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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The Difference Between Catcalling and Complimenting

A while back, I made the comment that catcalling is linked to misogyny, perhaps without adequately explaining myself. In response to this, I had someone tell me something that I’d heard before, something that I frequently hear used to explain and excuse catcalling:

“Catcalling is not about misogyny. Catcalling is a compliment.”

I thought about this comment today, when I was catcalled on my way to the gym.

Now, my walk to the gym is not a particularly long one – about ten minutes on a nice day, which today was. I was coming up on the gym’s parking lot, when I noticed a man standing a little bit ahead of me, watching me. Once I got close enough for him to speak to me, he yelled out, “look at this sexy lady with her awesome hair!” I half-smiled, already offended by a complete stranger referring to me as a ‘sexy lady’, but I kept walking, not wanting to start anything. He continued to follow me, yelling at me all the way through the gym’s parking lot, and though I stopped listening at a certain point, I heard enough to know that he compared my hair to his underwear.

Walking ahead of me was a man that I had seen at the gym before, though we had never really spoken. He kept glancing back at me, as though to make sure that the man who was following me never crossed any lines. I was grateful for him and his presence there, because I was fully prepared to yell at him to get help or call the police if it got to that point. As it was, I was just trying to ignore the man, just trying to get to the gym where I knew there would be people and I would be safe.

Sure enough, the man stopped following and yelling at me once I got to the gym.

This is not even the first time that something like this has happened to me. And I know for a fact that I am not the only woman who has experienced this.

And the thing is, I have been complimented before. I know what compliments are, and I know how they make me feel. Truth be told, my hair is pretty unique, so I receive so many compliments on it that my coworker has joked that I should take a shot every time I do.

I have been told by many strangers on the street that they “like my hair”, and then they either move on or start a polite conversation with me, which I am happy to continue. That is a compliment.

I have been told before that my hair reminds them of Storm from the 1980’s X-Men comics, and that since she’s pretty badass, I must be pretty badass too. That is a compliment.

I have heard these from women, and I have heard these from men. These do not offend me. These are not the comments that I am calling out when I say that catcalling is linked to misogyny. But this was not what the man was doing as I was walking to the gym.

Because the distinction here is how I feel coming out of these two scenarios. And perhaps this is part of the reason why so many people get ‘catcalling’ and ‘complimenting’ confused: it is difficult to comprehend the way that one party feels when they come out of a scenario, especially if you do not take note of the grimace and the quickened pace that they are intentionally hiding to protect themselves.

Because when I receive a compliment, it makes me feel happy. I come away a little bit lighter, a little bit more proud of how I look. It endears me to the one who complimented me, because they went out of their way to be polite and make me feel good about myself. They didn’t cross any lines. They didn’t make me feel uncomfortable. They just wanted to let me know that they liked something about me, and that was their sole intention.

When I am catcalled, I feel uncomfortable. I feel violated and a little unsafe. I might know logically that this man is not going to attack me, but I make sure that I don’t do anything that might displease or encourage him, like telling him to fuck off (which, by the way, is what I want to do), because there is a part of me that is worried that this man might actually hurt me. When I am catcalled, I do not want to continue a conversation with this man. I do not want anything to do with him. All that I want is to make sure that I am in a safe space, surrounded by kindly people with access to phones.

And I cannot imagine that those who catcall intend it as a compliment, because they have to know that the things they are saying and doing cross lines. I cannot see how a man can  meet a woman in broad daylight, out in public, knowing absolutely nothing about who she is or why she’s there, then instantly describe her as sexy (not beautiful, not pretty; sexy) and not expect her to bristle. I cannot see how a man can follow a woman across a parking lot, yelling anything at her, and not expect her to quicken her pace. And I most certainly cannot see how a comparing a woman’s hair to the man’s underwear is even flattering.

The purpose of catcalling is not to compliment; the purpose is to sexualize. The purpose is to establish that he is a great, big, impressive heterosexual, cis-gendered man who can say anything he wants to the small, delicate, passive, submissive presumed heterosexual and presumed cis-gendered woman. If she is not flattered by it, or if she does not accept it, then she is a bitch, quite possibly one who deserves harm done to her (and this is why so few women challenge catcalling when we are faced with it; not because we are secretly charmed by it and playing coy). If the purpose of catcalling was to compliment, then it would not turn into threats and insults at any point, but it commonly does. I can attest to this, as a woman who have had men scream “fuck you” to me for no other reason that walking on the street in broad daylight.

