Yesterday, the owner of my favorite local Japanese restaurant gave me a calendar as a gift. As he handed it to me, he whispered “a pretty young actress” and smiled with male camaraderie. It was a very sweet gesture and if you’ve ever spent any time in Asian restaurants, you’ll know exactly what the image looks like. It’s an airbrushed portrait, not very revealing, and I’m sure he got a box of them from his food supplier. This style of image is very common and I saw plenty of them in China.
My first thought was that I had no place to hang it, even as a piece of kitsch. But my second thought was about how different the world outside of my work is. As a college professor, my office must be completely void of anything that sexualizes women, and when sexuality is discussed in class, it must be depersonalized. I would never ask a group of students about their sexual lives or suggest that I found any of them, male or female, attractive. If I gave that calendar to a student, as tame as it might be, I would be risking my job.
University professors have worked very hard at eradicating sexism in our professional environment. We don’t always succeed and we have little control over the dorms, the frat houses, or the surrounding bars, but our offices and professional interactions are, for the most part, free of blatant objectification. Sometimes we are so good at this that our students are unprepared for the misogyny they encounter at their workplace. Many female students have talked to me about this after they graduated.
So, knowing that I could never bring it to work, I asked myself whether I should have refused the calendar in the first place. Wasn’t accepting the gift contributing to the misogyny that oppresses women? Then I had the thought that inspired this post: was I sure that the calendar was sexist in the first place? Is every picture of a woman that highlights her beauty a form of objectification?
I think the answer to this last question is no; a great deal of art emphasizes a model’s attractiveness, and all art objectifies its subject in some way. Objectification isn’t inherently wrong. But this calendar isn’t high art, it is a pin-up, and the viewer is supposed to think about the model sexually. Her outfit isn’t revealing by American standards, but by many other cultural standards it would be. And, frankly, even if she were wearing a hijab, it isn’t the view of the body that sexualizes a person, it is the intent of the viewer or the photographer. This led me to my next question: is all sexual imagery of women sexist? Can we create prurient images that aren’t misogynist and can we objectify someone without oppressing him or her?
I’m intentionally not answering any of these questions. I want my readers to, preferably in the comments below. But the question I ended up at is, for me, the most philosophically interesting: assuming that the calendar would indeed be sexist in my office, is it not possible that it wouldn’t be sexist in a restaurant? Just because it would be immoral for me to give the image to a student, does not mean that the owner of the restaurant was immoral to hand it to me. Can something be sexist in some contexts and not sexist in others?
Our world is full of images, most of which are intended to attract attention and to titillate. Sometimes, they are created to sell a product, but other times they are made simply because human beings find beauty entertaining. Is finding someone physically attractive morally problematic and do we have an obligation to eradicate all images that trigger the sexual imagination? Finally, if we do, what about pictures of any object that inspires lurid thoughts? Some people are turned on by shoes, or teddy bears, or household objects. (See Rule 34.) Is it the humanity of a model that we have to protect, or is it the sexual feeling we have to control?
In the end though, my interest is in this calendar, not in people’s fetishes. I have included a picture of the gift at the beginning of this post to show readers what I’m discussing, but since this is a professional blog, I’m even reluctant to do that. Should I not have included it? Is the picture on the blog promoting misogyny too? Is the calendar and all images of it completely corrupt or is it all just a matter of context? Is it not sexist because it illustrates a philosophical problem? I just don’t know.