The Vagenda

OY OY! Objectifying Olympians

What makes an ogle ok?
Objectify: (verb) to treat something as a mere object, to deny its dignity
This week in my house there has been much marvelling at Olympic bodies: gasping at the broadness of the swimmers, wowing at the cyclists’ tree-trunk thighs and phwoaring at the hockey players. Because it’s our house, yeah, so we can say what we like, and also I have been drinking a whooooole load of gin.
But it’s also because watching the Olympics is a lot about bodies, their amazing strength and agility. These bodies are not objects, they are instruments, with inspiring stories behind them: stories of determination, of truckloads of Lucozade, of millions of mornings of getting up to swim or run or row instead of sleeping in like all the other teenagers. We are wowed by these people’s stories. We worship them. 
That’s why it’s significant how weird it is to see men’s bodies without heads, beach volleyball style. There are their little bottoms; there are their broad shoulders; there is one bending over.
This turns quickly from a state of admiration, sexual or otherwise, to objectification, a removal of someone’s story (and a close up of their balls). It seems an antithesis of what the Olympics is about – the individual, their particular achievement. Of course, men haven’t got a whole history of bodily oppression behind them, so the effect is sort of comical. But it’s still unsettling.
Underneath the volleyball article some guy called Bill Pickle has shrieked “You think the problem is that the general male audience objectifies these [female] athletes, not so, the problem is that the general female audience don’t objectify the men enough.”
Weeeell I’m not sure about that, to be honest Bill! When I was a teenager I saw a young skinny man physically leapt on by a raucous hen party. They must have had some challenge to get hold of a man’s t-shirt, and this wasn’t consensual – it was ugly. The women were blind drunk, hugely predatory and he looked like a shy type. They were a herd, pushing him to the ground and ripping his shirt off. They were playing on his vulnerability, and the size and aggression of their group. He was shaking afterwards, all the more humiliated because they were woman and he was supposed to be a ‘man’ – like when you’re beaten up by kids who are younger than you. It remains one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen (and I once watched Requiem for a Dream followed by Irreversible. So sue me!)
So no, I don’t think ramping up the objectification of men’s bodies is preferable, or unproblematic. But there is a line between admiration – oh boy, let’s call it plain fancying! – and objectification.
Any web article about objectification or male harassment of women inevitably has some guy called Bill shouting “WHAT’S THERE (sic) PROBLEM WE’RE ONLY PAYING THEM A COMPLEMENT (sic)” in the comments section, and I think the sad thing is, Bill really doesn’t get it. It reminds me of my granny’s bemused face when I haltingly said that maybe, if she wants to comment on the competency of the nurses in the NHS, she shouldn’t say admiringly “the Blackies are fantastic nurses!” No Granny. Not ok.
It’s confusing, see, because some women – usually the ones who already know you – like your wife, maybe! – or who are more extrovert types, do like being “complimented”, whereas some feel intimidated or offended if you whistle or leer or publicly look at pictures of them in degrading positions and generally make them feel like an object. IT’S ALMOST AS IF WOMEN ARE NOT ALL THE SAME BEING. IT’S ALMOST AS IF SUCH A THING AS “CONTEXT” OR “HISTORY” EXISTS. 
It’s a little problem I like to call “failure to climb into someone else’s skin and walk around in it”. Man, these guys need a chat with Atticus Finch! In the absence of Atticus, I will attempt to explain to Bill just What The Hell Is Going On. Come on Bill, sit down – no, not that close. I know you think I’m a humourless cunt, but imagine, if you will, that images of women’s bodies – often their fetishised bodies, with no heads or contexts or suggestion of personhood; let us call these images objectified – saturate culture so entirely that people barely notice them anymore. Imagine if they are on billboards magazines websites newspapers – newspapers! – bbc1 2 3 4 ITV Channel 5 Sky 1 2 Arts HBO cinema screens books flyers adverts leaflets smartphones flatscreens. Could you imagine that this might become, in an age where women are presidents and astronauts and actors and brilliant comedians and Pulitzer prize winners and Nobel Prize winners and world leading scientists and eloquent poets and CEOs and war correspondents and achingly wonderful artists and mums and sisters and daughters and Olympic weightlifters – that it might get a little tiresome when they’re portrayed, again, as objectified bodies? As tits? As arse? How it might kind of take away from those Pulitzer prizes?
It’s why constant closeups of beachball volleyball bottoms are irritating, offensive, so boring, why seeing women’s bodies – Olympic or otherwise – objectified is frustrating. Men abusing Beth Tweddle or Zoe Smith because of their appearance is a result of the fact that some chaps just cannot get out of the habit of expecting women to look attractive for them! Sure, I’m all for free speech so I’m not going to have you arrested for making comments on Twitter, but free speech means I can call you a wanker, doesn’t it?
It’s not that harmful, however, for my mum to coo over Ben Ainslie. This kind of context always exists. Me in my house watching the swimming with my boyfriend, him rolling his eyes while mine pop out of my head at Michael Phelps’ chest – that has context. Him getting his own back and ogling at the hockey players – that has context. The context is me, and him, in our house. My male gay friend jerking off to a gay objectified body has context. So does fancying the hell out of someone you’re about to fuck as they take their clothes off and reveal their body: skin, muscle, sinew, cellulite, freckles, whatever.
Objects, bodies, desire, admiration. It’s a complex old world, isn’t it, Bill?

