As a Women’s/Gender Studies major and as, well, myself, I’ve learned a lot about the way women dehumanized through the commodification of our bodies. But although I’ve learned a lot about the way men objectify women and the way women objectify themselves, I haven’t heard a lot about the way queer women objectify other women. I’ve come to realize that my own internalized sexism and objectification of women is inextricably tangled up in my queer identity. So I decided to blog about it!
It only takes light immersion in the feminist blogosphere before you’ll read about the omnipresent male gaze (popularized as a film concept and generalized here to mean sexual objectification). The basic idea is of a power differential that allows men to objectify women a) systematically, and b) as a means of disempowerment. The lesson I seemed to internalize growing up was that the way to appreciate women is the way I saw men behaving towards them on the macro level. I think that somewhere deep down, the part of me that was developing as queer felt jealous, that men had this unquestioned ownership over women. Why couldn’t I have that? Why couldn’t I “have” women?
Contemplating this is how I started seriously entertaining the thought that I was queer (besides some other early experiences I didn’t know what to think of). I had a friend in high school that I was attracted to…she was a great person, but I’ll admit it was mostly physical. But it caught me completely off guard that I’d be attracted to someone female – as a teenager who had only ever had crushes on boys, dated boys; I was confused and my only model for how to be attracted to women was pig-masculinity. It’s weird because I spent my whole life being told how (presumably men) shouldn’t treat women; but when the roles were reversed, I didn’t make the connection.
I didn’t know whether to take myself seriously, so I didn’t take my actions seriously. I snuck glances, I sat too physically close for comfort, and I got overexcited about the mock homoerotic camera shoots common among adolescent girlfriends. Our small cluster of mutual friends started noticing – two guys who (this made it worse) were in serious competition over her as well. They called me right out on it, made me feel embarrassed and ashamed and dirty. They did it right in front of her too (I guess her feelings didn’t matter -_-). I was beside myself for a long time; I felt singled-out, and humiliated, and guilty. At the time I thought that she deliberately teased me. Maybe it was to test the boundaries of unspoken social permissiveness, or it was flattering attention, or more likely she was completely unaware that more than uncharacteristic awkwardness lay beneath our growing friendship. It doesn’t matter what she did or didn’t do. I acted in a way that objectified her, and was intrusive and insensitive and wrong. I’ve since apologized in a very heartfelt way, which I would have done even if circumstances weren’t so different for us now. It took us a while to reconnect, but now she is one of my closest friends.
Everyone in our society is programmed with messages that are sexist and misogynistic, that lead us to degrade women by objectifying them and their bodies. Our bodies. Women get these messages too. Even in contexts where we feel we can control the way we are viewed, we are still making these choices within a societal framework that is created and maintained by men. And it’s not really about appearances; it’s about power. Women who are queer have a much longer road to travel. We are simultaneously charged with taking back our own humanity as women, and with engaging with other women without falling back into the familiar standard of sexual objectification.