Media take a very different tact when reporting on women and men, even when the gist of the story is essentially the same. The actor John Goodman has struggled with his body size since his career began almost 40 years ago. His weight has gone up and down, but he has mostly been obese. Goodman has lost over 100 lbs in the last five years or so and continues to keep it off. The singer Adele has also been heavy and had weight fluctuations over the course of her career, and like Goodman she recently became considerably thinner. The tales of these two entertainers are very similar, yet the articles I have read about them are very different in tone. Most stories concerning Goodman say he looks to be at a good weight, whereas several about Adele suggest she is getting too thin. The articles about Goodman suggest that he lost the weight for the sake of his health, and congratulate him on finally overcoming his decades-long struggle with obesity. The pieces about Adele focus almost exclusively on her appearance, saying she “flaunts” and “shows off” her new physique – as though she had a choice about which body to be seen in. They make it seem like the only reason she lost weight was to lord it over others and to garner attention.
I think this obvious bias in reporting is an example of how deeply rooted the objectification of women is in our culture. No one comments on naturally thin actors like Jay Baruchel and D.J. Qualls, whereas anorexia is often suspected in the case of perennially skinny actresses like Lara Flynn Boyle and Calista Flockhart. The men were simply born that way while the women are probably mentally ill. Women’s bodies are subject to constant public dissection and criticism. A perfect example of this occurred during the O.J. Simpson trial when chief prosecutor Marcia Clark, the only professional woman in the courtroom, changed her hairstyle. Media concerning the male jurists in the case dealt solely with their professional merits and courtroom strategies, whereas reports about Ms. Clark repeatedly commented on her personal life and appearance from the very outset of the trial. This scrutiny hit its crescendo when she got a perm. Tabloids at the time ran headlines like, “Hair-Raising Salon Disaster”, “Marcia Hair Verdict: GUILTY”, and “CURLS OF HORROR”. The amount of attention given to her hair is almost unbelievable, especially considering that the trial dealt with the brutal murder and near decapitation of two people. This incident is a testament to how obsessed our culture is with a woman’s appearance to the exclusion of any other consideration – as though her totality as a person were confined to, and a reflection of, the way she looks.
This conflation of a female’s character with her appearance can also be seen in the language used to describe women. If a woman with a round bottom wears a form-fitting dress then she is “asking for it”, and if another with large breasts shows too much cleavage then she is a “slut” or a “skank” or a “ho”. My best friend throughout high school had large breasts which she eventually chose to have reduced. She suffered a lot of low-back pain because of the weight on her chest, and found the cost of extra-support bras prohibitive. She told me that the main reason she opted for the surgery, however, was because, “I’m tired of guys talking to my tits.” The normalization of such language and behaviour means there is no reason for men to change.
Unfortunately many women use these same derogatory terms when describing one another. I believe this behaviour is born of a false myth perpetuated by the patriarchy that women can only succeed by putting one another down, when the patent reality is that we will only rise by lifting each other up. This fable keeps women at each other’s throats and sufficiently distracted that they are unable to coalesce and launch a united assault against the male oligarchy. It is essentially a very effective divide and conquer strategy and one that is used on many oppressed groups.
There are countless instances wherein women, reduced to their garb or general appearance, have been blamed for a man’s poor behaviour. “What were you wearing at the time of the alleged attack?” is often the first question defence attorneys ask victims of sexual assault when they take the stand. They don’t ask people who’ve been car-jacked how tight their pants were, or those who’ve been mugged how much skin they were showing. Women who survive sexual assault are the only victims routinely asked by authorities what they had on at the time of the incident they are reporting. This question implies that women who dress attractively or to accentuate their best features are somehow asking to be violated, which of course minimizes the culpability of the men who assault them.
I recently came across a minor Instagram celebrity named Josh Weed. Weed’s claim to fame is that at 46, after years of being a devout Mormon, husband and father, he came out of the closet. I realize this does not make him a gender expert (nor does he claim to be one), but his many years passing in a rigidly heteronormative culture before diving into a homosexual lifestyle and community give him a unique perspective. Weed writes that he never understood why heterosexual men feel free to dictate and comment on what women wear. He says,
“I think it is absolutely crazy that a man can look at a woman and say, ‘I think you should wear something else, because seeing your skin makes me feel aroused. And that arousal is strong and I haven’t learned how to appropriately manage it. So please change your clothes.’ This is BONKERS…A man’s sexuality is HIS OWN RESPONSIBILITY.”
I have had many gay friends and acquaintances over the years. I have certainly heard these men comment on the attractiveness of another man’s outfit, but never have I heard them suggest that what they are wearing is in any way unacceptable or inappropriate. This sort of judgement seems to be peculiar to heterosexual men in regards to women.
