Today was almost a new holiday.
It didn’t require flowers or chocolate or reservations at the hottest restaurant in town. All you needed was a computer and the willingness to objectify some professional journalists.
Call it the holiday that almost was. Objectify a Male Tech Writer Day was the brainchild of game journalist Leigh Alexander, who laid out the rules of this new holiday on her blog just four days before calling off the event earlier this week.
The idea was simple: Whenever you share a link or post a comment to an article by a male tech writer, include a comment about his appearance. (e.g., "Check out the overview of cloud storage by the studly Walt Mossberg"). Participants were instructed to include the #Objectify hashtag.
The Vision for #Objectify
Alexander’s vision was a playful thought experiment to demonstrate what it’s like to be judged for the quality of your looks before the quality of your work. A tech writer herself, Alexander has often been on the receiving end of what she calls “gendered compliments”—individually harmless, and usually well-meaning, modifiers about her looks that have nothing to do with the substance of her work (e.g., “Check out this article from the adorable Leigh Alexander”). After years of "smiling taughtly" or ignoring it, Alexander said the objectification started to weigh on her
In her words, the purpose of #Objectify wasn’t “to get revenge or to make anyone uncomfortable; simply to help highlight by example what a gendered compliment looks like, and to get people talking in a funny and lighthearted way about how these kinds of comments distract from meaningful dialogues and make writers online feel like their point of view is only as relevant as how attractive they are.”
Unfortunately, the intent behind the event proved to be too nuanced for the world of internet memes, and the pre-event hubbub caused Alexander to worry that the #Objectify hashtag ran the “risk of catching fire with people who miss the point.”
Microaggressions: A Conversation Worth Having
Okay, maybe the execution wasn’t perfect. Yes, there were risks that the project could get out of hand. But let’s not let this important conversation die on the vine.
At its core, #Objectify is about microaggressions. I love this term because it sums up something I’d so long been unable to identify.
According to Derald Wing Sue’s book Microaggressions and Marginality, microaggressions are “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative messages to target persons… the most detrimental form of microaggressions are usually delivered by well-intentioned individuals who are unaware they have engaged in harmful conduct.”
Sounds a lot like all the folks dishing out gendered compliments, right?
And there’s the rub: Microaggressions are a double-edged sword. They’re usually so small and unintended that the recipient comes across as “overly sensitive” or “rude” if she addresses them head on. Conversely, choosing to “let it go” may be detrimental to one’s psychological well-being if microaggressions are delivered day-in and day-out. It’s a non-stop subliminal message: “You’re only as good as your looks.”
But even though #Objectify was canceled, the conversation around it is a great starting point for addressing microaggressions more broadly.
It’s Not Just a Problem in Tech
Female tech writers are a good place to start, but they’re certainly not the only women who routinely experience microaggressions in the form of gendered compliments.
For example, non-tech writer Katie J.M. Baker shared that a commenter called her a “fairly attractive and slightly vapid girl writer” based on an article that didn't include a photo or her first-person perspective. “It's not just women who write about and work in tech,” she adds. “[Gendered compliments are] tiring, and endless, and something needs to be done.”
Just last week, a journalist covering local politics asked New York City Council candidate Ed Hartzog about his campaign finance documents, and Hartzog responded, “What’s a pretty girl like you doing reading those?” Hartzog later said, “I hope you didn’t take offense by that. I didn’t mean to be offensive,” but the incident spawned a tongue-in-cheek BuzzFeed article about all the other things women have been told they’re “too pretty” to do.
My most egregious personal example came several years ago when I gave a (non-technical) speech on stage at a high-profile conference. The event was broadcast live online to hundreds of thousands of people with a comment stream for viewers. At the time, giving that talk was one of my proudest professional moments—an opportunity to share my perspective and an idea worth spreading. But the comments were almost exclusively about my appearance—including tasteless puns about “what else was worth spreading.”
Whether speaking at a conference, receiving an award, debating political issues, or writing for a respected tech publication, women in any position of public power are likely to experience gendered compliments and microaggressions. In fact, the subtle objectification of women is so engrained in our culture, women are sometimes the perpetrators themselves.
We Can All Learn From #Objectify
The beauty of the #Objectify project (no pun intended) was that it didn’t presume that the perpetrators of gendered comments were exclusively male. In fact, I fully admit to being an offender when it comes to disproportionate attention paid to the physical appearance of females in power.
I first noticed this when I saw Miss Representation, a documentary by Jennifer Siebel Newsom about how the objectification of women leads to their underrepresentation in positions of power. The film called to attention how often my first reaction to a woman is to her physical appearance and got me thinking about what ways my own actions might contribute to the objectification of women.
After learning about #Objectify, I reflected on my own behavior. I often congratulate or share the work of my female friends, referring to them as “the beautiful Sara” or “the lovely Maria” with no intention but to be kind and complimentary. But I can hardly imagine an instance when I would promote the work of a male friend as “the handsome Ben” or “the gorgeous Matt.” Indeed, the latter seems inappropriate and irrelevant. So, why do I do this to females?
This simple thought experiment of switching genders made me reconsider how I use gendered compliments, and it made me more sensitive to how much language matters. It turns out, I didn’t need Objectify a Male Tech Writer Day to happen to explore this on my own.
Even in its death, Objectify a Male Tech Writer Day can still serve its purpose: to get people talking, open a dialogue, and create space to reconsider our actions. And if those conversations help bring a little more equality to the internet, that’s certainly something worth celebrating.