Catcalling does not take notice of the woman who feels threatened by it. Catcalling does not even take notice of the woman as a person. Catcalling is not meant to make the woman feel good about herself; quite the opposite, really. Catcalling is meant to make the woman feel like she could have avoided this harassment if she had dressed a little bit more conservatively, while it makes the man feel that much more masculine, having publicly proven his aggressive heterosexuality to everyone.

When I say that catcalling is linked to misogyny, I am not at all saying that a man cannot tell a woman that he likes her hair or her eyes or her smile without it being offensive; that is not even remotely the case. Catcalling is linked to misogyny because the men who do it do not realize and do not care that the woman in question is a person, or that she feels threatened by him; they merely feel entitled to a certain level of power over the woman, the power to say and do anything they want without question. Catcalling is linked to misogyny because it contributes to women feeling unsafe in the streets, which lends to this cultural idea that women should not be allowed to go in certain spaces, at certain times, with a certain amount of company or dressed in a certain way, because if they violate any of this, then clearly they are ‘asking’ for ‘something’ to happen to them.

There is a difference between approaching someone respectfully, and following them and/or yelling things at them that make them feel unsafe and demeaned as a human being; that is the difference between complimenting and catcalling. And personally, I find it surprising when people do not seem to understand the distinction between these two approaches. Because, to me, as a woman, the difference seems stark. There is absolutely nothing wrong with treating someone as your equal, walking up to them, and verbally appreciating something about their physical appearance. In fact, this is something that we should do more often, because it makes people feel good about themselves, and we don’t have enough of that in our society. But if you are making them feel uncomfortable, if you are clearly crossing lines and/or reducing them to a sexual object rather than a person, then it is no longer a compliment, and it is no longer about them. At that point, it is entirely about you, and your entitlement to be heard taking precedence over their comfort.

The Status of ‘Woman’

Sometimes I wish that I could escape the status of ‘woman’.

I don’t necessarily wish that I could be a man, or any other gender. That isn’t what I’m trying to say. I’m satisfied with the gender that I was born into it, at least enough that I have no problem being referred to by it.

What I mean is, I wish that I could do something publicly, pretty much anything, without having multiple men try and hit on me, or reduce me to my physical appearance. I wish that, every once in a while, I could just be intelligent, rather than ‘hot’ or ‘ugly’.

I wish that, when these men hit on me, they would take me seriously when I say “no”.

I wish that I could make a statement about something without being told that I was a bitch or deserving of some sort of violence. I wish that I could believe in my own rights without being accused of hating men.

I wish that, when I explained things that I’ve studied and researched, people would just take it for granted that I was right. I wish that, when I explained things, men wouldn’t explain them back to me as though I didn’t know what I was talking about.

I wish that I was the one with a ‘bright future’ ahead of me, rather than Brock Turner. Instead, when people look into my future, all they seem to see is babies. They tell men that they have a glorious career ahead of them, and they tell me that I’ll someday have to put aside my passions in order to raise a family that I’ve said, time and time again, I don’t want.

I wish that, if I were raped by a man, they would listen to my voice, rather than take his side without question. I wish that they wouldn’t automatically assume the worst of me, and the best of him.

I wish that I always had the final say in what happened to my body, even if I was pregnant. Even if I decided that I never wanted to get pregnant.

I wish that I took myself seriously. I wish that I could say things with confidence, with the knowledge that I was allowed to have an opinion, and that there were, in fact, many things that I knew how to do better than the average person. I wish that I knew how to express the entitlement that I’ve seen in many heterosexual, cis-gendered men. I wish that society hadn’t beaten that out of me.

I wish that there weren’t people out there who would reduce me to my genitals, or my body.

These are the things that simply make being a woman exhausting.

I am a woman. And I think I speak for all women when I say that that should not diminish who we are. Being women that should not mean that we are taken any less seriously, or that our future is paved in stone by the biological urges we are expected to have.

Because, before we are women, we are people. We are as diverse as any group – intelligent and ignorant and courageous and cowardly and emotional and stoic and nurturing when we need or when we want to be. Our gender does not dictate who we are as people. Just as a man’s gender does not dictate who he is as a person.

And we as a society need to stop seeing gender, first and foremost, when we interact with others. There are too many other things that we can be.

The Hatred of Femininity

Misogyny: (noun) the hatred of women.

