Kim Kardashian, Miley Cyrus and me: more thoughts on male vs female objectification

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Around this time last year I posted a blog about masculinity, nudity, and the difference between male and female objectification, and illustrated it with a couple of photos that my friend Jannica Honey had taken back in 2007. It was, and still is, the most popular thing I have ever put on this website. It’s possible that some of this attention was just people prowling the internet looking for naked bodies (and probably leaving terribly disappointed given that the pictures were 1. of me and 2. not that explicit). But judging by the comments, tweets and emails from across the world, the writing struck a chord with a lot of people.

One particularly moving response was from a gay man who had been married for three years but had never seen his partner naked. ‘He was unhealthily overweight when he was younger, which has taken its toll on his body,’ the man explained. ‘He feels deeply ashamed of it.’ He enjoyed the blog, he told me, because ‘there aren’t that many resources that encourage men to think about their gaze; their bodies; their peers; themselves’.

I agree with that, and had planned to write more on the subject, perhaps a book. I asked Jannica to photograph me again, to see if it would feel different eight years on. We discussed a collaboration – her photos, my writing – that would explore contemporary masculinity, vulnerability, the ageing process, the male gaze, the whole ‘what does it mean to be a man?’ thing. I started doing interviews. I talked to the playwright and novelist Alan Bissett, because his play Ban this Filth and novel Death of a Ladies’ Man are full of smart observations about contemporary masculinity (and, in the case of the former, male nudity). I talked to artist Diane Torr about her Man for a Day workshops, to learn more about the idea of masculinity as performance. And, for similar reasons, I talked to the transgender playwright Jo Clifford, who grew up, married and had children as John Clifford before undergoing gender reassignment late in life, and who now describes herself as ‘a proud father and grandmother’.

And then I lost my nerve and put the whole project on hold.

There were a couple of reasons. Firstly, I got bogged down in a possibly peripheral area of research – transgender identity and, in particular, its relationship with feminism – which is something of a minefield, and I ended up falling down a hole in the internet (although I did get a Bella Caledonia feature out of it). Secondly, I realised one day that, if you did a Google image search for my name, the first pictures that came up were of me naked. Since I was applying for various freelance jobs at the time and so was probably being Googled regularly by potential employers, this freaked me out a bit.

A year on, I am ambivalent about my ambivalence. I really like Jannica’s second set of pictures, one of which is at the top of this blog (cropped – sorry Jannica). And isn’t male nudity everywhere these days, in fashion, sport, film, television and media coverage of all of the above? What’s the big deal? Aren’t we all pretty relaxed about it now?

Well, yes and no. Male nudity is indeed everywhere, but not in a way that’s of much use to anyone searching for the kind of emotional resource described above. You won’t find many naked male bodies that look like mine in the mainstream media, for one thing, and I have not yet found a male equivalent of Herself, the website that prompted much of my thinking on this subject (if one exists, do let me know). Instead there are ubiquitous pecs – Jamie Dornan (in 50 Shades of Gray), Aidan Turner (in Poldark), Channing Tatum (in the Magic Mike films), or models like David Gandy, advertising an ever-wider range of products, from air freshener to salad dressing (a trend known as hunkvertising). If you believe Mark Simpson, the writer who famously introduced the word metrosexual to the world back in 2002, we are living in the age of the spornosexual,  young men raised in a world of instantly available online porn and obsessed with building up their bodies so that they look like sportsmen or porn stars.

I have no desire whatsoever to look like that, but I was happy to discover that spornosexuality at least seems to reflect a more relaxed attitude to different forms of sexuality. As Mark Simpson argued in 2014, “the way straight young men chase and hustle gay attention today represents a major, millennial shift in attitudes…. They instinctively know that male objectification is about enjoying and celebrating male passivity, even — and especially — if you’re straight. So getting the gays proves not only your hotness, and coolness, but also your metaphysical versatility.” As evidence, Simpson cites Dan Osborne being photographed naked for gay magazine Attitude, and the Warwick University rowing team, whose naked charity calendars have been a big hit and are “dedicated to fighting homophobia in sports”. Apparently young heterosexual men even kiss each other on the mouth these days.

