The Objectification of Men

Recently, Suistudio launched the campaign #NOTDRESSINGMEN in order to advertise their line of business suits created for women. The images that have been released for this campaign are, in some ways, fairly standard for this sort of product: two people, one dressed head-to-toe in a suit and standing in a position of power and domination, the other posed provocatively, their identity meaningless, their body completely on display. Now, this is an image that we have seen before – many, many times, in fact. Yet, there is one thing about this campaign that not only makes it different, but has caused plenty of controversy, and that is the fact that a woman is placed in a position of power, while a male model is the one being sexualized and objectified.

There are many who have taken to social media to show their disagreement with this campaign, despite the fact that these images are not entirely new. In fact, it is nearly common for us to see the genders reversed. In many advertisements, women are depicted as sexual objects, to the point where we barely even think about it anymore. We’re used to the images of big-breasted women with their heads tipped back and their lips parted. All the time, we see men standing squarely facing the camera, their stances strong, their jaws locked, their power confirmed. This is the language of our media, and we speak it fluently.

But at the same time, the majority of comments that I have seen disagreeing with the #NOTDRESSINGMEN campaign have not been upset with it because it dares to reverse the gender roles; rather, they disagree with it because they know that this is an injustice that society already does to women all the time, and they don’t think that it’s right to spread this injustice to men as well.

As one Instagram commenter said, “If it was the other way around with the woman on the couch and man above her, feminist groups would jump and criticise. This double standard needs to end.”

Some people have accused this campaign of “making feminism look bad”, turning it into a movement of women who merely want to dominate and control men, rather than being about equal rights. And is this what the campaign is doing? Are these images trying to destroy the patriarchy and replace it with a matriarchy?

Well, the way I see it, my opinion on this campaign rests heavily on the campaign’s intent.

On the one hand, it is very possible that the commenters are correct, and the purpose of this campaign is not necessarily to challenge anything, but rather, to use the accepted language of our media to convey the age-old message, but with the genders swapped. And, in fact, many of the images do seem to be indicating that.

The reason why we often see men standing firm and square-jawed, staring directly at the camera, is because the image is very clearly trying to convey a message, and that message is very connected with gender: he is strong. He is capable. He can do whatever he needs to do, and he can do it without wrinkling his suit or breaking an expression. It just so happens, all of these tend to be masculine traits, and I don’t think that’s incidental. Similarly, when we see women lounging out over objects without much of anything on, that too is meant to convey a message: she is passive, but sexually available. When we see women compared to or used in place of objects, then that is the ultimate passivity: she isn’t even a person, she’s just a thing, waiting around to be used by whoever shows up and wants her.

So when we see the same poses used but the genders reversed, the messages don’t really change, although the gender roles might be challenged. But, still, the photographer is relying on a specific language, one that the viewer will undeniably be familiar with, to convey a message. And the message really isn’t okay. End of day, whether it’s a man or a woman being objectified, the message is that they aren’t really a person. They’re a sexy object, a thing that can be used and disposed of. And not only that, but in both cases, a specific language is being used to convey the message of ‘sexy’ as well; only one body type is displayed, because the viewer will automatically connect that body type to sex appeal. And when that happens, then that dismisses all other body types as being even potentially accepted by society.

So, essentially, if the intent behind this campaign was to rely upon a harmful language that feminism is, in fact, trying to combat, all so that they could convey to their presumably female audience that this company’s suits will make them powerful and alluring to men, then that is not okay.

But there is one other possible intent that this campaign might have, one that I am more comfortable with accepting: the intent to challenge the majority of media.

As I have mentioned, advertisers have made use of sexualizing and objectifying women for decades in order to make their product look somehow superior, and one thing that I think many commenters are forgetting when they show their distaste for the #NOTDRESSINGMEN campaign is that it is only one campaign. It is not an entire industry, meaning that women are not quite at the precipice of taking over the world quite yet. And, more than that, campaigns that rely on switching societal roles are released all the time with the intent of showing just how unfair our society really is.

