Herself vs Himself: the difference between male and female objectification

“I was born to be a girlish boy and my lover is a boyish girl, and if everyone could be this way we could change the world.” Girlish Boy, by Momus.

andrew_004 A few weeks ago I ended up somewhere I shouldn’t have been. A female friend had posted something on Facebook about Project Naked, a blog and series of live events “about empowering women to talk frankly about their bodies”. Facebook, being Facebook, automatically suggested other websites with similar subject matter. One of them was called Herself. Wondering what it was – partly because I was in the middle of writing a blog about page 3 of the Sun – I clicked on the link.

Herself, it turned out, is an ongoing feminist photography project from Australia which combines nude portraits of women with frank Q&As. The women talk about growing up, sexuality, body image, relationships, the media, politics and various other subjects. Here’s how project founder Caitlin Stasey describes it.

“Herself is a gesture to women for women by women; a chance to witness the female form in all its honesty without the burden of the male gaze, without the burden of appealing to anyone. These women are simply & courageously existing, immortalized within these photos. Within their words, their experiences and stories are offered on Herself in the hopes of encouraging solidarity – that maybe we as women will take comfort in the triumphs of others rather than revelling in each other’s defeats. Let us reclaim our bodies. Let us take them back from those who seek to profit from our insecurity.”

In other words, Herself isn’t for men. Feeling like an intruder, I didn’t stick around long, but I did have a look and a read (sorry). And the photos, of 15 women of radically different body shapes and sizes, are beautiful and celebratory. I suspect the idea that any naked photograph of a woman can exist on the internet “without the burden of the male gaze” is too optimistic, but having discovered Herself I will now go away and leave it alone. There is another sense in which Herself isn’t for men – it’s difficult to imagine men, or heterosexual men at least, wanting to create a project like this.

Which made me want to do it.

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This is me, photographed in 2007 for an exhibition by my friend Jannica Honey – a collaboration we are now preparing to return to as part of an ongoing project about body image, gender and ageing. Putting this photo online, I have to admit, makes me anxious. Being photographed again by Jannica makes me anxious. Regardless of what we choose to do with the new photos (and we haven’t decided yet), why would I make myself this vulnerable in public? A little bit of this anxiety is just shyness, lack of self-confidence. I had terrible acne as a teenager and never fully got over it. I was also stick thin with big clumsy feet (not pictured). But mostly it is to do with male privilege. The main reason that men don’t create projects like Herself is that they don’t feel the need. Can you imagine a man writing the following paragraph?

Himself is a gesture to men for men by men; a chance to witness the male form in all its honesty without the burden of the female gaze, without the burden of appealing to anyone. These men are simply & courageously existing, immortalized within these photos. Within their words, their experiences and stories are offered on Himself in the hopes of encouraging solidarity – that maybe we as men will take comfort in the triumphs of others rather than revelling in each other’s defeats. Let us reclaim our bodies. Let us take them back from those who seek to profit from our insecurity.

Of course not. There is nothing oppressive, for the vast majority of men, about being gazed at by women. It does not have anything like the same association with sexual violence, with rape, with street harassment, with bullying, belittling, centuries of ownership, control, domestic abuse. For women to pose naked, on their own terms rather than on men’s, can be liberating. As Stasey says, it is about reclaiming your body. This is why there is a world of difference between a woman’s body being objectified in a woman’s magazine and a woman’s body being objectified in a men’s magazine. If it is another woman objectifying you, the power relationship is entirely different.

Could a man ever feel liberated by being photographed naked? Not in the same way, I think. I am nervous principally because there is nothing obviously empowering in me doing this. If anything it is the opposite. It is a risk. As a default man, white, middle class, educated, I am already in a position of power. In taking my clothes off, in making myself vulnerable, I risk a loss of power, of privilege, of status, at least among heterosexual men. And yet, actually, I do feel liberated, for exactly that reason. But I’ll come back to that.

A few weeks ago I read an article by Martin Daubney in the Telegraph arguing that men are now objectified more than women. It was a silly, arrogant piece of writing, but typical of a particular strain of male thinking on this subject. Daubney accused women of hypocrisy for getting overexcited about Jamie Dornan taking his top off for Fifty Shades of Grey while also complaining that the Sun’s use of page 3 girls is degrading. No, Martin, that is not hypocritical, because it’s not the nakedness of page 3 girls that is the problem, it’s the context. It is the fact that very young, topless women have appeared so prominently on the news pages of a widely read ‘family’ publication, every single day, for decades, and the message this sends.

