a little pedagogy with your nightcap

Last week, the Cynic, one of UVM’s student papers, released a Valentine’s Day issue. Its cover featured a girl unbuttoning her flannel shirt (as though there were any doubt that we’re Vermonters to the syrup-dripping core) to reveal a lacy camisole. This week, the following letter to the editor was printed. I’ve redacted it for brevity and boldfaced parts most relevant to my subsequent critique.

I appreciate the [Cynic‘s] efforts to balance itself as a viable news source while remaining edgy to retain the attention of its target population – college students.

The Cynic has taken this a step too far, however, with the nonsensical objectification on the cover of its Valentine’s Day issue. Because, while this “Sexy Issue” is meant to be the Cynic “unbuttoned”, the only thing truly unbuttoned in this issue is the cover model’s shirt.

Besides the cleavage gracing the cover, the photo posted online the night before with an alternative cover titled “Something big is coming” with a suggestively half-naked male, is equally concerning.

Within this issue, there is no explanation for the displays of skin, no caption or follow-up article. The somewhat forced theme of romance and sex is present, but the cover is only implicitly connected to these stories, which simply leaves room for a shady interpretation.

There are interpretations that could accuse the Cynic of objectifying women … and men. Or maybe the newspaper has decided to just throw some skin on its cover for more student readers. Perhaps the Cynic has decided to embrace its naked culture and become a porn magazine – it’s all up for interpretation.

This sleazy marketing strategy is definitely an attention grabber, and a totally unwarranted one. The choice is ultimately not risque – only tacky.

Anonymous, Class of 2014

Objectification. Something tells me Anon here doesn’t do too many photo shoots. A photo shoot is a collaboration between model and photographer. It’s a lot more nuanced than the subject/object dichotomy to which many critics are fond of reducing it. To use a graphic but (I hope) illuminating metaphor: the dom in BDSM, or even the top in more vanilla sex, is not necessarily in control. It’s a partnership.

I find the word “objectification” itself more than a little insulting. The word itself, and the attendant concept, reduces me to an object far more than anything a photographer could do behind a camera. When you say that a person (usually a woman, and I’ll get to that soon) has been objectified, your implications are themselves objectifying her. You are saying that being photographed is something done to a woman rather than something in which she actively engages. When you tell a model she has been objectified, you are telling her she is an object without choice in the matter of her portrayal. I’ve always hated hearing media critics talk about how women “are portrayed” – passive voice, as though women themselves are never the primary actors. Give them a little agency, for chrissakes. Rarely do I hear anyone raise the possibility that women collude in their own portrayals.

I don’t know anything about the girl on last week’s Cynic cover. I have no idea what the terms of her shoot were. For all I know, the use of her image wasn’t consensual. But it’s patronizing to assume the negative. When I see a woman posing provocatively, I owe her (and all women) the dignity of assuming her choices are her own unless stated otherwise. For me, in that instance, to call her objectified (or sexualized, or any other passive-voice adjective) would be tantamount to shitting on her personal agency.

And it’s always women. I’m using the feminine pronoun not by accident or whim but because these conversations, 95% of the time, are about women. At least Anon threw in a little nod to men’s potential objectification. Other than that, I can count on one hand, maybe two, the number of times I’ve seen similar “concern” applied to male models or actors or athletes. Men, for better or for worse, are generally granted the assumption of autonomy. A man takes his clothes off, and people don’t look twice. Maybe a few of them swoon a little. A woman takes her clothes off, and everyone and their sister’s chihuahua has to have an opinion: why did she do it? who is she doing it for? is her decision “good for women” or “bad for women”? I’ve always hated the buzzphrase “good for women”. We rarely ask whether something is good for men. Men are afforded the assumption of independent agency, while women are still regarded (often by nominal feminists!) as not only fundamentally reactive but as interchangeable. Monolithic – what’s good for one woman must be good for all, because god forbid I be a human before a female.

You can disagree with what I do. By all means disagree: I enjoy and encourage debate. But I draw the line at being told I’m not actually running my own life. You’re perfectly entitled to think my sexy photos are disgusting and ought to be shipped on a flaming raft to the sluttiest circle of hell. But don’t you dare try to tell me that these photos were something done to me. When you “accuse the Cynic of objectifying women”, you’re forgetting that there’s a living, breathing human behind that photo. That, not the close-up of her cleavage, is what I call objectification.

One Comment Add yours

  1. I agree with this and really like it. However, I wonder if there can be a line drawn between pictures that show women as sexy (like the one on the cover of the cynic) and ones that portray women as objects or beings with a limited range of needs and desires (a point well made by this video:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HaB2b1w52yE). I think there is a huge difference between taking a sexy picture for the beauty of it and using said picture to try to sell a product. I think objectification happens when the people in the picture are background to the product or the idea. It is really hard for me to nail down the parameters in my head, because advertisements in general revolve around the idea of “You will be more ______ if you buy our product”. It is something I am very interested in and would love some good conversation about.

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