For example, in 2004, the Disability Rights Commission released a short film called “Talk”, which follows an able-bodied man who suddenly wakes up in a world designed for the new majority, people with disabilities. Another short film, entitled “Love Is All You Need”, takes place in a world where homosexuality is the norm, and heterosexuality is looked down upon as “weird” and “unnatural”.

There are many issues in our society that are sometimes difficult for us to wrap our heads around – not because we never experience them, but because we experience them everyday. They are normal to us, so we don’t even second-guess them. And the purpose of media like “Talk” and “Love Is All You Need” is to try to point out just how wrong our society is. It forces able-bodied people to imagine, not what it would be like to be disabled, but what it would be like to live with the stigma of disability. It forces heterosexual people to imagine what it would be like if they couldn’t safely take their partners home to meet their parents, or hold hands with them in public.

And, maybe, the intent behind the #NOTDRESSINGMEN campaign is not to create a new norm, but rather, to force us to question the old one, to make us realize that the over-sexualizing and objectification of women is wrong by forcing us to see it from a new perspective. And, I mean, while I said that there was plenty of evidence in the photographs to suggest the other intention, there is also plenty of evidence to suggest this as well. The photographs, after all, are overly sexual, and overly objectifying, even going so far as to intentionally remove the man’s face from the images, as though to completely remove his identity and force the viewer to look at him only as an object – a body without a soul.

Now, what the company’s actual intent was is difficult to decipher. They have not made any attempt to comment either way, although Suistudio has confessed to intending controversy. Besides that, I suppose that the viewer can merely take what they want from the campaign: are they a frightening image of a new sort of objectification, or an isolated incident intending only to make us question our past and present?

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We Need to Listen

While I find my voice quite frequently in the form of writing, if you were to meet me face-to-face, you’d discover that I tend to be a very quiet person. And all my life, people have told me that this is a problem.

In school, my teachers would tell me again and again that I had very good things to say when they read my essays or my homework, but that I never contributed to the conversation in class. This more than anything brought my grade down.

At jobs, while I have absolutely no problem speaking the words that need to be spoken, and even engaging in conversations when I come across people who are particularly chatty, I have been told by employers that I need to be more talkative, more socially engaging, and if I can’t do that, then I shouldn’t be here.

In social settings, I have always felt bad about the fact that I am quiet. People will tell me things like “don’t be shy” or “you don’t need to be nervous”, but that has never been the case for me. I’m not shy, and people don’t make me nervous. I’m just quiet. That’s just the nature of me. When I am very talkative, that usually means one of two things: that a topic of conversation has been brought up that I am particularly passionate about, or that I am trying to push myself into a place where I am not being myself and I am not comfortable.

And I think that these two comments really sum up the misconception that tends to be made about me, or quiet people in general: that we’re shy. That we don’t like people. That people make us nervous, and as a result, we are weak, or there is something wrong with us. But, at least in my experience, none of this is true. I love people. I love to be around people, and I love to hear what they have to say, and I love to receive attention from them. And yet, I’m quiet.

And as much as I’ve heard people say, over and over again, that this is a character flaw of mine that needs to be overcome, as much as I’ve had people praise me for making myself uncomfortable and speaking when I wouldn’t normally have spoken, I disagree with all this. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’d understand forcing myself to be uncomfortable for something that I actually believed would make me a better person, but I don’t believe this will.

Because, while everyone else seems to believe that, when I’m not talking, I’m not doing anything, this isn’t the case. When I’m not talking, I’m listening, and I’m thinking. And these are two actions that I sincerely do not want to do less of.

Let’s go back to the classroom setting, for an easy example of what I mean here. When I was sitting in class, I was so busy listening to what my teachers and peers had to say that I wasn’t really thinking about what I could contribute myself, and this was what made me a decent student. Because I already knew my own thoughts on the matter, but I was obsessed with hearing other thoughts, because frequently enough, they differed from mine. And once I stocked up on all of these differing perspectives, when I left the classroom, I would sort through them, decide which perspectives made sense to me and which didn’t, and then I would take this thought and put it in my homework and essays. I felt that it was incredibly important for me to listen and think through everything I had heard because I didn’t think that my own opinion on the matter was wrong, but I firmly upheld the belief that my opinion wasn’t the only one that mattered. In fact, I sort of believed that all these opinions mattered, and that the truth lay somewhere in between them all.

