Hot researcher memes, the gaze, & sharing the love

So: haven’t posted for ages because reasons. Flu, new job, managing a new team, teaching a big business school class, post-flu drag etc etc. @JoVanEvery has a great attitude to email, she says we shouldn’t apologise for taking a while to get back to people, ‘email is not urgent‘. I have to admit, I still feel like it’s the ‘electronic walk of shame’ (as I said once, and @thesiswhisperer recently reminded me), but I’m trying to get over it.

And that’s why I’m not going to do it in my own blog. I have no deadlines, I don’t work for me, I am doing this in my spare  time and if I don’t have any spare time, or want to use my spare time eating dumplings in Little Vietnam, or planting a vegetable garden, or hanging out with my nieces, or lying on the sofa drinking wine and reading poetry aloud, then I will. (And I did). And I hope you do too.


@ResearchMark Thesis Revisions

Today I’ve been thinking about hottie research Twitter accounts , a sudden plethora of which have recently sprung into my Twitter stream, with memes matching pictures of beautiful people with research related comments (@ResearchGosling, @ResearchJLo, @ResearchMark, @ResearchFranco).

And therefore I’ve been wavering about objectification. And I’m going to try to untangle why it is that I am happy to retweet pictures of partially dressed Mark Wahlberg

but I think pictures of girls in bikinis are sexist.

And it goes like this.

There is a loooot of theory about ‘the male gaze’, about how it objectifies, sexualises and diminishes women (Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, is a good place to start, then read Laura Mulvey on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema‘, both from 1975). And there is some theory about how, when women gaze at men in the same way, it objectifies, sexualises and diminishes men (Naomi Wolf, Fire With Fire, and Jill Neimark,  ‘The Beefcaking of America‘ both from 1994).

Now, this isn’t difficult or tangled when what we’re talking about is objectifying (a person = a person; if you make a person into a thing, that is not okay); nor with diminishing (persons = persons; if you make one person less than another, that is also not okay). The problem here is with sex.

Sex is fine. Everyone has a sex (even if it doesn’t fit into a binary gender definition), and sex is the way most of us got to be born in the first place, and sex can be fun, pleasurable and emotionally intimate in the right circumstances.  So, many people want to have sex (in terms of gender) and want to have sex (in terms of copulation). All good. Looking at a beautiful (to you, whatever that means) person and thinking ‘they are sexy’ is also going to happen, because without it… no sex for anyone, ever.

However, it’s when sex gets tied up with other stuff (pun acknowledged), that the trouble can start. If you look at me (this is personal, let’s make it personal), and think ‘she’s beautiful, intelligent, capable, kind, and honest’, I’m delighted. In certain circumstances (especially if we are friends, you’re my mother, or I have signalled that such a comment would be welcome), you could say so.

The problem is that most of the time, the compliments aren’t like that. Too often, people look at our exterior and then make us an object, or they make us less than them. I’ll deal with these two separately.

Firstly, when someone makes me an object, I’m passive. (It’s grammar.) I don’t get to have an opinion, I don’t get to talk or act. They are the subject, and they therefore have all the agency, and therefore all the power.

This happens in situations where a person pays you what they think is a compliment, but you think is kind of offensive.  If you call the person out on that, they get defensive and upset.  Someone else says ‘don’t be so mean, they were just trying to compliment you’ and the whole things turns awkward.  Issues of ‘intention’ come into play.

The problem was, though, that you were made into the object. So the complimenter doesn’t see your engagement as two subjects (with different opinions, desires, view points) interacting in a dialogue. The complimenter sees themselves as the subject, whose views, intentions and feelings matter, and it is your job as the object to passively hear it.  And that should make you angry, because you were made to be powerless.

Just being made the object of the sentence diminishes you, but there are other kinds of assumption that are also coded into the system that make it worse. For example, I was at @ThesisBootCamp on Friday night, and mentioned that I always introduce myself as Dr Katherine Firth, otherwise people I meet for the first time often assume I’m a nice young thing with nothing to contribute to the conversation.  (*snort laugh*) And then they are surprised… ‘oh! you went to Cambridge! and you have a PhD! and you teach on this very matter at the University of Melbourne! well why didn’t anyone say?’ (See Rebecca Solnit’s ‘Men who Explain Things‘  for a particularly egregious example of this.)

Often, all it takes to be sexualised is to be a woman. And being sexualised doesn’t mean the person themselves wants to have sex with you: it can mean assuming that your partner is with you because of sex rather than your competence or personality; or it can mean assuming that older women are no longer sexually attractive and therefore totally invisible, or ought to be invisible (see Professor Mary Beard @wmarybeard who gets this sort of thing a lot.).

So, ‘the gaze’ is a problem when it objectifies, sexualises and diminishes people. It’s not a problem when I look at you and think ‘you’re funny and smart and kind and supportive and hot’.  Especially if I’m respectful of you when I work out what I’m going to do about my thoughts.

