What It Means to Treat Kate Upton Like the Successful, Autonomous Person That She Is

Asked to prom by a high schooler, the supermodel responded with acumen. Why are some making her out to be a victim?
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By all outward appearances, Kate Upton is winning life. Born in America, raised in material comfort, and blessed with the athletic talent to win national equestrian competitions as a teen, she is now 20 years young, an enviable age to be. She's also rich, famous, beautiful, and successful, having been the face of Guess, a cover model for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, a mainstay in glossy fashion magazines, and an actress with roles in two films to her credits.

Congratulations, Kate Upton!

Success has attracted the fans you'd expect. One fan, Los Angeles teenager Jake Davidson, is typical in some ways: He has a crush on the supermodel and wishes he could take her to his high school prom.

Atypically, he actually asked her to go:

She handled the situation with acumen, Tweeting, "How could I turn down that video! I'll check my schedule ;)" and later telling People magazine:

It was so flattering.

The video was so cute, and I really appreciated it. There was something about it that I knew I had to respond. When a guy has a good sense of humor and confidence, that's attractive. This video was creative and funny. It made me laugh, and everyone loves a good laugh! I'm not sure if I'll be able to go with him or not, due to my schedule. I want to, but I just don't know if I can make it work. But I really appreciated being asked; it made me feel really great!

Having gracefully bowed out, they all lived happily ever after.

So what's left to talk about? A provocative Amanda Marcotte item titled, "Jake Davidson Asking Out Kate Upton Isn't Cute. It's Creepy." Take a look for yourself before I hint at my reaction to it:

Kat Stoeffel of the Cut has a post celebrating Upton for coming up with a polite excuse to get out of the date, even though Upton still had to endure the humiliation of having to pretend she was flattered, so as to preserve her reputation for being "nice." As Stoeffel points out, if famous models and actresses can't decline a man's offer for no other reason than lack of interest, what chance do the rest of us have?
"But her 'yes' would have reinforced the idea that women owe something--attention, time, sex--to men just because they've asked nicely. Or paid a compliment. Or bought a drink."
Davidson's prom video put Upton in a no-win situation. Say yes, and you have to go through with this prom date that will probably be one of the most awkward and embarrassing nights of your life, where you have to socialize with teenagers while being paraded around like a show pony. Laugh at the obvious ridiculousness of this entire situation, and now you're a big old meanie-head. But what Upton chose to do, which is to let him down easy while pretending to be flattered, isn't really much better. Everyone knows she's just saying that. The lesson learned: You may be a rich and famous model, but any random man can, just by making a video, force you to do a little song and dance about how delightful his attentions are.

Instead of applauding Davidson for this, adults should be appalled. All that's been taught here to young men is that they are entitled to women's attention simply because they ask for it. This lesson not only feeds the unjustified grievances of the Reddit users that Stoeffel describes as "tallying up women's socially obligatory acts of kindness." It also helps build the undercurrent of fear that many women, especially younger women, have to live with in their daily lives. This entitlement we teach men crops up all the time for women, and it's rarely as cute as a silly comedy video: When a man demands that you stop on the street to entertain his proposal of going back to his place and then follows you for blocks because you pretended not to hear him. When a rape victim is told that if she didn't want to have sex, she shouldn't have gone to the rapist's hotel room. When a woman files for a restraining order because she's afraid her abusive husband means it when he says that if he can't have her, no one can.

She added, "Let's be clear: I'm not saying that Davidson is violent or that he was threatening Upton with anything more than having people call her a bitch if she didn't play along. But men who are violent feel justified because they believe that women owe them their attention, their bodies, and their love. By joining in the collective pressure on Upton to give her attention--even just the attention of a polite refusal to a request that is, in reality, too silly to warrant acknowledgement--to a young man just because he wants it, we're contributing to the overall culture of male entitlement."

This argument is strange in part because it proceeds as if an experience very common to celebrities of both genders is unique to women. I don't just mean the general phenomenon of random people seeking photos or photographs or otherwise harassing famous people, who must either respond with time and attention or risk looking like entitled jerks. I mean that prom invitations are a thing. Here's one of many YouTube prom invitations to Justin Bieber. Here's a teen asking Justin Timberlake to be her date. Last year, an 18-year-old took to Twitter to ask a 23-year-old NFL player if he would accompany her to prom. He said yes and picked her up in a Lamborghini. Of course, most celebrity invitations end in a "no," or even a refusal to directly respond, and while that may make some people regard the star as less "nice," is that really so terrible?