And if I tried to tell this to my teachers, they would tell me that the other students could benefit from hearing my opinion as well, but when I tried to force myself to speak in class, then I found that I was so preoccupied with trying to come up with something to say that I forgot to even listen. And listening was just too important for me to give up.

And the classroom is not the only place where my penchant for listening has helped me. When a friend is going through a difficult time, before I judge or suggest any action for them to take, I make sure that I listen to them and try to understand what they are going through. I try to see things from all perspectives, and while this takes more time, it has also helped me gain a deeper kinship with certain people.

Listening has also helped me to become a much more empathetic person than I might otherwise be. For example, as a white woman, I have no idea what it is like to live life as a person of colour – I’ve never done it myself. But I have listened to people, and I have tried to understand them and think about their perspective. So while I am aware that my voice, when it comes to these matters, is not the most important voice, it is essential that I lend these matters my ear and my eye, because that is the only way that I will learn about them.

There is a time and a place to speak, and there is a time and a place to listen, and personally, I believe that one of our society’s problems is that we think that the time to speak is constant. We forget the value of listening, because everyone is so obsessed with talking, with having their voices heard above anyone else’s, that they’re completely forgetting that other perspectives even exist, or that they might also be important.

And we all, every single one of us, have something to say. But what good will that do if there is no one to hear it?

Three Lessons I’ve Learned By Maintaing An Online Blog

So today is a somewhat exciting day for me.

Today is the first year anniversary of maintaining my blog online.

(Woot woot!)

It’s sort of a strange thing to think. Maintaining this blog has been such a huge part of my daily life that it feels a little bit like it’s always been there, while simultaneously feeling like something incredibly new, something that I’m still getting the hang of and still has a long way to grow from here.

But end of day, this blog has been an incredibly rewarding experience, one that I’m very happy that I took up and will continue doing for a long time to come. And although I’ve only been at it for a year (which, while I’m celebrating the impressiveness of that, I’m perfectly aware isn’t a long time in the grand scheme of things), there are quite a few things that I’ve learned in the course of this year. Lessons that have become ingrained in who I am as a person, and how I view the world. Lessons that I wouldn’t trade for anything, because I needed to learn them, and for me, this was the best way to learn them.

So, without further ado, here they are: the top three lessons that I have learned by maintaining an online blog.

1) Whatever you’re going through, no matter what it is, you are not alone

Before starting my blog, I had been dealing with a lot of mental health issues, primarily involving depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. I talked about these issues a little bit – mostly with my mom – but I never really branched out and spoke to anyone else about it (besides one drunken announcement that I made to a friend that we shall not speak about). Mostly, this was because I was incredibly embarrassed. I didn’t necessarily feel like dealing with mental health problems made me any lesser of a person, but I didn’t depend on anyone else to feel this way. I thought that talking about how I felt would make me look weak, or like I was a burden on others. I thought that being honest about how I felt would chase people away from me, because they wouldn’t want to deal with the truth of who I was.

When I started my blog, however, I went in with one rule that I told myself I could not break: everything that I wrote needed to be honest. It didn’t matter if that honesty hurt other people. It didn’t matter if that honesty made me look bad. When it came to writing, there were so many writers that I admired because they didn’t care how they looked, they just wanted to reflect their honest experience, and I wanted to be that.

So, for the first time in my life, I was honest.

I wrote a piece on suicidal thoughts, and I had a grown man send me a private message about how he had considered killing himself after he got out of an abusive relationship.

I wrote a piece on depression, and I had another grown man thank me, because he had spent his whole life feeling a certain way and afraid to tell anyone about it, thinking that he had to go his whole life alone because of it.

And, to branch outside of issues of mental health for a moment, I wrote another piece on feeling confused about my sexual orientation, and I had a grown and married woman confess to me that she really saw herself in what I wrote, and that she was happy to see it put into words.