Islamic women made to wear chador are perhaps the most extreme and best-known current example of females whose apparel is completely dictated by men. Women in chador are covered from head to toe as a sign of modesty, but also to ensure they don’t arouse lustful feelings in men. Allah made all things, yet despite this women are held responsible for their tempting curves and therefore must completely obscure their shapes. Allah does not make mistakes, yet somehow every single part of a woman’s anatomy is so potentially corrupting that she must be entirely hidden from view. Every part except her eyes, of course – she needs to be able to see to serve men. Male Islamic leaders (which I think may be redundant) claim this dress code exists to ensure the safety of women. I would argue that it is actually a codified way for men to hobble and subjugate women while simultaneously abrogating responsibility for their own baser urges. Many Islamic countries, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, operate on a system of gender apartheid. Worldwide pressure forced South Africa to abandon their racist policies in 1994. It is now 2020 – where is the global outrage for these women?
I think it’s fair to say that many men feel they are entitled to comment on and command any woman’s body. It’s as though we aren’t fully realized human beings but rather flesh puppets whose worth is based solely on men’s affirmation or approbation. I believe that for a lot of men this principle applies to our thoughts and characters as well. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the 30-year-old U.S. Representative for New York’s 14th congressional district. Known simply as AOC to her many admirers, she is the face of the young, progressive Democratic block that was elected to Congress in the American mid-term election two years ago. AOC is best known for the Green New Deal and her call for universal healthcare. Needless to say the Republican old-guard in the house – almost exclusively men – are not fans. A few weeks ago a Republican representative from Florida named Ted Yoho came up to AOC as she was going in to work and began berating her, wagging his finger in her face and calling her “crazy”, “shameful” and “disgusting”. AOC proceeded into the building to cast a vote, and when she came out Yoho called her a “f**king bitch” in front of reporters who had gathered on the Capitol steps.
It wasn’t long before word of Yoho’s comments became known to the Republican leadership. He was told to publicly address the incident and he consequently made a rather lame apology in Congress. He started by saying, “I rise to apologize for the abrupt manner of the conversation I had with my colleague from New York.” then continued, “The offensive name-calling words attributed to me by the press were never spoken to my colleague.” Yoho finished by saying, “I cannot apologize for my passion or loving my God, my family and my country.” Somewhere in the middle he also mentioned that he has a wife and two daughters and therefore knows better than to speak rudely to a woman.
AOC responded to his comments a few days later on the house floor. She first pointed out that they were not having a conversation, but rather that Mr. Yoho had come up to her unbidden and verbally assaulted her. Next she suggested that apologizing for a behaviour and then saying you only did it out of love for God and country is simply a way to abrogate responsibility while pandering to elemental feelings. She also mentioned that he never denied using offensive words – he really couldn’t because members of the press overheard him – but rather said that they were not spoken directly to her. In other words, it may be true he called her a “f**king bitch”, but that was okay because it wasn’t to her face.
The best part of AOC’s response came when she addressed Yoho’s claim that having a wife and daughters makes him sensitive to the language he uses around women. She reminded Mr. Yoho that she too is a daughter, and that his public bullying and inappropriate name-calling give tacit approval for other men to mistreat the women in his family. You are not exempt from blame when you victimize one woman just because you care about another. Rapists and domestic abusers probably all love their mothers, but so what.
The saddest part of AOC’s speech was her acknowledgement that every women, every one of us, has had to deal with this sort of treatment, “…in some form, some shape, some way at some time in our lives.” She went on to say that she was not personally offended by Mr. Yoho’s comments or behaviour because until recently she had lived and worked her whole life in New York City, so, “…this kind of language is not new.” While I’m sure most of the offensive comments she got from men in New York related to her appearance, the abuse she endured from Yoho was about her ideas and beliefs, and called into question her value, sanity, and character.
The most noteworthy thing about AOC’s manner throughout her speech was her incredible calmness. She never raised her voice, she said more than once that she didn’t take Mr. Yoho’s comments personally, and she never showed any real passion. I believe her delivery was well thought out and necessarily unemotional. Historically women who speak forcefully or, heaven forfend, get angry in public are called “hysterical” in a bid to undermine their arguments. The word implies that their outrage is not justified but rather a manifestation of hormones run amok. It’s really sad that AOC couldn’t rant and rage against the way Mr. Yoho treated her, but openly expressing righteous indignation has always been the exclusive domain of men.
AOC is not the first woman to be publicly chastised and harassed by a man, nor will she be the last. One need look no further than the sitting American president to see how free men are to openly criticize and judge a woman’s appearance, and to undermine and slander her character. If this sort of treatment is condoned in the public sphere, you can imagine how much worse it is in private. I once saw an interview with three congresswomen who all said that they regularly receive death threats via email and texts, as well as countless derogatory comments about their looks. They went on to quote some of these incredibly insulting remarks, but the one which really stuck with me is, “You are too ugly to rape.”
There are of course many other examples of how prevalent sexism still is – a massive porn industry with ever-increasing scenes of women being demeaned and raped, widespread sex trafficking, and tens of millions of girls worldwide being denied an education. I wish I could wrap this article up with a tidy solution to this deep and pervasive problem, but there simply isn’t one. Maybe a good start would be for women to start having each other’s backs, and for men to start calling out other men when they speak to or about women in disparaging ways. I’ve noticed that young men seem to be more willing to see women as equals, and this gives me hope. I know any change that happens, however, will be hard fought and won, and slow to materialize.