12 thoughts on “OY OY! Objectifying Olympians

  1. I wish beach volleyball were shot like a sport, not soft porn. I also wish the athletes were given proper uniforms, surely bottoms that cover half your arse don’t give the security you may hope for if you’re going to be jumping and landing (hard) in front of hundreds of millions of people.

    What I also love, the commentators in Oz calling any elite female athlete under 30 a ‘girl’. Cheers BOYS!

  2. The thing that struck me about the article with men shot like volleyball was how pointless the pictures are. You can’t see who it is, what they’re achieving, or even what sport they’re doing. And it’s frustrating, because there’s clearly more going on there which is interesting and worth photographing. When someone makes the decision to shoot, or use, a photo of a volleyball player’s bum, they’re sending the message that there’s nothing else more interesting going on. And because we’re so used to seeing pictures like that, people hardly notice anything awry with such pictures. It’s pitiful.

    Also, do you know they’ve been playing the Benny Hill theme during volley ball?

  3. I have just read the Telegraph and it metaphorically (doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as ‘literally’ but I’m going to make it happen dammit!) made my head explode in a fit of feminist fury! AAAAARRRRRRGGGGGHHHH FEMINIST HULK SMASH TELEGRAPH BLOGGER’S SEXIST PRESUMPTIONS OF FEMALE ATHLETES’ ABILITIES!

  4. There is a more subtle form of objectification going on with Jessica Ennis. It’s as though her achievement as an athlete, as a person, isn’t enough: because she’s a woman she has to SYMBOLISE or personify something – like a greek goddess. I can’t quite get my head around this: it needs more thought, but there is something disturbing about it.

  5. Completely unrelated to the post, but I wasn’t quite sure where to post this – I recently came across two articles based on a study undertaken by the University of California and LSE, which immediately raised my shackles, and made me think, ‘The Vagenda should decimate this study!’

    Tremendously condescending, and just another ‘scientifically tested’ way to perpetuate stereotypes. ‘Oh, you are a woman, you must utilise your feminine wiles to achieve more, because, of course, your intelligence and ability to communicate are entirely insufficient unless your breasts come into play, too’. I am not suggesting that flirtatiousness and feminism are incompatible, but the first study is almost blatantly propagating objectification – ‘Friendliness’ alone is disadvantageous, whereas ‘flirtatiousness’ led to a discount. It is quite literally suggesting that dangling the carrot of sexual attraction alone led to results. It is not quite simple as equating it with ‘gentlemanly charm’ (as the second article does), I think it has very serious implications for the manner in which women are perceived. In my eyes, it’s officially saying what many women hear regularly – ‘Oh, he was only nice to you, because you’re a girl’.

  6. Vagenda, could you please do an article about how this is being called the ‘Women’s Games’? What’s your take on men and women both competing in every event for the first time (bar some women only like synchronized swimming)? What about the media attacks on female athletes at their peak like Jessica Ennis, calling them fat, and the way they’ve hit back? I think it would make a good article, I’ve followed the increasing focus on women athletes with interest :)

  7. So here’s a thing. I’m fascinated (at the moment) by women with body tattoos. I don’t feel particularly turned on or anything, I’m just fascinated. Is this me objectifying? Are they? These women are beautiful without the tattoos, so I’m thinking it’s a kind of repultion/fascination thing. Comments?


    “19. As I write these words there are semi-naked women playing beach volleyball in the middle of the Horse Guards Parade immortalised by Canaletto. They are glistening like wet otters and the water is plashing off the brims of the spectators’ sou’westers. The whole thing is magnificent and bonkers.”