So that’s all good, except that the recent ubiquity of male nudity is also distorting discussions around female objectification – typified by the controversy, in April 2015, over an advert for weight loss supplements by a company called Protein World. The ad, you may remember, featured a young woman in a bikini and the slogan “Are you beach body ready?”, and made headlines after women began adding their own slogans to the poster with marker pens, like “Stop encouraging women to starve themselves,” and “If my body is on the beach then it is ready, thank you very much.” At the height of this protest, Mark Simpson tweeted a photo of an advert featuring a typically spornosexual naked man that was appearing on the London Underground at the same time as the one for Protein World. “Strangely, this starkers #beachreadybody ad on the Tube didn’t provoke any demos,” Simpson wrote. “Just a lot of staring.”

Well of course it didn’t, because women weren’t objecting to a photo of a woman in a bikini, but to the slogan, which implied that, unless you looked like the model in the ad, you really shouldn’t be putting on a swimsuit in public. As one protestor, London barrister Harriet Johnson, tweeted on 23 April: “Hey @ProteinWorld, am I (a normal woman) allowed on the beach? You know, if my body’s for me, not to please others?” Others went much further in expressing their anger, threatening to smash the windows of the company’s office, or even bomb it.

This was seized on by writers like Martin Daubney, a former Loaded editor and something of a Simpson disciple, as evidence of the irrationality and extremism of feminist “social justice warriors”, when actually it was just further evidence of the internet’s tendency to polarise and poison debate regardless of the issue. Daubney’s Protein World report, for the Breitbart website on 2 May 2015, took particular pride in its revelation that the hashtag #growupharriet – the company’s condescending response to Johnson’s tweet – was to be included on billboards when the Protein World ad was launched in New York. What he didn’t mention was Johnson’s subsequent tweet, on 30 April: “This week I’ve been threatened with death & rape, told to ‘get cancer’, & abused by strangers. For pointing out an ad was wrong.”

Writers like Martin Daubney and Mark Simpson have spent a lot of time, over the past couple of years, arguing that male and female objectification are essentially the same thing and that we’re all basically equal now. But as any woman knows very well, there is a profound difference between the way women experience objectification and the way men experience it. If we men are objectified, it is almost always through choice. Jamie Dornan and Aidan Turner made a decision to be actors in dramas that required them to take their clothes off – and there is no obvious shortage of roles for young male actors that wouldn’t require them to do this. Posing for Jannica, I made the choice and I set the terms (none of the images would be displayed in public without my permission). Mark Simpson, revealingly, tends to talk about “self-objectification”. In other words, if a man does not wish to be objectified it is easy enough for him to avoid it.

Women, though, are objectified on a daily basis regardless of how they look, dress, or behave. As Barbara Ellen put it in a column on 12 April 2015, “sexual objectification is an ongoing socioeconomic-cum-psychosexual epidemic, affecting the vast majority of women at some stages of their lives. Even when they are no longer objectified (losing looks or fertility; ageing), it’s used against them in a routine way… This is the truth of female objectification – it’s less about personal sexiness and more about impersonal power structures. How could a man begin to appropriate this gigantic, complicated, socio-historically entrenched mess as his own valid experience?” Objectification of women takes many forms but fundamentally it is about male control over women’s bodies and women’s voices. Street harassment, catcalling, stalking, sexual bullying and rape are all forms of objectification, because all involve a person being reduced to an object for someone else’s gratification. And the overwhelming majority of victims of all of the above are women.

Martin Daubney made a revealing comment in his article about male objectification for the Telegraph last year. “These days, 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. 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 thinking more like gays – and that’s healthy.”

Yes it is healthy, but it’s not objectification. If Daubney wanted to fuck the men he is looking at, to use them selfishly for his own sexual pleasure, then that would be objectification, but apparently he doesn’t – he wants to be them, physically at least. That is something else entirely – projection of our own desires on to another person, which doesn’t objectify that person any more than fantasising about being Tom Cruise objectifies Tom Cruise. No wonder men are so relaxed about it. Far from promoting equality, the spornosexual body does precisely the opposite – it reinforces the power and status of men.

But it also reinforces a particular version of masculinity – one that I find completely alienating. As I asked in last year’s blog, where are the images that find beauty (rather than comedy) in showing men as ordinary, physically imperfect human creatures?

