I read this well-constructed blog post today “Okay, so here’s why girls don’t get flattered when guys comment on their bodies.”
It made me think, though, how we construct these conversations in qualified tones, most notably by talking about “unwanted attention”. Part of that is the necessity of defining terms, which is essential to understanding any problem and necessary for drafting any solution. As the internet reminds us, humans could not even see the color blue until we named it.
But this phrase today is bothering me. It’s sticking out to me as problematic. I understand the need to acknowledge the fundamental difference between a random compliment from one’s husband, or a drinking buddy, or even some stranger you find attractive and would not mind getting to know a little better in the appropriate context AND a cat-call or even a pleasant remark from Schrödinger’s Rapist.
The problem is framing it as “wanted” versus “unwanted”. Although “wanted” correctly assigns agency to the recipient woman, I think it is easily twisted into an expression of woman’s vanity or–worse–a belligerent version of the Nice Guy syndrome (if she though he was hot, she would like it). The “wanted” versus “unwanted” attention divide comes back into the false belief that women in public spaces are only–and specifically there as–targets of attention.
In attempting to acknowledge and validate the women’s various mental relationships to their own attractiveness, it reduces them to conduits of attractiveness. Again, the attention is reflective of the women as object: willing recipient or unwilling recipient.
Of course, they are not actors in the moment of having commentary about their appearance directed at them. But the problem is with the commentary itself, not with the woman’s momentary willingness or unwillingness to receive the particular comment, regardless of its phrasing or the intent of the speaker.
In other words, it’s not the receptiveness of the woman that makes a particular comment on her appearance sexist, offensive or otherwise rude. It’s the context of the comment.