Lynn Beisner discusses why it’s not OK to objectify men.
I don’t usually have celebrity crushes, and I am not usually attracted to men on a purely visual level. One of the few celebrity crushes I have is for George Clooney. It only developed after I saw him on Inside the Actor’s Studio talking about how he is helping to end genocide in Darfur with satellite imaging. Suddenly he was more than just a Hollywood hunk. He was a slightly geeky human rights activist, and that makes him unbearably sexy to me.
Recently, however, I developed an attraction, though not a full crush, for Jon Hamm, who plays Don Draper on Mad Men. I have been in love with the show since its first season. I’ve noticed that in various shots, Hamm’s relatively large penis was clearly visible against the outline of his trousers, but I hadn’t crossed the line to full-on ogling until last month when I discovered a Tumblr site devoted to Hamm’s penis. Pictures of Hamm’s member were the titillating icing on the very cake of a great AMC drama.
The conversation around Hamm’s penis, even in the feminist blogosphere, has been, more or less, good-natured lust. But then last week, in an interview with Rolling Stone, Hamm made it clear that he found the attention unwelcome. He asked that we stop focusing on his package and start thinking of him again as a person and an actor. “When people feel the freedom to create Tumblr accounts about my cock, I feel like that wasn’t part of the deal.” But even after that, some feminist publications continued to write about Hamm’s penis, with one even ignoring Hamm the person by creating a faux interview with Hamm’s penis.
In an article on Slate.com called “Jon Hamm Is Being Treated Like an Actress. He Hates It,” Alyssa Rosenberg points out that Hamm, like most men, is not used to being objectified. She points out that the problem with Hamm, as with starlets who have wardrobe malfunctions, it’s not “the kind of underwear starlets and their stylists were picking out, but rather the photographers who zoom telephoto lenses in on their crotches.”
The attention paid to Hamm’s penis, like the movie Magic Mike, seems to indicate that we as a society are wondering if it is OK to engage in the sexualization of male bodies under the rubric of turn-about being fair play. If we turn men into sexual objects, will it empower us, or will it give men a taste of their own medicine?
As to my own ethics about objectifying men, I had accepted non-aggressive, non-intimidating objectification of men. It wasn’t so much a well thought-out position as it seemed part of my identity as a sex-positive feminist. But recently I learned just how slippery and problematic that thinking can be.
During a recent vacation, my husband and I rented an old beach house in a deserted and desperate Southern resort town. There was an over-abundance of young men who were scrounging for work now that construction jobs are in short supply. And on our low-rent end of the beach, the most attractive guys were waiting tables, doing small jobs, and being treated as “man-candy.” As one woman told me with a wink, “The good thing about this economy is that you can hire the guys who will give you a little extra.”
I did not agree with the attitude, but I was also not giving it much thought. I was on vacation, so I wasn’t thinking about sexual harassment, not even when I saw a male delivery guy being groped. There was something about my unquestioning acceptance of this micro-culture of entitlement that had an insidious effect on my thinking.
The last night of our vacation, I stood on the third floor balcony of the house we rented, watching the color of the sea and sky change as the sun set behind us. Most of the houses around us had been rendered uninhabitable by either storm damage or beach erosion. It seemed like we were the only people for miles.
So there I was, breathing in a moment of pure beauty when I spotted a runner coming toward me. My vantage point on the third floor balcony allowed me to watch him without him noticing me. Usually, I would not give a half-naked guy more than a passing glance. But as he came into view, I was struck by his physical attractiveness. He was the most beautiful man I have ever seen. He was naked except for a pair of shorts that clung tenuously to his hips.
In that moment, I thought of him as Mother Nature’s bonus gift to me. There I was, surrounded by the most beautiful sky and surf imaginable, and just for good measure, She had given me a glimpse of one of her most beautiful creatures. In my mind, at that moment, he was there for nothing other than my visual wonder and pleasure.
I am ashamed to admit that as he ran under our balcony, I went to the edge and applauded. I whistled, stamped my feet, and woo-hooed. He looked up, startled at first by my presence. Then he gave me that painfully familiar resigned look—the one that women often get when walking past a construction site.
I felt like shit. I stopped applauding and yelled that I was sorry. If he heard me, he didn’t acknowledge it.
The next day, as we made the long drive home, I took a break from self-recrimination to wonder what on earth had inspired me to do such a thing. I was not then nor am I now looking to excuse my behavior. I was trying to identify the thinking or attitudes that had allowed me to act in a way that was not just wrong, but completely out of character for me.
On one hand I was telling myself: Oh, relax! You were enjoying Mother Nature’s beauty in all of its forms. He came along at just the right moment to give your vacation a perfect ending, and you are ruining it with all of this introspection.
But my sane brain reminded me that no one is put on this earth strictly for the enjoyment and pleasure of others. He was on the beach for reasons that had nothing to do with me. He did not exist nor was he on that beach to be the cherry on my vacation sundae.
The crazy part of my brain argued that the guy has to have seen himself in a mirror at some point since puberty. Surely he knows the effect he has on people. Nobody looks that good by accident. He works at it, he is flaunting it, and on some level he probably enjoyed my applause.
If he didn’t want attention, why was he running shirtless on a beach in March? He could be in a gym or someplace else private. And if he didn’t want middle-aged women applauding, he shouldn’t have worn such barely-there shorts.
My sane brain kicked back in and reminded me that the stretch of beach was incredibly private. In fact, if he had been cruising for attention he couldn’t have chosen a worse place. As for his dress, it might have been March, but it was warm, and he was running. He had the right to wear whatever he wanted. And the shorts were clinging to his hips because, well, with washboard abs where were they supposed to go?
My experience with the beach guy and all of the really bad thinking behind it has convinced me that while turn-about may be fair play, it does not work with my gender ethics. There are men who deliberately place themselves and their sexuality in the public eye. Ogling them and even commenting on them seems fair to me. But I need to be very careful about joining the culture of objectification through a door marked, “Women: No prudes allowed.”
Back to Hamm’s penis: When a man or a woman asks us to stop looking at him or her as a sexual object, it seems to me that we have an obligation to honor that request. And that is why I will not be Googling Hamm’s penis again. It is also why this will be the last time I write about Hamm’s penis. And it is why I think that we should stop talking about Hamm’s penis and start discussing what our brief infatuation with it says about us.