Monday, May 15, 2006

Monday Rant

Let me explain something about objectification: it isn't about who is the bigger victim- women or any myriad of other "lesser" peoples. Anyone who reads the same rants I've read about objectification and comes to that conclusion is missing the point.

It's about the difference between being treated as an object for someone else's use and being treated as sub-human. The two can overlap, but they aren't the same thing. Slaves and fuck-toys are objects. The nerd being picked on is usually just subhuman.

Physical appearance can be a signifier of being a slave object or certain type of subhuman. Apparent physiology, however, is the essence of being a fuck-toy. Thus picking on someone for looking like a nerd is not the same as objectifying someone sexually. The former may actually be worse than the latter in certain instances but it isn't the same thing. This difference isn't important so that we can figure out who gets the biggest violin, it's so that we can discuss the ways in which people are treated as sub-human intelligently and productively.

In order to fight prejudices effectively we need to remember that the nerd is mainly ridiculed because of his non-physical characteristics. Yes, we create physical stereotypes as a shorthand for identifying and punishing infractions, but the infractions revolve around things that the nerd is capable - or not capable of: strength and intellect being the main characterisitics in question. The point of treating someone as a fuck-toy, on the other hand, is to say that such characteristics don't matter. One can be strong or not, intelligent or not (although "not" is preferred) - the most important thing is being fuckable.

The distinctions are important not because one is always worse than the other, but because fighting attitudes about geekery generally boils down to championing individuality and intelligent thought and rejecting the idea that might is always right. Fighting objectification cannot be done the same way, however, since one can be both strong and intelligent - and a fuck-toy. Instead, fighting objectification is about humanizing what is being objectified in a more general sense, whether it's a slave or a fuck-toy.

Arguing that physical appearance is not the essence of a person is important in combatting both, and that is where most people get confused.

Getting unasked for comments on one's body is being objectified.

Getting picked on for wearing glasses is not (usually, anyway). Kids don't pick on other kids who wear glasses because the glasses make them look ugly, they pick on kids with glasses because they are different. The fact that they look different is not the important part, simply being different is.

Many physical characteristics fall into a gray area where the difference between being objectified and ridiculed depends on the situation. A large person (man or woman) who gets random "fat" comments on the street is being objectified. A teen who is ridiculed similarly at school may or may not be - it depends on his or her relationship to the person making the comments and why such comments are being made. If it's soley because being over a certain size makes one 'ugly", then it's objectification. If the target is ridiculed about a lot of things - such as wearing glasses or liking comics - simple "otherness" is usually the meaning of the taunts, not objectification.

Of course, sometimes it's both, and often it's hard to tell.

Having been both objectified because I have large breasts and ridiculed for being a nerd quite often throughout high school, I can say with a decent amount of certainty that while the lines were often blurred, there was usually a distinctly different flavor to the two. The most extreme examples of objectification were actually a lot more likely to come from either strangers' - people driving past as I walk down the street, or people I knew intimately, but whose actions would be hidden from public view. In such cases it would often be about something that I had no control over. When it was people I knew casually, it would often be more subtle. Often they were things I had some control, but not complete control over. As far as I can tell, the reason for this is that interacting with people makes it less likely that one can see them only as an object, but that being intimately involved with someone gives people, men and boys especially, a sense of ownership.

All kinds of "friends" would make fun of me for being a nerd, however, while strangers mainly stayed silent. For the most part, this was usually because classmates and friends had more ammunition, since one's nerd status relies on differentness in general, not appearance in particular. Such taunts were more likely to be centered around characteristics and actions that society assumes I have the power to either change or at least hide.

Since gender stereotypes make physical strength the important part of being male, I can see how many men would get confused as to the difference between being punished for breaking gender taboos and being objectified. That doesn't mean that they are excused from figuring this out, however. If they want to know the difference, all they have to do is ponder why my co-workers think it's perfectly normal to talk glowingly about porn for straight men, while they ridicule porn for gay men and straight women. If geek boys were really being objectified on a regular basis, the idea that someone would like to look at men simply because they have a certain physiology wouldn't be such an affront to my (often geeky) co-workers sensibilities.

Fanboys who can respond to cries of female objectification with "but Superman's chest!" don't understand objectifiation at all - neither theirs nor anyone elses. After all, if geeks understand objectification because they get picked on so much, why no mention of Clark Kent's glasses or Peter Parker's slender build? The physical appearance of most male superheros are drawn primarily to proclaim their role as protector. The physical attributes of most female superheros are strongly affected by what is deemed "fuckable." Both rely on gender stereotypes, but one reduces characters to how their body can be used by others, the other simply uses physical attributes to communicate information about a character's place in society. That is the difference between objectification and simply being judged based on physical appearance.


storyjunkie said...

You're right that this is a distinction that often gets missed. Thanks for spelling it out so clearly!

Mickle said...

You're welcome. It's nice to know I make sens to someone.