Can You Crush on Journalists Without Being Disrespectful? Thoughts Inspired by #Objectify
Last week, I read Leigh Alexander’s #Objectify FAQ while I was on the train, already late to the party. It can be hard to keep up with Leigh sometimes as she is very prolific, with #Objectify alone sprawling in NewStatesman, BoingBoing, Jezebel, and CNet, so I tried to catch up on what I had missed. In short, the concept behind #Objectify was supposed to be a social means to help males in tech understand how uncomfortable it can be to live as a woman in tech. It was to show that some comments, even well-intentioned ones, can be construed as belittling or sexist.
Leigh had mentioned several times this was supposed to be done in a playful way, and I interpreted it as having a similar vibe to that time a cartoonist drew sexy outfits for male superheroes. Despite picking up a lot of attention and support from many corners of the Internet, Leigh ultimately called off the event after citing concerns about homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and it being too triggering to several people.
When I first read the FAQ, none of these potential problems had occurred to me though. I was too busy concerning myself with the incredibly important task of deciding which male writer I could playfully pay unwanted compliments to. In my 8 a.m. daze, it came to me: Paul Miller of The Verge. It was so perfect! I could talk about what a dreamboat he was, and how beautiful his eyes are, how charming his smile is, and ha ha ha it’s so funny but oh wait I actually believed these things to be true.
I clutched my phone worriedly, realizing that the game wasn’t so much of a game to me anymore. I wondered if I was actually becoming part of the problem.
As someone who can fall under the umbrella of being a “woman in tech” – typically in the field of video game journalism – I have fallen prey to my fair share of uncomfortable attention. It’s happened so often over the course of my two-and-a-half years working in this field that the things people say to me have become kind of a meme among my friends, which is also a good example of how vocal I’ve been about my discomfort. I’ve just never written about it publicly, since my primary focus has been on my photography. So, you can now imagine my absolute horror over having potentially put someone else into a position that I myself am so unhappy with.
Maybe I should give a little context to my crush: I became aware of Paul Miller by listening to the Verge podcast, starting back in its infancy as thisismynext. While I definitely enjoyed it as a source of information, I was even more charmed by listening to its people, most consistently Miller, Josh Topolsky, and Nilay Patel.
As time went on I became increasingly endeared to Paul Miller’s personality, and as I became familiar with his writing via his “Offline” series, that was when my goofy crush began. I’d make, what I considered at the time, playful statements to his friends about how cute he was. I even went as far as to arrange a meet with him once. (he’s just as genuine as I expected)
The more I thought about it, the more I speculated about the personal nature of modern tech journalism. I realized that the writers I usually enjoy the most don’t just write about news as it happens, but also offer editorial spins on things with strong personalities, and an obvious voice. This holds true for both my enjoyment of Leigh Alexander’s work, who is very aware of my admiration for her and what she achieves, as well as Miller, who is mostly in the dark about it.
The big difference between the two is that Leigh is someone I actually know, and Paul is someone who I just feel like I know because I’ve read a large body of his work.
The conclusion that I reached – after my contemplation – was that there is nothing wrong with developing these kinds of crushes unto themselves, and I don’t think it’s bad to find men or women in tech physically attractive. I think the best lesson in #Objectify is learning how to constructively compliment someone in a manner that is respectful to them, and to their work. Because of the emotional one-way mirror that exists in online journalism, that is rarely addressed, and people often lose sight of what appropriate behavior is toward these easily-accessible figures.
I think when many of the irrelevant, appearance-based compliments are offered by people, they aren’t necessarily coming from a mentality that wants to hurt the receiver. It’s definitely an easy mistake to make, especially when they come from someone who views the creator as attractive. However, a sentence like “Here’s an article from the handsome Paul Miller!” places the emphasis of his value indirectly on his appearance.
Really, what it comes down to is that it doesn’t actually matter how good he looks when you’re trying to tell someone to enjoy something he’s created. I don’t read Paul’s articles because I think he is attractive. I read them because they’re well-written, thoughtful, and inspiring.
When you are complimenting people in the context of their work, you should be complimenting just that: their actual work. Did they post a poignant article that resonates with you, and you think that other people should read? Say those things! There is no reason for you to talk about what they look like. They probably spent a lot of time in writing that article, and they weren’t thinking about what they looked like while they did it.
Did they post a picture of their new haircut on Instagram? A new outfit? Smiling and in the world? Sure, tell them they’re pretty, they’re handsome, you love their smile or that they have nice eyes. Did this person respond to your compliment by saying that you’ve made them uncomfortable? You are in no position to call them names for feeling that way. It’s important to remember that you are a total stranger to them, and despite your best intentions your compliment might not make them feel good. They might feel differently about it than you.
Leigh Alexander’s concept of #Objectify forced me to confront something scary about myself by making me really think about my crush on Paul Miller. I’m not sure if this was the result she intended – since I’m typically considered the victim of objectification as a woman – but I’m really glad that it turned out this way. #Objectify itself may not be happening the way it was supposed to, but I really hope more people take their time to really think about how they interact with people in tech online, especially toward women.
Just because the hashtag didn’t happen, does not mean that the conversation should stop.