Objectification and Sexism on the Interwebs

So, the atheo-scientific-feminist-liberal blogosphere sort of exploded over the last few weeks about a post I can’t link to because it’s been taken down over at Common Sense Atheism. The blogger decided to create a list of 15 Sexy Scientists, which was composed of both professional looking pictures and photos clearly intended to have some kind of sexual value (such as a woman in a bikini or some such). This has been discussed to an extent I couldn’t hope to match in all of the places mentioned here . As a result, I won’t be commenting a great deal on whether what he did was ethical or not, but rather some general lessons to be learned from the experience.

Lesson 1: Women are different from men

Don’t misinterpret: I think that gender ought to be completely abstracted out from sex, that the dichotomy of gender identity is harmful and obsolete, that gender is clearly a spectrum rather than a duality, and that placing people into two categories that they have little control over and making judgments and decisions based on those classifications is a major problem and leads to a great deal of misunderstandings at best and highly unethical actions at worst. Regardless of these opinions, which I might discuss another time, the fact remains that we do not live in a genderless society. We may never live in such a utopia, but that’s irrelevant. The point is that, at this moment, despite the fact that based on the criteria you choose, I might be much better categorized with female-bodied people who identify male, or male-bodied people who identify as male or any possible combination you can think of, there are things I have in common with female-identified people that I do not have with male identified people. And I mean this in the societally-identified way, not the self-identified way. We are a political minority. In many ways, we are marginalized, harassed, mistreated, oppressed and discriminated against. It is hard to be a woman.

It should be eminently clear from this lesson that therefore, arguments like, “well, it was ok when we did it to men. You feminists are all about equality, right? So this must be ok. Shut up” simply do not hold water. Making a list of sexy men is different from making a list of sexy women. They are seen differently, treated differently, and the ramifications are vastly different for the people involved. More later.

Lesson 2: The actions of individuals have implications for the culture as a whole, whether they are intended to or not

This list perpetuates the notion that women are always first female, then scientists, first to be judged based on attractiveness, then on quality of work. For the women in the photos, they have been sexualized, perhaps without their desire, in a way that is simply impossible for men. For those not in the photos, they simply didn’t make it. Their unattractiveness makes them invisible to the world of the internet, and there’s really nothing they can do about it. For all women, especially women in science, it sends the message that their work, their vocation, is secondary to the ratios of their nose to the length of their face and other such meaningless qualities.

The post also just made science feel that much less appealing for women. Whatever the intent of the blogger, it felt skeevy and creepy. I heard the argument, online and from a male friend, that because the photos were on the internet, it was no longer up to the women to decide what was done with them. To some extent, that’s true, but we can still criticize the way in which they were used. For the professional looking pictures, it’s like women who go out in public and are ogled by strangers. Of course they’re in a public place, of course it’s legal, but it can still create a culture of discomfort no matter what a woman is doing or wearing. For the sexier pictures, it implies that women aren’t allowed to organize their lives the way they see fit. If they were ever a model, or have ever publicly demonstrated that they like to be found attractive, from then on, the professional work they do will be colored by that fact. For example, see Olivia Munn from the Daily Show.

I realize that emotion-based morality is not particularly tenable, but in this case, it’s relevant. If women feel that in the male-dominated world of science (or atheism or whatever), all of the same rules apply about proper conduct that make it very difficult to be a woman, to be female, to be visible, it will almost certainly make science a less appealing prospect. And that’s really a shame. The ratios in math, physics and other disciplines are skewed enough as it is. Let’s not waste more talent through poorly thought out jokes.

Lesson 3: What does objectification mean?

Ok, there are a lot of spectrums in many dimensions to get a hold of here. What should women look like? According to whom? What should they wear? In what contexts? Should they do what works for them or pay attention to the messages they’re sending? Can we compartmentalize? Essentially, what does it mean to be a woman?

My basic analysis looks something like this. Women should feel comfortable going about their daily lives. In one sense, that means they should wear what makes them feel comfortable, whether that means sweatpants because they don’t give a damn what people think, pencil skirt and heels because they feel like powerful professional women who matter, jeans and a T-shirt because who gives a damn what you wear to the lab, or a hot dress because dammit, they’re a sexual being comfortable with their attractiveness and sexuality, and that’s what’s up. All of that is important. What makes it ok for them to do such things and not as ok for men to comment or ogle or catcall or make judgments is that when the women take actions they are comfortable with, they are subjects, active conscious participants in their own lives. When men comment in disparaging or sexist ways, they are objects, sexual or otherwise. And therein lies the difference. There are some other subtleties that go along with this, too. For example, I would find it inappropriate for a girl to wear very sexual or revealing clothing to class, because she would be perpetuating the culture of women being perceived first as sex objects, then as, in this example, intellectuals, which would reflect negatively and make things harder for me. But in general, the lesson is that it’s very important to understand objectification and how it works in society.

Lesson 4: Sexism is not only perpetuated by sexists

The blogger at common sense atheism is not sexist. He seems to be an intelligent, deep thinking intellectual who values ethical conduct. He had a mature and appropriate response, and sought to learn from the process and in general reach a better understanding of the topics at hand. Even so, he screwed up. We need to learn then, to give people the benefit of the doubt, and make sure that while they realize their error, they are not thrown to the gutter in an instant. Feminist men are great; let’s not alienate them. At the same time, just because a man feels he is not sexist does not mean he can use that as a defense. In fact, he should work to maintain that classification by remaining sensitive and keeping his judgments mutable.

I think these are sort of the broad ideas that should be explored in further depth if we are to reach a consensus on appropriate, respectful, community-oriented behavior online, IRL, and in general.


One thought on “Objectification and Sexism on the Interwebs

  1. casebash says:

    I’m still very confused about the concept of objectification, so I won’t say anything about it.

    “It should be eminently clear from this lesson that therefore, arguments like, “well, it was ok when we did it to men. You feminists are all about equality, right? So this must be ok. Shut up” simply do not hold water. ” – again, this isn’t very charitable. It’s not enough to merely note that privilege exists as a manner of justifying treating the male situation differently from the female, it is necessary to analyse how privilege affects a particular situation. Often people aren’t necessarily arguing that there is no relevant difference, they are simply asking about what the relevant difference is.

    “At the same time, just because a man feels he is not sexist does not mean he can use that as a defense.” – I’ve never seen anyone argue that their subjective opinion of not being sexist is sufficient for them to not be sexist. On the other hand, I have seen people argue that their subjective opinion of an action being sexist is sufficient to condemn that action without any further analysis.

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