Monday, October 16, 2006

The misogyny in the air we breathe

By Heraclitus

Bob Herbert has an excellent column today on the recent spate of shootings that targeted only girls, and how this is part of a larger pattern of objectification and misogyny that permeates our society. The column is available in full here (sorry, New York Times, looks like there's a hole in your little gated community), and is well worth reading in its entirety. Herbert begins by noting that in the recent school shootings in Colorado and Pennsylvania, only girls were killed (and, in the Colorado case, molested).

In the widespread coverage that followed these crimes, very little was made of the fact that only girls were targeted. Imagine if a gunman had gone into a school, separated the kids up on the basis of race or religion, and then shot only the black kids. Or only the white kids. Or only the Jews.

There would have been thunderous outrage. The country would have first recoiled in horror, and then mobilized in an effort to eradicate that kind of murderous bigotry. There would have been calls for action and reflection. And the attack would have been seen for what it really was: a hate crime.

The reasons for this silence are, of course, complex, but Herbert identifies what is surely a major factor, probably the most important one. These murders took place in a society that isn't just constantly selling sex. It's constantly selling a dehumanized version of sex, one that is defined by male domination and comsumption and female submission and destruction. The promise of sexual pleasure is not enough; the woman must be degraded and reduced to an object to be owned and consumed. As Elvis Costello wrote almost three decades ago, "You want her broken with her mouth wide open, 'cause she's this year's girl." Herbert provides more recent examples.

The disrespectful, degrading, contemptuous treatment of women is so pervasive and so mainstream that it has just about lost its ability to shock. Guys at sporting events and other public venues have shown no qualms about raising an insistent chant to nearby women to show their breasts. An ad for a major long-distance telephone carrier shows three apparently naked women holding a billing statement from a competitor. The text asks, “When was the last time you got screwed?”

An ad for Clinique moisturizing lotion shows a woman’s face with the lotion spattered across it to simulate the climactic shot of a porn video.

The silence that Herbert notes is even stranger when one considers how integral women are to everyone's lives. Even for most people living in large, multicultural cities, opposition to racism or religious bigotry is more a matter of principle than it is of immediate concern for those closest to them. But the dehumanizing misogyny Herbert identifies and describes so well hurts many men as well: imagine what it must be like to be the father of one of the girls killed in Pennsylvania. My point of course is not that men are the real victims here, but that the degradation and humiliation of women, whether by gun-toting murderers or by drunken yahoos at baseball games, doesn't only hurt women. Yet men remain mostly silent, despite the fact that the writing is often literally on the wall. What does this say about the male psyche in our society?

For more see Echidne and Feministing.

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  • I think everyone--liberals and conservatives--agree that sex is marketed too easily in this country to the detriment of women and young girls. But I am troubled by the attempt to connect these events--especially the Pennsylvania shootings--with the so-called objectification of women and to assail the silence on this as somehow indicating some kind of tacit approval.

    First, I don't know what the evidence is linking marketing of sex (including pornography) with violence against women. My understanding is that the evidence is mixed.

    Second, I don't think it's clear that they guy in Pennsylvania was effected by marketing or any societal attitudes toward sex. He clearly had a problem with women and, apparently with sex in general, but I don't think you can legitimately tie that to sexual marketing without a lot more evidence than we have. The fact is, there are men that are going to have sexual fantasies and desires that are disturbing. I doubt that this has changed in several thousand years. This is not necessarily related to sexual marketing or "objectification" of women, except to the extent that men inevitably do objectify women. The fact is that men look at women as (not exclusively) sexual creatures. That is the way we are made. If I look at an attractive woman because she is attractive, that is, to some extent, objectification. I realize there are degrees. But the point is, I think its very tenuous to say that the actions of a disturbed person are the result of society's attitude toward women. In fact, some would argue the exact opposite, that we are a sexually repressed culture and that we need a more open attitude toward sex. I'm not taking a position one way or another on this, but just saying I think it's a bit irresponsible to try to tie specific incidents to particular societal mores that he doesn't like.

    As for "the male psyche in our society" is it any different than the male psyche anywhere else? How about the male psyche in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan? The implication that women are somehow worse off in this society than in others doesn't seem to bear up, IMO, on closer examination.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:16 PM  

  • Marc, the point was never that this guy saw a Clinique ad and decided to go blow away some girls. The point is that larger power structures and dynamics generate both the murderous hatred of women and the more banal or mundane expressions of misogyny and domination noted by Herbert and evident to anyone willing to look. You completely ignore the points that I make, in quoting Herbert and elsewhere, that I am criticizing the aspects of domination, consumption, and ownership that characterize the portrayals and marketing of sex in question. You instead pretend that I am somehow anti-sex, to the extent that you make any coherent point at all. When you say that "some would argue...that we are a sexually repressed culture and that we need a more open attitude toward sex," you are either pretending that I am somehow anti-sex, or that all sex must be as ugly and brutal as the versions I describe in my post. I am not urging sexual repression, and only an extremely lazy and/or dishonest reading of what I wrote could construe my post as doing so.

    Speaking of dishonesty, when you suggest that I have somehow claimed that women are "worse off" in this society than in Afghanistan or Pakistan, your dishonesty rises to a whole new level. I in no way suggest that women were somehow better off under the Taliban than they are in North America, and your attempt to say that I do shows that you are not interested in honest discussion or debate. I simply have no patience for anyone who wants to play the "if you criticize X, you must be praising Y and Z" game. If you want to keep misrepresenting what I say and making fallacious arguments the better to posture as some sort of heroic moderate, be my guest. But don't expect me to waste any more of my time responding.

    By Blogger ., at 4:03 PM  

  • Heraclitus,

    I had written a long response to your above comment and it was somehow lost in the ether. Let me just say, at this point, that I apologize if you thought I misrepresented your views on the post or was being intellectually dishonest.

    Essentially my feeling is not that you (or Herbert)are necessarily wrong about some of the problems with sexual exploitation in our culture but that his article and your post exaggerates the connection between so-called sexual marketing, misogyny, and abuse of women. When I read something like "misogyny in the air we breathe", I find this overly simplistic. At this point, I won't discuss every one of my points that bothered you, but, with respect to my comments about Pakistan and Afghanistan, my point was that misogyny can and obviously does arise in many cultures regardless of how sex is portrayed and that, in fact, women are far better off in this culture--with all its less than flattering portrayals of sex--than in most others. Much of how men see women stems not from how the culture objectifies women, but results from the fact that men objectify women as a matter of nature.

    I also objected to the implication, as I see it, in discussions of power structures of domination (as you expressed it in your reply)that there is some sort of societal conspiracy to oppress women. Even if Herbert and you did not intend that meaning, it certainly seems implicit.

    Also, I did not intend to imply that you were "anti-sex." My point was that there is another view of this--people that consider the society inherently repressive for attempting to put any limits on sexual marketing.

    Again, I did not mean to misrepresent your views and I apologize to the extent that I did.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:19 PM  

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