In the comments on my post on the hollowness of Seventeen magazine’s promise to avoid Photoshopping, beloved readers Tod and Will brought up some related points.
How do we collectively, and also women specifically, square the desire to have women be portrayed more realistically in the media, at the same time we see the applause for male eye candy on the rise?
I’ve noticed that a lot of the bloggers I know that write really well about the harmful effects of female body image issues and the media are raving about the social implications of Magic Mike, for example. Is this a tit for tat thing? An evening of the playing field? An acknowledgement that men ogling women is ok? Cognitive dissonance? Something else?
The implications to women of hyper-attractiveness of women on television get a fair amount of attention (though it usually seems to be limited to airbrushing and abnormal physiques), though I think it should be said that this causes problems for men, too. Which is to say that I think television and movies have the capacity to warp young male perceptions and expectations. To picture something that’s not normal as being normal (and thus, if you are a normal male, “within reach”) and nudging men to view actual normal-looking women (or women whose position on the attractiveness hierarchy matches their own) as background furniture. When this gets attention, it is often laid out like men are dumb or superficial, rather than that they are responding to their environment.
And a post to which Will linked from his own site, he says:
With the exception of a fascination for certain actresses (Angelina Jolie comes to mind), [women] seem to line up behind whomever it is that men are supposed to line up behind. Indeed, it seems at times that they flock to Kate Moss and then get upset at men for being fixated on waifs. Not that there aren’t men that consider anybody above a size two to be fat, but there seems to be far more women. The patriarchy is so successful in this regard that it no longer requires further male involvement.
To sum up, I take these comments to be asking the following questions: Is there a moral difference between ogling hot female images and hot male images? Are females the only ones who are hurt by images of hot women? Have females absorbed patriarchal values when they find images of hot women fascinating? My answers are sort of, no, and sort of. Something both Tod and Will touch on is something I agree with: the discussion of mass media images of hot people does not begin and end with the way they can make women feel bad about themselves.
I include the picture up top, which is of Douglas Fairbanks in Thief of Bagdad from 1924, to show that ogling men in mass media is far from a new phenomenon. From the beginning of visual mass media, there have been men much hotter than your average guy, and often shirtless or otherwise sexily posed. Not nearly as often as women, but the ogling of men is definitely not a by-product of women’s liberation. Here’s another from It Happened One Night, 1934, where Claudette Colbert is doing her damnedest not to ogle hottie Clark Gable, who is deliberately sexually provoking her.
Actually, I’m not even sure we could safely say there are more hottie males per movie now than in the first half of the 20th century. So whatever we say about hottie male phenomenon, it shouldn’t be that it’s a victory of feminism.
Is it moral to ogle anyone, male or female? Or objectify them?* We objectify people all the time. I use my husband’s stomach as a pillow, I get him to rub my back when I have a sore muscle. Without getting into too many particulars, I will say that I strongly believe it is perfectly consistent with a loving relationship to have moments of objectification during a healthy sex life. I think it’s even okay to use people merely as a means. When I call UPS to arrange a package pickup, I am using the UPS guy merely as a means. I don’t consider him at all as an end in himself. But of course it is sometimes, perhaps most of the time, wrong to use someone merely as a means. It is wrong to drug a woman to have sex with her, even if she never finds out, isn’t injured, doesn’t get pregnant, doesn’t get an STD. And it is wrong because she is being used merely as a means.
Objectifying is wrong, when it is wrong, due to the context in which it arises. In the context of a loving relationship, or a legitimate business transaction, fine. If it occurs without consent and/or respect, and if it co-occurs with injury, not so fine.
As such, I don’t think anything is wrong necessarily with ogling people on a screen or in a magazine. I think it would depend on the inferred attitude of the photographer/director, the circumstances under which the person is displaying him or herself (is she freely choosing or is she reduced to posing because she has a drub habit that she feels compelled to support?), and the attitude of the viewer (contemptuous, dismissive, violent, cheerful, sweetly longing).
There is a difference between ogling men and women because the stakes are higher for women. Women are more valued for their looks. It seems likely that a greater-than-ever degree of insecurity about looks afflicts women at least in part due to the ever-increasing frequency with which we view images of impossibly hot women. Our objection to valuing women for looks seems to be that it looks are morally arbitrary. When we value women for looks we value them for something over which they have no control. They have some control over it, of course. But women shouldn’t be forced to spend time on cultivating what looks they have in order to be valued. I’ve written before about valuing morally arbitrary traits, and I do think we are somewhat inconsistent about it. Forgive me for quoting myself, but I already wrote about this briefly in our inequality forum:
Someone can take significant measures to make himself more attractive, but he has inherited certain facial features, tendencies to obesity and acne, etc. To paraphrase Cathleen Schine, no one deserves to have been born with strawberry blond hair and no one deserves not to have been born with strawberry blond hair. The fact remains that some people are born with strawberry blond hair, and others are not. And those with strawberry blond hair get more rewards.
Even if you are suspicious, as I am, that there are innate differences in sheer abilities, one’s motivation or interest in developing a talent is probably partially inherited. So is temperament, which may affect someone’s ability to persevere with the development of a talent. A person is also not morally responsible for her early childhood education nor early opportunities to practice a talent. Some parents encourage diligence while others do not. So, some significant part of our talents are the result of luck.
