It’s crucial that people be treated equally well
You’ve probably noticed that poster for Captain America: The Winter Soldier– the one featuring Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow. It’s everywhere, you really can’t miss it.
You may also have noticed that it’s anatomically bizarre. Have another look next time you pass it – if her waist is wider than her head, it’s not by much.
This judicious bit of photoshopping is not the first of its kind. Whether it’s Keira Knightly having her breasts inflated in King Arthur promotional images; the bizarre liposuction inflicted on Melissa McCarthy in the poster for last year’s The Heat; or the so-common-everyone-expects-it phenomenon of digitally messing with magazine images to the point of absurdity – the casual sexualisation of images of women is ubiquitous.
It’s not just posters, either. Look at the absurd, spine-mangling positions adopted by female comic book characters (can you point your upper torso and rear end in the same direction?); or the fact that women characters are still far too often employed in stories merely as prizes, damsels, love interests or token sidekicks.
Under all this runs a current that is quietly reshaping the way our generation views relationships and the opposite sex. Internet porn, accessible at the click of a mouse, gives anyone with broadband instant access to as many sexually available women as they want.
Now, the usual objection to all this on social networking websites like Tumblr is that it’s sexist – that men don’t face the same objectification. And that’s right! When people started posting pictures of male superheroes in the ludicrous poses that female ones are often drawn in, it was funny partially because it was unusual.
And even when male characters are reduced to stereotypes, they’re still more likely to be people who actually get things done. Despite the fact that men come in for their fair share of objectification (Google some Calvin Klein ads. Or don’t), there’s no doubt that women have it worse.
There are myriad reasons for this, and I won’t patronise anyone by trying to unpack them all here. But the way in which sexism and objectification are usually talked about suggests something interesting about the way many in the modern age think about right and wrong.
A simple question: Would it fix the problem if we objectified men more? If we went for equal-opportunity sexualisation?
Run that by most people (even on Tumblr), and they’ll say no. But ask them exactly what’s wrong with objectifying people, as long as they’re A-OK with being objectified, and the objectification is happening in a completely egalitarian, non-discriminatory way… and they’ll struggle.
We have an easy understanding of why sexism is bad. Objectification is less clear – why else would it be explained so often simply as a by-product of sexism?
The language that Catholicism uses to talk about this stuff – “universal and innate human dignity”; “made in the image and likeness of God” isn’t something you’ll often find on social media.
This means that every problem tends to be looked at through one of two lenses: equality and consent. So racism and sexism can still be condemned, but we have trouble doing the same to objectification in itself. Porn that exploits women is bad, but if a woman freely agrees to participating, people often can’t articulate the problem. And when you can’t explain a problem, it’s the next logical step to conclude that there isn’t one. And when Catholics can’t explain the roots of our own worldview, this way of looking at things is left with little opposition.
But in fact, the Catholic view of morality isn’t archaic or even complicated. It boils down to a very simple principle: love your neighbour. How do we love our neighbour? By treating them as the person that they are.
It’s crucial that people be treated equally well, but the ‘well’ is as important as the ‘equally’. As Granny Weatherwax from Terry Pratchett’s Diskworld series of fantasy books puts it “sin, young man, is when you treat people like things. Including yourself”.
That’s why the science-fiction series Firefly is a good story – not just because it has a perfectly gender-balanced cast, but because every member of that cast is a fleshed-out, real character with a personality and a history. That’s why images that distort women to sell products to men are bad – because they’re using a person as a tool.
And that’s why ‘egalitarian porn’ or ‘feminist porn’ is a contradiction in terms – because no matter how free the performers are, no matter how equal the gender ratios become, porn is still using real people and their sexuality as devices for the satisfaction of the viewer. If people agree to let themselves be used, that is no less tragic.
Catholic morality is only as out-of-touch, outdated, or repressive as the idea that people, of any race, gender or sexual orientation, should never be used as things