Daubney’s argument, which is both simplistic and misleading, goes like this. Men are now objectified in the media more than women, and men are mostly relaxed about this, so feminists should lighten up about things like page 3 girls and, as Daubney condescendingly put it, “concentrate on the stuff that actually matters”.  The problem with this is that it assumes male and female objectification is essentially the same thing, regardless of context, which it plainly isn’t – just as, say, an image of a white person in chains has a completely different resonance to an image of a black person in chains. “It’s acceptable for straight men to admit we actually quite like looking at Jamie Dornan’s body – and Beckham’s budgie smugglers or David Gandy’s pecs,”  writes Daubney. “It’s not a sexual thing, because we look at these men as objects: superior physical beings we’d like to be a little more like. Straight men are thinking more like gays. And that’s healthy.”

But this is precisely the problem. In the mainstream media, the overwhelming majority of male bodies we see are ones that look physically powerful, evocative of Spartan warriors or Olympic athletes (the exception being images that we are supposed to find funny). They are, in other words, images that reinforce male power and status rather than conceding it in the name of equality. There is a plethora of pecs – especially in the gay press, scene of a scandal last year in which a 30 stone man entered Mr Gay UK, delighted the audience at the audition, then was disqualified on a “technicality” (the technicality being that the organisers plainly thought a fat man would be an embarrassment to the competition).

Where, in all this, are the images that find beauty in vulnerability, in showing men as most men really are, rather than as the “superior physical being” Martin Daubney seems to fantasise about becoming? Where is the equivalent of the women photographed for Herself? These images do exist if you know where to look, although, in the world of heterosexual men, we are usually encouraged to laugh at them rather than celebrate them, because we can afford to, taking for granted that we have status regardless of what our bodies look like. But they are not the images Daubney is talking about when he talks about male objectification. They are not the images of men’s bodies that most people see.

One thing you almost never get to see is a penis. Not even in Fifty Shades of Grey, a film adapted from a pornographic novel written by a woman for women. A budgie smuggler, a teasing hint of the outline of a penis, is one thing. A man actually showing his penis is something else. When I did this in several images in that 2007 photo session for Jannica, the result, we both felt, was an image of vulnerability, a concession of power. They are good photos. Part of me would like to illustrate my argument by sharing those photos here. But, as I say, it is the context in which images appear that determines their meaning. And in the world of men, sadly, the context for exposed penises is most frequently an aggressive display of sexual power. While the mainstream media is now filled with men revealing all of their muscles except one, other men reveal their contempt for women by sending photos of their penises to strangers. The ‘dick pic’ has become so pervasive that, in 2013, a group of female artists responded by making an exhibition in Brooklyn about it called Show Me More.

While I would like to think that being photographed naked, in the way that Jannica does it, is a statement about equality and vulnerability, the world in which those images have to exist is an ugly one, and the ugliness is very influential in shaping opinions about nudity in general. Nakedness is a minefield, much more so in the age of the internet. The fact is that anyone – male or female – who chooses to be photographed naked needs to be aware of the potential repercussions of that decision, if the images are plunged into a context over which you have no control. You could lose your job. You could be prevented from working with children. In the vast majority of cases these things reveal far more about society’s prejudices than they do about the person being photographed. But it is a genuine concern.

I hate that the world is like this. I want to rage against it.

In particular, I hate society’s expectations of how men should look and behave. I have hated them ever since I was aware of them. As a teenager I identified with the girlish boy in Momus‘s song of the same name. At school, boys would shout “are you a boy or a girl?” at me (the implication being that it would be a terrible, laughable thing to be a girl) or find it hilarious that I’d been spotted out shopping with my mum (Yes, and..? We also went for walks and watched On The Up together, and these are among my happiest childhood memories). I found crowds of aggressively self-confident boys oppressive and frightening, their sense of entitlement bewildering and alienating.

