“Objectify A Man in Tech Day” has become much bigger than I expected since I first wrote about it. At first I was excited, but now I see the scale of the discussion and coverage is creating a number of valid risks – and as a result, I’d like to call off the event.
The widely-covered event started out as a lark that emerged when I got fed up with experiencing – and seeing other women writers and presenters in gaming and tech – fielding irrelevant compliments on their appearance when people referenced their work.
I hoped the result of what we began calling “#Objectify day” would catalyse discussions about the way we use language and how seemingly-innocuous “compliments” are belittling and distracting. A lot of people liked this idea, understood the intention and found it fun.
My goal was that humor and empathy could help people open constructive dialog about sexism. And for a while it seemed like it could work! But there were also a lot of problems with my approach that came to light thanks to the feedback of some trusted friends and colleagues, and I take their concerns extremely seriously.
The dialogue’s been great, but the end result – a day of circulating a hashtag on Twitter – runs the risk of catching fire with people who miss the point. #Objectify is not about celebrating objectification or about making people feel uncomfortable, but I’m increasingly worried that point will be lost and that harm can be done.
My friends and I have done our best to put clear information about our goals out there, but the sad fact is we can’t expect everyone to read up or treat one another with respect. And there are some problematic risks even assuming everyone does “get it”: We liked people comparing #Objectify to the Hawkeye Initiative but that also means we must consider similar criticisms, and the very real risk that our event would solicit homophobia, transphobia, ableism and other prejudices.
Though we wanted to call out gendered language, focusing on men in this way makes some dangerous assumptions about gender norms and sexuality:
For one thing, the event as it stands currently ignores the fact that gay men, trans men, men of color and any other man outside the “straight white guy privilege” zone are already victims of objectification. “Objectify a man” risks using harmful language toward people who may be vulnerable.
For another, some people feel that an environment of men tossing cute comments at each other ends up reducing women’s sexual agency to a joke, since the compliments won’t actually have the same effect on their intended recipients. But it’s worse if the compliments do affect someone negatively — is potentially triggering men who have body issues a victory for anyone?
We also need to consider people who live outside of the specific gender binary our society enforces: There are trans women, genderqueer and non-conforming people struggling every day not to be misgendered, and people living quietly with gender issues they may not share in the open. If these people end up caught in the crossfire of our event it doesn’t matter whatsoever how well-intentioned we are: We risk actually traumatizing them.
I hoped discussions of gender norms would be one of the positive outcomes of #Objectify, and that attention to the issue would make it all worth some inevitable hostility. But for some people who may be exposed to the wrong kinds of language on the planned day, misunderstanding can be actually harmful, and that is absolutely not a risk I want to take.
“Starting dialogue” this way isn’t worth potentially triggering others, putting them at risk or making them feel unsafe. I feel naive that I failed to fully consider the potential ramifications and want to apologize to anyone that was made uncomfortable or who felt threatened by my choice to approach an issue in this way.
There are a few good things, here: it’s been an incredible learning experience, and I am still proud of the respectful attention my colleagues, friends and readership have given to issues of objectification and of making women feel welcome in tech. I’ve had positive conversations that would have been impossible even a year ago. That it took off in a larger way than I ever could have expected shows on some level that people care about change, and that makes me glad.
But the real mission is making everyone feel welcome, period. What I wanted to encourage through humor was caring, empathy and a willingness to listen and educate – now I’ve been asked to change course, and by calling a halt to #Objectify I hope I’m modeling those same qualities myself.
When people tell you they are hurting, are afraid or feel excluded, you don’t get obsessed with your own sense of righteousness, you listen That’s what this has always been about.
If you’ve been paying attention, I hope you continue thinking about the words you use to describe other people and their work. Please continue aiming to listen to and care for everyone who needs your help to feel respected, safe and welcome in tech — or anywhere.
If you understood and appreciated our intention we thank you for your support, but we ask that if you’ve written about Objectify to please remove your post, or at least modify it to reflect our reasons for reconsidering this event.
Thanks for your compassion.
Leigh Alexander, gaming and social media culture journalist, is Gamasutra editor-at-large, columnist at Edge, Kotaku and Vice Creators Project, and contributor to Boing Boing,Thought Catalog and numerous others. This post first appeared at her blog, Sexy Videogameland.