Sunday, September 27, 2009

Equal Bodies

My friend recalls an old conversation in which I argued for a more gender-balanced view of sexual objectification. She writes:

. . . 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] 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. [my emphasis]


I'm not sure how to even begin unpacking this last sentence.

By whom are women "primarily seen as bodies" rather than people? Men? Society? The dominant culture? I think my friend may be lumping these three together.

Is it really so easy to pin down the dominant strands of contemporary American thought amidst such vast ideological diversity? Can we really paint with such broad strokes? Is power really so highly concentrated in today's pluralistic society?

As a policy person, I may approach these questions from a slightly different perspective. To me, power is the ability to place things onto the political decision agenda or to keep them off of that agenda. In both respects, women's organizations have been immensely powerful over the past several decades. And I think this may be part of the reason why I am unwilling to accept such a generalized conception of how women are "seen" in America.

This model of society -- a culture that is so fundamentally repressive toward women -- fails to incorporate the past 40 years of social progress, and the incredible political clout that women's organizations now wield.

It's no coincidence that the first bill President Obama signed into law was the Fair Pay Act. Nor was it surprising that one of the president's first public acts was to rescind the Mexico City Policy. Over the past several decades, feminist groups have deeply transformed the political landscape in America -- and, with it, many aspects of our culture. These changes should not be portrayed as exogenous. Indeed, they have played an important role in our cultural evolution, and they should be considered an internal part of our social model.

Unfortunately, I think that many contemporary feminists -- like other kinds of activists -- have a "tendency to minimize victories and exaggerate threats." In some ways this makes sense. Activism necessitates a certain kind of hyperbole. But these exaggerations distort the complex reality.

After multiple waves of feminism, a series of profound policy changes, and decades of intense social criticism, it's not so easy to make blanket statements about how women are really perceived by society.

At the very least, we should acknowledge that the issue of social perceptions is complex and requires quite a bit more qualification today than it did in the past . . . .

13 comments:

petpluto said...

This model of society -- a culture that is so fundamentally repressive toward women -- fails to incorporate the past 40 years of social progress, and the incredible political clout that women's organizations now wield.

It's no coincidence that the first bill President Obama signed into law was the Fair Pay Act.


No, but it does say something that (a) the Supreme Court of the United States decided that Lilly Ledbetter "could have and should have" sued during the 180-day statutory charging period, and (b) that it has taken this long before such legislation to right those sorts of wrongs made it to the president's desk.

I don't minimize the triumphs. I celebrate them. What I also refuse to do, though, is to take these triumphs and then minimize the threats as well. The legislation was passed, and I'm grateful for it and celebrate it and hope that in moving forward, the world will be changed by it. But the world wasn't changed instantaneously by pen to paper, and to point that out, to point out that such standards need to be written into law precisely because our cultural evolution hasn't exactly been radically progressive, isn't minimizing the steps we have taken.

The world has changed a lot. I can wear pants. It's fun. But the world has not changed so much so that the issues we face today don't stem from the issues of yesteryear - or that new issues aren't always cropping up.

mikhailbakunin said...

Sure. I'm not arguing that men and women are perfectly equal. Of course there are serious social deficits that need to be corrected.

The Fair Pay Act was one of a series of statues over the past several decades designed to do just that. And it's not just statutory changes. There have been so many vast, measurable social changes.

To say that women are "still primarily seen as bodies" is a vague and almost meaningless hyperbole.

When it comes to Lilly Ledbetter, the nine unelected Supreme Court justices merely interpreted existing law. But the dominant culture -- through the only nationally elected policymaker in America -- decided that that law was unfair.

petpluto said...

To say that women are "still primarily seen as bodies" is a vague and almost meaningless hyperbole.

I don't think so. I think that, in the course of women's history, women have been almost exclusively seen as bodies. Not just in the physical "she looks good" sense, but in the "women exist to have babies" sense, in the "women exist to be married" sense. Obviously, this has and will never apply to all women, nor was it or will it ever been the mindset of all men. But the idea that the average female brain could actually work on the same level as the average male brain wasn't even in the cards - and it isn't exactly a noncontroversial notion now.

At this moment in history, we've progressed light years by moving beyond the "Don't worry your pretty little head" response to women. *However*, women are still cat-called on the street - making them primarily a body. Women are still asked, "Well, what were you wearing?" Another example of the body coming before the person. Women are still asked about their marital and motherhood status before their career, again, emphasizing the body part of the woman instead of the person part of the woman. And again, not every woman experiences this and not every man is guilty of this. But when Hillary Clinton was being critiqued because whenever she opened her mouth, certain male pundits only heard "take out the garbage", she was being seen primarily as a body, a female body, before she was seen as a person. When liberal commentators talked about Sarah Palin's fuckability, she was being treated fundamentally as a body first. When the media obsesses over whether Michelle Obama should show off her arms or if her shorts are just *too* short, she's being treated as a body first. As bodies we are free to comment on.

