How to demean a woman

When I was a child, I suffered from acute hypochondria. Convinced everything was the early signs of cancer, I’d waddle up to my father and, with the brave stoicism of someone who’s accepted they’re not long for this world, inform him that ‘it hurts when I press here!’

Occasionally, he’d terrify me further my taking a look at my boo-boo and instructing me gravely that amputation seemed like the only solution (an approach that, in retrospect, explains why I spent so many of my early years frightened of disabled people). Mostly, he’d tell me that if something was hurting when I pressed it, the simplest answer seemed to be to stop pressing it.

It’s the kind of sound advice that I’d do well to remember when trawling the internet for possible offences. If something hurts when you press it (in this case, hyperlinks), the simplest answer might be to just not press it.

Alas, as my father found out, I was never one for easy lessons - which possibly accounts for why I’ve spent the past few weeks monitoring the hideous mess that is the Zoo WeeklyFacebook page, a group which currently boasts more than 33,000 members.

As far as I can tell, the group’s updates seem to divide their time between two things. Firstly, inviting female fans to submit half naked photographs of themselves to be ‘liked’ and commented on by the group’s members, presumably with the purpose of being later featured in the magazine itself for the financial reimbursement of ‘Validation’. And secondly, to conduct a complicated game called ‘Left or Right’ in which members are presented with two images (mostly of women) and asked to choose which side they’d prefer. While the game seems to mostly preoccupy itself with the challenge of choosing between which of the attractive women in the pairings the members would most like to insert their penises into, the occasional inclusion of morbidly obese women seems designed to elicit sophisticated responses like this: “I’ve got a awesome pick up line for the one on the right.. I’d just roll up with “Geeze you don’t sweat much for a fat mole”” and I’ll smashing it all night..”

None of this is perhaps surprising from a magazine that specialises in reducing women to their body parts and asking them to be grateful for it. But a recent ‘Left or Right’ game seemed to stretch even the bounds of Zoo’s general amoebic understanding of decency. Shown a digitally altered photograph of a bikini-clad woman who’d been split in two by photoshop, fans of Zoo Weekly Australia were confronted with the difficult choice of which half they'd prefer and why. 

It was a revealing experiment, in that it revealed the kind of not-even-casual sexism we've come to expect from ardent Zoo Weekly 'readers'. They may have varied in structure, but on the whole the answers followed one of two thought patterns. Those who chose the right side offered the hilarious excuse that, with only a disembodied vagina and a set of legs to worry about, they didn't have to deal with any unwelcome back chat or annoying conversation. And those who opted for the left explained that, without the aforementioned legs, their girlfriend's torso wouldn't be able to run away.

Hey guys! Rodney Dangerfield called and he wants to know where the party is! HE'S GOT THE RUFIES!

Think about that: this is a 'joke' about the difficult decision of whether or not brains or independence in a woman is more annoying. It is a 'joke' that carries not-so-subtle overtones of imprisonment and sexual assault (regardless of whether that is consciously understood by those who enjoy its sophisticated wit). Yet if you're a woman who expresses opposition to the kind of humour that actively reduces your value to dissected body parts, you're clearly nothing more than a frigid boner killer trying to spoil all the boys' fun.

To cries of, ‘Can’t you take a joke, you fat jealous bitch,’ I’ll say this: It's interesting the lengths to which people will go to defend this kind of humour, and how their defence immediately becomes about the perceived failings of those who don’t like it. Criticism of this kind of behaviour - particularly when it comes from women - is often shouted down as being hysterical or simply borne from jealousy, and assumes that what really grinds women’s gears is the fact that they’re not being equally objectified. It’s part of the reason why the schoolyard taunts of being fat and ugly still prevail well into adulthood; if some people assume that the most pressing issue on a woman’s mind is whether or not a man will find her attractive enough to bed, it stands to reason that those same people will assume that the easiest way to destroy her is to deny her the compliment of an erection.

Unfortunately, this isn't just about the antics of a bunch of perpetually juvenile men and their light-hearted fondness for female objectification. It's also part of a much broader attempt to limit the roles women are allowed to play - to offer a retro system of reward for those who play along, and punishment for those who don't. It explains why a handful of fans and commenters on Zoo Weekly's Facebook page are women, why so many of them send free photos of themselves in g-strings and disembodied poses, and why these things leap so jarringly off the page with the palpable desperation to be noticed by the discerning critics around them. The world is full of the kind of female chauvinist pigs that Ariel Levy wrote about in her polemic of the same name; women who prostrate themselves before a cavalcade of men, whose mutually shared view of their value is inherently tied up in female willingness to subjugate itself for approval.

Critics of this kind of participation tend to be given a tedious lesson in choice feminism (a tedious distraction that tries to pretend every choice a woman makes is admirable by virtue of the fact she was brave enough to make it) or sex positivity (another tedious distraction that tries to pretend taking your clothes off for a male audience - and it is males who're being catered to here, no matter how many women claim to enjoy looking as well - is something that empowers women).

Let me be clear about one thing. I have no problem with sexting, pornographic photographs or women getting off on being looked at and sexually desired. But the mass objectification that takes place in a realm like Zoo Weekly is something different, and sits uncomfortably in any kind of dialogue trying to pass it off as empowered sexual expression. Getting off on being fantasised about is one thing. Facilitating a system that sees your ONLY value as being how much its male participants want to ‘smash you’ is another thing entirely.

At the end of the day, we can talk all we like about empowered choice and sex positive feminism. These things have no currency in a model that thrives on offering women up on a platter to cater to the sexual fantasies men who will never respect them. It doesn’t matter how many enthusiastic endorsements a woman might get for how her bottom looks in a lacy g-string. At the end of the day, she’s still nothing more than a vagina that can't talk back or a torso that can't run away.