Monday, July 14, 2014

The Attention-Getter

This is how they do it, right?
[Disclaimer: descriptions of harassment of women will be mentioned later. Sail these seas with caution.]

I always thought it would fun to be attractive. In a world governed by visual stimulus, it's one of the closest things our society has to a superpower. It's not as super-natural as flying or shooting beams from fingertips, but it's pretty close. Being attractive can provoke extremely altered behavior in others from a distance of fifty paces! Eat your heart out, Ant Man.

Recently, I had an experience at a small club in Kansas City that demonstrated the effectiveness of the Power. While watching a band play, the girlfriend of one of the band walked in. She's attractive. Her appearance at the door led heads to turn to look at who entered, then *stay* looking at who entered.

She scanned the audience and saw me (possibly the only person she knew) and she smiled. She worked her way through the crowd -- heads following her as she went -- and finally popped up in the space next to me, smiling and radiating sunshine.

I won't lie one bit: it was flattering. I felt that feeling I've heard about when one gets to be the envy of a room. But it's also the definition of superficial. Is my friend a good person? The answer is that no one in that room cared about that question at first glance. She was not a person, she was an object. And as such, she was appraised and found to be of a certain value as she crossed the room.

Don't hate me because I've got crazy composer hair.

The problem of treating women as objects is one I've thought a bit about. It is, of course, perfectly natural to look at the person who most recently entered a room. It is also natural to make a snap judgment based on all of the available information. She is that tall, her hair is this color, and boy howdy, is she good-looking. The real problem with objectification is when we say, "I would really like to make this thing mine. Even if that is simply by getting her to notice and react to me in the most negative terms."

I remember that impulse. I remember when I was in second or third grade and I really liked hanging out near a girl. She wasn't paying enough attention to me, so I pulled on one of her pigtails, knowing instinctively that then she'd have to pay attention to me. "Ding dong!" I gleefully said as I pulled. "Oww!" She said as she turned her face to me. But she didn't seem all that excited. "That hurts," she said, showing me a face that looked like it was in pain.

And that was one of the ways I learned about empathy -- probably the most ignominious and embarrassing to relate out of my entire life.

But what's really weird about that story of me behaving poorly for attention is that I still see that sort of behavior all the time. I know several (many!) guys whose primary way of interacting with women they like is to put them down. "Oh, I'm glad to see you put some effort in," they say, smiling as if to say, See, we're all joking in a way that is socially acceptable. 

Nearly there, I think

Do they fear that just giving a regular compliment will be quickly forgotten? I think they do. They want to stay "in the mind" for longer, even if that means negative attention. Maybe somewhere along the way, it worked in such a way as to reinforce it for them, going forward. But nowadays when I see it, I just see little Andy pulling someones braid because he didn't know how to get someone's attention.

*** *** ***

And this negative attention is why I'm not so keen on being attractive, even if I were so. Now that I've lived long enough to actually know a few very attractive people and what they go though, I think I'm over it.

Let's use an extreme example: here's a picture of the actress Emma Watson.

Now I don't know about you, but I've rarely seen a display of more "please don't notice me" behaviors in once place. And it didn't work, because I'm sure there are always people waiting outside of her apartment to take her picture continuously, in super detail. Did she not put makeup on when she rolled out the trash bins? There's going to be a picture of that.

There are always photographers. They are there to watch her shop for shoes, to watch her buy cucumbers at the store, to watch her in cars. They're there to watch her go to a friend's concert, or have dinner by herself, or all of the other things that people do every day without having the "benefits" of being famous. In this case, the benefit is staring in your own documentary every moment, with everything recorded forever and analyzed in ridiculous detail.

Sounds like a hell trip.

And it doesn't just happen to film stars. I have a friend who's studying academics and statistics. She has to conduct surveys of random members of the populace, and as a not-fun side effect, she gets a lot of attention from men. I don't know what that comprises (though I can guess), and she's basically revolted by it. I don't know what it is, but I think men are so starved for proper straightforward communication that we're willing to believe that anyone who treats us nicely and with deference must be "interested." Except that she's holding a clipboard and asking about mortgage statistics. But still, maybe she's into me, ya know?

