Sunday, June 15, 2014

Three Excuses For Female Objectification That Don't Hold Up

I argue a lot about women's issues and social justice, and objectification especially. I don't mean to argue, but that's where the conversation usually goes, mostly because these three chestnuts replace all my words with pissed off glaapr, oorghg.

(Content note: nude and sexually explicit images, objectification in advertising, "equally objectified", swearing, Rob Liefeld)

Sex Sells

Or maybe it doesn't? Who knows. Not me.

By all means try and find out whether this is actually true, but don't waste too much time on it, because you will never meet anyone who doesn't accept this as fact.

More importantly than the objective truth of it, it doesn't actually matter. Whether it works or not is entirely inconsequential. I always get a bit twitchy when commercial success is presented as superior to moral integrity and ethical responsibility. Argue that sexual objectification of human beings is bad and the counterargument will be that it "works." I assume that "working" here means that we are successfully manipulated by advertisers into doing whatever the hell they want us to, something that doesn't exactly draw cheers when we're talking about anything besides the exploitation of women's bodies. Advertisers manipulating us is bad always, but advertisers manipulating us with sexual imagery is a victory for common sense. This is much like arguing that shoving vodka-soaked tampon up your ass is a great and wonderful thing to do because it's a real victory for Smirnoff.

Even when we're not supposed to agree with it, it's still presented as an immovable, unshakeable truth on which the foundation of the universe is set. The moon will wax, the dunes will shift, boners will sell burgers. Why question it? What is the point of questioning anything, really? Does questioning electromagnetism make it any less existent? It's not like we can do anything about it. Objectification of women is a force of nature. The world, as we know, is carried by the four elephants of fundamental forces on the back of a turtle, and their names are Gravity, Magnetism, Inertia and Jerking Off To Beer Commercials. To question and combat it sounds suspiciously like something a menstruating feminist might do.

So that pisses me off straight out the gate. But what really gets me about this phrase is the use of the words "sex."

Sex is a cooperative, collaborative and consensual activity between two or more sticky people undertaken for the orgasmic benefit of all involved. Objectification, on the other hand, is not.

For details, please refer to Fig. A below.

Fig. A below

Words matter. Language matters. It's one of the main tools we have to express collective values and pass them on. "Sexual objectification of women = sex" is a perversion of language and the entire concept of a fun social activity (2 to infinity players, ages 18 and up.)

And before you protest my pointed use of the word women...

(Actually, before we get to that, a very important correction.)

Equally Objectified

The thinking goes that, seeing as how we live in a world where perfect equality was achieved at some point I'm sure, cheesecake is sexual objectification of women for men, while beefcake is sexual objectification of men for women.

Please play your own favorite laugh track while I refer you to Fig. B.

Fig. B

On the left: a magazine tailored for a male audience, showing him in full beefcake-type mode with headlines about how you, too, can look like this.  On the right: a magazine tailored for a female audience, which has a headline about romance and shows him looking more or less like a normal dude.

You know who makes the argument that beefcake is a turn-on for women? Men who don't talk to a whole lot of turned on women.

If you're a straight woman, you should be sitting in a puddle right about now.

Not to deny that there are plenty of straight women out there who find the sight of python-like veins twitching beneath glistening man-flesh a turn-on. There are, and plenty of them, because as it turns out human sexuality isn't as easily codified as advertisers imagine in their wettest of dreams. It's just that I never seem to meet those women.

You know what my talks about turn-ons with young women are about? Tom Hiddleston. Almost exclusive, actually. But it sort of goes from there, takes some interesting twists and turns into geek fiction and ends up on always. Have you ever read a fanfic site? Young girls don't sit in their own fluids writing about how Hulk's ham-like biceps rip through his costume exposing the bulging sacks of yummy gamma-meat. They write about Bruce Banner sticking his tongue down Tony Stark, straight up.

I've got a whole post about yaoi in the works, but I keep getting distracted by screaming orgasms, so you're going to have to give me some time with that. While you wait, consider the fact that male as well as female sexuality is a complex thing, and we get turned on by the strangest of things. To create a paltry two categories and assign each biological sex just one, two if you're nasty, is sadly unimaginative, insultingly limiting and an extinction-level event for my lady-boner.

It's Art

I'm not here to quibble over the definition of art. I'm here to use the word "lady-boner" as often as I can get away with. But let's for a minute assume that some art, within its own category, is noticeably better than other art even to the layman. Pablo Picasso, for example, produces much better cubism than MS Paint.

