The other day, reading my twitter feed, I became aware of the concept of Objectify a Man Day, which was scheduled to take place on February 1. It’s a day that was proposed by tech/gaming blogger Leigh Alexander to combat sexism in the tech industry (which, like in almost any industry, is quite prevalent). While I felt her intention to call attention to sexism in the workplace was good, I felt conflicted about her proposal.
First, I think it’s necessary to have a working definition of objectification. Finally, A Feminism 101 Blog defines it as follows:
“Sexual objectification is the viewing of people solely as de-personalised objects of desire instead of as individuals with complex personalities and desires/plans of their own. This is done by speaking/thinking of women especially as only their bodies, either the whole body, or as fetishised body parts.
Sexual attraction is not the same as sexual objectification: objectification only occurs when the individuality of the desired person is not acknowledged. Pornography, prostitution, sexual harassment and the representation of women in mass media and art are all examples of common sexual objectification.”
In other words, objectification involves the reduction of a person’s status as an individual human being with agency of their own to that of an object valued (if valued at all) only for their instrumentality, or use in fulfilling the desires of another person. In this case, those desires are for sexual gratification as well as maintaining a hegemonic power imbalance wherein men are elevated at the expense of women, who are devalued.
Alexander’s intent was to continue and further promote conversation about the sexism experienced by women in the workplace, in much the same way as the #1reasonwhy campaign had, except in this instance, she was focusing on not only the blatant, unmistakable examples of sexism, but the less recognized manifestations of it as well.
“In this crucible of negativity and conflict, the kind of harmless compliments that female tech journalists routinely get about their appearance when writing or speaking in public hardly seem worth getting heated up about. Yet sometimes it’s the more insidious elements of sexism that deserve the closest analysis, conversation and discussion. Everyone knows that discrimination is wrong. It’s just that sometimes people need a little help to recognise when discrimination is happening.”
Leigh Alexander points out exactly how this manifestation of sexism – the comments about women’s appearances/bodies and turning them into objects to be publically criticized – plays out. Women who speak out and attempt to be recognized beyond their physical appearance are often ignored, and (especially if their appearance does not fall in line with prescribed beauty standards or subjective sexual attractiveness) often reprimanded for doing so. If women are perceived as attractive, they are either not taken seriously, sexually harassed and targeted with unwelcome advances/compliments, or both. Usually, it’s both.
As Leigh points out, these unwelcome advances/compliments make women feel incredibly uncomfortable, making their workplace a hostile environment. Even if well-intentioned, the intentions of those who give these sorts of compliments are unclear. Are they expecting reciprocation of some kind for their unsolicited compliments? When women turn down these advances, their rejection is often met with a condescending “I was only trying to be nice”, or ” learn to take a compliment” or some similar sentiment designed to marginalize her and deny her concern or discomfort the legitimacy it deserves.
Unfortunately, like this less-obvious, “good intentions” form of sexism, I believed that Leigh Alexander’s proposed response to it (to tweet or otherwise add objectifying “compliments” to articles written by men when promoting their work) would lead to negative unintended consequences for women. Firstly, for women in the workplace, reducing the fight against workplace sexism to a single day’s campaign limited to social media is not likely to affect the kind of far-reaching change that is necessary to combat the institutional and deeply entrenched sexism in society. Even if she had not specifically set those limits, it is fairly reasonable to expect that if women were to respond in kind to men’s unwelcome advances, that their responses would not receive the same level of accommodation or be respected as a form of valid criticism – women’s voices are not institutionally protected or promoted, which is what allows this sort of sexual harassment to take place in the first place.
Secondly, I do not feel that her proposal would, as she states, “help highlight by example what a gendered compliment looks like”. Women and men receive and interpret these sorts of compliments differently. For a man to receive compliments regarding his sexual attractiveness is to validate and to elevate his status. For a woman, they are often threatening, uncomfortable, and they reduce their status to that of a sexual object.
For men resistant to the ideas of institutional sexism and male privilege especially, it is unlikely that they would be illuminated and enlightened by responding to their advances in kind. Women are not given equal social power or respect, and by extension neither are their words or actions. Like with more direct forms of women’s criticism, I feared that their responses would be brushed off or jokingly appropriated by the men that women were intending to educate.
Finally, I felt that her proposals could also have unintended effects on other marginalized groups. For example, transgender individuals, intersex individuals, or individuals otherwise living outside of the gender binary, the proposal brought fears that the campaign would lead to transphobic comments thrown at them, or that they would receive comments exacerbating their gender dysphoria. Gay and bisexual individuals felt that straight male appropriation of Objectify a Man Day, well-intentioned or otherwise, belittled their sexuality and opened up the possibility of homophobic comments. Others worried that ableist comments would arise from the dialogue. People of color also felt that the day ignored the intersection of racist discrimination that they face in the workplace. These comments on a woman’s appearance are a branch on the larger tree of institutional sexism and other forms of oppression, and I did not feel that Alexander’s proposals were entirely effective in targeting the roots.
“I hoped discussions of gender norms would be one of the positive outcomes of #Objectify, and that attention to the issue would make it all worth some inevitable hostility. But for some people who may be exposed to the wrong kinds of language on the planned day, misunderstanding can be actually harmful, and that is absolutely not a risk I want to take.
“Starting dialogue” this way isn’t worth potentially triggering others, putting them at risk or making them feel unsafe. I feel naive that I failed to fully consider the potential ramifications and want to apologize to anyone that was made uncomfortable or who felt threatened by my choice to approach an issue in this way.”
Even though she felt, in the end, as I did, that her proposal would lead to negative consequences that she had not intended, and it did not proceed as she had planned, it was successful in creating a larger dialogue, not only with regards to workplace sexism but to other forms of discrimination and oppression faced by members of other marginalized groups in society. In that way, Objectify a Man Day was successful, but it reminds those of us fighting for a more equitable world that we must be mindful of how we fight our battles – and who we might harm in the process of doing so, even accidentally. We have to be mindful of our own privilege as we point out the privilege of others, and we have to try to see what lies in our blind spots. As Alexander said,
“…the real mission is making everyone feel welcome, period. What I wanted to encourage through humor was caring, empathy and a willingness to listen and educate — now I’ve been asked to change course, and by calling a halt to #Objectify I hope I’m modeling those same qualities myself.
When people tell you they are hurting, are afraid or feel excluded, you don’t get obsessed with your own sense of righteousness, you listen. That’s what this has always been about.
If you’ve been paying attention, I hope you continue thinking about the words you use to describe other people and their work. Please continue aiming to listen to and care for everyone who needs your help to feel respected, safe and welcome in tech — or anywhere.”