is not simply the work of the bastardly Y-chromosome, but could possibly be related to the equal lack of respect they show towards their own cranial potential.
Unfortunately, though, it seems that just too many – of both sexes – cannot escape far enough from this beastly impulsiveness. Both sexes are guilty of objectification, it’s just that the ‘blokes’ among us are so boorishly unsubtle about it