What does it mean when a woman ogles a man in the patriarchy?
Reader RichB commented:
…men being looked at as sexual objects increases their power, but women being looked at as sexual objects decreases their power.
Reader Hope isn’t buying it:
Really? So if I ogle a man, I’m increasing his power? If a man ogles another man, he’s increasing that other man’s power? Or is it just that I, as a woman, have no power to objectify a man? No power, period?
What’s the answer? Can a woman objectify a man, or not?
Yes, she can – under certain conditions. If she’s his supervisor or superior in a work or educational situation, and the behavior is making him uncomfortable and is interfering with his work or learning, if he’s being forced to submit to the behavior as a condition of his work or learning, then it’s objectifying, and sexual harassment, and illegal.
Otherwise, in general, in social situations, women checking men out and ogling them adds to their sexual power, whereas men ogling women diminishes their status. That’s how patriarchy works. Objectified women may have their status as sex objects increased, but the status of female sex object is not a high one in a patriarchal society.
What about men ogling men? Again, depends upon context. If you’re in a gay bar, then no doubt the ogling would likely be desired and welcome. If you are in a workplace, once again, all the issues of non-professional behavior and status differentials relating to sexual harassment exist. On top of this, however, the extremely high levels of homophobia among straight men comes into play. Straight men feel more virile and sexually powerful when they are being checked out by straight women, but attracting the attention of another man is a terrifying threat to straight male masculinity that cannot be tolerated. In fact, some straight men have experienced this threat so strongly that they find violence and even murder to be necessary remedies.
Allan Johnson talks in The Gender Knot about how patriarchy is “organized around an obsession with control”. Control is a valued concept – control of self, control over emotions, control over others – and it is an important component of heteronormative masculinity. Ogling – the male gaze – can serve to express that one is in control of one’s self and of the subject of the gaze.
I wrote about women, men, control, ogling, and the power of the gaze in my essay “Suzy the Computer’ vs. ‘Dr. Sexy’: What’s a Geek Girl to Do When She Wants to Get Laid?” for She’s Such a Geek! You may find some of what I wrote to be of in interest in our ongoing conversation. The text presented below is slightly different than that which appears in the book’s essay. The last sentence of the fourth paragraph, and the paragraphs that follow it, did not appear in the book.
We’re led to believe that the erotic and technologic are in opposition…The hyper-mathematical weed-out curriculum, with its emphasis on discipline and control, facilitates the divorce of the erotic from the technologic. It makes men out of the boys, and nerdhood then becomes a way of doing masculinity.
When Nerds are only men, then women can only be Whores. Consider the TV reality show “Beauty and the Geek”, where all the geeks are men, and all the women are “beauties”. Visit its website and click on the link for “How Geeky Are You?” [This text describes the show's website in 2006. The image and text described here are no longer available.] You’ll find the image of a woman clad only in underpants, lips parted, and her breasts replaced with a set of black plastic glass frames, out of which stare two male eyes. The sexualized female body is the object of the disembodied, cerebral male gaze. The producers say they recruited “eight women who are academically impaired and eight men who are brilliant but socially challenged.” The contestant profiles reveal that one of the women is actually a dental assistant. Nevertheless, on the message boards, her professional training and skills are ignored, except as vehicles for male sexual gratification — “she could do oral work on me all day”, “I would drool…she would have to wipe it off as I look down her shirt”. Sexual attractiveness in women negates their competence and proves that they are, in reality, dumb.
The producers of “Beauty and the Geek” say that a future season will reverse the genders, with female geeks and male beauties. Would this help any? In a word, no. The idea of the female geek seems to be a stereotype-buster. But in fact, the figure of the female geek reproduces and reinforces all the negative stereotypes about individuals with an affinity for technology. And because she needs a modifier (female geek) while he does not (geek), she also reinforces the primary notion that technologically competent people are male. She’s just a Nerdonna to his Nerd, and neither of them is getting laid.
In addition, the reversal is not truly equal. A man ogling beautiful women is a commonplace of our society, and it is a hierarchical activity – the ogler is an active agent, more powerful than the object that is ogled. A woman ogling a man seems amusing, and possibly whorish, but her gaze does not confer power. Think again about that website photo. What shape would a reversed-gender image take? Female eyes gazing out of geeky glass frames don’t have the same cultural cachet as the male gaze. Where would you put the eyes — superimposed over his balls? An image that evokes the idea of a female head positioned near a man’s penis doesn’t make the woman dominant; it suggests she’s about to give him a blowjob.
What if our female geeks are pinup material? The “Geek Gorgeous” calendar offers photos of women provocatively dressed and posed, draped in technological objects. (See the sample page, in which March’s model is wearing ethernet cable wrapped around her breasts.) Lilac Mohr, the calendar’s producer and a software engineer, believes that the calendar shows women proud of who they are. She asks “What is so wrong about intelligent women showing the world that they can be just as sexy and comfortable with their bodies as the bimbos, but hold careers where they are valued for nothing more than their brain power?” [Note: the "Geek Gorgeous" calendar site seems to no longer be available online. However, this site talks about it and has a reproduction of the back cover of the calendar.]
Despite Mohr’s insistence that the calendar does not objectify women, March’s model is posed nearly identically to the cover girl on Playboy’s “College Girls Spring 2003″ edition. [The link I used in 2006 for this is broken and I did not feel like searching the Playboy store again, sorry.] Presenting technically competent women as sexy bimbos in the manner of familiar male fantasies does not “take the power away from men to view women as one-dimensional sex objects.” [quote from GeekGorgeous.com, 2006] It encourages all of us to view technically competent women as one more variation on the male sex object – a Whorish Nerdonna. It is for this reason that the “Geek Gorgeous” calendar does not represent a positive development for women in technology.
What thoughts does this text provoke in you? How do you understand the asymmetry between the male and female gaze as described above? How do you understand a show like “Beauty and the Geek” or a calendar like “Geek Gorgeous” in the context of the patriarchy as we discussed it in the first Gender Knot Post? Is “Beauty and the Geek” any better or worse than the original it plays off of, “Beauty and the Beast”?
Or what other interesting questions would you like to pose and answer?