The Power of the Object

In regard to casual sexism*, “Imagine how you’d feel” is never going to be a persuasive argument in this discussion. But I don’t think it’s because of a lack of empathy. It’s because of a lack of perspective.

On both sides.

I believe it’s extraordinarily rare to find a person who doesn’t long to be the object of someone’s desire. (On one’s own terms, of course.)

A scene I capture in Milan a few years ago. It has stuck with me.

And the uncomfortable truth is that female beauty is power. It is influence. A woman’s beauty is often equated with a man’s wealth in our culture. There’s a reason that the most common tactic to attack feminists is to disparage their appearance: Ugly. Old.


And there’s a reason those attacks so often silence some of us (okay, possibly just me) momentarily. We stop, look honestly at our envy and question ourselves, “Wait, wait…” Then we come to our senses and realise envy of that particular power is not that big a deal. It is both fleeting and utterly circumstantial.

And dangerous.

Because it’s also like walking around with your million dollars hanging loosely around your neck  – on the end of a garrotte.

I have been twenty-something and the center of attention in a roomful of influential men who were ostensibly impressed by what I had to say. I wasn’t gorgeous, and I am not saying those situations were complete farces (I’ve always thought of myself as somewhat intelligent), but being an attractive-enough twenty-something was always a foot in the door, at the very least.

Although these days I have to be “aggressive” to get anyone’s attention, I wouldn’t be twenty-something again for the world. Because, now, when I do have people’s attention, I can be sure it’s because of the content of my ideas. I don’t have to doubt myself. And once I have wedged my foot firmly in that door, I no longer have to worry about what’s on the other side.

I honestly believe there are some good men out there who don’t understand the pervasive sexism in our culture because they are blinded by their own envy.

“How would you like it if I said you had a great ass?”

It is easy to imagine the power of being desired. The kind of desire that leads people around by the nose. That keeps people up at night. That causes them to make stupid decisions, to act impulsively. Even young girls recognise and want that power.

So much Power: it sells everything from chewing gum to automobiles. It’s face has launched a thousand ships, and when painted on the sides of bombers, it kept morale up in the face of death during wars.

Men who say that they would take it as a compliment really cannot imagine that such beauty could be the cause of humiliation and powerlessness. With an entire culture that puts so much store in women’s youth and beauty, how can we blame these men for their lack of imagination in regard to that particular question?

“How would you feel if women whistled and called out, ‘Hey, sexy!’ whenever you passed by on the street?”


Well, yeah. Because those men know that a woman who is not sexy or beautiful is failing at being a woman. Just look at the magazines women read. Let’s not pretend this is simple.

On their own, a few cat-calls are a few cat-calls. In the context of our culture it contributes to systematic oppression. In this case the devil is not in the details, it is in the sum and context of the details.

Men are judged by their accomplishments (which I admit carries with it a whole other bag of questionable values, but irrelevant in this discussion). Women are not.

Youth&BeautyR/NOT ACCOMPLISHMENTS,theyre theTEMPORARY happy/BiProducts/of Time&/or DNA/Dont Hold yourBreath4either/ifUmust holdAir/takeGarys

–  Carrie Fisher

It’s confusing when we are told we should be valued for who we are. I am not exactly sure how to divorce accomplishments from “who we are”. Do we divorce DNA from “who we are”?

I’m still working on all of that.

But I do know “who we are” should not be objects for other people.

Still. As a woman, I admit that losing that particular power has been a painful process. I know that I am not alone in this experience. We women go broke, cut ourselves up, and inject ourselves with poisons to avoid it.

And isn’t that simple fact an indication of how difficult it might be for men to “imagine” that being seen as an object of desire isn’t always desirable?

There has to be a better way to discuss this. For all our sakes.

Let’s not pretend the issue isn’t more complex than an imaginary turning of tables would have it.

*Please note, if you haven’t already, that this post is about casual sexism – not sexual assault. I know that these issues are connected, but they are also distinct. To conflate them is to accuse the hundreds of thousands of good men (and women, by the way) who contribute to casual sexism of something far worse. These same good men and women would rather bite their own arm off than sexually abuse someone. Ignoring that will get us nowhere but stuck in our defensive corners.

I'd love to read whatever thoughts this might spark for you.

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