Good clean fun? Just a bloke thing? Innocuous?
Recently, when the New Zealand Prime Minister, John Key, responded to a sports radio show host’s question about which female celebrities he would have on his “wishlist”, John Key said Liz Hurley was “hot” and that Jessica Alba “looked pretty hot”.
So what? Many people would ask – some would even say, “good on him”. But one British newspaper argued that such comments were sexist. And when some of our local commentators expressed disapproval, our Prime Minister defended his comments. He said, “My concern is to make sure that I represent the views I want to represent on those shows.”
It’s election year in New Zealand national politics. One journalist, Derek Cheng, stated that “Mr Key continues to ride the wave of popularity, and part of his appeal is considered to be his informal, regular-guy approach.”
But unfettered objectification of females by men lets loose a set of attitudes and behaviours full of sexual innuendo that represents women as possessions, playthings to be used to achieve macho status….. Ordinarily it’s not mutual. Nor desired. Talking about or treating women as objects narrowly stereotypes them into nothing more than a hollow cardboard replica that disregards all that is deep, interesting and complex about women. Objectification mocks and demeans the multiple talents and capabilities of half the human race.
However, men who objectify women are applauded within our society – they’re popular. Such men are considered to be ‘real men’, expressing a successful idea of masculinity. These ideas — that women are men’s possessions – playthings – objects to play with — are what domestic violence and psychological control is all about. See these posts — here and here and here and here and here.
Harmless compliments, or violation and harassment?
I like to bike a lot. A few years ago when I was biking to and from work, men working on the side of the road would call out “nice legs”. Car loads of males would call out sexualized language, some would swoop in close and drive me into the gutter. During this same time in my life I was walking along the river, a place where many people walk. But this particular afternoon I was the only one walking. A man biked past me back and forward twice, then the third time he screeched on his brakes, threw down his bike and grabbed my backside. A surreal slow motion several moments passed and I screamed in his face and he took off. It was 3 o’clock broad daylight, yet when I told a male friend what had happened he said, “You shouldn’t go walking alone at night”.
There are several assumptions in what my friend said. 1. Men will do what they want to do to women as of right. 2. Men have power over women, it’s inevitable and it will always be that way. 3. Women are to blame if they put themselves into vulnerable times and places. 4. They shouldn’t walk alone – to do so invites danger on themselves. 5. It is up to the female victims to change.
In this case, for my safety, I did change. In one bound my personal freedom was curtailed. I stopped walking on the river, I threw my skirt away and only wore trousers and I had my long hair cut to within one inch of my skull. Men stopped staring, glaring and calling out to me after that. I felt relieved and free from harassment. This is just one cost of objectification. The man who grabbed me did so because he felt entitled to, as a man he thought he had every right to do that to an anonymous woman. Just a piece of arse.
Other women might welcome the attention. “Nice legs” or “she’s hot” – but there’s a fine line between harmless objectifying of one individual woman who welcomes it and objectifying women en masse.
Objectification is not about sex appeal, it’s about treating women as playthings, possessions, pieces of meat and slaves
And what about women who do not fit these flawless standards? Do men call them “hot” too? No – some men objectify women who do not fit the stereotype – simply because they do not fit the stereotype. Here’s what I mean …
When I interviewed men for my PhD research – who had been abusive and controlling over their female partner – I asked questions about their school days including which behaviours made boys popular and what the benefits were for being high on the hierarchy of masculinities and the costs of being low on the hierarchy. One man said that boys at the bottom of the hierarchy would miss out on games played by popular boys. One such game, called “pig lotto” occurred at school dances.
He said, “There’d be bets on … with the popular crowd, who was gonna get what girl … and they were serious bets… Who could get the ugliest girl got the bag of money.” He said this game had been going on for years at his school. The game was a means of riding a wave of popularity amongst regular guys to gain approval ratings. (There’s those words again – popularity and regular guy.)
Many women are heavily dependent on gaining approval, power and respect for the attractiveness of their physical appearance. Such strivings are in part due to the abuse and denigration experienced because they don’t fit. Failure, to fit the standards is often inevitable because the advertising, media and corporate-driven standard view of women is airbrushed beyond reach.
Of course there are women who do fit contemporary western ideals of physical beauty, but, sadly, are often not taken seriously for their creative, professional and multiple other talents.
For example, I asked men I interviewed what they and other men thought about working for a female boss. The man who said the following reflected what most men told me:
“99.9 percent of men wouldn’t like [having a female boss] at all… It’s a power thing, the man gotta be … this strong, dominant, the man’s the boss… I wouldn’t have a problem if the female was intelligent and knew more than me. But (laugh) if I had some bimbo that was trying to order me around, I couldn’t handle it.”
Some men believe they possess female partners
One man I interviewed reflected what several men said, that entering marriage was like owning “a new car. Once I’ve done enough payments, it’s mine. I own this.” Men interviewed by other researchers say they beat their partner because she does not maintain her physical appearances well enough. Other men attempt to control their partner’s physical appearance by, for example, in the words of one woman I know, telling her that if she got pregnant she must have an abortion because he did not want her breasts to droop.
And some men use female partners as slaves
Several men I interviewed said that men are the masters and women are the slaves. In the words of one man this meant treating female partners, “Like pieces of meat and sex objects. ‘Stuff it, it’s my missus I’ll do whatever I bloody like.… ‘You got my ring. You’ll give me sex when I want. If you don’t I’ll get it from somewhere else’.” Another man said, “I can do what I want but you gotta do what I tell you to. That’s the way I’d see 90 percent of marriages, from a man’s point of view.”
Why we should all care about a Prime Minister calling some women celebrities “hot”
There’s a long history of inequality in our society. We continue to live in a world steeped in power structures – where certain groups are accorded higher status and greater levels of entitlement, prestige, recognition and respect than others. Many people with such prestige use their entitlement for the betterment of others. Many people low on social hierarchies look upward for role models – whether that’s towards a professional footballer, rap musician, a father, teacher, coach, corporate leader or Prime Minister.
However, many people with high status attempt to gain their approval ratings by objectifying women – they get away with this because for centuries it’s been seen as the right way to be a powerful man. Many men don’t stop at calling women “hot” they go on to use, abuse, rape, control and even kill women – in the name of male entitlement to demanding servitude.
The secret to why men treat women as objects is about entrenched social attitudes that lead to harm – attitudes that have to be discussed and challenged – starting when children are young. Innocuous attitudes that lead to even so-called ordinary men to be tempted to the dark side aided and abetted on all sides by a society, and its leaders, that grants men great power over women. Objectification of women is an unhealthy shadowland in which many men lurk and is a major support for the hierarchical notion that men are superior to women.