If you count yourself among the substantial portion of Londoners that uses the Tube to get to work every day, you’ll be familiar with the endlessly-frustrating, somewhat soporific routine of wait, push on, breathe in, stop, stop, stop…push off – but if you’re like me and your journey begins at the far, far edges of a line (the Northern), you’ll be one of the blessed few who manage to get a seat, in which case you’ll have to insert ‘scramble, park yourself, arrange bags around feet, put on iPod, get out book, open Metro, look down or up, and studiously refuse to make eye contact with anyone else for the rest of the judderingly long journey’ to the above list. But, even for us lucky seat-hermits, every now and again, something happens that makes us look up from our slumber, and (thank goodness, not a pregnant woman, guy on crutches, or wobbly elderly person, the three people for whom you still have to give up your seat, quite rightly, but you know…) the appearance of a delectably good-looking man in your carriage is the happy visual treat new blog TubeCrush has decided to capitalise upon in its near-daily posts.
TubeCrush has a simple conceit; people take photographs of good-looking guys on the London Underground and Overground (and one assumes, general train) networks, send them in, the blog author writes a suitably witty comment and bored, or especially discerning, people can rate them if they feel such a need. A quick scroll through the photographs reveals a tongue-in-cheek, gently funny collection of posts, which seems an entirely harmless amusement to liven up the dreary A-to-B time that is a fact of life for the many travelling across London.
But is it harmless? Imagine the sexes were reversed. A blog which specialised in men taking cameraphone shots of women without their knowledge, posting them online, making objectifying comments, and then allowing anyone to rate the images?
In one way, I suppose, the above already happens across the Internet. Doubtless there are websites which feature just this shtick, and anyway, taking the idea to its extremes, isn’t the most prevalent content on the net pornography, overwhelmingly, of women for men? The objectification (and often, downright denigration) of women for the pleasure and titillation of men is so common throughout society, and online, in so many ways that it is unquantifiable; ingrained into the history of gender relations, and so ubiquitous that people’s very sexual psyche has been irretrievably changed by its presence. Isn’t TubeCrush, which doesn’t go anywhere near that far, merely poking lightly risqué fun at a few, fully-clothed men in entirely innocuous poses, simply turning the tables, in an ever-so-subtle way, on the gender usually known for taking much-worse photos of the form of the fairer sex? Is this just equality, an unashamed appreciation of the physical attributes of the object of our affections?
TubeCrush isn’t sleazy, nor is it overtly sexual. Isn’t it positively Victorian for me to suggest that a woman appreciating a man for his sex appeal shouldn’t do so in this way? After all, of course, it almost goes without saying that women can have sexual urges and desires as much as men. Is TubeCrush, with its irreverent tone and simple humour, in fact showing women in a favourable light, in that the women (and it is mainly women, although clearly I’m not ruling out any submissions by gay men, here) who post these photos can appreciate the men in question without resorting to demeaning pornography or X-rated comments, and simply take a quick photo, swoon, smile and be done with it? Isn’t it just a bit of fun, a far less worrying incident compared to everything else going on in the world?
In a way, yes. Although they share a virtual home with hardcore pornography, the simple fact that TubeCrush’s photos are of individuals online doesn’t automatically make them demeaning. The taking of the images without consent is slightly more problematic, but really, the pictures aren’t rude or obviously sexual, and the man in question is in a public place, so clearly happy to be seen as he is by anyone who happens to be around. It’s not exactly ‘upskirt’ shooting, and is a far cry from pornography.
But it is still objectification of men, and it makes me uncomfortable – because I know that if the genders were turned, it would not be OK. The press would not have reported it the way they did, tongue in cheek, happily pointing out that yes, for all those single (or not, whatever) women or men out there, there could be a hot guy on your tube, and for the next few stops, he might provide some inconsequential but edifying fodder for your next sneaky eye-dart sideways. Despite admitting to chuckling at the posts, I cannot help but think that a blog that showed photos of women on public transport, dressed in often-revealing outfits, taken without consent, for the sole purpose of being distributed online so their looks could be discussed, would attract more negative comment than this website seems to have done, and would at the very least be relegated to some hidden pages of a low-brow lads’ mag. In the words of Guardian writer Sunny Hundal, ‘Erm, is it just me or if this site was about women, people would be getting arrested right about now?’
