The Summer of Objectification Has Apparently Begun

Everything is now sexualized and objectified. We can blame the Internet, or we can blame ourselves. 

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You may not know this, but it is The Summer of Lust. Yep. Sex is everywhere! Lisa Gutierrez has declared it so in The Kansas City Star in a piece in which she points out that men are being sexualized now. More than usual, even "at a breathless rate this summer, beyond the usual hypersexy Abercrombie & Fitch beefcake selling clothing while wearing little of it," writes Gutierrez. Sexualized by women no less! Oh, my. How do we know this? Well, Fifty Shades of Grey, obviously, plus, movies and TV shows and Olympic games that feature "sexy" men, and the way we talk about said sexy men. Here are some more examples from Gutierrez:

  • "The New York Times just anointed swimmer Ryan Lochte [pictured above] as 'an Olympic sex symbol,' fawning over his 'twinkling blue eyes, aquiline nose and dimpled smile.'"
  • "Fifty Shades of Grey, the erotic novel starring 50-ways-of-sexy Christian Grey, is ravaging best-seller lists."
  • "In the movie Rock of Ages, Tom Cruise is chiseled and toned — 'zero body fat,' noted one critic." 

And then also, there's Magic Mike, the male stripper movie we've been looking forward to immensely. The times, they are sexy! Especially compared to the old days when we liked our Olympic athletes hideous and dimple-free, our Tom Cruises pudgy and beer-puffy, and our shades of grey having to do with the sky on a rainy day.

But wait a minute, aren't men and women often beautiful and, yes, sexy in movies and on TV and in books and even in the Olympics (remember Michael Phelps? Apollo Ono? Pretty much any male or female Olympian in recent and even long-ago years, except for maybe the curlers?). As for Fifty Shades of Grey, it seems there's far more objectification of the book itself than there is about the characters it contains, as writers continue to try to come up with scintillating ways to write about it.

No matter. We live in new times, where everything is more intense, more violent, more sexy... because of the Internet, cultural critic Lisa Wade tells Gutierrez. (When in doubt, blame things on the Internet!) This leads us to important moral questions. Like, per Gutierrez:

Is it bad for women to objectify men — the way men objectify women?

Gutierrez's piece had been a silly bit of fluff journalism centered around Fifty Shades up to this point. With this question, she's treading in rougher waters than I think she intended. But you can't really write about objectification without it becoming the elephant in the room. I have two problems with what follows in the piece: One, the idea that admiring men for their physical attributes is something new, which ignores the decades-old existence of a partially clothed David Beckham, the key Brad-Pitt-based plot point in Thelma & Louise, any scene on TV or in the movies or in real life in which a group of whoo-hoo-ing women go to a male strip club or drool while gazing outside at a sweaty, muscle-bound male window washer (who exists only in the movies or TV)—not to mention an entire, long-charted-from-ancient-times history of women considering men attractive even if they don't like or know them personally. And two, well, this:

After consulting some experts, Gutierrez finds out that all this so-called "Internet Sexualization" is not so bad. Well, that it can be bad, but it's not always bad, so long as we pay attention to men's minds as well as their bodies, so long as we all consider that we're all people with feelings, too. Plus, this is a way for over-objectified women to even out the playing field, in which more women are "sexualized" than are men in the first place. (This is sort of like everyone owning a gun, maybe?) Wade says we're all asking for it, anyway: "Everyone wants to be sexually objectified because they want other people to think that they’re sexy. There’s nothing wrong with it — in and of itself.”

But as with the generalization that working women all want to be dominated, most people aren't "asking for" objectification, even if we do enjoy being told we're attractive in the way in which we prefer by friends and boyfriends or girlfriends or spouses. There's a difference between a compliment and appreciation and "objectification" that this article fails to consider. Does anyone really want to be considered just an object, an inanimate good-looking stone or toaster oven without much else to offer? All this "objectification" talk, for fun, isn't actually for fun: It's an old, corny, chauvinistic joke: Men ogling women on the street or pressing dollars into strippers' g-strings, women retaliating by "expressing themselves" with a visit to the male strip club, or giggling about Fifty Shades of Grey before going home and feel sort of glum about all of it, because it has been fake, a moment constructed for the appearance, though not the reality, of sexual empowerment. You could call this the "Samantha Problem." The Sex and the City character became so extreme in the way she interacted with men that she began to appear something of a joke, not empowering in the slightest, someone to be mocked rather than admired, even if the intention—women can and should have sexual desires and express them, too—started out sort of right.

I'm not saying these books or movies or acts are wrong, but it's sad if they're our only expressions of sexuality, and it's sad how much attention something like Fifty Shades has gotten for appearing to release these pent-up ne'er discussed dams of repression we've apparently built up. True empowerment would go beyond the word "objectification": Being honest and authentic and actually just saying and doing what we think is sexy (acknowledging that everyone has a right to their own opinion, within legal limits obviously) in real life, not having it prescribed to us in books and movies and by the media and Hollywood in general, not having to giggle about it in small groups, or be ashamed, or be made to feel bad or weird when it's not our kind of sexy after all.

But getting away from the media sex-hype machine would mean ending the real objectification, in which the targeted audiences for the "sexualized" product or object end up being objectified themselves. It's not that the Internet is making everything more sexy. It's that the world has figured out how to make the sexualization of nearly everything a business, and until we stop buying into it and believing what they tell us about "sexy," there's little chance of it stopping. If nothing else, we should raise the bar a little. Have some standards. They are important. And for the record, I have no problem saying that that Olympian above is handsome. But he's hardly an "object."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.