So, I just wrote partly about objectification in my last post, but a fairly interesting idea came to me a few days ago and I kind of wanted to discuss it. As a premise, I feel that fashion, like so many other things, is a language. It speaks both to the public at large and to the wearer, sometimes in the same way, and sometimes in entirely different ways. For example, I was once at a frat party in order to keep a friend, who was collecting money, company. I had no intention of going inside, I wasn’t in a frat party mood, and I had come from elsewhere, so I was wearing a skirt to my knees and a long sleeved T-shirt. That said to the world something along the lines of, “I don’t really belong here.” Or, “I’m not like you.” Which I suppose is a step up from what my fashion choices usually say, which is “I don’t really care about fashion, I just wear clothes because they serve certain practical purposes.” Anyway, that’s fine that that’s what they said, but to me, they had an entirely different message. They communicated, “Chana, you are a beautiful girl who could easily, with the right motivation or desire, feel sexy dressing the way these girls do, and that would be fine. But you feel sexy now, wearing this, and that is very cool.”
Anyway, back to the story.
So, I was in a not entirely good mood, and I wanted to dress in a way that said, “I am beautiful and wonderful and here I am.” So I put on a skirt and T-shirt or whatever and walked to class. On the way, I had a few interactions that I really enjoyed, talking and saying hi to strangers. And then, at some point, a car full of guys drove by and whistled or made some comment. I don’t exactly remember. But I didn’t mind, much, which is unusual for me. Interestingly, a twitterer I follow, named feministhulk (who is great, by the way), said something recently about this exact phenomenon. The twitter account releases impassioned statements in all caps, and this one said, “HULK TRY TO OPEN MIND, SMASH EPISTEMOLOGICAL FRAMEWORKS WHICH LIMIT HULK’S THOUGHT, BUT HULK WILL NEVER GET CAT-CALLING.”
So my original thoughts on cat-calling were not particularly well-defined. I thought that, in general, it created a hostile environment and was fairly skeevy and an all-around bad way of telling someone you find them attractive. It makes women feel like they’re always, constantly being judged, and even if that’s true, there’s no reason why it has to be obnoxiously nailed into their heads in such an obvious and crude manner. I had little respect for men who took part in such activities, especially because it seemed more like frat-boy male bonding than anything else, and at the expense of someone’s ease and comfort in their environment. At the same time, I was aware that as I physically matured, there was an element of excitement and appreciation for a no-commitment positive commentary on my appearance. A cheap and superficial route to validation, to be sure, but not necessarily inherently evil. The general principle I derived was that to seek to be sexually appealing in order to draw compliments in order to boost self-esteem or something similar is fairly disgusting. However, the general act of wanting to be seen as sexually attractive is not. That’s a perfectly legitimate message to send, though one should certainly be aware of it. So I sort of understand cat-calling.
Anyway, much more interestingly, this new idea I had struck me as I thought about whether or not, in this instance, I’d been objectified. My answer was, well, I don’t feel particularly objectified, and those guys drove off so quickly that they weren’t able to make me feel trapped in a hostile environment, so maybe not. I mean, I’m clearly inhabiting my body, I am a subject, and so, in this case, I’ll say no. But as I went through this line of reasoning, I realized I wasn’t thinking of the guys as people; in fact, they had become part of my environment. I had sent a message to the environment, and it had responded in a way I was not only not uncomfortable with, in this case I had liked. Which is fine, I suppose, but note that those men had, unwittingly, objectified themselves.
So why is objectification bad? Not just for the obvious reasons. But because it objectifies you. In calling out anonymously, cravenly, you become part of the environment rather than a person in your own right.
Confession: Once I was walking around the streets of northern Chicago with some girlfriends, and we’d been hollered at incessantly for the better part of an hour. So when I saw a van full of teenage boys drive by, I yelled, “Looking good, boys!” which at the time, I thought was hilarious. I realized some inconsistency, but they’d seemed to appreciate it. But now I realize, that not only does that sort of behavior continue the cycle of objectification, it doesn’t do me any favors. Two arguments better than one?