And you know what this made me realize? I’m not alone. None of us are alone. We are all messy, confused, broken human beings, and we think we need to shoulder this burden ourselves, but we don’t. We are all struggling, and once you speak out about that struggle, you really find that out.

And maybe it doesn’t take away the hurt. Maybe it doesn’t fix the problem, but I know for damn sure that it at least makes you feel a little less weak and a little less lonely because of it.

2) Everyone has a story to tell

This lesson sort of branches off of what I was talking about with lesson number one.

Because you know those people who I talked about, the ones who reached out to me and told me that I wasn’t alone? Some of those people were complete strangers to me beforehand. And I’m not even talking general acquaintances, I’m talking never-met-them-before, not-even-sure-we-live-in-the-same-country strangers. You know, the sort that you meet on the internet all the time.

And I suppose that, because they felt that they knew something about me, they felt more comfortable coming forward and telling me more about themselves than I’ve even learned after years of friendship with some people.

I heard a story about a man who attempted suicide, and although everyone knew he had tried, nobody spoke to him about it, forcing him to live years in secrecy and shame.

I heard a story about a man who was trying his best to keep going despite his recent divorce, but he was getting tired and beginning to accept that maybe the best thing he could do for himself now was admit that he wasn’t okay.

And hearing these stories, allowing people to open up to you so much, really makes you realize that we are all so much more complex than we give other people credit for. We are so quick to dismiss someone as ‘stupid’ if they do something that annoys us, ‘wrong’ if they say something that offends us, but every single person in this world has a story to tell and a life that they’ve lived.

“If you knew everyone’s story, you would love them” – Emma Stone

3) Sometimes, you’ve just got to do the thing that scares you, especially if it’s your dream

So, I’m not gonna lie, as much as I’ve spoken very highly about this whole maintaining-a-blog on the internet business, I didn’t always feel that way. In fact, when I first started, I was downright petrified to do it.

And why?

Well, because it’s scary, that’s why! Look – I’d been writing for a long time before this. I’d decided that I wanted a career as a writer when I was about ten years old, and even before that, I’d been writing. It’s just part of me. It’s what I do, as natural as the sun rising.

And putting my writing out there to be judged and critiqued by everybody is a goddamn worry, okay?

And I know what you’re thinking: but Ciara, you marvellous creature you, to have a career as a writer, don’t you have to let other people read your work? And the answer to that is, yes, of course, and even at the time I knew that. And truth be told, as much as this experience has been rewarding for many reasons, knowing that was what initially made me decide to start this blog: to get my writing read and my name out there a little bit.

So I did it. Like ripping off a band-aid, I just did it.

And… it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.

You might be expecting me to say that there was a period of time where it was hard for me, where I had to get used to having my writing read by actual people who weren’t just me and my mom, but there wasn’t really. Not everyone liked everything that I wrote, no, but I always found comfort in one of three thoughts, depending on what the post in question was: 1) that I stood up for what I believed in, and not everyone is going to agree with everything I believe in, 2) that I reflected my honest experience, and so long as that is so, I did my best, and 3) that, end of day, if this post really, really sucked and there was nothing redeemable about it, I can just write another one tomorrow and everything will be better.

Despite my fears, misgivings, and worries, this experience has honestly been nothing but rewarding for me.

So if there is something that you want to do, whatever that might be, something that you’ve really been dreaming of but too afraid to try – start an Etsy store, apply for that job, take that program – I say do it. The worst thing that you can do is fail, and then you try again tomorrow. And the hardest part of all that will, of course, be your persistence – it can be difficult to find resilience when people put you down, sure, and I get that. But just do what I do whenever I seriously fail at something: cry for a bit, stuff some junk food in your face (we’re all allowed our cheat meals from time to time), wipe away the tears and the smeared make-up, and then get right back up and do it again.

Because this is just the beginning.

