Masculinity, Objectification, and Advertising

My original idea for this post was going to be about ways to integrate men into feminist spaces.  I was going to talk about how once a man enters a feminist space and wants to talk about his experience, the reaction may feel like he is being slapped on the hand.  Though we want men in the space, feminist activism inherently deconstructs power structures in the dominant culture, one of which is the male voice as the voice.  This is often experienced as feminists being dismissive of men’s experiences, which seems hurtful and elicits defensiveness.  But the thing is: that is their issue to deal with.  We are not obligated to rush to them and listen intently, as our socialization might tell us that we should.  So I dug a little deeper and came to the conclusion that my greater concern is not whether or not men listen to me when I talk about my experience as a woman (I know it’s there, I live it every day).  What I do care about is how men listen to each other when they talk about the experiences of women.

I asked my spouse for some input on this one, and he told me a story from a few years back at his old job.  He worked in the restaurant industry, and a male co-worker was making very objectifying remarks about a female customer.  My husband, being the feminist he is, told the co-worker to cut it out.  The co-worker then called my husband a name, intending to insult his sexuality.  My husband informed him that what he just said could get him fired and that he really needs to educate himself about how to treat people or else he will be in serious trouble down the road, and the co-worker apologized (for real!).

This story got me thinking: what is the deal with the straight cisgender male?  Why do so many (read: not all) resort to insulting sexual orientation when given feedback on their objectifying behavior?  And, why do they objectify women anyway?  The sexual orientation piece has been unpacked before.  Having any sort of attraction to another person who is not a cisgender female suggests a man is less of a man.  In that way, sexual orientation is an insult to other men in the face of the insulter’s insecurity about being called out.  Done and done.  But, what about the objectification of women?  Where does that come from?

Drive down any interstate or watch TV for 30 minutes, and you are going to see chiseled men and women being used as sex objects to sell…well, anything.  It’s in our brains now: sex sells.  The reason it works is because it gets your attention, stimulates you.  You are going to spend more time looking at it, thinking about it, remembering it so that when you are in the store, you will buy it.  And, that strategy works for business, but it’s bad for our society.  The downside of this phenomenon is that we compare ourselves to these images.  Men and women see themselves portrayed this way and begin to think of it as ‘normal.’  Then, we start looking at each other, projecting these images on to people in real, non-photo-shopped life.  Thus, when someone calls you out on objectifying behavior, you think that person is being ridiculous, because you’re just doing what normal people do.  That may be true if you are talking about the majority of people, but it’s actually allowing yourself to be manipulated by advertisers, who make money off of making people feel a certain way so that they buy things.

The bottom line of this thought is that seeing people as people rather than as objects takes some level of mindful awareness.  We have to see our objectifying thoughts, recognizing that they are part of a culture that uses objectifying language and images to sell products.  It does not have to be who we are, though.  We can see each other as people and not tie our womanhood, manhood, or personhood into a dominant cultural narrative of objectification.  Advertising is not about reinforcing masculinity, it is about separating people from their money, and the two should never be confused.

- Written by Teresa Young

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