Such a site would, I suspect, rightly, have far heavier overtones of pornography and objectification without consent, which to me looks like the very thin edge of the wedge towards the condoning of the many typically atrocious crimes committed against women by men across history. Is it because the male gender has a history of subjecting and objectifying women that makes this concept so unpalatable if the tables were turned? Women, still so unequal throughout the world, don’t have this terrible history, so can they afford such token digs and jokes at the small expense of the sex which has oppressed them over long centuries and which has only just begun to release the shackles over mere short decades? Is this the same as black people reclaiming the ‘n’ word, gay people’s pride in the word ‘queer’, or women in America marching to redefine the meanings behind the word ‘slut’ (the latter itself a questionable activity)?
I’m afraid that, despite seeing some of the merits in these arguments, and clearly, having to accept some of them, since TubeCrush is demonstrably deemed largely acceptable by many in the mainstream (view its coverage in usually-respected paper The Evening Standard), I fundamentally disagree with the sum of this concept. Imitation may be seen by some as the sincerest form of flattery, but imitating the poorer, baser, aspects of the male sex is not what feminism should stand for. It seems obvious, but bears repeating: equality shouldn’t bring us down to the lowest common denominator; saying that men’s objectification of women is wrong isn’t to suggest that women should do it, and, once they have the right to, feminists’ job is finished.
Granted, it’s a massive step forward. That women are even free enough, and sexually-liberated enough, to indulge in this kind of playful activity regarding men in general, in a society that allows them unparalleled freedom compared to that permitted a comparatively short time ago, and still prohibited in far too many countries elsewhere, is a long-overdue triumph that should not be dismissed. Although people like Nadine Dorries do their best to spread confusingly regressive ideas about women’s sexuality and their responsibility thereof towards apparently passive men (don’t get me started), not to mention the great strides still left to take when it comes to raging injustices such as, to use that shockingly still-relevant example, the low conviction rates of suspected rapists, the majority of women, especially the young London-resident ones submitting photographs to this website, and in comparison to millions around the world, mostly live as they wish, without much hindrance in terms of dress, manner, or sexual preferences. A fantastic achievement that in no small way owes a debt to the women of first, second and third-wave feminism for their forward thinking and refusal to accept second best.
But such objectification, in the image of the type of potentially offensive behaviour that women fought so hard to overturn among men, is a step backwards. Feminism, and equality, shouldn’t be about women subjecting men to the same injustices, however slight, as those suffered by women. Equality should be about equal respect, the appreciation of either gender because of who they are, the personality, intellectual, creative, analytical, hard-working, or otherwise talents, that they bring to the table, not merely because of the way they look. Any woman with any self-confidence or self-respect wouldn’t appreciate being leered at, or plastered over the Internet for anyone to see without their permission, so what makes it OK for men to be subjected, however innocently, to the same thing? It may be a bit of fun, apparently harmless and lightly comical, but from where I’m standing, it also looks suspiciously like a slippery slope.
I’m not suggesting that men and women shouldn’t have sexual desires, shouldn’t appreciate the way the objects of their affection looks, nor am I denying the simple pleasure (and, often, downright rhapsody) that exists in seeing a man (or woman) you find particularly appealing. Equally, I don’t like to think of myself as someone who can’t take a joke, and although it’s unlikely that I’ll never click back on to TubeCrush ever again of a dragging day at work or a casual email-checking session at home, it won’t be without a nagging feeling that, for all the witty comments, and undeniably pleasing array of commuters on show, that this seemingly inoffensive activity is doing a disservice not only to the men unwittingly caught on camera, but also, to the women for whom they are offered up as titillation.
Because, for men and women to appreciate each other in a mutually respectful way, in a society in which far more explicit pictures of both sexes still creep into the sexual mindset of young, and not-so-young, men and women, in a culture that is increasingly uneasy with the blurred boundaries set by the encroachment of the Internet into all recesses of our lives, in a world in which the gender balance is still so institutionally, culturally and socially unequal in so many places, such websites can’t get away with passing themselves off as a simple bit of fun.
A guilty pleasure maybe, for those with the sexual maturity to dismiss it for the harmless joke it is seemingly intended to be, but for others who might be more impressionable, and for the implications to the cultural tone of society as a whole, an uncomfortable nod to the possible acceptance of far worse, and a small step backwards for gender relations, and indeed, social relations as a whole. I’m not even going to attempt to deal with those (shown in Hundal’s article) who suggest that it’s all OK until you’re labelled as unattractive by one of these sites. Please, give me strength.
After all, as a woman (or indeed, as a rational human being), when I get on that soon-to-be-packed Northern line tube carriage tomorrow morning, I fully expect to be able to complete my journey secure in the knowledge that I won’t be unwittingly papped by some other passenger with the expressed plan to put the result online for anyone to see, however apparently ‘flattering’ the intention. Is it so humourless of me to suggest that men should be allowed to think the same?