It’s been a busy few weeks for the nation’s oestrogen suppliers. First there were the Orlando Bloom pictures for the laydeez to evaluate. Then the Olympic gymnasts and assorted other sportsmen, all apparently hewn from the living rock, were beamed into our living rooms day and night. And now Poldark, along with his abs and fine scything action, is back on our screens this Sunday (9pm, BBC1). All this objectifying is proving exhausting. I don’t know how men manage.
Should I be so flippant about this? I wouldn’t if the situation were reversed, runs one argument. When men objectify women, I cry feminist foul and denounce the perpetrator as a sexist pig. So why not now?
The answer to that is that if the situation were genuinely and fully reversed, I absolutely would stand up and fight the objectified men’s corner. If Aidan Turner and the male Olympians were being ogled in a context in which men earned about three-quarters of what women did, or 52% of them had been harassed at work or one in five could expect to be sexually assaulted in their lifetime, my attitude would be different. But they’re not.
So yes, while all objectification is bad – everyone should of course look past every outward trapping and see only the ugly or beautiful souls within – it is not, in my opinion, equally bad.
When women ogle men rather than the other way round, there are a couple of important differences. One, it’s rare, not endemic. It tends to occur in isolated instances. A Diet Coke or David Gandy ad here. A papped penis among the thousands of breasts served up daily there. A four-yearly gawk at astonishing athletes in between. It isn’t carried out against a background of historical and contemporary male vulnerability. It doesn’t shore up a system that makes and keeps them vulnerable. When women objectify men, it is not as part of a continuum of behaviours that has catcalling at one end and rape and murder at the other. I’m sure that if things were arranged differently – that if women did have and always had had the power that men have enjoyed over the years, we’d have found our own ways to abuse it just as widely too – but that’s a discussion for another time.
Second, because of The Way Things Are, men are not reduced by their attractiveness. They are allowed to be two things at once. David Beckham can play football and be fanciable. It’s a great add-on. No problem. His talent even works to make him more fanciable. But women have to choose. Or have the choice imposed on them via some variation of the belief behind John Inverdale’s vile comment on tennis player Marion Bartoli when she won the Grand Slam at Wimbledon in 2013. “I wonder if her dad did say to her when she was 12, 13, 14, ‘Listen, you’re never going to be a looker […] so you have to compensate for that’.” Be sexy or be second best is never a man’s lot.
If the situation were reversed…well, that would be an entirely different world. And of course, in that case, the women of that world would only have to stand up for objectified men in the same proportion as men do here for us.
I’m off to have a Diet Coke, a sigh over the scytheman and to ponder that very proposition. See you later, my pretties.
Photography: Ellis Parrinder, Rex Features