Sexism in an Androgynous Society, or “Objectification is bad, mmmkay?”

There’s a TV show here that has generated a very strong visceral reaction in myself and most others in the western world that see the show. I’ve talked to enough Danes about the show to see the difference in views: To the Danes, it’s a somewhat cheeky, somewhat offensive social commentary that exists for shock value, not unlike South Park in the US.  To non-Danes, it’s a borderline hate crime, and the fact that state funding is being used for it is beyond outrageous.  Before I get into the show itself, let me start by talking about an episode of South Park.

In the episode “Chef Goes Nanners“, the chef is upset about the South Park flag. This is the flag:

Yeah, I can see how the violence might offend some.

This sparks controversy in the school, and the children are asked to do a debate.  The children do so, each side talking about whether or not the depiction of violence is something that is inherently detrimental or not.  Of course, they miss the point that the issue isn’t with the violence, but with the overall depiction of a lynching, and all the history and attitudes behind that. In the end, the chef is so touched that the children can’t see the racism or racist act, that he drops the law suit.

Every time I’ve had a discussion about this show with Danes, I’ve felt like the chef. Eventually, I’ve come to realize that the Danish cultural context is one that is so far removed from the actual depiction, that it’s a bit like the chef trying to explain why a lynching is bad. It’s so obviously wrong that it’s comedic on South Park, but when faced with a real-life version of the same scenario, you find outrage turns to frustration as you try to capture something that the rest of the developed world has realized is wrong but you find that the emotions are so strong that the words can barely come out, and you sit there staring at a bunch of dumbfounded faces that keep asking “Really? Violence is everywhere, what do you have against that flag?”

This has forced me to come up with a cogent, logical explanation of why something most people take for granted as being wrong is, in fact, wrong. So, I present what I would feel is the largest straw-man argument in history, but it’s apparently needed…

Why sexism and objectification are bad

So, the show is called Blachman (wikipedia link).  The show’s format is that two men (the show’s creator and a different guest every episode) sit down and then a woman comes out and disrobes. The seated, clothed men, then discuss the naked, silent women, and women in general. I think this is atrocious. I’ll do the rest of this as a Q and A with all the weird responses I’ve heard so far when I talk about this.

Q: You don’t like nudity? Artistic expression? Censorship! (or any other debate point that a middle-schooler might write in their school essay)

A: No. Huge fan of nudity, actually. None of these are close to the actual topic. See the example with the chef from South Park above.

Q: Danish society has lost clear gender distinction, this man wants to rekindle some of that so that women’s bodies can be appreciated for their beauty. What’s wrong with bringing that back?

A: This logic, to me, is sort of like saying “the art of beautiful wheelchair ramps has been lost to society, so let’s bring back polio”. The hidden implication in my analogy, of course is that ‘women’s bodies appreciated for beauty’ has something wrong in it. It does, and it has to do with “objectification”.

Q: What is “objectification”?

A: Good question, Timmy!

Despite what Mittens Romney says, not full of women

For the safety of the binder

On the left, we have a 3-ring binder. On the right we have a Polish fireman. What’s the difference?  Well, many things, but the one I’m interested in right now is the concept of agency.

Most of us believe ourselves to be thinking, feeling, caring beings in a way that the 3-ring binder is not. Most of us also hold the same beliefs about Polish firemen and treat them categorically differently. For instance, if you wanted to get lunch with a Polish fireman, you would ask and await a response and adjust your expectations accordingly.  For the binder, you would just take it with you, because you assume the binder does not have wishes or cares. Treating the binder as though it did is called personification. Treating the fireman as though he didn’t is called objectification.

Q: Blachman and company are only saying nice things and praising the women. They’re not being dirty or disrespectful. What’s wrong with that?

A: So, let’s say I love my 3-ring binder. I think it’s the coolest thing ever. I stick my favorite stickers on it, because that’s what I do with things I like.  My best friend loves his 3-ring binder too, but he shows it by putting it on a shelf somewhere and making sure it always stays clean. The funny thing about being an object, even an adored one, is that you have no say in how that adoration is expressed. As a conscious agent, you can debate whether or not my praise and adoration is actually getting across properly. As an object, you do not have this choice.

Q: What’s the worst that can happen?

A: Tons. This site doesn’t seem to allow you to link to individual posts, but everyday sexism recounts stories of sexism that women face daily in most ‘developed’ countries, ranging from stories that might make you groan to stories that will horrify you. Some amount of sexual assault listed is based on power dynamics (where the women do have agency), but all the stories where the validity of the victim’s feelings are questioned, or even denied? That would be the women being bad objects by having their own subjective views.  This is far more prevalent in non-Scandinavian countries, and over all, not something I think Scandinavia should actively strive for.

Q: How is this any different from other media, or even porn?

A: Porn can objectify women, but that’s not its purpose. The main goal of porn some sort of profit from erotic arousal. Whether that’s achieved through the objectification of women, the subjugation of men, or the personification of quiches is largely irrelevant.  Porn producers seek a profit, one that is reflected from society. They do not seek to change society, particularly to one where women are objectified more.

Again, this is the stated primary goal of the show. It removes the eroticism and specifically instructs the men to treat the women in front of them as objects to be subjectively adored. It literally isolates and controls for the rest of the environment as much as possible, and presents a variety of women of different ages and body types and instructs the men to engage them similarly. If one were to design the ideal laboratory settings to train objectification, this would be pretty close.

Q: Talking about denying agency, what about the choice the women on the show made to be there? No one’s forcing them to. Isn’t it paternalistic to assume they shouldn’t be?

A: I’m fine with the actual participants doing what they want.  What I’m not fine with is a state-sponsored show whose stated goal is to bring more objectification into society. Idiots can be idiots wherever they want to be, and I don’t have an issue with that. I do have an issue with the person who thinks it’s a good idea to give these idiots a camera, a microphone, and tax money and thinks this will have a positive effect on society.

Q: You’re not Danish! What’s it to you?

A: I’m sure not, but I’m living here now, and voluntarily paying 40% taxes to live in an otherwise nice society. One thing I love is the gender equality. As a brown dude, if you’re walking in a dimly lit alley coming home at night and a girl is walking towards you, in the US they cross the street, or walk faster, or turn around, or do something that makes you feel almost criminal. Because they have to, to be safe. Here, they just keep walking and might even say ‘hi’. Because they have nothing to worry about. Because they have such an amazingly equal position in society, it’s just as likely that they’d do something to me as I would to them. Why would you want to destroy that?

Really, I just want to say “You can do better, Denmark”.

Q: If you don’t like it so much, why write about it? Why give it attention? Why watch it? Why not ignore it entirely?

A: The fact that a show can be judged a success (even if it’s measurably detrimental to society) just because it’s getting attention is, in my opinion, a fundamental flaw in the agreement between Danmarks Radio and Kulturministeriet. Remember, this is state-funded but its success is judged based on capitalist standards, but without the checks that exist in a capitalist market. This creates an interesting edge-case that this show falls right into. I’m researching this in much more detail and will write more on it later.

And with that, I NEVER want to bring this up in conversation again.

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