In our society, misogyny can take many forms. It can come in the form of gender-based violence, like rape or domestic abuse. It can come in the form of social exclusion or hostility in certain spaces, such as cat-calling – especially if that cat-calling turns into threats, insults, or anything else that makes them feel unsafe in a public place. Or it can come in the form of constantly assuming the worst of women – thinking that they’re to blame for rape, thinking that they’re too delicate and too vulnerable to hear certain truths, thinking that they’re too emotional to do anything right.

Misogyny is something that is still very much alive today, and it is a very serious problem in our society that we cannot stop talking about. But the sort of misogyny that I want to focus on today is not simply the hatred of women, but rather the hatred of the feminine – because while these two issues most certainly connect and stem from the same issue (as I said, misogyny), the thing about the hatred of the feminine is that it affects all of us.

Because as much as femininity is something that gets assigned to straight women most frequently, that does not mean that only women are capable of femininity. They really aren’t.

Gay men, for example, are frequently represented as feminine in our media. They are represented as feminine so often, in fact, that some people have begun to shun this representation for being ‘stereotypical’, favouring the more invisible image of the masculine gay man (this can sometimes be referred to as effeminophobia, or discrimination against effeminate gay men). But feminine gay men most certainly exist as well, and they deserve a chance to see themselves not only represented, but represented well, and as much as feminine gay men have gotten a bit of the former, they haven’t always gotten the latter.

One example that we might all be aware of is the representation of feminine men in Disney movies. While not necessarily gay (or not openly so, anyway), many of the male villains of Disney cartoons are rather feminine – the Pocahontas villain Governor Ratcliffe styles his hair in two pink bows and carries around a small dog, the Peter Pan villain Captain Hook is highly emotional and dresses very flamboyant, the Aladdin villain Jafar has his eyeliner game on point. And why is this a reoccurring theme with male Disney villains? Well, in my opinion, it’s because, while Disney isn’t outright trying to say that femininity (and male femininity in particular) is wrong, they are trying to use these conventions to convey certain misogynist messages. We as the audience are supposed to read these men as being silly, vain and greedy because they are outwardly feminine. These villains are more easily detestable because they remind us of feminine aspects.

Disney will sometimes even use these aspects in their female villains as well. Honestly, think about it – when Ariel first meets Ursula in The Little Mermaid, she is applying her lipstick and fixing up her hair, and in One Hundred and One Dalmatians Cruella de Vil’s greatest downfall is her obsession with fashion.

Which brings me to another issue in all of this – it is not only women and men who receive scorn and hatred if they become classified as ‘too feminine’, but hobbies and interests as well. We as a society tend to regard the playing or watching of sports, a masculine pass-time, as worthwhile, something that builds character. And yet, watching fashion shows or reading magazines is regarded as silly and frivolous. Fixing a car is a useful skill to have, whereas sewing a dress is kind of cool if you can do it well, but not really useful unless you can make some good money at it. And don’t even get me started on the way that we as a society look down on chick-flicks for being stupid, unrealistic, and vapid, whereas action movies are awesome and full of fun car chases and explosions.

Especially if someone identifies themselves as a masculine person, it is a very common narrative for them to completely reject feminine pass-times. We have all heard about the very stereotypical set-up of the masculine boyfriend complaining loudly as his girlfriend drags him, kicking and screaming, into Sephora, while women are frequently expected to sit there quietly and watch sports with their boyfriends, even if they don’t like them.

Now, at this point you might be asking: so what? Why does it matter that people tend to look down on femininity? Well, it matters because, to some extent, we all have some aspect of us that is feminine. Not just straight women. Not just gay men. Every. Single. One. Of. Us. And this societal rejection of femininity as a valid option in our lives forces us to make one of two choices: we can continue to act feminine as accept that a side-effect of that will be that people will see us as vapid, silly, stupid, frivolous, etc., or we can reject the feminine parts of ourselves and act masculine, neither of them really works for me.

The latter option forces us to shave off parts of ourselves, to never be our complete self because society tells us that we can’t be. The latter option leaves holes in our identity, leaves parts of ourselves unexplored and unfulfilled. And when it comes to the former option, here’s the thing: I am very feminine. I like to do my hair and my make-up. My favourite movie is a love story. I dress very flamboyantly, I move very flamboyantly, and when I talk, my mannerisms are very feminine. And I am not stupid, silly, or frivolous. I do not appreciate being called stupid, silly, or frivolous. I refuse to live with that title placed on me by others, and I refuse to let others place that title on others like me.

