This same friend brought up the emerging market of sexually objectifying men on posters and in advertisements our junior year of college, and I argued my point - with various pictures of Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom and my poster of Josh Hartnett (I never said I wasn't hypocritical) - that just because women are starting to do it too in greater numbers doesn't mean that it's right. That it is equally wrong to do turn men into sexual objects as it is to turn women into sexual objects. But right there? I missed my winning argument completely (even if it wouldn't have been the argument that won him over), the argument I would have felt strong and confident in making, because what I should have said is that men and women aren't treated equally, aren't seen as equals, aren't valued in the same ways in the same spaces. And yes, men shouldn't be reduced to muscular arms and flat, tan stomachs and shouldn't begin to enter the world of debasement women have been living in for such a long time, that reaching equality at the lowest common denominator is no way to reach equality. But that men - white men, I should specify - are still generally seen first and foremost as people. Therefore, being reduced to an object is still a terrible thing, but its cultural impact is not the same if the same image is with a woman. Because, as much as I wish all things were equal, women are still primarily seen as bodies first. It is a function of not being seen or treated as equals, the differing levels of impact. A ubiquitousness of semi-nude guys on posters is a problem, partially because it turns the guy into an object and partially because it creates a negative body image for many men and can lead to eating disorders, which is never good. But women are still generally reduced to objects for consumption. The most important thing isn't whether or not the woman in question is good at X,Y or Z. It is whether or not she is attractive. Take, for instance, Jessica Lange - who's arms are too flabby for the San Francisco Chronicle. This isn't something that was said of, say, Philip Seymour Hoffman, was it? I don't think so. Meanwhile, Peter Bart of Variety compares two female directors by saying,
Jane Campion, 55, made a quintessentially romantic picture in “Bright Star,” but in person she is cerebral, somewhat severe, leans toward post-hippie attire and seems perplexed by the rigors of the award circuit. Kathryn Bigelow, 57, is tall, model thin, a one-time art student whose gracious manner belies her proclivity for tense, even violent films – “The Hurt Locker” is her contender.
As Melissa Silverstein of Women & Hollywood (who gets a h/t for this) asks, "Would anyone EVER think to write this about a male director?" I'm guessing, "no". I'm guessing, and it may be a stretch, that when the nominated (or in the running for being nominated) male directors are compared, their looks and attire aren't really given much thought and weight. And that's where the big deal lies. Because although the trite phrase is "clothes make the man", clothes - and looks - define the woman. Are there men whose looks (and weight) are criticized? Yes. Are there women who are generally left alone about their looks? I don't know of any off of the top of my head, but I'm sure there must be. However. The exception of a few men who have to deal with this shit and the few women who don't doesn't disprove the rule. And the rule is, women have to deal with more shit when it comes to people policing their bodies.
Which brings us back to street harassment. My friend's report seems to be looking at conventional harassment - like what I do when I constantly pull him out of the line up to spark a huge blog post. It probably gets to the point of harassment at times. Street harassment is the little "hey baby"s women get throughout the day. The wolf whistles, the "Where's your boyfriend at?"s the "Smile"s, and on and on and on. Cat calling. I read the report, and didn't see any indication this kind of "low level" harassment is included in the numbers. But. Suppose it were. Suppose men have to deal with women groping their crotches on the subway and asking where their girlfriends are on the street, or shouting out, "Damn, honey, you're looking good" when they're wearing their grimiest clothing because they're just running out to pick up a pizza. Even with that being equal, men still have more power, both physical and in terms of their place in society. Thea Lim explains it incredibly well in the comments on the Racialicious piece I linked above, saying,
It’s like any number of racial slurs that white folks call POCs – there is no racial slur for white folks that is an equivalent. Because white folks are the dominant culture, and the point of a slur is to “put people in their place.” If your place is top of the food chain, nothing that a person below you says can cause the same hurt, as you can cause to them.
On its most basic level, what street harassment from men to women does is remind women of their place. It reminds them that – as Ndidi so eloquently pointed out – you can be an accomplished, intelligent and complex person, but to the world at large women are only valued based on their eff-ability.
I teach freshmen and had a problem with a student who persisted in making approving comments of the way I dressed. I spoke to several different people about this, and almost all the men I spoke to said something along the lines of “Tell him it’s flattering but inappropriate.”
They all assumed that any woman must be flattered to be told she is attractive.
It is NOT flattering. It is dehumanising and – whether or not the men realise it – it is profoundly deflating. You are reminded over and over and you have absolutely no value to the world – beyond the sexual pleasure you might bring to a man.
There’s no quick quip, no reversal of this situation that can establish that.
Think of it this way: could you make a movie that would show white folks how it feels to be a man of colour facing racism, simply by portraying a universe where white folks don’t have power?
I don’t think you can – as long as we live in a world where skin colour and gender is a determinant of power, you could make 100 films flipping the binary and it wouldn’t illustrate anything to anyone – who didn’t already get it.
That's really the problem. Men are starting from a place where their worth is, for the most part, established. Their place on the chain of deciding who is fuckable and who is not is not is not suspect. Their control of the public space is tantamount. And yes, cat calling may seem like it is at times just delivering complements - at high volume - to women walking down the street. But the question becomes why did the cat caller think s/he had the right (or responsibility) to give his approval to the callee in question in the first place? It is because his/her perceived right to the callee's attention is more important than the callee's right to be left the hell alone and to be treated as a human being and not a fuckable body. The fact that the cat caller's right ever supersedes the callee's right to exist without being called out to is a problem in and of itself. The fact that it is not recognized as a problem, and that it is a large scale one facing a multitude of women, is even more troubling.
For men, street harassment may be prevalent, and it should be fought against for the same reason treating men as sex objects on posters and magazines should be fought against - because equality in negative treatment isn't the equality we're fighting to achieve. But street harassment for men doesn't carry with it the same "private sphere - public sphere" baggage, doesn't carry the same weight that being consistently being seen as a sexual (or sexualized) object does for women. And again, there are women for whom cat calling doesn't happen. There are women who are barred from the sexualized object camp. And there are men who are treated as such often and who are perceived to be more sexual plaything than human being. But for the most part, even if the rate of cat calling is equal (and I really don't believe that it is), the fact that the rest of society is not equal means there is disparate impact amongst men and women. And that needs to be acknowledged if we want a fuller, more nuanced look at what happens and why.
Also, for your viewing pleasure, two videos about street harassment:
I love them both.