The Peacock Problem: Response

This is a response to this blog post.

Women are clearly presented as sexual objects in our society.  I’ve tried to help my son to see through it, and my wife would very much like to do some kind of travelling school lesson for boys on the subject.

Boys of this age are moving into a new social arena.  They are starting to see the sexual side of their existence, trying to make themselves attractive to the opposite gender without making fools of themselves despite not really having a clue what they are doing.  To do this they look around at how society seems to find it appropriate to treat females and they emulate it.

I have no idea why a Nigella Lawson video was chosen to start a talk on science.  I have seen little of Nigella’s TV programmes but what little I have seen has made me cringe.  She throws herself at the camera as if desperate to be found sexually attractive.  For example, I saw her come on screen wearing a silk nightie “Ooh, you’ve just caught me coming down for a midnight snack.”  “I’m going to be cooking …….but I like to call it slut spaghetti”.  Now these scenes may very well be a tiny minority, but for boys with a new interest in sexuality and possibly little/no interest in cookery the only reason they are going to have heard of Nigella is because of scenes like the one I have just mentioned.  This is not a justification for their behaviour, just an opening explanation of possibly why more inappropriate behaviour followed, so bear with me.

Now if the talk had been about inappropriate sexual behaviour towards women then the reaction from the boys shows it would have been a good example video to use.  Perhaps then going on to point out how the boys acted inappropriately, why they did it, and then give them some deep insights as to why it is wrong etc.  It seems at this point no condemnation came from Jamie (according to the short account he wrote at least) so presumably some of the boys sat and mimicked what they thought the more experienced/popular boys were doing and saw this to be acceptable by fact that it was being tolerated by an adult.  At this point the talk should have stopped and the boys spoken to harshly, and that was the first mistake.

For the boys, perhaps at this point there was some uncertainty.  Was Nigella chosen for the talk because the speaker thought there was a chance she had some “fans” in the audience, did he want to show her so that they would look at her in that way?  The lack of condemnation from the speaker at this point could be seen to suggest he did, but they were probably not certain and just glad that their water-testing didn’t get them into trouble.

The next part of the account was of the woman in Gold Finger being killed and sprayed with gold.  Is there anyone who honestly thinks that the James Bond films of that era were NOT all about the sexualization of women?  Every opportunity they had there would be a scantily dressed woman who wanted Bond for nothing more than sex.  Even in this murder scene the woman was killed in the most extravagantly ridiculous way just so that the film makers could have the opportunity to present a woman wearing nothing but a pair of knickers.

So, after seeing the boys react inappropriately and not stopping the talk and reprimanding them for their behaviour, the speaker went on to show a photo of a woman almost completely naked, despite the photo really having nothing to do with science or the value of gold.  How does a woman lying naked show how precious gold is?  King Midas would have been a much better example…why atoms cannot rearrange into gold without vast amounts of heat and energy, and how turning everything into gold paradoxically devalues gold.

After this second episode of wolf-whistling surely the talk should have stopped for a serious talk?  According to the account, it seems it didn’t.  “Do you realise she is dead?”  How about a proper lecture about how sexual objectification is inappropriate?  How about not showing a completely irrelevant image that was originally only shot for the sole purpose of sexually objectifying women?  And the criticism about the woman being dead too, not only (according to the short account) was there an absence of of scolding but the speaker effectively went on to to say

“You shouldn’t act like that…….because she’s dead” – Quite a silly thing to say considering everyone in the room knows for a fact she was an actress pretending to be dead. They weren’t *really* looking at a woman who was dead, so saying such a silly thing could easily come across as a joke…

“You shouldn’t treat women like that……once they are dead” or “You shouldn’t act like that……nah, just kidding”

And then on to what I think demonstrates the point very well.  Marie Curie.  I have told my children about her many times, and I often find myself using her as an example of why women are not deficient in intelligence compared to men (  Why did these boys wolf whistle at a vintage head-shot black & white photo that was clearly not trying to present the subject as sexual?

By now I think it is possible that these boys were under the impression that the speaker is being a bit laddish and giving an example of how to present women.  I know that if this had been a public talk that I had been in I’d have objected and left. By the time the speaker started to show a picture of an almost completely naked woman lying on a bed I’d have strongly suspected he was intent on showing additional inappropriate material and that it was only going to get more explicit.

The wolf whistles here were probably the boys showing the presenter they appreciated what they thought was a joke.  The classic pattern of a joke being to lead the audience one way and then throw something completely unexpected at them.  First Nigella (not sure where presenter is going), then an almost completely naked woman (okay, confident where the presenter is going, especially with his joke about her being dead), and then suddenly…..a vintage black and white photo of the side of a woman’s head.  haha, you got us, we were expecting NUTS magazine or something.

Quite frankly I am very surprised that Jamie felt it was appropriate to show a photo of an almost completely naked woman in a presentation about anything other than (perhaps) a talk about anti-objectification.  What these boys did was wrong, but I think what Jamie did was too, the boys possibly got the wrong impression from a presentation that was easy to take the wrong impression from.  Jamie needs to learn from this experience.

Instead of just highlighting how wrong the boys’ behaviour was (and it was), and highlighting how society has made it seem acceptable for them to sexual objectify women (which unfortunately it has), perhaps Jamie should also see that his poor choice of irrelevant material and lack of well timed condemnation was also part of the problem.  In fact I’d say that, to all of the girls sitting in that room who heard the wolf-whistling, the lack of strong condemnation from the man at the front of the room was the worst mistake of the event.  Which was possibly reflected in their applause when the behaviour was eventually strongly condemned.  But was that still sufficient?

  • Nigella: No condemnation.
  • Bond girl: Condemnation for objectifying a dead woman, that may or may not be seen to be a joke.
  • Marie Curie: Very strong condemnation.

And what is the message here?  You shouldn’t treat women this way….if they are dead OR ultra-clever?  Obviously not, but the point at which the unacceptable behaviour is seen to cross the line is a very important part of correcting unacceptable behaviour.2

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