Throughout my life, numerous people – men and women – have assumed I am gay. I can see why. My friend David Shah, who is gay, once described me as “the feyest man ever to have a girlfriend”, a description I am oddly proud of. Virtually all of my male musical heroes are gay – Neil Tennant, Patrick Fitzgerald (of Kitchens of Distinction and Stephen Hero), Sufjan Stevens, Rufus Wainwright, Michael Stipe, Morrissey. It took me a long time to notice this. When I did I was surprised. Ok, I thought, but there’s at least one heterosexual male songwriter I absolutely adore, Mark Eitzel of American Music Club. Then it turned out he was gay too.

As a teenager people so frequently assumed I was gay that I began to think it must be true. I would have been pleased if it was. For a particular kind of white, privileged boy of a certain age, being gay offered cool outsider status (especially when the coolest band of the moment was Suede). Also, the only people that I knew for a fact wanted to sleep with me were the gay friends of my feminist friends (“Are you sure he’s not a little bit gay, something I can work on?” one of them asked an ex-girlfriend, much to our amusement), meaning I would have got laid more often too. And so, at the age of 20, I embarked on a mission to Delmonicas, Glasgow’s best known gay bar, with my lesbian best friend. What a non-event that was. Turned out I was an entirely heterosexual boy who just wasn’t very interested in beer, fighting or sexual insults. Or, for the most part, other men. A pub full of gay men was almost as intimidating to me as a pub full of straight men.

Mostly I look back on this sexual confusion with affection and amusement. But sometimes I am angry too. The only thing that should make you think someone is gay is that they are obviously sexually attracted to people of the same sex. Everything else is prejudice. If I’m not angry more often it’s because this particular prejudice has mostly been harmless to me. I have occasionally faced homophobic abuse, but it would be insulting to gay people to compare this to what they have to put up with every single day. And, in the end, I don’t give a hoot if people think I’m gay. Why would I? I mention all this only because it reveals so much about the gender roles we are all, still, expected to slot into. And because this is such a problem.

There is much more I’d like to write about being a man. Last year I became father to a son. I was nervous about that at first. I wasn’t sure I’d know how to do it. Not fatherhood – I already have two daughters – but raising a son. Would I know how to talk to him? A year on I am annoyed at myself for thinking this. What version of the world was I unconsciously subscribing to, despite everything I thought I knew? Looking at his beautiful little face now, I can’t conceive of any reason why I would raise him any differently from his older sisters. He wears the clothes his two-year-old sister has grown out of (apart from the dresses – although some other parents do this), he plays with the same toys as her, and he is being taught by his mother and father to be gentle, kind, thoughtful, strong, tolerant, the same values we are trying to teach his sisters. He has seen me naked. He couldn’t care less. It’s just skin. Everybody has it.

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9 thoughts on “Herself vs Himself: the difference between male and female objectification

  1. The world is changing, and those who see the world in the way you do are waking up. Thank you for these words, you are a very brave and eloquent man. Actually, you are a person, a human being who is fighting to be just you. Never change, thank you for the hope. My beautiful nearly three year old daughter loves the colour pink, but her tomboyish, rambunctious attitude to life co-exists perfectly with the pink, and she is happiest with practical toys, her gardening set or playdough. Gender is flexible, open and free.

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  2. I really like what you say here about masculinities and power. Thank you for writing it!

    (Off topic, ish: #1 I remember Delmonica’s in the 90s, half fondly and half as being pretty intimidating for a young gay guy too. #2 this was news to me about Sufjan, though now I think about it, why do I care!?)

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  3. I was really moved by this and think there is a place for non-aggressive images of naked men to assist in the rebalancing of the current trend of the penis as a sign of power. Yes, certain demographics are encouraged to laugh but I also think that response hides and underlying anxiety related to their own bodies, one which such a project would question and, in a small way perhaps, liberate. I’d be more than happy to pose for such photos. Why? Because, my strength lies in my willingness to wear my vulnerability and imperfections on the outside. And I don’t need the mask of overt masculinity to protect me. Thank you for this article x

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  4. Thank you.
    I too have occasionally faced homophobic abuse, to the point where I went to find out… but found a pub full of gay women quite intimidating!
    My partner used to be in the same predicament. He’s in touch with his feminine side, as one would say.

    All people feel emotion but due to norms of society boys are not taught how to express them.. Boys are brought up to be ‘strong’ and not show their feelings, whereas girls are expected to show vulnerability.

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