Sexually objectifying men, harder than you think

Yes, wheeeee! the title of this post is a pun. Here’s a terrific review over at Sociological Images (and the discussion that follows is interesting, too) of the new Soderbergh film, Magic Mike (which has opened to huge audience numbers), and it explains how even films about objectifying men don’t bother to reverse or neutralise patriarchal power dynamics:

Have we learned to devalue our own sexual pleasure so thoroughly that the scraps of het female sexual pleasure provided by Magic Mike feel like a full meal?…

Aside from the questionably-empowering viewer interaction with the film, the content of Magic Mike is old-school sexism wrapped in a new package. It reinforces prevailing notions of masculinity where white men are in control, both economically and sexually, and women are secondary characters to be exploited for money and passed around for male sexual pleasure.

Most of the women in the film are audience members portrayed as easily manipulated cash cows to be exploited for money. In one scene, the club boss, Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) gets his dancers pumped up before a show by asking them, “Who’s got the cock? You do. They don’t.” Dallas has a running commentary that forcefully rejects the idea that female audience members are sexual subjects in the exchange.

Beyond the foundational theme of male control, many (but not all) of the simulated sex acts the dancers perform in their interactions with female audience members service the male stripper’s pleasure, not hers. Dancers shove women’s faces into their crotch to simulate fellatio, hump women’s faces, perform faux sex from behind without a nod to clitoral stimulation, etc. As a culture, we have deprioritized female sexual pleasure to such a great extent that these acts seem normal in a setting where they don’t make sense.

It brings up lots of interesting questions about sexual objectification and what it is, exactly, and how it works as a power, and how feminist it can or cannot be. (There is another great discussion on the sexual objectification of men in Magic Mike over at Bitch Magazine). The ways in which Magic Mike is not subverting dominant sexual objectification patterns kinda reminds me of that quote of John Berger’s from Ways of Seeing:

Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves…
.. The surveyor of women in herself is male: the surveyed female … thus she turns herself into an object-and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.

Cross-posted at blue milk.

Categories: arts & entertainment, Culture, fun & hobbies, gender & feminism, Life, relationships, Sociology

19 replies

  1. Excellent post bluemilk; with a side order of oh god that’s depressing.

  2. A little out of left field, but slightly relevant I think

    Nicholas Watt ?@nicholaswatt
    BBC reporter: Andy Murray would be ‘first Brit’ to win #Wimbledon since 1936. Do women not exist? What about Virginia Wade in 1977?

  3. …but worth a shot.
    Ahem, but seriously folks. It’s miserable when filmmakers have so much contempt for women the very screen seems to reek of it. The writer’s description reminds me of a line from Shakespeare, “the fragments, scraps, the bits and greasy relics” are all they offer us.

  4. Haha. Totally worth a shot, orlando. Thanks Mindy for the comments, too.

  5. I used to love the Netty Show on Full Frontal, as they were always objectifying Eric Bana by making him jump out of cakes in his underpants and things like that. Mmmmm. Cake. No, Mr Bana was pretty delicious on the eye at the time. But if it’s not straight satire like this, I don’t see how you can sexually objectify the dominant social caste. It’s always going to be amusing make-believe for them.

  6. Call me simplistic but I find it hard to imagine a muscle-bound man like the one in the photo, someone with that sort of strength at his command, being truly objectified except perhaps by other men. Objectification of women to me carries implicit physical threat – consciously on the men’s part or not – and that’s just not something experienced by the majority of (hetero, at any rate) men, is it? Certainly not a threat from women.

  7. Odd technical question: is objectification generally thought of as a technique of othering, or are the two words seen as rough equivalents?
    And has objectified made the jump from meaning “denied their own subject-position as a sentient individual”, i.e. made the object of a sentence, rather than its subject, to “rendered as a physical object”, as opposed to a living being? Are both ways of taking the term in use these days?

    • Seems to me that lots of people are understanding as your second meaning when the writer, given their knowledge of the subject, is most probably using it as your first meaning.

