The Problem With “Objectify A Man In Tech Day”

Update: While putting the finishing touches on this post, I found out that its creator is cancelling Objectify Day, for a host of very good reasons. I think much of what I wrote here can still be useful, so I’m posting this piece anyway. I’m glad to see that the purpose I had in mind has been achieved — and in fact, Ms. Alexander has mentioned a variety of other problems and reasons that I hadn’t even considered.

The offer I made in my penultimate paragraph still stands, though.

I truly do hope the best for Objectify a Man in Tech Day, coming up this Friday (February 1st). I can see that it has positive aims, and I hope it succeeds. Or more to the point, I wish it would succeed — but I really don’t think it will.

What Is It?

The idea was started by Leigh Alexander, and she’s trying to bring attention to the way women are judged on their appearance, even in realms where it should be completely irrelevant. Her technique? Try turning it around. Sort of a verbal Hawkeye Initiative:

On February 1, whenever you tweet an article, quote, comment or video from a man, add a comment about their appearance or attractiveness — “Great article on Final Fantasy XII-2 from the always-gorgeous Kirk Hamilton,” for example.

This is by no means a new problem, and it’s not even one that’s news. For example, I mentioned something about this in passing in a post of mine over two years ago, where I noted:

…the way women in IT are constantly, and ruthlessly, judged on their appearance: A profile on a female geek or coder in a tech blog will immediately start garnering comments on whether or not she’s “hawt”, while geek women who simply include a photo or two on their personal website will find them hotlinked from all over the web and subjected to insulting commentary.

(Of course, you can’t make such claims without supporting evidence, because — as I’ve mentioned before — some people who’ve never experienced the viciousness of life as a woman in tech will complain that you’re just making shit up. The words “subjected to insulting commentary” originally linked to Telsa Gwynne’s “Where did the pics go?” FAQ, but she’s since taken her entire site offline, so this is the best I can provide anymore.)

Still, that two-year-old post makes me a Johnny-come-lately to this issue. Garry B. Trudeau was already writing (or at least cartooning) about this issue over 40 years ago. At least in the tech reporting world, we haven’t moved the needle on condescendingly sexist reporting in over four decades.

So, while it may not be “new”, it’s certainly a problem that’s (long over-)due to be tackled.

What I Like About Objectify Day

Ms. Alexander’s definitely going about this in a kind-hearted way, not a malicious one; she specifically advises would-be participants:

The purpose of the exercise isn’t to “get revenge” or to make anyone uncomfortable: simply to help highlight by example what a gendered compliment looks like, and to get people talking in a funny and lighthearted way about how these kinds of comments distract from meaningful dialogues and make writers online feel like their point of view is only as relevant as how attractive they are.

And that’s good, because she’s going to get enough push-back on it already. At least none of the back-pushers will be able to credibly claim that this is mean-spirited or misandrist. (It won’t stop some of them, of course. It’ll just make their claims non-credible.)

And the guys who already “get it” will have a fun time seeing the compliments fly back and forth, and being in on the joke.

So What’s the Problem?

The problem, frankly, is that it won’t enlighten the guys who don’t “get it” yet. It illustrates the problem, but it doesn’t educate. And the way that it does the illustration is one that’ll be utterly lost on the people who most need the news.

See, the guys who don’t notice the way women are described in terms of their appearance instead of their accomplishments? Those guys aren’t going to be at all bothered by having that treatment aimed at them. If they notice it at all, they may actually like it, just because it’s so different from anything they’ve ever experienced.

To women, it’s more of the same Chinese Water Torture. To men, it’s a novel change!

One commenter on Jezebel exemplifies this blindness, responding: “Just once I want to be objectified.” Like the Nordic dog in a temperate climate in Of Dogs and Lizards: A Parable of Privilege, who has no idea what it would be like to be cold, men in this society have no idea what it’s like to be treated as sex objects.

Hugo Schwyzer is more than a little problematic, in many ways, but his essay “Of Never Feeling Hot: The Missing Narrative of Desire in the Lives of Straight Men” lays this out pretty well. Schwyzer says that “we don’t have a culture in which many young men grow up with the experience of being seen and wanted, in which young men grow up with the sense that their bodies are desirable and beautiful”, and adds: “few men in our culture grow up with the sense that their bodies could be longed for and wanted.”

Dave Barry put this feeling into Ha Ha Only Serious terms that have stuck with me ever since the first time I read them (originally in book form, but here’s one online source):

Men’s magazines often feature pictures of naked women. Women’s magazines also feature pictures of naked women. This is because the female body is a beautiful work of art, while the male body is lumpy and hairy and should not be seen by the light of day. Men are turned on at the sight of a naked woman’s body. Most naked men elicit laughter from women. (emphasis added)

Despite the obvious hyperbole, most men feel that there’s a strong grain of truth there. It ties in perfectly with Delmore Schwartz’s “The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me“, just as Mr. Schwyzer points out.

The men that Objectify Day is trying to reach are not feminist men. They probably haven’t consciously noticed that society tells them to feel ugly. (It’s not an objective part of nature.) But even so, they probably are geek men, and so they sure as hell know they feel undesirable. They remember being outcast and scorned in middle and high school; they know they’re not attractive.

And so calling them things like “always-gorgeous” or “dreamboat” or “hunky” or whatever will not disturb them at all. If your compliments are believable at all, they will like it.

If its intended purpose is to raise consciousness, I’m afraid it’s going to fail — because it’s just the wrong tool for the job. That’s why I will not be participating, in the sense that I won’t be bothering to objectify any of the people I write about this Friday. However, if anyone wants to use me as an example, I don’t mind. Go ahead and say nice things about my appearance; in the spirit of “taking one for the team”, I promise I won’t be upset.

And I hope someone else reading your words will wonder “What’s up with that? Describing him almost as if he were a woman? Can I find out what’s going on here?” And maybe they’ll learn something. Because open minds begin with questions.

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