Male friends who are attractive aren't immune either (I don't have as many attractive male friends; I usually eat their hearts to try to gain their power -- the results are mixed), as women will complain at length that they've done everything they can think of to turn the guys' heads. They must be gay. And often, they are. Because men are the ones who seem to care whether the other person is REALLY attractive, be that other person male or female, gay or straight.

Your mouth says 'No', but your eyes say, "Ia! Ia! Cthulhu fhtagn!"

And I have another female friend who just gets hit on when she goes outside. It's spooky. No matter what season it is or what she wears or how much human excrement she rubs on her face, men still talk to her. Even if I'm standing and chatting with her, men will interrupt to ask if I'm a boyfriend, because if not, they'd really like to buy her a drink. Or it will happen in the minute I go to the bathroom, which is really. creepy.

And she treats them nicely. Smiling and declining. And sometimes that causes people to ask again, thinking that since she responded nicely, there might be a spark. Or in the most extreme case, causes someone to come back half an hour later (and several hours more intoxicated) and say, "I know you said 'no' earlier, but how about now?"

It makes my friends uncomfortable, and it doesn't stop when they would really rather not, thanks. It just goes on. And goes on.

*** *** ***

But I think the larger problem is how we (and me, but I'll get to that later) treat women in general, attractive or not.

There's been a lot of attention paid to the issues relating to women in society lately. The last couple of years have seen a rise in the conversation of my contemporaries concerning feminism. The conversation drifts into the histrionic, as most things do: either feminism is what's needed to correct the male-dominated situation we find ourselves in, or feminism is the most dangerous f-word since the last couple (fuck and fascism).

The decent photo, otherwise that's all I'll hear about
I personally believe that the application of feminism can't hurt. There is that thing where women are paid less across all levels for the same jobs. And all the implicit judgments that get placed upon women who prioritize career over children. I've seen questions debating how Hilary Clinton running for president might impact her as a soon-to-be grandmother. Incoming male CEOs aren't asked about how their jobs will affect their family -- usually those questions come after they're suspected of corporate or personal wrongdoing and "retire" to spend more time with said families.

Women who make videos on Youtube get evaluated on their appearance and "fuckability." Women who make videos on Youtube to decry these things get death threats. They get inappropriate harassing comments by the hundreds or thousands.

Videos about men harassing women provoke reactions from men saying they don't harass women, couched in the flowery language of Internet diplomacy: "why don't you kill yourself, you un-loveable whore." Men break up with women because they "look tired" or "don't make an effort," all while being tremendously flattered when other men show impotent interest in "their choice." Men pressure women to dress more revealingly in public, but slap them down as teases and whores if they do so.

I don't expect things to get better at any speed faster than "glacially slow." The rules of attraction and desire get written too strongly to move at breakneck speed. The best I can do is teach children how to respect women and men equally, to not allow physical appearance to be the excuses for inappropriate remarks or physical abuse.

And only I will know that in the back of my head, I'll have that little voice who says that women really just want to be complimented. The voice that's always disappointed and resentful when women behave nicely to me after some imagined slight in my own mind. The voice that's always wondering how much of what I'm being told is manipulation. And a half-dozen other negative resentments that have somehow wormed their way into my head and vomit themselves up when I least expect it.

I resent that these poisonous thoughts reside in my skull, squatting resistant to all my attempts to dislodge them. It makes me feel bad, because my parents certainly didn't raise me that way, and I certainly don't want to behave that way. I'm pretty sure they came from too much disappointment, which lead to too much self-pity. Which lead to bitterness. And that led to self-aggrandizement. And so one of the battles is against the things that I know I shouldn't think. I can't promise that I don't think them, but I can promise that I don't act on them.

People are different from each other. From this truth comes all that is great and all that is terrible in interpersonal relationships. Our best chance is the Golden Rule +1:

Do unto others as you would be done unto, except even better than that.

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