You're right in that the world is a complex place; but that doesn't inherently negate my point. Having counterexamples doesn't automatically invalidate the critique.

mikhailbakunin said...

Certainly there are those who view women primarily as bodies. The question is whether women are, in the aggregate, "seen primarily as bodies first." That seems to be the assertion that you're making.

I think one of the ways to assess whether this premise is credible is to think about what kinds of statements draw strong public criticism. The "Iron My Shirt" crowd offers a good example. Their actions were condemned by virtually everyone in public life. They certainly did not represent the dominant culture because they were marginalized by that culture.

The idea that the "average female brain" can't work as well as the average male brain isn't up for debate today. Anyone who even came close to suggesting such a thing would be immediately and universally condemned.

In fact, people who suggest that female and male brains may have slight differences are often charged with sexism.

petpluto said...

The idea that the "average female brain" can't work as well as the average male brain isn't up for debate today.

"Why aren't there more women engineers?"

Getting to the complex answer of how we as a *group* parent our girls as opposed to how we parent our boys, how we gender our children almost straight from the womb (and sometimes before), and how walking into a classroom and knowing you'll be in the minority is often discarded for the easy, "Girls just don't want to be engineers". Which may be true in some form or another. I don't want to be an engineer, as an example. But although there is the theoretical idea that the average man and average woman's brains work about as well, the practice of that idea has yet to reach wide and far in many situations.

The "Iron My Shirt" crowd offers a good example. Their actions were condemned by virtually everyone in public life. They certainly did not represent the dominant culture because they were marginalized by that culture.

Which is why Tucker Max is banished to the dredges of society.

Seriously though, you are limiting the complexity of my argument if you think I'm only talking about the people who *exclusively* see women as bodies, as the "Iron My Shirt" crowd does.

You (universal 'you') can think a woman is smart, capable, funny, whathaveyou, and still think of that woman first and foremost as a body. Because being thought of as a body isn't limited to the sexual. It is when a person's womanness overrides her personness as a primary description of her being. And a lot of the time, it happens without us noticing how we categorize "women" from just the normal, unneeding of descriptors, because it is something that is ubiquitous.

It is the cat-calling crowd, yes. And it is the fact that even on hardcore feminist websites, the idea that a man's right to hit on you supersedes your right to be left alone. But it is also just another way of expressing what Simone de Beauvoir called "The Second Sex".

mikhailbakunin said...

You're jumping from the premise that there are too few female engineers to the conclusion that the dominant social perception in America is that female brains don't operate as well as male brains?

Today, I think people are far more aware of gender "descriptors." But you're right -- some of this remains problematic. It's still a huge leap to suggest that problematic descriptors indicate "women are primarily seen as bodies first" in contemporary society.

Some of the things that you've highlighted in the past -- like the bathroom signs -- are impossible to correct. And part of the reason for this is that it's now far more socially acceptable for women to wear men's clothes than it is for men to wear women's clothes.

petpluto said...

Some of the things that you've highlighted in the past -- like the bathroom signs -- are impossible to correct.

Oh, come on, now. Impossible to correct? Who's being hyperbolic? Just because you and I don't have the answer doesn't mean that it is impossible to correct. It just means that we don't have the answer.

And part of the reason for this is that it's now far more socially acceptable for women to wear men's clothes than it is for men to wear women's clothes.

Which just highlights another battle that needs to be fought - partially because men should be able to enjoy the wonder of flowy skirts (I've just gotten fully into them myself), and partially because the ability of women to wear "men's clothes" and the inability of men to wear "women's clothes" demonstrates the tendency to still see being a woman as undesirable, and that of course women would want to wear men's clothing - they want to move up the social chain and take on the characteristics of the dominant group. Whereas, being a woman is weak, because being unmanly is weak.

You're jumping from the premise that there are too few female engineers to the conclusion that the dominant social perception in America is that female brains don't operate as well as male brains?

I was using it as an example of one area where the "politically correct" answer doesn't necessarily jive with what the person on the street will tell you.

I'll also bring up the fact that, also during junior year, you were sitting at my kitchen table rather adamantly telling me that girls were just better at concentrations like Literature and History, and how you thought those were more important than the "hard sciences" men were inherently better at. And I still have no idea how to write sentences like that without ending with a preposition... And, you are far from the only person to feel or have felt that way.

It's still a huge leap to suggest that problematic descriptors indicate "women are primarily seen as bodies first" in contemporary society.

Not just problematic descriptors; how women are treated. How women are represented. How we react to womanly concerns primarily relating to the fact that they are women dealing with men.

mikhailbakunin said...

