Let me make this clear, women don’t send invitations for objectification. I think it’s time we recognise exactly what we’re aiming at each other.
I recently turned 23, and despite my limited experience, I am an adult by all accounts and am able to do most adult things. If I am not drenched in a fresh coat of makeup, however, I look and sound like I am 15 – or so many an ABC Store employee has told me to my face and customer has told me over the phone.
I usually shrug it off because I know how old I am and have nothing to hide from the people who boldly assert that my ID is fake. Do I wish they’d keep the comments to themselves? Yes, but I attribute it to a warped perception of age (thanks, Hollywood) and go about my freckle-faced day.
While vaguely condescending, being told I look way younger than I am is a fact of my life, as is being told I will “appreciate that when I’m older”. Ageism is alive and well.
One thing I cannot – cannot – stand, however, is a coworker addressing me by a pet name. These coworkers are almost always older men.
According to the US Department of Interior, this is actually sexual harassment, which got me thinking: why do I feel guilty trying to curtail or even contemplating reporting this behaviour?
Women deserve to have their abilities and interests judged based on objective merit, not painted as inferior with condescension disguised as an endearment. It’s really not that much to ask.
This condescension works whether the offender knows it. I’m not usually one stay quiet where microaggressions are concerned, but being called “hun”, “sweetheart” “ or “my dear” puts me in my place (read: the place in which systemic sexism wants to put me). I know this happens in part because of my age, but being a woman is a one-way ticket to “naïveté” no matter her age.
The unadulterated presumption of greater knowledge is even present when the harasser is the one asking a question.
“Great! We did good, sweetie.” *pats her on the back*
No, “we” didn’t do anything in any way. You asked for help and then you got it.
There is a time and a place for terms like these, and even though they personally make me cringe no matter the circumstance, I accept that it’s in the realm of acceptable behaviour for a significant other, parent or grandparent to call me “hun”.
But there’s a caveat here. Just as cutesy nicknames are demeaning in the workplace, applying those terms to serious interests and pursuits is patronising no matter my relationship to the person.
“You’re so cute when you talk about ‘x’ thing you’re interested in.”
“You write? That’s so cute.”
“You’re such a nerd. It’s adorable.”
Good for you if you, a grown-ass man, find it endearing when women act like real human beings, but nine times out of ten, I doubt this is the case.
Yes, I will grant that a boyfriend might genuinely think his girlfriend’s hobby is cute, but the implications of the term and its many variations run deeper than that.
Seldom does our collective consciousness imagine a woman standing back with a “how precious” look in her eyes as a man is immersed in something about which he is passionate as she realises in that very moment she is in love with him.
No, we imagine the characters in that scenario reversed as in The Notebook, literally any movie where a woman/girl does something in front of a crowd, or for the younger folks, Tangled.
When a man works hard or is passionate about something, a woman dotes and creates an environment in which he can make that something his top priority à la Mother!. It brings me back to my church days when my pastor said verbatim, “The woman’s main calling is to help the man achieve his calling.” I felt uneasy but ultimately, accepted it.
And here is where we loop around to the expectation that women be interesting and intelligent enough to be attractive but not so much to be a threat to the status quo.
Also on The Big Smoke
- Tracey Spicer: Still fighting to expose institutionalised sexism
- Institutionalised sexism: The dangers of working while female
- Everyday sexism: A sign o’ the times
The thin line between attractive and off-putting is a powerful tool – a carrot and stick – and the relegation of women and their interests to the realm of the cute is a tactic to position the work of women as lesser by way of condescension.
That “cutie pie” might be said with complete and utter goodwill, but that’s not the point. As I’ve said time and again, individual behaviour doesn’t have to come from a place of malice to perpetuate sexism – it’s the fact that men feel comfortable using these terms to describe women, their work, their interests and their hobbies.
It’s also the implication that everything a woman does is meant to endear herself to a man. Cutesy nicknames are a power-grab when something a woman does or says is indicative of the contrary.
This strategy makes women feel observed instead of being heard or acknowledged for the act itself. Instead, they feel acknowledged for how that act appears once complete or how they appear in the midst of it. Men do. Women perform.
The inappropriate nickname is a subconscious defence mechanism against the fact that a woman, a) can do something with equal or more finesse than her male counterparts, and/or, b) doesn’t think about her pursuits, interests or literal womanhood in terms of how it will appear to men.
When inappropriately directed at the woman herself, the nicknames reframe the relationship between the offender and her as something it isn’t.
When directed at her work or her interests, they undermine their legitimacy, portray them as childish and evoke a sense of naivety and subsequently, distrust of their worth or validity.
In that moment, I wondered if there was any truth in the comment. In either case, my appearance does not invite condescension toward my work no matter the reason someone chooses to pay attention to it.
While possibly exacerbated by my younger appearance, being called “cute” and any variation in a professional setting or vis-à-vis something I take seriously is demeaning and a phenomenon that women experience no matter their age.
I spent the better half of an hour taking an Instagram photo on Christmas (because I am vain, and also, it was my birthday!), and it was met with a “no wonder people read your posts,” from a relative.
Or – and genuinely consider this – maybe I’m just a halfway decent writer because I am passionate about it, interested in new techniques and have a degree in the subject.
But in that moment, I wondered if there was any truth in the comment. Maybe there is. In either case, my appearance does not invite condescension toward my work no matter the reason someone chooses to pay attention to it.
Women deserve to have their abilities and interests judged based on objective merit and not painted as inferior with condescension disguised as an endearment. It’s really not that much to ask. Men don’t even have to ask. It’s just the default. And there is the institutionalised sexism of it all.
Also, it’s just plain creepy. It both perpetuates and indicates a cultural sanctioning of the violation of women’s boundaries, bodily and otherwise.
When we reduce the worth of women and their work to how they present themselves, it’s no wonder men feel comfortable belittling it with their – ahem – “compliments.” And somehow, we invite it by sheer virtue of our womanhood. No woman sends an invitation for objectification. The offenders crash the party and then expect to be treated like the guests of honour.