Anthony Weiner and Self-Objectification

Before I say anything about Anthony Weiner, let me say this: I like the male body. I don’t think we should treat men’s bodies comically, and I think doing so can send negative messages to boys and men. I want men to not feel ashamed of their bodies, and to be able to have positive experiences of feeling desired. Okay? Okay.

In looking at some of the feminist discourse surrounding Weinergate, however, reinforcement of the above points has seemed to almost champion Weiner’s predilection for sending out suggestive photos of himself. (Which, as a resident of the state he represents, I don't care about in the least.) Hugo Schwyzer, who consistently writes interesting feminist work, thinks Weiner’s urges came from “a desperate hunger for a very specific kind of validation.” Meanwhile, Amanda Marcotte, another outstanding feminist writer, is “Personally...glad that we're entering an era where men are toying with the idea that their bodies might have some aesthetic value that women may appreciate.”

I’m left puzzled by these reactions, even as I see their larger points. Both seem to overlook that while men and women are both capable of objectifying themselves, men doing so isn’t just a neat reverse of women doing so. A dirty picture of a man and a dirty picture of a woman send different signals, arguing that men just want to be sometimes seen as pretty playthings discounts the centuries of sexism that have gone into establishing the dominance of the male gaze.

Show me a society in which women and men are equal on every level—politically, socially, academically, economically, domestically—and I’ll show you a society in which the objectified gaze is a charming relic. The gaze is powerful to the viewer because it reinforces the dynamic we witness on a more pedestrian level every day. There are all sorts of ways to play with and subvert that, but at its heart the objectified gaze “works” because it’s directed toward women. So we can treat men in the exact same way we would an objectified woman—as Weiner did to himself when he sent a fragmented shot of his underwear-covered erection to a Twitter follower—and we wind up with a totally different result, in ways that have nothing to do with men's bodies being considered comical or worthy of derision.

Anthony Weiner's "real-life bachelor" spread in a 1996 Cosmopolitan, speaking of objectification.

Here we have Anthony Weiner (and legions of late-night Craigslist users) sending photographs of himself into the ether, and whatever his personal motivation was, the act did not signal to me that we’re breaking through to some sort of desirability free-for-all in which men can look at women and women can look at men and we're all happily desired and experiencing aesthetic appreciation and damn those pecs are fine! Instead, what I see is a man wanting to opt into the male gaze because he was sad, or lonely, or power-drunk, or bored, or horny, or whatever he was. I see nothing resembling progress toward reconciling men’s views of their own bodies with a true space of joyous desirability. I see a co-opting of ways of looking at the female body, which might have a little more heft behind it if the male gaze were something women could opt out of as easily as men.

How fun for men to get to play in the sandbox of objectification! It must be particularly fun when you can stand up, brush yourself off, and go back into the real world in which you’re not being viewed as an object. Do I sound bitter? I’m not, at least not toward individual men. Many men yearn to feel desired simply for one's essence, and there shouldn't be shame surrounding this wish. Ironically, women may have an easier time accessing this; as many problems as there are with being evaluated for one’s face and body, at least I know that I am being looked at for something that resembles my essence. My face and body communicate something that can't be communicated on paper. I’m not being looked at for my job, my income, my family, my successes, my failures, my cleverness, my social status. That’s one of the problems women have with this whole beauty myth dealio in the first place, right? I imagine Anthony Weiner’s professional success might indeed have something to do with his longing to be recognized in another fashion. I want men to be recognized for their whole, essential selves, just as I wish for women to have the same. Indeed, I consider it one of feminism’s myriad responsibilities.

But, yeah, I’m a little bitter about the idea that poor Anthony Weiner just wants to be told he’s a hottie. I think of this fantastic cartoon on street harassment and the similar conversations I’ve had. “When men look at you, there’s nothing to worry about,” I remember being told when I protested one fellow’s assertion that women were basically potted plants. “It’s when they stop looking that you should worry.” I’ve been told that any concerns I have on this matter will be handily alleviated when I hit a certain age, and that I should “enjoy it while you can.” Championing the idea that men who send crotch shots of themselves are just after validation of their desirability seems like somehow we should be endorsing the whole idea of self-objectification—like maybe I should just shut up and enjoy being whistled at because, hey, it’s a compliment, right? I’ve written before about my complex reaction to street encounters, so it’s not like I’m entirely inured against this iffy line of thinking, and neither Schwyzer nor Marcotte is making this argument. But ignoring the different ways in which women and men are looked at—and then giving a thumbs-up to men who turn the objectifying gaze upon themselves instead of challenging the notion of that gaze in the first place—is unhelpful at best.

I mean, does Chris Lee look like he's remotely enjoying himself?

The Jezebel piece that prompted Schwyzer’s response posits that male politician sex scandals are rooted in the narcissism that made them seek out public office in the first place. It's an astute point, but I’m not entirely ready to sign onto that either. I’d suggest that the motivations lie somewhere between the peculiar narcissism of public figures and the peculiar narcissism of taking erotic photographs of yourself in the first place. Part of the pleasure of taking and sending such a photograph lies in seeing a distinct image of yourself. It’s like the narcissism of the mirror, but with the added bonus of bringing something tangible that can then be circulated, proof of your desirability. I wonder which gave him more pleasure: seeing the photograph himself, or knowing that someone else would see it. I’m guessing that without the first, the second would have lost much of its allure.

We can’t treat looking at men and looking at women as parallel tracks along the same path toward desirability. We can’t allow for men’s lockstep with the male gaze to be treated as something potentially beneficial for all of us, because objectifying any one of us has the potential to hurt all of us. I know better than to think dudes don’t care about their sexual appeal, but I do know that whatever feelings men might have about their erotic pull, it’s often less schizophrenic than women’s. Can’t we start there and work forward instead of backward?