I think what I said is that there is some evidence that, in the aggregate, men have more spatial intelligence -- which may mean that biology (not just socialization) is part of the reason women are underrepresented in math and science and overrepresented in virtually every other academic concentration.

That is just a hypothesis, but it's based on a lot empirical evidence. For example, girls with congenital adrenal hyperplasia -- who are exposed to higher levels of testosterone in the womb -- tend to score better on tests of spatial intelligence, too.

There could absolutely be another explanation for this, but we should consider the hard science rather than the political correctness of the idea.

I believe one of the reasons that we were talking about this was because Larry Summers lost his job as president of Harvard University for simply mentioning this as a possible explanation.

In regard to the bathroom sign -- you may not think that it is impossible to correct, but no one who I've talked to (including you) can come up with a satisfactory answer.

Ms. Judice said...

I think you both have some valid points in your comments here and through your respective blogs. As a woman and a professional (teacher), I face gender-related issues on a daily basis. However, I think the argument that there is still sexism and racism is a moot point. There are issues, and they’re prevalent, especially in certain circles of society, but arguing that they exist will not make them go away. Educate others through your behaviors and actions – theoretical arguments will not help the situation.

Also, we are constantly hearing in education about how boys are being left behind. Now, I don’t really agree that boys are being left behind because of the girl-heavy education trends of the 80s and 90s, but I do think there needs to be some balance. We want all students to have opportunities to succeed, regardless of gender and race.

petpluto said...

I think what I said is that there is some evidence that, in the aggregate, men have more spatial intelligence -- which may mean that biology (not just socialization) is part of the reason women are underrepresented in math and science and overrepresented in virtually every other academic concentration.

I feel like a bit of a dick pressing the point, but that's not what you said then. It is what you have expressed since - which, by the by, doesn't really make the argument much different, since it still rests on the theory that women's brains just can't handle that hard math and science!

Which is just all the more pissy since women (and people of color) are also underrepresented in lists rating the top 100 books written as well.

In regard to the bathroom sign -- you may not think that it is impossible to correct, but no one who I've talked to (including you) can come up with a satisfactory answer.

I will grant that you know many, many people. But, as often as you tell me that I talk from my own experience too much and don't look at the larger picture, I'm going to call bull on that.

It is also possible that no one you've talked to, including me, can come up with a solution because we're mired in the culture that produced it, a culture whose symbols for things like Coca-Cola and McDonalds are known the world over.

But I'm betting that if Scotland had bathroom signs for men and women back when the clothing of choice was the kilt, the sign would be different. I'm betting that if the sign was present in a society with more gender fluidity, the sign would be different. And I'm betting that someone somewhere outside of our respective circles of friends, acquaintances, and family members can come up with an adequate solution. And I'm betting that the first time it's shown, it will be laughed at because it will be jarring.

mikhailbakunin said...

I feel like a bit of a dick pressing the point, but that's not what you said then. It is what you have expressed since - which, by the by, doesn't really make the argument much different, since it still rests on the theory that women's brains just can't handle that hard math and science!

We've talked about this a few times. One of the points that I've made is that science should never be offensive.

Larry Summers argued that there is a difference in the standard deviation, with boys clustered at the top and bottom of the distribution and women more concentrated in the center. The implication isn't that women's brains can't "handle" math and science -- it's that there may be differences in the aggregate that account for gender variations.

None of this suggests that women perform worse on IQ tests or have "inferior brains." In fact, women may even perform better on IQ tests.

The truth is that I don't know how I feel about any of these biological explanations -- so the implication that I was advocating for a particular position is a bit unfair. Men tend to perform better in the higher sciences and maths, and I've argued that it's silly dismiss biology as a potential explanation simply because it's politically incorrect.

That's not the function of social science.

petpluto said...

The truth is that I don't know how I feel about any of these biological explanations -- so the implication that I was advocating for a particular position is a bit unfair.

Well, I had to turn the tables some time, since you often insist I'm all for the nurture argument and against any implication of nature in gender matters.

But I do have a very specific memory of this specific event, mostly because I was aghast that you were telling me that you thought women were just better at literature - and (the real reason I remember this so vividly) that you thought literature and history were more important than the sciences.

You could have just been bullshitting - or you could have been drunk (it *was* junior year, after all), but the only reason why I brought it up was that it was particularly jarring, and I was more than a bit flummoxed. I remember it because I told you that practically no one else thought the liberal arts were more important, because those of us there tend to get paid much less.

mikhailbakunin said...

I don't remember that, but I was probably drunk if I said that literature is more important than science. History maybe.

Anyway, junior year is pretty a drunken blur, so I refuse to be held accountable for anything I may have said!

Pbbbbbt.