A more sexy approach

I watched this TED talk the other day:

Generally I thought this talk was good. She gives easily-identifiable examples and lands on next steps at the end, something many cultural studies people don’t do so well. I thought one of her suggestions was unreasonable, but we’ll come back to this. What inspired this post is that I made the mistake of looking at the comments below the video. One user, likely a young man, had been going back and forth with the other contributors. I’ll examine one comment of his:

“I agree somewhat – at least in the importance of being direct. It’s such a shame, then, that people like this C. Heldman would tell men that such behavior is ‘objectifying women’. She instead denies male sexuality and pushes this ‘nice guy’ attitude which doesn’t do anyone any good.

Men judge women on appearance, then we look at other things. That’s? not bad, it’s just the way we were built. Men should not be shamed into acting unnaturally just because it makes some women uncomfortable. IMO”

I’m not really clear what he’s talking about in the first part of the statement, but I think the second part is worth unpacking a bit. My first reaction is to disagree with him – not all men judge all women based on their appearance, but certainly many people get first impressions of one another. I’ve sometimes felt a little shameful in how I’ll spot physically attractive women out of the corner of my eye in a crowd and won’t pay the slightest bit of attention to others. I know this is primarily a socialized recognition but at times it feels almost instinctual – how fast and with how little information my mind manages to make these evaluations. It’s perhaps well-practiced. I can’t say I can subscribe to any notion of human nature (if anything it’s our “nature” to create our own ways of being to shape the world around us) but it’s not surprising he chooses to rely on this false discourse – “it’s just the way we were built” – by who? What evidence do we have that all men are ‘built’ in a way that makes them “judge women on appearance” ? I do assume he’s referring to primordial or carnal instincts and urges, not the assemblage of experiences and learned behaviors from which our identities are built. Suggesting that some biology controls us mostly or entirely alleviates any responsibility he might have for his own actions.

I was ready to dismiss his comment entirely until the very last sentence. “Men should not be shamed into acting unnaturally just because it makes women uncomfortable.” Again I’m not sure that there is such a thing as ‘naturally’ in this case, but let me put my own twist on this. I deal with some measure of guilt in my pursuit of romantic partners. No amount of feminist idealism is going to dramatically alter the hormonal component of attraction. I’ve certainly had the kinds of people I’m attracted to change over the years of my life, but this process has been gradual and not actively guided. The TED speaker may not be asking men to simply switch off the way they’re attracted to women like a light-switch (10:15 mark, her next steps) but I can certainly understand why this (presumably) young man might feel like that’s what she’s asking.

Try as I might I will likely never be attracted to overweight women. I could choose to date one, but I wouldn’t be able to successfully or responsibly have sex with a person who’s overweight (stated crudely, “I couldn’t get it up”). I know this preference is probably hurtful, on some level. But ultimately our social control can only go so far. Trying to rearrange what body types “society” reveres as attractive is just plain difficult – and it’s a process. Pointing out objectification and encouraging women to give up makeup and high heels and the like is absolutely necessary (and I actively push for these kinds of changes), but I’m not convinced it will change what body types most currently existing heterosexual men are attracted to. My children will grow up being encouraged to find women or men of many healthy body appearances attractive but this doesn’t solve the issue for myself or the guy who made this comment. This reality makes the speaker’s pitch feel considerably less satisfying or actionable – and can almost come off as the notion that in order to be feminist and stamp out objectification (hetero) men must stop being attracted to female bodies. Or, alternatively, that they must completely suppress or ignore their hormonal urges and first impressions and determine their attraction based purely on other things, like confidence or talents or power.

These days I’ve reached a sort of compromise – I police myself, trying to give equitable attention to women (and men) of many appearances and clearly never find myself in a relationship with women who don’t have real character and integrity. I’m not ready to advocate that we give up on finding bodies attractive. I think bodies are great, and while I don’t want to constantly objectify them I’m alright with people finding certain forms of them desirable. I doubt very much the speaker would object to suggesting healthy bodies should be recognized and valued. What’s more is that the strict cultural studies approach often grounds us too deeply in the negative. While we do need to point out the negative influences objectification of the female form has I think it’s worth taking other positive actions – complimenting women who don’t bother with high heels or encouraging women to look for and expect value on the basis of their opinions and assertions in the world around them.

In other words, let’s go with more positivity. Don’t tell (hetero) boys not to be attracted hot chicks (or to ignore that they’re hot), tell them to look for and encourage depth in women.

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