‘The gaze’ is a problem when I look at you and say ‘well if you wear revealing clothes, you are asking to be raped’, or ‘you are ugly, shut up and get off the internet’.  It’s not a problem when I look at you and say ‘you are interesting, tell me about what you are thinking’, or ‘you look different from me, I am going to listen to find out if you think differently too, and maybe learn from it.’  (This is done with much more subtlety by Bracha Ettinger in her 1995 book The Matrixial Gaze).

‘The gaze’ is a problem when it is a quick way to dismiss people, or when it’s a weapon, or when it’s a power game. The gaze, when I gaze at the night sky in wonder, at my sleeping cat with affection, at my beloved with love… that gaze isn’t a problem.

And when you look at the pictures circulated by the Twitter accounts I started with, they are of powerful, beautiful people, often in powerful clothes (lots of jackets, ties, crisp white t-shirts, dress shirts) or dressed in ways that display their physical power (lots of muscle, lots of power poses (see Amy Cuddy’s great TED talk if you don’t know what they are)). And the fictional textual overlay, the iteration of the meme, does not assume they have no interior, no agency, no voice. Instead, they are crafted to show that they are smart (they can give doctoral research advice!) and funny, and sensitive, supportive and kind.

When we gaze at them, we do not make them less than us. And by sharing the pictures, we are not trying to make you less than us. We are sharing gifts that re-affirm our online culture of establishing and maintaining connections, to challenge each other to ‘greater expressions of generosity’ (as Tim Rayner puts it in in his blog on social media and the Kula ring).

We share these images to  say, ‘yes, yes, we are both in this. yes, you are smart and awesome and gorgeous. yes, you can do this, and so can I. yes.’


UPDATED: And to continue the circle of niceness, the gift giving: These were shared with me:



  1. Ahhh… I always enjoy reading your work but we come from such different theoretical positions.

    For starters, Mulvey gets Lacan wrong, by taking the idea of the gaze MUCH too literally, and she has since acknowledged that. Rey Chow offers a much more nuanced reading of Lacan. On the version of objectification critique you present here, if I said ‘I love you’, I’m objectifying you and that’s bad mmmkay. I have a lot more time for the Catholic, Kantian, and Existentialist concern about instrumentalising people, making them objects of your will, rather than trying to recognise them as moral agents. Similar thematic but grounded in ethics rather than an essentialising account of grammar. I say trying to because — and this is where Lacan, Sartre, and Iris Murdoch all align — it’s basically impossible not to objectify/instrumentalise people, and recognition of moral agency is a rule more observed in the breach.

    Finally, wouldn’t it be a lot more simple to draw an analogy from reverse racism? In other words, people of colour may make critical remarks about whiteness — which are necessarily generalisations since whiteness itself is a generalisation — but that doesn’t make them ‘reverse racism’, because the ethical problem with a racist generalisation comes from its continuation of the long history of using such generalisations to justify colonisation and dominance and slavery and discrimination… not from the simple fact it’s a generalisation about race and that’s bad mmkay. On this view we’re conceding that Ryan Gosling is hot and we’re objectifying him (albeit with tongue in cheek) while at the same time holding that anyone who thinks this is therefore just as wrong as having only one woman in Cabinet is barking mad.

    1. Wow, thanks for the really insightful and nuanced comment. As far as the concept of instrumentalising–absolutely. That is a much better way to go forward rather than ‘essentialising’ grammar (which is an approach I find myself often using and often finding unhelpful). I think the real problem is that it ignores the fact that, in a true dialogue, we will both be subject and object.

      Making someone an object in your sentence (what I think is the basis of your “I love you” critique), is only bad if you say ‘I love you’ and it means we then have to go out or I have to let you off the hook for being a douche… then yes, that’s you using love to objectify me, or as an excuse so my opinion doesn’t matter, and that’s bad. On the other hand, you could say, ‘I love you’, implying ‘and do you love me?’ and give me my turn to be the subject, and I can answer ‘yes, I love you too’, but I can equally answer ‘no’, or ‘it’s complicated’ or whatever. I think ‘I love you’ is as nuanced as ‘you’re hot’, therefore.

      (I have had SUCH trouble with pronouns in this post. The I and you here are OBVIOUSLY hypothetical, but I couldn’t make it work in the 3rd person).

      Personally, I try to steer clear of analogies drawn from racism because where I’m from (and because I’m from more than one place) racism is often murkier than sexism. So for me, they are less clear, but I can certainly see that they might be valuable, and yours is!

      I don’t particularly agree with Foucault and Mulvey either, but I think they are the place to start; get what they did first, and then see where (and they) have moved forward to. The readings you have suggested would be great places to go on.

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