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It says a lot about the culture we live in that one of the few places you’ll find such images is as part of a conversation about feminism. In 2012, for example, an exhibition in London called The Naked Muse brought together female photographers and male poets for a series of 30 table-turning nude portraits, in which the poets became muses for women. Since poets are not exactly famed for their frequent gym attendance, the result was a rather more varied display of male nudity than is usually on offer in the media, not only in physique but in age – from 21 to 67.

And then there’s Alan Bissett’s Ban this Filth, a very personal exploration of masculinity and feminism in which Alan switched between playing himself as a teenager discovering pornography, and playing Andrea Dworkin, the feminist writer and campaigner who regarded all pornography as violence against women. At the end of each night’s show, Alan invited his audience to vote on whether or not he should take all his clothes off.

“If I was going to do a show about porn and the objectification of women, I had to be as close as I could to what a women might feel when she’s being objectified,” Alan explained when I interviewed him about it. He recalled discussing the idea with his director, Sacha Kyle, and remarking to her that if he was going to be naked on stage he’d better get himself to to a gym. “And she said, no, don’t, because if you strip off and you’ve got pecs people will go, oh for fuck’s sake you wanted us to see it because you’re beautiful, but if you’ve got the same wobbly bits and slack muscle and flab as everybody else there’s going to be a lot more sympathy.’ So I thought, let’s try and make myself as vulnerable as I possibly can. But the conclusion that’s reached at the end of the play is that it’s not the same sense of peril because I’m still male. I can walk away from this and it’s not going to hurt me. But I still felt it was important to try and go part of that way.”

Having spent years examining masculinity in novels like Boyracers, Pack Men and Death of a Ladies Man, part of Alan’s motivation was, simply enough, to question what it meant for an ordinary looking man to be publicly naked – a question to which he didn’t have an answer. “If I’m standing there undressed in front of an audience they can project on to me what that means,” he told me. “Maybe what it means is ‘fucking look at me I’m a guy,’ maybe what it means is ‘oh my god this is terrifying stop looking at me’, maybe what it means is ‘this is a really ham-fisted attempt to empathise with vulnerable women.’”

What he discovered was that “people get profoundly uncomfortable with male nudity. We’re so used to seeing the naked female form and there’s a lot more titillation around it. What I felt at that point was the audience squirming. Some people took it as almost aggressive, like ‘I’m gonna show you my dick whether you want me to or not.’ Other people were like, ‘no he’s vulnerable, you don’t have to do this mate.’ What I learned is that it’s complex; we haven’t quite worked out what male nudity in society means, which is the whole point about male objectification. What’s happened to female nudity is it’s become commodified, and it’s been commodified for decades. We’re so used to it now. An advert for moisturiser, an advert for a clothes shop, an advert for Thomson holidays. We’re much less used to knowing what male nudity means, which says it all really about our patriarchal culture.”

Another factor in play was the aforementioned ubiquity of the ‘spornosexual’ male body. “What’s much more taboo is the idea of a naked male body that isn’t perfect,” Alan observed. “Because feminism has been successful to a certain extent, the idea of a fat naked woman can be empowering, but nobody sees a fat naked man, or a skinny naked man, as empowering. There’s only one naked male form that’s permissible, which isn’t to say let’s get the violins out for men, just that we’re just not used to seeing that. There’s no product you can sell using a fat naked man. It’s useless as a capitalist symbol.”

Indeed. The manifesto for Herself, which I wrote about in my previous blog, can be read as a critique of capitalism as much as of misogyny: “Let us reclaim our bodies. Let us take them back from those who seek to profit from our insecurity.” Hunkvertising is part of that same process of exploitation; it is not about sexual equality, it’s about money. As blogger Rebecca Cullers put it in AdWeek in 2013, “it had to do with equality back when Cosmo picked Burt Reynolds as the first nude male centre fold. At this point, looking at some abs while drinking Diet Coke is hardly a feminist revolution, particularly when it’s a remake of a popular spot from decades ago.”