In the world of portrait and full-body photography, artistic nudes are to photography what the dirty limerick is to poetry. It's what youtube dares are to filmmaking, paint-by-numbers books to painting, Mad Libs to literature. Anyone can do it, and they can do it proficiently, and I'm sure some real visionaries are taking those things in exciting new directions, but don't shove the result in my face and call it automatically-art or I will beat you profusely with my lady-boner.

Anyone with a how-to guide and a decent camera can do a proficient nude portrait. Not a good one, just a technically competent one. And anyone with an internet connection and some spare change can find a model. That's why they all look the same. Here, let me give you a description of 90% of artistic nudes ever: woman between 18 and 25 is thin, but not so thin as to be an icky gross fashion model, arches back, has long hair. It flows. Legs. Fucking yawn. At least Leonard Nimoy put some eggs in there.

One dude, absolutely no bush, not a single goddamn egg.

Don't think I'm coming at this with just some vague intuitions and an optimistic lady-boner. The rest of this post is full-on anecdata, so take it as you will.

I was a nude model for close to seven years. I've worked with dozens of photographers, both professional and amateur, and very few of them (not none, but a small minority) were interested in creating something original and artful. Most of them, when asked, happily disclosed that taking pictures of pretty young naked women was fun. Some went entire shoots with erections larger than their lenses. About half of them kept pestering me and every model they could contact to do porn. On several occasions the result of a three hour long full-body shoot was hundreds of closeups of my vagina. Pretty much everyone I asked shuddered at the thought of doing the same pictures with young men, older women, fat women, pretty much anyone who isn't an 18-to-25 white young woman with long legs weighing no more than 120 pounds (again, we're not doing evil-bad fashion photography here, ew.) They usually told me this without a trace of irony after explaining to me that their art was all about light and shadow, form and texture. Do not suggest to them that a the body of a plus size model has a much more interesting landscape of light and shadow going on, or that the octogenarian male nude is a beautiful collection of texture, form and intricate beauty. You will very likely do them damage straight in the irony gland.

The sad truth is that most of the photographers who I worked with were usually men with lucrative jobs who were willing to heavily invest in their “new photography hobby.” Their photos were unfailingly amateur and cheesy, but they were always the ones willing to pay my $150 flat rate for three hours of shooting. During those shoots I always felt like a piece of meat: they most likely booked me just to spend time with a naked girl. Don’t misunderstand, not all of the photographers operated like this; some were very talented and I was deeply honored to work with them. But the large majority of them were creeps.

Ask anyone with a book of nudes or a blog with picture collections and you'll be told that they appreciate light, form, texture, kerblurgh. If you press harder, for example by asking why they aren't looking at pictures of landscapes, fat male models or pine cones catching the light all pretty, fucking run, because they're about to take your head off.

I picked up a trick or two during my tenure as an object that catches light. So trust me, a former seasoned professional, when I tell you that the skinny young woman's body is pretty much the least interesting thing to photograph when your self-professed focal points are light, texture and form. Working with an actual professional is a lot more fun and worthwhile, but don't for a second believe that it's not about objectification, because it totally is. If you need proof, take of your clothes in front of a photographer and do as they say. You'll absolutely feel like someone stapled tits and a smile on a slab of beef.

I'm not saying that nude photography can't be art. It absolutely can be. The 10% that isn't same-old is often gorgeous and inspiring and original and has a lot of thought, care and empathy put into it. And even the boring old "thin naked girl is naked and white" genre can and does crank out amazing things.

One of these things is not like the others.

Anecdata aside, it comes down to the fact that this type of photography always has a core of objectification. Subject-object-dichotomy is a vague and shifty beast at best, but here it's pretty obvious. If the photographer is a creep who wants an excuse to be around naked women, it's sexual objectification. If the photographer is actually being truthful about the model being an object that catches light, it's regular objectification in its purest form. To the photographer and the viewer, the model is object, not subject.

Real issues of objectification and entitlement notwithstanding, obviously it's totally okay to take and look at sexy pictures for sexy purposes. These things have to be looked at in their social context, but devoid of that, ain't nothing wrong with looking at consenting naked people. I do it all the time. I'm doing it right now. But don't get all uppity about it being fine art just because someone slapped a sepia filter over it.

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