[This feature was originally published here in anticipation of Objectify A Man/Male Tech Writer Day, a social media event that was later cancelled. Although the day was perhaps doomed to failure since inception, the phenomenon of benevolent sexism remains a problem in demand of attention.]
For men to compliment women is far more common than for the reverse to happen. It’s one of those socialized traits people barely notice unless they’re particularly alerted, what with it being so widespread as to be ubiquitous. Unsurprisingly, the majority of compliments directed towards women tend to praise appearance as opposed to ability or personality. The overall effect is one that can breed frustration in recipients as it reinforces harmful gender roles.
It is on this basis that Leigh Alexander and Ben Abraham have organised Objectify A Male Tech Writer Day (or simply Objectify A Man Day). On February 1, participants will see to their Twitters and Facebooks as per usual, with the caveat that anything they link which is authored by a man will be supplemented with a needless compliment on the chap’s appearance. With the hashtag of #Objectify, the goal is to raise awareness of how well-intentioned remarks can nevertheless make you feel undermined and patronized.
Gendered compliments are of that type of benevolent sexism that generally flies under the social radar. Getting praise is lovely, right? Surely it raises self-esteem and spreads good will to all the boys and girls.
The problem is that benevolent sexism goes hand-in-hand with the more obvious hostile kind (your torsos and your booth babes) and reinforces the subconscious values hidden therein. In essence, it’s the friendly face to those overtly harmful practices and behaviours, making it far more insidious in nature. Unwelcomed and irrelevant compliments on a woman’s appearance can also elicit emotions of self-objectification and shame. By subtly endorsing appearance as a top priority for women, they boost socially ingrained values of superficiality and unrealistic beauty standards.
Like individuals, videogames don’t exist in bubbles isolated away from society. The subconscious values of game makers manifest in industry practices and game design, such as the belief that men will foremost want to protect their female protagonist, or the idea that girlfriends are lovely and all but simply dreadful when it comes to the pew pew. I wonder how many developers have passed on the notion of having a female protagonist on the basis that girls are too dainty for all that running about. The effects of media representation on audiences is something we should always bear in mind.
Well-intentioned though some beliefs may be, when they carry adverse connotations which support wider spread gender roles, the overall effect is merely an endorsement of deeper structural problems. While it is nice to receive a compliment on your hair every now and again, when it becomes a recurring thing everywhere you go you start to get a message about what’s commonly perceived as important.
Speaking of well-intentioned, personally I remain sceptical of whether Objectify A Man Day will succeed in its goal or obscure it. It’s true that a bit of awareness and empathy can help men to see sexism to which they’re normally blind, but the condoning of benevolent sexism is a much harder thing to shift. The event stands no chance of emulating the problems of misguided compliments, what with the lack of everything else that makes benevolent sexism so disconcerting (including, odiously enough, the sincerity).
Those in on the joke need no convincing, while those outside might barely even notice anything’s different. Most likely it will bolster the belief of many that getting complimented on one’s appearance is flattering, not insulting. And if well-intentioned men can get through one day of receiving superficial compliments, it may just encourage them to think that benevolent sexism isn’t so bad after all.
That being said, the event can prove indirectly productive simply as a gateway for conversation on the subject. Certainly the more people that grow aware of the many facets of sexism, the better we become at correcting our errors in value and judgement. For this, I wish Objectify A Male Tech Writer Day all the success in the world.
You can check out the #Objectify FAQ here.