So why aren’t men writing Herself-style manifestos about wanting to reclaim their bodies? Most obviously, it’s because things like hunkvertising are simply not a threat to the status of men in general – we are still, overwhelmingly, the ones in charge of that capitalist society, so, as Alan rightly puts it, there is no comparable sense of peril. Also, what would we have to gain? I have never heard anyone claim that men taking their clothes off is ’empowering’ (something constantly claimed about female nudity). It is more likely to be disempowering. That was certainly my fear, rational or not. Would I be taken less seriously as a potential employee?

Another factor is that worrying aloud about male objectification tends to provoke an immediate – and often deserved – backlash from women, as Game of Thrones actor Kit Harington discovered when he complained in April 2015 that “to be put on a pedestal as a hunk is slightly demeaning… in the same way as it is for women”. The response from many women was a blunt, instantaneous “you know nothing, Jon Snow”. How could Harington possibly understand what it feels like to be objectified the way women are? Well, he can’t, obviously, but in terms of the way capitalism turns all human beings into commodities, he had a point – except for his misunderstanding of where the equivalence was.

Perhaps, as Alan’s experience suggests, the main problem is that we men are still in the early, tentative stages of a debate about capitalism and sexual objectification that women have been immersed in for decades, a debate full of questions that tend to leave men floundering because we’ve never had to think about it properly before. What, for example, is the difference between a woman’s body being objectified in a men’s magazine and a woman’s body being objectified in a women’s magazine? Until recently I had thought the right response, for a man who wants to be an ally of feminism, is that a woman being objectified by another woman is fine because the power relationship is entirely different. As Noah Berlatsky put it in a 2013 article on this subject for the Atlantic, “Esquire retails yet another fantasy of mastery for men. Women’s magazines, on the other hand, offer a fantasy of mastery for women.” But if in both cases women’s bodies are being turned into products, is there really that much of a difference?

The more closely nudity is tied to capitalism, it appears, the more complex questions about objectification become – which goes some way to explaining the recent heated debate over Kim Kardashian’s naked bathroom selfie.

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The question being asked about Kim Kardashian is essentially the same one that was being asked about Miley Cyrus three years ago. Is a female celebrity taking her clothes off – on her own terms but also in an obvious bid for public attention – empowering for young women or reinforcing misogyny? Both cases demonstrate how deeply women think about objectification, how little men understand it, and how divisive the issue is. Three years on, and after a lot of reading on the subject, my little man brain is still unsure where I stand on the whole Miley thing (and, by extension, the whole Kim thing), but here – for the sake of illustrating a larger point – is my best attempt to sum up the arguments involved (without, I hope, mansplaining). While Miley is my case study of choice, I suspect you can substitute Kim’s name at various points fairly easily. And by the way, as you read this, feel free to ponder whether anyone would ever have a discussion like this about male celebrities.

For some feminists, Cyrus’s appearance at the 2013 VMA awards – duetting with Robin Thicke on a song, Blurred Lines, which had been widely accused of implicitly inciting rape – was a car crash, a leering, fully dressed, married man in his mid-thirties singing “you know you want it” while a 20-year-old “good girl” rubbed her semi-naked body against him. Sinead O’Connor, hearing that Cyrus’s Wrecking Ball video had been partly inspired by the famous video for her single Nothing Compares to U, wrote an open letter to the singer: “You are worth more than your body and your sexual appeal,” she told Cyrus. “You have enough talent that you don’t need to let the music business make a prostitute of you.”

Other women felt differently, like American artist Marilyn Minter, who said Cyrus was being “slut shamed” by such comments and that “there’s a ceiling for women owning sexuality in any shape or form”. Musician Amanda Palmer responded to O’Connor’s open letter to Cyrus with an open letter to O’Connor, suggesting Cyrus was more in control of her own decisions than O’Connor was giving her credit for, and warning of the danger of “women scolding other women”. “I want to live in a world where WE as women determine what we wear and look like and play the game as our fancy leads us, army pants one minute and killer gown the next, where WE decide whether or not we’re going to play games with the male gaze and the starry-eyed hard-ons that can make men so easy to manipulate,” wrote Palmer. “But seriously, let’s all play the game together, with a wink and a nudge… so we don’t hurt each other.”