ANNOUNCEMENT: Save-My-Life School by Natalie Harris

Hello to all my amazing readers! I just wanted to take a moment to let you know that a friend of mine recently published a book, Save-My-Life School: A first responder’s mental health journey by Natalie Harris. I would really recommend checking it out, especially if you have any interest in issues of mental health. I found it especially haunting in the way that it makes you question our society’s perception on people dealing with mental illness. We are too quick to dismiss them as ‘crazy’ or ‘lesser than’, and this book really challenges that! You can find it on Amazon, or you can order it off of Indigo.

When Does a Fantasy Become Harmful?

Although I love video games and although I love Greek mythology, the God of War series never really crossed my path until recently. Now, I still haven’t played it, so I can’t say anything about the quality of the game or the plot or anything like that. All that I’ve seen is one scene, but as this scene wasn’t overly complicated or difficult to interpret, I feel fairly confident discussing at least it.

In God of War 3, your protagonist Kratos – a Spartan demigod with more muscles than Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime – enters into Aphrodite’s chambers (Aphrodite, for those of you who aren’t aware, being the Greek goddess of love and sexuality). He finds her almost naked, laying in a bed with her handmaidens and having some sexy-fun-time with them (because lesbians). Upon seeing Kratos, Aphrodite banishes her sexy handmaidens to the other side of the room so that she can have a conversation with him, during which she is lounging out on the bed, rolling around, and very clearly trying to seduce Kratos (because boobs). After the conversation is over, the player then has the option to give into Aphrodite’s seduction. If the player does this, we see Kratos descend upon the bed, before the camera pans off of them and onto Aphrodite’s handmaidens across the room, who then proceed to watch the bed and swoon and sigh over Kratos’s supposedly exceptional lovemaking, making comments about how jealous they are of their mistress while simultaneously groping each other.

Now, the critiques of this scene are obvious. It is both objectifying to women and fetishizing bisexual women. But that being said, I can already hear the defence against this critique: that it isn’t supposed to be taken at face value. It’s all a fantasy, intended to make Kratos look like the manliest manly man that ever lived, not only exceptional at fighting and looking awesome, but also at pleasing the ladies.

And trust me, I get that argument. I love fantasies in the media. In fact, some of my favourite story lines are power fantasies, intended to make the viewer feel like they are strong and capable by making you relate to the all-powerful, impossibly strong hero. Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, these are all power fantasies.

But at the same time, they are different from what we see happening in the scene from God of War 3.

The thing about Spider-Man that makes him and his story arch very different from this scene is, well, content. Spider-Man is awesome because he fights crime, he has super powers, he looks like an average teenager but is actually secretly awesome. And at the same time, Spider-Man is awesome in a way that most young people know isn’t real. When it comes to things like superheroes, parents tend to be quick to remind their kids that, yes, Spider-Man is awesome, but in real life, people don’t have super powers and they don’t fight crime in quite the same way. When it comes to discussions of sexuality, parents don’t tend to be quite so quick to talk to their children.

When I saw this scene from God of War 3, the first thing that it reminded me of was… well, pornography. Not because it foregrounded sexuality, but because of how unrealistically it depicted sexuality. Let’s all just agree: Aphrodite did not act like a real woman would. Neither does she or Kratos look the way that the average man or woman does; they are both idealized versions of what society thinks their gender should look like. And nobody in the history of the universe has made comments like the ones that the handmaidens made about Kratos’s lovemaking. This is all fake, and it is fake with the intention of pandering to the man and his ego, while most pornography is similarly made with a male viewer in mind.

And for many children in the western world, pornography is their introduction to sexuality. According to a report made by the BBC in 2016, 53% of children aged eleven to sixteen have seen pornography online, and of these children, 53% of boys and 39% of girls saw it as a realistic depiction of sex. And, look – I’m not trying to shame you if you watch pornography, all that I am saying is that pornography is not only unrealistic, it is centred around catering to a male gaze and a male ego. Like this scene from God of War 3, it is a fantasy, but when no one is talking to young people about this topic or offering them an alternative way of looking at it, it becomes easier to accept it as truth.

