Sunday, June 24, 2012

How to objectify men

Feminist commentators sometimes complain about depictions of women in television, advertising or cinema that focus on their role as objects of sexual attraction for men. This objectification of women does not seem to have as strong an equivalent in the sexual objectification of men for female consumers. While there are handsome and well-built men in films, and some of my female friends admit to watching mediocre films just to enjoy the eye candy of actors like Chris Hemsworth or Michael Fassbender, these films don't as often feature gratuitous shots of male bodies.

But perhaps we are not comparing like with like here. Let's look back to the cynical view of men and women, in which men were presumed to be selfishly pursuing sexual gratification with young, attractive women. In that scenario, the cynical view of women was that they were pursuing wealth and influence by leveraging their sexual attractiveness to get rich mates. This is something well-covered in popular culture: the gold digger.

Maybe some female objectification of men is partly different from the male objectification of women, by including this gold-digger aspect that favours wealthy and powerful men over the poor. As male objectification of women means the denial of women's personalities and interests beyond their immediate use as sources of sexual gratification, female objectification of men may be the denial of men's personalities and interests beyond their immediate use as sources of wealth.

Is it true? The dating website OkCupid allows users to report their income bracket, and they produced this remarkable image showing the number of messages received by men compared with their reported incomes and age. It shows that until the age of 23 there is only a mild penalty for lower income men, but after that there seems to be a pretty clear difference: richer men attract more messages.

That's not controlled for anything, so it might be misleading. Perhaps richer men simply happen to have various characteristics that attract women more, like ambition, diligence, or intelligence. But yes, it could just be that lots of female OkCupid users are more attracted to richer men than to poorer men. Financial objectification? Gold-digging? Well I don't think it matters.

The real point here is that the objectification of different sexes may be slightly dissimilar, not that objectification itself need necessarily be a bad thing. When thousands of screaming teenage girls throw themselves at successful boy bands, what are they attracted to? The physical beauty of the boys? Their musical prowess? Perhaps their wealth and fame.

This post was partly inspired by something I thought a long time ago when reading comments feminists were making to this article about the beauty of actor Jon Hamm, in his role as Don Draper from Mad Men. Hamm's back is to the camera so the viewers see only a little of his profile, as well as the shadows falling across his shirtless back. The author was remarking how obviously desirable Hamm is in this scene, and in the comments some readers suggested that the image objectified Hamm. One reader defended the image on the grounds that it also gave a context, showing Hamm's character standing in a room which suggested that 'there’s a story there – a real person’s story, that’s potentially believable and has a bit of depth'. 

I used the picture to argue against the beauty myth idea - you can read my comments there - but I was also thinking something I did not raise at the time: the setting in which Hamm's character stands shows every indication of wealth. Tasteful and expensive 1960s furniture surrounds the man, his trousers is impeccable and expensive, his hair is flawlessly oiled back. Far from lessening the extent to which he is objectified, perhaps this strengthens it. This projection of confident wealth may be part of Don Draper's sexual attractiveness in a way that a wealthy context might not increase sexual attractiveness for women. Would Jon Hamm seem so sexy in the exact same pose, but in stained tracksuit pants, in some filthy council flat?

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