Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Thank you, Captain Obvious

by Jordan Bubin

In the last few days, we've heard about two rather amusing studies in the fields of psychology and gender studies. First, British doctors discovered that pregnant women aren’t stupid, and second, a Princeton researcher discovered that—gasp!—men view half-naked women as sexual objects, according to MRI scans of their brain. The first study is trumpeted by the journalist as one that blows away the myth that pregnant women are baby-crazy idiots, and the second presumes to perhaps offer some empirical evidence that men are pigs.

All I can think is, who cares? A quick poll of the friends I’m sitting with at this table reveals that none of us have ever heard of the joke that pregnant women are dumb. I’m sure between us, we could make a nice, epic list of sexist jokes - many of which include pregnancy—but not that one. The journalist, Cath Elliott, complains that so much of the advice aimed at pregnant mothers assumes they’re brain-dead, but I don’t really see that as being different from advice offered to people who are in need of loans, writing in to “Dear Abby” columns, or, well, any advice given through mass media ever. The entire section of the magazine industry responsible for publications like Cosmo and Men’s Health, after all, is essentially based on the idea that people haven’t figured out that kissing, touching nipples, oral sex, and changing speeds during sex might make intercourse more interesting.

The Princeton study seems still sillier. The study seems even less groundbreaking than the sub-field of sociology dedicated to rediscovering, every other month, that women do more housework than men (no shit, Sherlock). To me, the impetus for such a study is beyond comprehension. If you prove that men objectify half-naked women, have you shown that there is a problem, or shown that it’s in fact biological, and perhaps harder(or even impossible to rectify, as Chloe points out? It seems to me that the study has proved very little, since part of being human is having the capacity to overcome things we may naturally be inclined to do, such as peeing anywhere we feel like or physically attacking people who threaten us.

As far as scientific studies go (and it should be pointed out that I am not a scientist by any means, but a humble political theorist), I’m under the impression that studies ought to compare different groups in order to be worthwhile. The study managed to question men on how “sexist” they were, but it would have been more interesting if it had managed to look at whether a number of other questions: do gay men objectify half-naked men? Do bisexual men objectify half-naked women more than they objectify half-naked men? Do women objectify half-naked men? And do lesbians objectify half-naked women? The authors ponder whether men or women may be more attracted to status or resources, as opposed to physicality, all of which seems interesting, but beyond any point their own study could have (pitifully) hoped to address.

It seems most likely to me that people of any gender, if they see someone attractive, are going to have parts of their brain light up, and those parts may be the parts that “are associated with objects or things you manipulate with your hands," rather than parts that are associated with “thinking about people’s minds and thoughts.” Well, duh. If you see someone attractive, your first thought is presumably not “I wonder what they think about the realist critique of diplomacy,” but something along the lines of “yum.” And that seems to me to be utterly fine. It seems part and parcel with having a sex drive. It reminds me of one of my favorite comedians explaining that it’s not pornography that causes sexual thoughts—it’s “having a dick! Or, you know, for ladies, a vagina.”

The problem isn’t that people fantasize about other half-naked people as objects—it’s when that is the sum total, or majority, of your thoughts about the opposite sex (or the same sex, or whatever). It seems to me that if you’re trying to figure out how to bring about a more feminist world, you should pick your battles—and professors would do well to contemplate the utility of their actions before busting out their MRI machines.


At February 18, 2009 at 10:22 PM , Anonymous Samantha H. said...

The fact that people will use the Princeton study to suggest that men are hardwired to view women as objects is not a problem inherent within the study. In fact, knowing Prof. Fiske, I am sure she would balk at the idea of the study being used to those ends. Those who would use this study to make such claims are forgetting the fact that we as human beings are completely capable of overriding our "hardwiring." Also, they would be ignoring the fact that neural pathways and regions of the brain are malleable. It's completely possible that men are socialized to view women as tools which then causes their brain regions to activate in the ways described in this study. It may not be happening the other way around.

As for the researchers studying an obvious phenomenon, am I the only person who didn't see this as obvious at all? Granted, some men view some women as objects. But the fact that what we call "viewing someone as an object" was apparent on the neural level is shocking and disheartening.


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