I wrote a piece for the Slate Double X Blog recently, in which I explored the conflict between my long-held, deeply-ingrained beliefs about gender equity, which I referred to as “feminist,” and my tendency to sometimes reflexively sexualize women in my imagination, which I referred to as “objectification.” The gimmick of the piece was that I used a sort of caricature of myself for the narrative voice—a guy who was like me, but more self-righteous about his progressive social views, more distracted by sexual daydreams about women, and more troubled by the dissonance between the two. The project of the piece was to look for ways to curtail my imagination—I’m a happily married dad of two little girls after all, not a bachelor on the prowl—and perform an experiment where I tried not to “objectify” women for an entire day. It was meant to be a lighthearted romp with an undercurrent of uncomfortable honesty.
I didn’t really know what kind of response to expect, but I made the mistake of taking the goodwill of my audience for granted, hoping they would chuckle and say, “I know [or am] a guy like this … aren’t gender issues tricky and sometimes paradoxical?” And then they would have a nice, friendly conversation about it.
Instead, I was excoriated by everyone from Fox News to Jezebel, and assigned labels ranging from prude, to creep, to eunuch, to misogynist.
The crazy responses didn’t bother me that much, and the mockery from Fox News felt like validation; but the chastising I received from feminist commentators stung, especially the parts that made a lot of sense. I hashed out the reasons for the rhetorical failure, but ultimately, it was my blunder to own.
It’s clear to me now why feminists were furious that, among other things, I seemed to suggest that one of the goals of the movement is to make male sexuality shameful, since they have been trying to shake that reputation for decades. But one of the criticisms that I’m still puzzling over is that I was using the word “objectification” incorrectly. I used the word the way it had first been explained to me by my mom in the late seventies, and elaborated upon during my college years in the late eighties: treating women as objects for men’s sexual pleasure rather than fully-formed human beings. To me, sexual objectification of women included everything from titillating images in beer ads, to pornography, to catcalls, groping, and invasions of personal space; and yes, even to my own testosterone-fueled and culturally conditioned responses to the female form (despite their being confined to my imagination). Not all manifestations of objectification were equally destructive according to this model, but they were on the same continuum, and the goal, I felt, should be to objectify women as little as possible.
Clearly, my understanding was a couple decades out of date. The feminists who said I had gotten it all wrong in the Slate article told me that my vexing erotic daydreams were not objectification, but rather mere sexualization, which I should not worry about. In a post on Slate, one writer told me: “It's OK to strip people naked in your imagination, as long as you respect their right to not know that's what you're doing. This is accomplished by not gawking, ogling, and drooling, but rather learning to be discreet.” Others concurred. But I felt like this was a bit facile. The imaginary striptease in my head looked to me exactly like a rap video, a scene from a cheesy porn movie, or a stupid commercial for body spray, all of which I have very limited exposure to, by design. And I’m pretty sure I’m not the only man whose fantasies imitate the images I’ve been bombarded with over a lifetime. Having one’s consciousness permeated by cultural tropes that objectify women may not be the worst problem in the world, but it seems like part of the problem, and to deal with it by shutting up and using good manners seems superficial.
After my Internet pummeling, it seemed like a bad idea for me to write anything with the words “feminism,” “objectification,” or “sexuality” in it. But weeks before the Slate article was published, by coincidence, I had been contacted by StopObjectification, a campaign founded by fashion designer Norma Kamali, and asked if I wanted to talk to Kamali about ways that fathers can “drive messages of gender equality and mutual respect to their children.” As much as the topic had begun to make me flinch, I felt like Kamali could at least help me understand what objectification was, and whether there was anything I could do about it beyond minding my manners and insisting that other males do the same.
When I asked Kamali to explain what objectification meant to her, she first mentioned her age (68), which might explain why her take on the topic sounded very similar to what I heard from my mom when I was growing up. Instead of a definition, she gave me several examples. She recounted her own experience years ago as a recent college graduate interviewing for a job in New York’s Garment District, when the boss told her to put down her bag and turn around so he could look her over, and how that incident was so humiliating that she couldn’t even discuss it until recently. She talked about using the Kristin Wiig/John Hamm relationship in the movie Bridesmaids as a touchstone in conversations she has with female colleagues about their common experiences of enduring sexual and emotional debasement in their “quest to be loved.” She talked about how women tragically invest so much of their self-worth into how they look, especially in terms of how sexually attractive they are to men.
Many people think that this kind of objectification is a thing of the past, she said; but in fact it (and much worse) happens every day. Kamali told me that, in her capacity as a fashion and beauty expert, she designs clothes that make women of all different body types feel good about themselves and advocates for healthy lifestyles that engender self-confidence. The StopObjectification project, she said, encourages women to share stories of both their experiences with being objectified and the accomplishments and strengths that make them proudest, as part of a conversation that she hopes will make objectification something that our culture no longer tolerates.
In terms of the strictly sexual objectification of women, Kamali’s observation about Olympic women’s volleyball players was striking to me. “Seeing how powerful and talented these athletes are,” she said, “no one watching them could view them in an objectifying way, no matter how tiny their bikinis are.” She argued that the context makes a difference—a woman in the same bikini in a hip-hop video might be perceived as a commodity, but the athlete has agency. Regardless of whether a man is watching beach volleyball out of patriotism, sports enthusiasm, or just a chance to gawk at a beautiful body, if he recognizes the athlete's power, he is not objectifying her.
Her explanation of how she hopes we can speed the demise of objectification resonates with me even more than her faith that men can’t objectify women who are undeniably powerful: “I believe I can create an effect that will start to build this advocacy for women where men who care about me, and men who care about your wife, and men who care about your daughters, will act because they’re emotionally connected to how we feel. I will share [my experiences of objectification] with my girlfriends, with the guys in my life, so that every man I know, that every woman I know starts to talk about it.”
When the Stop Objectification people originally approached me, they suggested that I join them in promoting gender equality and encouraging other men to talk about objectification, so that my daughters and their generation won’t have to deal with the garbage their mothers and grandmothers did. After our conversation, Kamali urged me to keep writing about the topic. I told her that I’m a little hesitant to offer my own insights about objectification given the beat-down I received last time. Maybe I’ll just ask questions for a while.