  8. I’m not sure I’m seeing the difference actually. Is it subtle or am I just not getting it?

    • I suspect orlando might do a better job of explaining the difference, but I’ll give it a go. If I’m telling you stuff you already know because I’ve misunderstood your question, then I apologise in advance.
      It’s one of those jargon vs common-use conflations. In grammar, when parsing a sentence, the object of a sentence is that which is acted-on rather than that which acts – “Jack smiled at Jill” has Jack as the subject of the sentence and Jill as the object of the sentence – Jack is performing the action, Jill is the recipient of the action – subject/active cf. object/passive. (Which is where the litcrit term “passive voice” derives from – writing about actions that happen to objects of sentences without ever identifying the performer of the action i.e. sentences without explicit subjects – this is particularly a phenomenon in much writing about the lived experiences of women – see Lauredhel’s classic posts Passive Aggression: Foregrounding the Object and Raped by elves).
      The other jargon terms to note are action/agent: the action of that example sentence is the verb “smiled”; as the one who smiles, Jack is the agent, while Jill has no agency in this sentence.
      The common-use of the term “objectification” as it is evolving is much more simplistic – the idea of looking at a person as if it isthey are a thing. In grammar, the objects of sentences are not necessarily things, they are simply not agents in the action being described by the verb of the sentence. They lack agency.
      Originally, the philosophers who used the term “objectification” based the word’s origin on the grammar jargon. The common usage is sliding away from that, I suspect largely to the 70s-80s education fad for not teaching grammar rigorously.
      The problem with the common-use “person as a thing” construction is that it requires a subjective judgement that this is what the person is doing, which can of course then be vehemently denied “of course I see xe as a person!”. By contrast, grammar is totally (ta-da) objective: “I’d tap that” places the other person as the object of the sentence, “Could she fancy me?” gives the other person agency as the subject of the sentence.

  9. I know what you’re getting at Mindy. I think that the second meaning is sort of a consequence of the first meaning.

  10. Thanks TT, answered my question beautifully. Curse 70-80’s ideas of students absorbing grammar like sponges.

  11. The first is in a sentence like “He gazed lingeringly upon her lovely visage”. He is the subject of the sentence, she is the object. He performs the action and she is acted upon. We are seeing from his point of view, but there is no implication that the object of the sentence is not a person. The second is more like “I’d like to take home a pair of boobs like that” or “that’s a fine piece of tail” where the person is disappeared by speaking of them as an inanimate object.
    It only matters because I’m writing a paper about an example of writing in which people are reduced to their discrete bodily parts, and I don’t want to sound muddled about my definitions.

  12. Ah, and while I was pondering a reply tigtog swooped in and was much more thorough.

    • Exploring orlando’s examples:
      The grammatical objectification is not necessarily Othering – it just positions only one person in the interaction as active.
      By contrast, the deanimating objectification is definitely Othering – speaking of another person as a thing is denying them their commonality with oneself.

  13. One of the many things I love about HAT: come for the feminism, stay for the grammar!


  14. I know! How much do I love you all? So much. Just love the way you respond to my posts with such fascinating comments. Thank you everyone.

    • Oh good – while everybody’s still enjoying the grammar, I was thinking on rounding out the point some more, just for the sake of completion.
      In equal interactions, a description of the conversation/event shows complementary and reciprocal actions and agency i.e. all participants take their turn as subjects and objects of different sentences. e.g. the first person described acts (subject) towards a second person (object), the second person acts (subject) towards the first person in response (object), a third person acts (subject) towards the first two people (objects) and then the first two people take turns (subjects) responding to the third person (object).
      So, the act of substantively inclusive communication, both between each other and when describing an interaction to other people, requires a certain level of transient objectification in order to accurately describe who is acting upon whom, and the responses those actions evoke/provoke from others.
      Where objectification becomes problematic is whenever one class of participants in an interaction are routinely only described as passive recipients of the actions of others, with their own actions going undescribed. Any classes of persons who are routinely described only as passive objects in interactions are classes of persons whose concerns are going at best unconsidered, and at worst dismissed as irrelevant.
      This is not just a dry academic exercise. The language we use shapes the thoughts we think, and if most communications we hear and read habitually describe certain groups of people only as the recipients of the actions of others? Then it becomes distressingly easy to overlook the opinions and interests of those people, without even realising one is doing it.

  15. And a lot of women face verbal and even sexual and physical abuse for objectifying men. Men hate being objectified by women on average.

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