The recent sexual harassment scandals involving movie moguls and other powerful media men has led to thoughtful commentary on the sexualizing of women. We hear how some of the male perpetrators regularly discussed the sexual appeal of female performers. Call it the “locker room talk” of the news and entertainment business. Outside the locker room of executive offices, this evaluation encourages women to strive for attention from men. Contributing to a woman’s score are raw beauty, dress, makeup, speech, and refined charm in the form of friendliness and seductive gestures and behavior. In these cases of harassment, the female victims were necessarily (by profession) skilled in the artifice of beauty. You could say that the entertainment business itself had groomed them for the kind of abuse that men like Harvey Weinstein turned into a dark science.
Alone with an aggressor, such a woman finds herself disadvantaged as a beauty-for-hire. Expecting respect but lacking institutional power, she’s constrained by an on-screen reputation for seductiveness, and hobbled by shoes and clothing that objectify her. Weinstein’s strategy was to view the woman’s professionalism as a pretense and to call her bluff. But of course, there was no bluff. Women entered his office or hotel suite rightfully expecting a professional encounter, only to find themselves struggling to escape an enactment of the male-fantasy vision that their professional roles had required them to perfect and to keep on display.
Another kind of world is possible, and for this I would turn to what I observed during a visit to Sweden. In many ways, Sweden manages to stay a few steps ahead of the rest of western civilization when it comes to social equality, and such is the case with their vision of women’s lives. (I would say “the treatment of women,” but that phrase encapsulates the problem, making women the object of treatment by men.) In Sweden, for example, when a woman has a baby, she and her spouse are awarded 480 days of paid parental leave. A national commitment to gender equality means that fathers must take a sizable allotment of those days—the goal being a 50/50 split between the two parents.
Here’s the remarkable thing, though. Swedish women don’t come across in the same way as American women. Spend a day walking through Stockholm or Göteborg observing the women, and then fly to Paris or New York and do the same thing. What is shocking about Sweden is the lack of seductive affect among the women. They all look and behave like the Amazon women in Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman film, but without the leather costumes. Seemingly no allowance is made for the traditional social matrix of men’s fantasies. A French or American man in Sweden might feel invisible, because women do not flirt, they don’t play up to men’s expectations of personal importance. This would be a nightmare for some men, an uncanny Halloween trick that might feel emasculating. The first impression may be that the majority of Swedish women are cyborgs. But here’s the way I think you should see it: these women seem strange at first because they are unapologetic humans. They assume their fully equal, human status in relation to men.
And here’s my prediction. In the near future, maybe in a generation or two, what I observed in Sweden will also characterize American society. And men will adjust. Men will get used to a world in which women are no longer sexual playthings. And men will like it. And the United States will become a safer place for all of us.
Music: Wonder Woman Theme by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL