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Culture, human nature

Objectification of Men?

In my quest for as much objectivity as possible, I’ve been considering the other side of objectification for a few days.  Are men also objectified by women?  If so, how?  If objectification of women is harmful, is objectification of men equally harmful?

To begin thinking about these questions, I had to ask myself just what objectification of men would look like.  What qualities in men would be treated as goals by women, making the men with those qualities just so much muscle, tendon, and five o’clock shadow?  Or, to put it more simply, just what does it mean to be “manly”?

This subject has been a hot topic in my corner of the blogosphere.  Regular reader Ryan posted a link to THIS ARTICLE on his Facebook page.

I think that I am a Broadway loving, Project Runway watching, rainbow scarf wearing, footlong Subway sandwich eating faglicious homo because that’s just who I am. I think I would probably have many of the same traits and tastes if I was straight. Sometimes I like to entertain the notion that if I were straight I would be exactly the same person only I would have sex with women.

What an interesting idea!  Is it possible to be a straight man who dresses and behaves that way?  Well, I suppose it’s possible — if you’re a straight man who isn’t into the idea of ever having sex with a woman.  Ever.  So at least culturally, being masculine involves not acting gay.  Whatever that means.

I posted a comment on Ryan’s page:

This is an interesting topic for me, because I’m the painfully straight guy who confuses women but not gay men. Actually, it’s kind of funny. I can spot the gay guy in any crowd because he’s the guy who’s sure I’m straight. The straight guys wonder, and the girls are either really curious to find out (score!) or ignoring me to go for the jocks.

And the thing is, by most measures, I’m not especially effeminate. I’m just not especially masculine. And I’m always shocked when I hear myself speak — I sound… kind of maybe gay.

So this has been an ongoing thing for me since I was old enough to want sex with women.  For whatever reason, I’m not particularly “manly.”  I couldn’t care less about cars, and I avoid good, hard, honest manual labor like the plague.

Greta Christina wrote a very well considered piece on how “The Patriarchy”™ hurts men.  Here are the five categories of harm she covered:

  1. 1. Fight, fight, fight!
  2. Be a good husband/partner/lover — but don’t care too much what women think.
  3. Be hot to trot. Always. With anybody.
  4. Stiff upper lip.
  5. Fear of being perceived as gay.

She also mentioned: the expectations of competition, of status consciousness, of financial success, strength and athleticism, leadership skills, mechanical skills, easy erectile functionality, a dehumanizing attitude towards women, giving a crap about sports.

So just from these two articles, I think I can say a couple of things about manliness.  Whatever it is, it involves some remarkably screwed up social expectations.  We live in a supposedly enlightened society where violence is supposed to be refuge of the boorish and unsophisticated.  Real men are mature enough to solve their problems with intellect, charisma, and diplomacy.  But if they don’t jump into a bar-fight quickly enough, or choose (gasp!) to avoid it altogether, friends and foes alike will call them pussies.

It’s the same with the rest of the items on Greta’s list.  We say we want men to behave one way, but our actions betray an underlying contradictory expectation.  It’s tempting for me to wave my hands in the air and chalk it up to conflicting evolutionary drives, but that would be the easy way out.  Yes, it’s probably true that our expectations of manliness are all linked to ancient evolutionary drives, and yes, many of our drives are contradictory.  But offering that as an explanation is too reductionist to offer any meaningful advice for determining what is healthy and what is not.

One of my favorite episodes of South Park pokes fun at Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and more specifically, Metrosexuals.  (Incidentally, did you know that “metrosexual” is a portmanteau?)  The point Matt and Trey seemed to be making is that a certain amount of getting in touch with your feminine side is ok, but going over the top with it is actually not attractive to most women.

And this gets right down to the heart of the matter for me.  In the same way that women fuel their own cosmetic arms race, men certainly fuel their manly-man arms race.  And it’s not arbitrary or artificial, either.  At some fundamental level, the men women choose as mates create the standards of manliness.  The ever-elusive and mysterious vagina tingle is not powered by logic.  It’s an instinctive reaction to behaviors or appearances that signify “good mate” on some basic, animal level.

The question is how much we’ve escalated, and how far down the ladder we could go before women would lose interest altogether.  This brings me to a very important principle of human cognition, namely the tendency towards relative value assignment.  I mentioned this in my article on the Decoy Tactic.  Put simply, for most things, we need a comparison to be able to assign value.

Here’s an example.  Just yesterday, I was talking to a friend who has been diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed Ritalin.   Her psychologist asked her how she liked the Ritalin, and very astutely, she answered, “I don’t know.  I have nothing to compare it against.”  So for the next few weeks, she’ll be trying Adderall, after which, she’ll know how she likes both.

So how much is this human propensity affecting female preference?  Do the standards of manliness go up because we’re all being compared to this?