When Annie Lennox joined the discussion a couple of days later, she initially echoed O’Connor, describing “overtly sexualised” performances like Cyrus’s as “a glorified and monetized form of self-harm… misogyny, utilized and displayed through oneself”. Within 24 hours, though, she had completely revised her argument (while skillfully giving the impression she hadn’t): “There’s nothing wrong with sexuality and sensuality and I think these artists are beautiful, but it needs to be age-appropriate.” The problem was no longer “monetised self-harm”, then, but what impact Cyrus could have on young viewers. Except that this, arguably, is a form of slut-shaming too – a very particular form of it, in which middle-aged women try to shame younger women for their irresponsibility in an effort to assert themselves as a wiser “voice of reason”. The columnist Julie Burchill accused O’Connor of doing just this, acting like “a very dreary blend of a tarot-card reader, prim headmistress and unsolicited agony aunt”, feigning concern while actually just “carping at a younger, prettier woman who sells records in the quantity you used to”.

Complicating the situation further was Cyrus’s apparent disregard for feminist solidarity, mocking O’Connor on Twitter for her mental health problems (prompting four more, increasingly angry open letters from the Irish singer) and surrounding herself at the VMA Awards with semi-naked black backing dancers, her “homegirls with the big butts, shaking it like we in a strip club”. For black writer NinjaCate, there were serious problems with Cyrus’s “association of her newfound sexuality with the traditional codifiers of black female culture, thereby perpetuating the Jezebel stereotype that black women are lewd, lascivious and uncontrollably sexualised. Can we talk about the straight up minstrelsy of that performance? Can we talk about how not a single black person won an award last night even though the people who did win awards have been mining black music and culture for years? No? Ok… I’ll just sit at the back of the bus then. #solidarityisforwhitewomen.”

Leaving aside the racial element, the debate – conducted almost exclusively among women, while most men just gawped and wondered what the fuss was about – was essentially a clash between second and third wave feminism, according to writer Michelle Smith on The Conversation website. While second wave feminists saw Cyrus as an unwitting pawn of a sexually exploitative system catering to the values and needs of men, third wave feminists pointed out that, if a woman is in control of her decisions, what right does another woman have to tell her what she should do? As Vanessa Blanchard wrote of Sinead O’Connor’s open letter, “telling Miley Cyrus to cover up and protect herself from predators negates her right to take up space any way she pleases, and the justification of this attack on her right to be is that it is meant to help her avoid being blamed for the actions of others. Never mind that attacking a person’s worth, so that they will do what you say, is just as misleading and controlling as the predatory behaviour O’Connor warns about.” Except that, as Michelle Smith pointed out, “the third wave perspective that lauds Cyrus’s choice to be a ‘raging, naked, twerking sex-pot’ rests on the problematic idea that gender equality has been achieved and that women are already fully liberated. Can we really say that the career choices available to female musicians are equivalent or comparable to those available to male musicians?”

A common feminist response to all this is more nudity – but nudity in a form that rebels against the capitalist mass entertainment system in which Miley Cyrus and Kim Kardashian operate. The point of the images on Herself, the website I wrote about in my blog last year, is that nothing is for sale. It is not a fashion shoot, or an advert. The photos have not been digitally manipulated to give anyone smaller hips or bigger breasts. You can see spots and wrinkles and cellulite and birthmarks and fat. And nobody’s hands are coyly concealing nipples or vaginas so that the photos can safely make it onto a supermarket shelf. It is one of numerous feminist projects that are, at least partly, about reclaiming female nudity from capitalism.

Jannica Honey’s website is another good example; one of her best piece of work – in my opinion – is a collection of portraits of Edinburgh strippers, which are funny, frank, intimate, mostly naked, but never exploitative. The women are subjects rather than objects, full of humanity, and their bodies, in this context, are not for sale. It is a culture shock seeing photos of naked strippers that are not intended to be titillating, and it is surprising (or was to me, anyway) what a powerful statement it ends up being. Then there is Raising the Skirt, a project started by live artist Nicola Canavan in 2014, in which women are photographed roaring and exposing their vaginas, in wild outdoor landscapes, naked but for a skirt, like clan warriors. Raising the Skirt references folklore across the world that suggests “women could drive away the devils and evil spirits, all through the power and beauty of their cunts”. Its slogan echoes the conclusion of the Herself manifesto, but more bluntly: “Reclaim your cunt, reclaim our cunts.”