But I object to Marcotte's argument in a deeper way. Her ultimate purpose is pushing back against real, pervasive problems that women face: street harassment, rape, spousal abuse. That's a vital project. And those scourges are partly a function of the perpetrators' entitlement. In this instance, however, her focus on those themes has caused her to treat two individuals, Upton and Davidson, as if they are stand-ins for their genders rather than individuals. She has also portrayed a strong, successful woman as if she's a humiliated victim. In doing so, she diminishes Upton and vests Davidson with more power than he possesses or ought to possess.

The problem isn't her awareness that there are privileges associated with being a straight, white male from an upper-middle-class upbringing, her belief that women as a class are subject to sexist cultural norms, or her belief that those norms are connected at some level to serious abuses. It would be a mistake to dismiss any of those priors. But there are limits to how far they can take us. Group dynamics cannot be mapped onto individuals nearly so neatly as Marcotte attempts it. Her ideology causes her to write as if she doesn't understand what is plain to most observers: Kate Upton is far more privileged, powerful, culturally savvy, and capable of fully exercising her autonomy than the vast majority of straight white males in America, and certainly more than a dateless, non-celebrity 18-year-old high school student on YouTube.

Speaking of "the dynamics of difference and power," as they called it at my alma mater, Marcotte, in her capacity as a regular columnist at a prestigious, internationally read Web magazine, presently possesses a lot more cultural power and privilege than the high school boy she just called "creepy," accused of implicitly threatening Upton with being called a bitch, and told that his prom invitation is rooted in the same premise that stalkers and rapists operate under. 

Yet it's actually the treatment of Upton that interests me most. It's certainly possible that she reacted in something like the way Marcotte imagines: that she was alerted to the YouTube video, felt as if she was in a no-win situation, pretended to be flattered, and felt resentful at having to choose between feigning niceness and taking a public relations hit. Under this scenario, she would've suffered in part due to the cultural voices that pressured her to actually attend the prom. Had Marcotte confined her criticism to those voices, I'd have agreed with her commentary. I tend to think celebrities owe less to the public than most Americans seem to believe. And I think Stoeffel is right that public invitations like this can verge on emotional blackmail.   

What makes me uncomfortable is the way that Marcotte presumes her plausible explanation for how Upton felt is in fact how she felt--as if it's okay to begin from general observations about objectionable gender dynamics in society and to extrapolate from them as if they tell us how a specific woman would of course react to a specific situation. Isn't that unfair to Kate Upton? Surely an appreciation that women are diverse, autonomous individuals requires us to be open to the possibility that Upton's inner thoughts and feelings are different than any of us might expect, especially since Upton's public statements are directly at odds with Marcotte's theory. Marcotte doesn't leave open the possibility that she was mildly flattered, or ambivalent, or found the video hilarious, or managed the whole thing through a PR adviser and never even thought of it outside those moments.

I don't actually think there is any one way Upton "ought to" feel. Nor do I know anything about her philosophy, her experiences, her personality, her sensitivities, her strengths, her insecurities, her disposition. How could I even make an informed guess? I would suggest that feminism shouldn't aim to shame high-schoolers who ask supermodels out on YouTube so that the objects of their affection don't feel humiliated pretending to be nice; rather, feminism should aim for a world where no supermodel would ever experience humiliation at being asked out by a high schooler, in large part because no one would even imagine that a teenager possesses the power to humiliate a grown woman at the top of her profession with no more than a respectfully phrased invitation. That is how things ought to be. It seems possible that we are almost there, too.

If not, perhaps part of the problem is that Marcotte and those who agree with her assume the opposite. They proceed as if it's not just possible but obvious that Upton would conceive of her experience as they did: as a victimized member of a disempowered group who has of course been humiliated. But surely at least some women would regard themselves, in Upton's situation, as powerful, autonomous superstars who managed some good press, made a random kid happy, and haven't been through anything so unpleasant that they can be said to have "endured" it.  

Wouldn't that be a good thing? Isn't presuming maximal trauma and discomfort itself victimizing to some people? And finally, aren't asking someone to pay attention to you with an appeal to their politeness or niceness and demanding they pay attention to you with the implicit threat of physical coercion actually different in kind, not degree? If you're reading, Davidson, I think the answer is yes.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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