Interestingly, although most would agree that talent is partially inherited and the opportunity to develop talents are afforded to some children more than others, we see talent as more constitutive of a person’s identity than looks. Indeed, looks are supposed to be entirely not constitutive of a person’s identity. Someone who accords much weight to looks in her evaluation of a person is considered superficial. Why should that be? Presumably because looks are distributed with partial moral neutrality. No one earned good looks. But so too are talents. And for a guy to say he loves his girlfriend because she is so smart would never incur the opprobrium that he would get from some quarters if he said that he loves his girlfriend because she is so hot.
I’m not entirely sure, in other words, why talent is considered part of our essential identity and looks are not. If a woman cultivates a talent in order to be economically and socially valued, this seems praiseworthy. If a woman cultivates her looks in order to be economically and socially valued, she is to be pitied for cultivating something that is not really part of her essence. I should say that I think it is a good idea for women to cultivate talent over looks. Cultivation of talent earns more stable and long-lasting economic and social benefits for women than cultivation of looks. It is indubitably sad when someone who cultivates looks is valued over her talent. But the reason it is sad cannot be because looks are not part of who a woman really is while talent is part of who shereally is. More that cultivated talent is really more useful, ultimately, for everyone involved.
And of course, there’s anorexia and crazed diets and plastic surgery. It is regrettable when anyone feels they have to injure themselves in one are to further their interests in another. It is regrettable when that happens with cultivation of talent (wrestlers who sweat down pounds) or looks. To the extent that in ogling women, we are furthering the gains that beauty brings, and thus giving women more of an interest in harming themselves to achieve it, we should be more mindful of ogling women than men. That is not to say that ogling women is unmitigatedly wrong and ogling unmitigatedly right. It’s contextual. But there’s an extra reason to be cautious about ogling women.
This not solely men’s fault. Women don’t only pursue images of beautiful women because they’ve somehow been brainwashed into having male tastes. Women want to study women men find beautiful, in part, because they want to learn how to be beautiful. They want to be seen as beautiful. I suspect strongly that this is a large part of female sexual desire. Women don’t consume nearly the rate of porn that men do, and even more rarely by themselves. Going to a male strip club is much more of a social activity than a sexual compulsion.
Men like to look at hot women, and women like to look at hot men less. This doesn’t mean that women are less sexually interested. Women’s sexual interest lies, in a much greater degree than men, on being seen and being attractive. I think women get off more more than men on being found hot. I think men believe that the woman in a provocative outfit wants to get laid. I think she wants men to want to sleep with her, and both men and women underestimate the primacy of that desire in women. I am agnostic on whether this is cultural or innate, and for the purposes of this writing, it is irrelevant. I also think that of course, as with any generalization by gender, there are bazillions of counterexamples on either side. There are plenty of women who get off more on looking, and plenty of men who get off on being desired. I remember this bit from an expert in female sexuality in an article in the New York Times magazine a couple of years ago:
When she peers into the giant forest, Chivers told me, she considers the possibility that along with what she called a “rudderless” system of reflexive physiological arousal, women’s system of desire, the cognitive domain of lust, is more receptive than aggressive. “One of the things I think about,” she said, “is the dyad formed by men and women. Certainly women are very sexual and have the capacity to be even more sexual than men, but one possibility is that instead of it being a go-out-there-and-get-it kind of sexuality, it’s more of a reactive process. If you have this dyad, and one part is pumped full of testosterone, is more interested in risk taking, is probably more aggressive, you’ve got a very strong motivational force. It wouldn’t make sense to have another similar force. You need something complementary. And I’ve often thought that there is something really powerful for women’s sexuality about being desired. That receptivity element. At some point I’d love to do a study that would look at that.”
I kind of agree with this, although the way it’s phrased is infuriating. To say that 1) men get off on seeing hot women, and 2) women get off more having their partner think they are hot is most emphatically not to say that men are aggressive and women are passive or reactive. After all, who holds more power – someone who is desiring or someone who is desired? There are ways in which each is the card it is more powerful to hold.
I believe that women have not only an economic and rational interest in cultivating their looks, but a sexual interest as well. And women watch closely what men generally want, and try to be that. It is incumbent on men to be aware of that, and be mindful of desiring unhealthy goals, and incumbent on women not to lose all sense of all their interests in pursuit of looks.
As for whether porn and images of hot women harm men – I think definitely yes. The more porn you see, the more you set up a system in your brain where you are rewarded with an orgasm every time you see a certain type of image. Or, to a lesser degree, when you get sexual pleasure watching a hot woman in a movie. The more unrealistic that image is, and the more pleasure rewards it, the more you’re going to rob yourself of the ability actually to achieve your desires. To the degree that you reward yourself with pleasure for watching violent or degrading images, you reward and develop your vices rather than your virtues.
So, overall. Ogling pictures of men and women is not necessarily wrong, but can be. Ogling hot women is somewhat more problematic than ogling men. Ogling hot women is, to one degree or another, counter to the interests of males as well as females.
*My view on this is informed by some writings of Martha Nussbaum.