How much affect do sports have?  This year in baseball is being heralded as “The Year of the Pitcher.”  Compared with the last decade, offensive production is down considerably, most notably in home runs.  The generally agreed upon cause is the crackdown on steroid use.  To put it bluntly, the 90s and 00s will probably be viewed as the Steroid Era.  With few exceptions, everybody who was anybody was using them to get bigger, stronger, and faster.

The MLB Network often shows classic games from bygone eras.  Perhaps the most obvious difference, other than style-disaster uniforms, is the size of the players.  When I was growing up, the vast majority of baseball players looked like ordinary men wearing baseball outfits.

Dale Murphy was one of the most feared power hitters in the early 80s.  Compare him with this guy:

And yes, Alex Rodriguez is a stand-out, even among power hitters.  But he stands out not for his stature but his ability.  There are lots of guys bigger than him.  Lots.  The fact is, comparing athletes from this decade with those thirty years ago is a bit like comparing a Sherman Tank to a Roman Chariot.  They’re all huge now.  And not just huge.  Ripped.

Women may not be into baseball, but they are into men.  And they compare their choices.  So for those of us who look like rejects from the 1984 draft, our value is considerably lower than it would have been in 1984.  The expectation for athleticism and strength has been exaggerated considerably.

I think the same goes for other attributes women desire in men.  I remember when the St. Louis Cardinals signed a 1 million per year contract with Ozzie Smith.  Shit hit the fan all over the sports world.  A million dollars!?  For one year?!  To play a freaking sport?!?!  But this week, the biggest story was whether or not the Phillies were going to foot the 23 million dollar bill for the services of Roy Oswalt, who has won six games and lost thirteen this season.

Networks like Spike are to men as Cosmo and Victoria’s Secret are to women.  Look this way, act this way, feel this way, or you’re not man enough for the good women.  All the manly men watch UFC.  (Which I find curiously homoerotic, but that’s another story.)  Men like Mystery and Style have assured us that “real men” take home dozens, maybe hundreds of women, sometimes one for every night of the week.

So, where does that leave us in our quest for masculinity?  I think we have to admit that it’s somewhat relative, and that certain elements of what makes men attractive to women have gotten emphasized to the point of absurdity.  But there are properties which are attractive to women across all cultures.  These innate female preferences must be the definition of manliness, since the whole point of being manly is to secure a high quality mate.  (Don’t hate on me for reducing it to sex.  I’m not saying manliness is only about sex.  I’m saying it’s fundamentally about sex, and what cultural complexity and diversity there is would not exist if it were not for the reproductive drive.)

But how much has it been exaggerated?  How much can we climb the ladder of manliness before we begin causing undue harm to society?  Does UFC fighting represent a return to barbarism or a healthy outlet for natural competitive drives?  Are women hurting themselves by succumbing to the trap of relative value comparison?  Are we going Alpha-Mad?  Are women looking at men as objects, or means to an end?  If so, are the ends even reasonable expectations?



10 thoughts on “Objectification of Men?

  1. I’m not saying manliness is only about sex. I’m saying it’s fundamentally about sex, and what cultural complexity and diversity there is would not exist if it were not for the reproductive drive.

    I think the evo psych folks focus too exclusively on sex and miss some other points. In a recent blog post I pointed out that pre historic humans used to hunt some pretty scary game. Neanderthals were even built specifically for the kind of damage this kind of game could cause at a high caloric efficiency cost, so it must have been an important food source. Assuming the dates I’ve seen are correct, we were hunting for around 200 thousand years, and have only had agriculture for the last 10k years. But hunting isn’t as um sexy as sex. Plus you have the whole “hunters are sister marrying rednecks” view to deal with. Women may select manly men, but it is for a reason beyond “that is just the way it is”.

    I don’t watch a lot of UFC but my wife is a huge fan. When we can get a sitter we try to catch the PPV bouts at the local sports bar. I also bought us tickets to the live event back in the Fall when they came to Dallas as a treat for my wife. It is interesting to see how normal the crowd is. They aren’t the group of knuckle draggers you might expect. Certainly a more refined crowd than you might get for a football game.

    Posted by dalrock | July 31, 2010, 6:55 pm
  2. By the way, I like the blog. Interesting stuff.

    Posted by dalrock | July 31, 2010, 6:57 pm
  3. Thanks, dalrock.

    In the evo psych papers I’ve read, I’m inclined to think there’s a breakdown of communication. That is, if a reader comes away with the idea that it’s “all about sex,” then they have misunderstood or the writer has communicated poorly. I like to think of it as analogous to a computer. It’s certainly true to say that everything a computer does is ultimately caused by a binary code — in one sense. But it’s also more helpful to talk about things like HTML or JAVA causing things to happen. So… no binary, no html. But given that yes, binary is the foundation of it all, it’s often helpful to speak of things higher along on the causal chain.