To put it in perspective, it would sort of be like if every single movie made for young boys was Spider-Man, and every single young boy knew that super powers existed, but they weren’t allowed to see it or talk about or hear about it ever; after a while, they’d start to question why they don’t have web-swinging powers, and why some girls look and act differently from Mary Jane.

But let’s talk about another issue that this scene discusses; female bisexuality. Like sex, bisexuality isn’t really talked about or represented in our media. The only bisexual characters that I can think of off the top of my head in mainstream media is Maureen Johnson from Rent and Piper Chapman from Orange is the New Black (both of whom are despicable human beings, but anyway…). In fact, probably the greatest representation of female bisexuality is, again, in pornography, meaning that you are more likely to see bisexual women having sex in our media than you are to see them going about their day or doing their jobs or anything like that.

But let’s go back to the scene from God of War 3, and let’s talk about the issue of desire here. Because, yes, Aphrodite starts out making out with her handmaidens, and yes, when Kratos is in bed with Aphrodite, the handmaidens are groping each other. But throughout all of this, the primary object of their desire is always Kratos, a man. Aphrodite sends her handmaidens away so that she can seduce Kratos instead. When the handmaidens are groping each other, their eyes are constantly on Kratos and they are going on about how hot he is. In fact, I am almost hesitant to describe them as bisexual, because outside of a few small sexual acts, they express nearly no desire for women; it always goes back to the man. And I have absolutely no doubt that the reason why the animators included these small sexual acts into the game was not because they wanted to represent Aphrodite as a strong, bisexual woman, but because they thought that it would be a nice treat for the presumed straight male player to see.

As I discussed before, this scene is harmful toward women in general because it perpetuates these unrealistic expectations that men have about how women should look and how they should behave sexually. But in some ways, it is almost more harmful toward bisexual women, because it perpetuates a very harmful stereotype that we all live with from the moment we come out of the closet: that we aren’t actually bisexual, we’re just trying to get attention from men.

This stereotype is one that hinges on dismissing the existence of bisexual women (and bisexual people in general). It portrays them, not as their own sexual orientation, but as promiscuous straight women – and as much as it is not okay to treat women differently depending on how many sexual partners they have had, it is an unfortunate fact in our society that that frequently happens, and it happens to bisexual women from the moment that we come out of the closet. Because of this stereotype, bisexual women are frequently dismissed, by straight men and lesbians alike, as ‘dirty’, a good, quick fuck but not actually worthy of love. Because of this stereotype, bisexual women are seen as ‘owing’ sex to men, because they obviously went to all the work of seducing them by being bisexual, and as a result, 61.1% of bisexual women are raped by an intimate partner, while 46% of bisexual women report being raped at any point in their lives, compared to 17% of straight women and 13% of lesbians. And don’t even get me started on the emotional side-effects of being consistently told, by both straight people and the LGBT community, that you aren’t enough, you’re too dirty, too promiscuous, to be accepted.

But, hey, maybe this stereotype would be less frequently relied upon if our media would just give us alternative representations of bisexuality.

So to sum this all up: when is a fantasy harmful? Well, my answer would be that a fantasy becomes harmful when it’s the only narrative we’re given. Sex is nothing like the way that it is represented in either pornography or God of War 3, but you wouldn’t exactly know that as an inexperienced young person who knows that sex exists but has never seen it for themselves, because the vast majority of our depictions of sex come through a heavy lens of fantasy, and a very male-oriented fantasy at that, resulting in some unhealthy ideas of what sex is and what women in sexual situations should be. And actual bisexual women are not lounging in their beds, making out with their handmaidens until a man shows up to sex them up properly, but if that’s the only image of bisexual women that we are given, then how are we ever going to know that?

So maybe my issue is less with God of War 3, which is nothing more than a stupid fantasy for young straight boys who like the idea of being a super powerful, super masculine lady-pleaser, and more with a society that doesn’t really give us much else than that. Where are my depictions of sex from a woman’s perspective? My bisexual women who don’t care if a man shows up or not, they’re perfectly satisfied with the woman they’ve got right here? If we had more of those, not only would this scene be much less harmful, it would be easier to recognize it as silly and unrealistic by comparison.