Femininity is not a weakness; femininity is just a different way of being, and a perfectly valid way of being. The only reason why we tell our daughters that they’re frivolous for liking the Notebook, our sons that they can’t wear a dress or make-up, is because femininity is frequently assigned to women, and societally speaking, we do not like women. We think women are vapid and silly and overly-emotional, and so we think that anyone like them are the same. And it should probably go without saying that this way of thinking is misogynist and wrong.

You can like romantic movies, and get shit done. You can know all the latest fashions and be a total boss. The two things are not mutually exclusive, and we need to stop treating them like they are.

Performing Gender

Gender is a topic that comes up quite often nowadays, but what, exactly, is gender?

In the popular conscious, gender is often divided into two categories: masculine and feminine. People who identify as men are masculine. People who identify as women are feminine.

Masculinity is strength. Masculinity is no emotions, the ability to be a provider and take care of their loved ones in financial and safety-related means. Masculinity can be recognized through very specific, very visible means. Masculinity means shirts and pants, suit and tie. Masculinity means faces clean of make-up or product, but covered in hair. Masculinity means obsession with sex, and sex with women in particular. The more heterosexual sex a man has, the more masculine he is. The more respect and fear a man earns, the more masculine he is.

Femininity is vulnerability. Femininity is more emotions than can easily be dealt with, the ability to be a housekeeper and take care of their loved ones in nurturing and love-related means. Femininity can be recognized through very specific, very visible means. Femininity means dresses and skirts, pantyhose and yoga pants. Femininity means faces clean of hair, but covered in make-up and product. Femininity means hesitation toward sex, but wanting sex with men in particular. The less sex a woman has with anyone, the more valuable she is considered. The more love and adoration a woman earns, the more feminine she is.

All of this, however, is just the way that gender is considered in the popular culture. In real life, nothing is as simple as all this.

The feminist scholar Judith Butler has said that gender is performative, meaning that we are not born into a gender, but we are told how we should act if we want to be accepted as a member of our gender – and we want to be accepted as a member of our gender. If we aren’t, then we pose the risk of being dismissed as (for women) a butch, a bitch, selfish, man-hater, ball-buster, and (for men) a sissy, gay, weak, or feminine (I am not trying to imply that there is anything wrong with being any of these things, I am simply pointing out that these are sometimes used as insults to undermine someone’s gender identity). This means that we force ourselves to act and present ourselves in specific ways so that we can be accepted as a member of our gender, which we are then rewarded for by our peer group. This means that, by nature, there are parts of ourselves that do not easily fall into the category that we are put in as far as gender goes, but we sometimes ignore these parts of ourselves to be accepted.

This means that men (and people identifying as men) are not completely, totally, 100% masculine by nature, and it means that women (and people identifying as women) are not completely, totally, 100% feminine by nature.

We see examples of this everyday, and yet we still continue to claim that there are a certain set of accepted behaviours for men and women to adopt.

There are men who enjoy (and even prefer) dressing up in women’s clothing. But that’s okay, because those men are drag queens, or cross dressers, or gay men, or altogether ‘feminine’ men with nothing masculine about them. Right?

There are women who prefer to take charge, who don’t want children or a family and just want to focus on their career, which happens to be in the sciences or in fitness-related fields. But that’s okay, because those women are ‘masculine’ women who find the company of other women frivolous and annoying, who prefer to spend all their time with men and just consider themselves “one of the guys”. Right?

Well, not necessarily.

Yes, there are plenty of people that fall nearly perfectly into the definitions of ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’, but in my opinion, most people in this world have at least a few aspects of themselves that do not correlate with the gender that they identify with.

Some people who identify as men like to wear make-up, and that’s okay.

Some people who identify as women are capable of growing full beards and don’t feel like shaving it, and that’s okay.

Some people who identify as men aspire to be stay-at-home dads, and that’s okay.

Some people who identify as women are very forward and aggressive, and that’s okay.

And the only reason why I feel the need to say this is because there are so many people out there who think that doing one thing or acting one way means that you should change the way that you identify yourself. But if you are comfortable identifying as a man but dressing as a woman and vice versa, then nobody should ever have the power to take your identity away from you.

In my opinion, we should all be opening up our definitions of what it is to be a man or a woman. There is no one right way to behave in order to belong in your gender, and there shouldn’t be. We should all be free to present ourselves in the way that makes us feel comfortable, regardless of the gender we live in. Society has turned gender into a prison, but there are plenty of scholars who debate if gender roles even exist outside of society.

So be yourself, whatever that means. Don’t change to fit into someone else’s limited view of what you should and shouldn’t be based on gender identity. Masculinity and femininity are just ideas, and you so much more than that.