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Perhaps the most striking British example in recent years, though, was Nic Green’s Trilogy (above), a theatre show about womanhood and the naked body that became a phenomenon. At the Edinburgh Fringe in 2009 it featured around 40 women, of all ages and body sizes, singing and dancing naked. By the time it reached the Barbican in London the following year that number had swelled to around 200 – a mass, communal reclaiming of the female body. “At its very pinnacle, art has the ability to make criticism redundant,” marvelled theatre critic Matt Trueman. Trilogy, he wrote, “is so important, so intelligent, so passionate, bold, heartfelt, honest, amusing, absorbing and valiant that such words simply fade into insignificance.”

In summary, women spend a huge amount of time thinking and arguing about the meaning of female nudity – and, quite often, getting naked while doing it – apparently because it is one of the only ways to feel any ownership over their bodies in a world where female nudity is ubiquitous, often oppressively so, and is used constantly to try and sell us stuff. Men, on the whole, haven’t had to think about much about what male nudity means and so haven’t bothered. We are, probably, about half a century behind women on this subject. Last week I was reading about yet another female artist exploring female nudity, wrinkles, cellulite and all – the painter Aleah Chapin – and was struck by her answer to the question of why she hasn’t painted men in the same way. “Men are less comfortable,” she said, adding that she was going to try and persuade some for her next show. “It’s daunting – but I have to do it.” Good luck with that.

And this is partly why Ban this Filth caused a stir. Here’s the twist, though – Alan never did take all his clothes off. No matter how many times he did the show, he told me, there was never a majority vote in favour of him getting naked. “When I asked people afterwards they all had different reasons,” he explained. “A lot of them said, ‘I had no objection to it but I felt sorry for you, you would have been too vulnerable.’ Other people were like, ‘I just didn’t want to see you naked.’ And other people felt that me in a show about radical feminism exposing my penis would have been completely the wrong message and would have been a macho, patriarchal kind of move, and I accept that. I think there was also a thing in the audience where people didn’t want to be seen voting for nudity, because it would make them look like a perv, which is also interesting because it clearly wasn’t a sexual thing, it was an artistic thing and a political thing but still, it’s like, ‘if I vote for this it makes me look like I want to see some dick.’ But that still makes a point about the taboo of male nudity.”

Yes it does. One thing I noticed when I published my first blog on this subject last year was that, while my female friends were very supportive and positive and kept telling me how brave I was, virtually all of my male friends (the heterosexual ones, at least) were either conspicuously silent or made awkward jokes. One of them pointed out that I had a bit of fluff in my belly button – and this was all he had to say on the subject. I had been living with these photos for eight years and had never noticed the fluff before. In other words, while acting as if it was all a bit of a joke, in his own quiet way he was clearly paying very close attention. Which is progress of a sort, I suppose.

And so I’m not sure where to go from here. As much as I love Jannica’s 2015 portraits of me, I’m not quite brave enough to put them out in the world properly yet. But it also feels like men and boys desperately need to talk about this stuff, and that an important part of that process is for different kinds of male bodies to be celebrated – just as women have been doing for years with projects like Trilogy, Herself, or Raising the Skirt. Another new word I have discovered in the past year is ‘bigorexia’, an anxiety disorder that causes young men to work out compulsively and become obsessed with looking at themselves in the mirror. Rob Wilson, chair of the Body Dysmorphic Disorder Foundation, told the BBC last year that the condition may have become more common as a result of “an increased pressure on men to look muscular, create a ‘V’ shape and have a six pack”. In other words, hunkvertising and spornosexuality are affecting the mental health of boys, just as ubiquitous media images of semi-naked women have been affecting the mental health of girls for decades now.

As difficult as this must have been for generations of girls, at least they’ve had generations of brilliant feminist writers to help them feel less alone – Germaine Greer, Andrea Dworkin, Naomi Wolf, Margaret Atwood, Caitlin Moran, Laurie Penny, to name just a few. Boys have…. Mark Simpson? No wonder we’re in trouble.

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