    So yeah. Ultimately, even hunting behaviors are about sex. For one thing, given what we know about human nature now, it seems certain that hunting parties were one way to stratify and rank males. The best hunter surely got the choicest hunks of meat, which he surely shared with the most attractive females, which probably made her gina tingle a little bit. But it’s certainly also reasonable to talk about hunting parties as an evolutionary adaptation to growing caloric and protein needs as the brain grew. Or whatever other theory suits. Speaking of most adaptations as singular lines of causation is probably oversimplification.

    I’ve only watched UFC once, and coincidentally, it was also the first time I’ve ever been in a Hooters. I was shocked at the “normality” of the crowd. And actually, I was even more shocked at the number of remarkably attractive and feminine girls who were getting into it. The thing is, most girls at sports events seem to be there more to be with their men than to watch the sport itself. But not at this event. The girls were at least as involved as the guys. And I would never have pegged these girls as the type who would get off on guys beating each other to a bloody pulp.

    Posted by hambydammit | July 31, 2010, 7:11 pm
  4. I certainly need to read more evo psych papers. But the ones I have read seem to only focus on instincts for sex. This is my point. I’m convinced we have instincts for hunting for example. I think part of the instinct is related specifically to big/dangerous game. I haven’t done a formal study but cave paintings seem to focus a great deal on larger game, especially that with horns/antlers/tusks. Modern hunters in the US have a similar fascination; most cave paintings look to me like they could have come out of a cabelas catalog. I’ve never seen anyone address this. For those animals without horns, etc the focus of modern hunters is on claws and teeth. I think this fascination is tied in with the adrenaline rush associated with hunting big/dangerous game, especially that with the features I mentioned. They don’t call it “doe fever” for a reason. Antlers have a mesmerizing power on big game hunters.

    And I would never have pegged these girls as the type who would get off on guys beating each other to a bloody pulp.

    My wife fits that category. Pretty, long hair, mother of two, teaches at a local Christian Academy. You would never peg her for wanting to watch this kind of fighting if you saw her on the street.

    Posted by dalrock | July 31, 2010, 8:12 pm
  5. Hamby, I don’t have any insights to impart here. But this is a great post – there’s lots of food for thought here. I do think men are frequently objectified in our culture.

    I also confess to being charmed by your comments to Ryan – there’s a touch of vulnerability and disclosure there that is very appealing.

    Posted by Susan Walsh | July 31, 2010, 8:38 pm
  6. Seeing I ragged about the objectification of women, I might as well rag about the objectification of men too.

    I have a brother and many of my co-workers are men and do notice de-masulation [such as taking away their “man card” or saying they’re “pussy whipped”] to the men who don’t eat beef jerky and fuck 3 times a day.

    In order to stop or at least reduce the harmful standards applied to both men and women, I think we should start controlling our sexuality rather than letting it control us.

    Posted by cptpineapple | August 1, 2010, 11:35 pm
  7. ” All the manly men watch UFC. (Which I find curiously homoerotic, but that’s another story.) ”

    Oh definitely. Me and my boyfriend will occasionally channel surf at the gym and stop on UFC bouts to poke fun at the grappling (and gaze at the muscled men). All they need is to be wearing nothing at all, less desire to pummel the other, and they’re ready to engage. 🙂

    Posted by MKandefer | August 2, 2010, 12:45 pm
  8. I think that the UFC/musclehead stuff is more like a backlash. There are very few “manly men” around anymore. The jobs that traditionally displayed male characteristics of strength are dwindling, leaving behind white-collar, cubicle jobs, where a woman is able to compete on equal basis.

    Further, women do respond to physical attributes. Men are *more* visual, but that doesn’t mean women are completely non-visual. 😉

    Posted by Aldonza | August 12, 2010, 2:41 pm
  9. “Objectification” isn’t the word. Men are not reduced to literal objects, things which a controlling class can use for a specific purpose and dismiss when the purpose is fulfilled.

    Rather, this is strict categorization, with male-driven enforcement for those who stray from their categories’ normative behaviors too flagrantly.

    Of course women are perfectly capable of getting into the flow of a fight, and the idea that it’s solely because of the sweaty muscle is laughable. Women have traditionally served as hunters and warriors throughout human history. The change came after agriculture, when an inherently patriarchal system meant that new gender norms had to be enforced to prevent any threat to male rule.

    My wife was a student of Uechi-ryu. She was held back from advancement by her male instructor despite being a superior fighter and more technically accurate than any other classmate. She frequently had trouble finding male sparring partners – not that she went too far, but rather that she was just too scary.

    Posted by 2nd Wave Man | August 18, 2010, 9:19 am
  10. Why not? There’s pictures of naked and half naked men everywhere and men are objectified even more and becoming more and more violent than ever, especially with women who look at them as nothing but sex objects to consume.

    Posted by Guest | January 20, 2011, 5:06 pm

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