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Day 29: Why We Think Women are Their Bodies and Men Are Not

I’m coming to the end of my 31 days of blogging and I’ve been thinking about how this practice has changed my habits.  Like blogging when I travel, I think blogging every day for a month has made me pay more attention to the thoughts that flit in and out of my head.  They’ve also made me think about whether I want to develop something I’ve already written about a bit or if it matters enough to me.  At the end of last year, I was recognizing a reticence in myself to write whatever insight or thought I had in a way that it looked to me that many people–mostly men–on social media did not have.  I felt like I would circle around the idea four or five times and wonder whether it was worth putting in the world, which I talked about in my mid-month reflection on blogging.

Naming that problem has not necessarily changed it.  Right now, I’m having one of those moments.  I don’t know if my thought is worth sharing — I felt a little like this about yesterday’s post too — or if everyone already knows this except me.  But I decided in these moments that the blog was just as much for me as for the world, and if it was important to me, it was worth sharing.  Blogging about it gave me the opportunity to work through and clarify an idea that was percolating.  I also tried to get out of my head the idea that my audience was other philosophers.  In fact, I think this might be one thing that keeps philosophers from effectively engaging in public philosophy: we’re so tough on each other, we end up being more concerned with crafting the argument to be unassailable and original that either we just don’t write or we write to an audience that already is our audience!

The thought I had this morning was about the notion that women are more associated with their bodies than men that I discussed yesterday.  I had always thought that the reason for this is that women bear children and so their work is literally in their body.  But this morning I was thinking that is not sufficient.  After a week of discussing Anne Fausto-Sterling’s work, it occurs to me that we think of men as less involved in reproduction because of our views of women as more their bodies and men less so, not the other way around.  I think we ignore men’s being-in-their-bodies but constantly consider women in terms of their bodies because to be a subject after Descartes is to be a thinking thing, and to be an object, is to be a body.  Men are subjects.  Women are objects.  What follows is that men desire women, women do not desire men.  If women desire, men would be perceived as bodies.  This is somewhat strange in the context of discussions about the two-sex model that depending on who you ask arises in the early modern period around the time Descartes is writing (or around the time Rousseau is writing, if you ask Laqueur).  On the two-sex model, men and women are completely other.  Men are intellectual.  Women are lusty and emotional.  How then do women become those who are desired and as such are bodies?


In her famous essay, “Foucault, Femininity, and Modernization,” which I just reread yesterday in preparation for teaching it in my Gender Studies course, Sandra Bartky uses a Foucaultian analysis to show how disciplinary power is at work in various ways to produce woman as an object, to direct her desire to being a better object.  This process involves myriad ways of producing the body as desirable for men in a way that makes femininity itself appear as submissive and in need of men.  But also, the feminine body is not supposed to have signs of thoughtfulness or experience–signs of aging like wrinkles.  The body that was out of control becomes self-disciplining to be a body for others (think of every time you hear women complaining about their appearance as their acknowledgment that they know what they need to do and regret not doing it better.  In response, instead of saying, you look fine, i.e., you are doing a fine job of managing your appearance, consider saying, who cares? you’re brilliant!).    The various and exhausting expectations of femininity focus women’s attentions on themselves as a body in a way that is not at work for men.  While men are also subject to various disciplinary forces that require them to manage their bodies in particular ways to appear in the world as men, these forces don’t focus their attention on themselves as a body, in part, I would argue, because women aren’t recognized as desiring agents who might see them as bodies that need to be made into appropriate objects.  (Witness, the Dad bod.)

This process explains how and why the two-sex model could see women as overly desirous without making men into bodily objects for women’s desire.

Clarification: I agree this way of thinking of men and women is heteronormative.  In fact, Bartky points to how lesbian communities work to do undo this by revaluing gray hair and wrinkles.  Viewing women as bodies and men as minds depends, in my view, on a heteronormative structure where women are for men and men are not bodies for anyone.  This analysis further supports Jane Ward’s argument in Not Gay because the notion that men aren’t bodies for anyone contributes to a heteronormative investment that allows some men to engage in gay sex without considering their identity as gay. One explanation to how this works is that straight men don’t see their bodies as for anyone.

Photograph of Diana sculpture by Paul Mansfield, Swope Art Museum,  Terre Haute.  Second photograph is a smaller cast at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

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