Culture, Captions and Self Congratulation

This column was initially meant to be about something else entirely. But then there was someone who was wrong on the internet, and I figured I’d wade into the argument. I’ll now get into it, but with one request first. There is one thing I must ask of readers of this piece, and it is good will. I’m painfully aware from the get-go that the very action of writing this leaves me almost entirely open to be tarred with the exact same brush as my subject. The only real defence I will have is the absence of a prosecution, which, of course, necessitates the reader’s good will.

The post I refer to is a bloke posting about his ‘curvy’ wife. He exclaims that it’s great that he still fancies her despite the fact that she’s not the sort of person that would make the pages of Grazia. (For the record, the woman in question seems to be entirely conventionally attractive.) I have no intention of dogpiling the guy who posted that picture. I find online callout culture repugnant, so this isn’t an excoriation of the individual. Mainly because public shamings are gross, and I find the hot takes that focus in on the guys online profile, ‘naming and shaming’ him to be pretty nasty. But also because the post isn’t the interesting part of this story – the culture that told him that what he was doing was a good idea is.

The post goes into a wide variety of points – it’s a veritable dumpster fire of shittery – but the underlying idea behind it is the act of fancying a woman that he deems to be bigger than the mainstream beauty standard makes him some sort of progressive hero, and it’s only a matter of time before his face appears on Obama-style HOPE posters. Treating your partner as a token to prove how revolutionary you are basically contravenes your entire point, because they’re people, not progressive accessories. If you’re making a big deal about your partner’s size, then you’re not being progressive, you’re tokenising them.

Now, I disagree with his post wholeheartedly, but we live in a culture that congratulates men whenever we’re not complete bastards. We get credit for the smallest of gestures, and the fact that there’s guys out there who are breaking their own arms patting themselves on the back because they manage to still want to bone their wife is entirely unsurprising. We allow men to present themselves as virtuous by simply not being the antonym. Not being immoral does not automatically make you a good person. It just makes you a person. And we’re so quick to praise men for just being people. Because that’s all this is – ‘man still fancies wife’ – and that sentence is nice, I guess. It’s always good to have love in the world, etc. But ‘nice sentiment’ does not mean ‘newsworthy’. It’s literally what you’re supposed to do, and yet we’re so used to dehumanizing larger women that a bloke thinks he’s a hero for still finding her hot even though she had cellulite on her thighs. Y’know, the stuff that 90% of women have, according to most dermatologists.

Let’s say he’d done something to help this woman and her ‘beautiful curvy body’, I don’t know, it’s a beach photo, so let’s say he’d saved her from a shark or something. That would get you Good Person Points™. Treating a fat person like a human being shouldn’t be something you get points for. Our culture is skewed to reward people like me whenever we display the seeming cardinal virtue of basic decency, and this means that we get off incredibly lightly.

I’ve often wondered at what point you get to use the word ‘activist’ in your twitter bio – at what point have you done enough to be considered an ‘activist’ for a cause – and our society reminds men that the point at which they’re noble activists in in fact set at zero. As long as they’re not negative, they’re doing a good job. The same bar, however, is set markedly higher for women. That’s the interesting part of stories like this. It becomes abundantly clear just how much we expect of women, and just how little we expect of men. We, as a culture, are so quick to tear down women, so quick to spot the one time they misspeak, or use the wrong word, or say something that can be misconstrued. This problem is sometimes skated around in critiques of online space, but is scarcely applied on a societal level. Yes, online social justice activism has a massive problem with dogpiling and exclusion and bullying that extends to all genders, but societally we demand perfection of women while demanding the bare minimum for men. If the bar for ‘good person’ status was zero for men, it is set at ten for women. You comply entirely, or you are a Bad Woman and you ought to be torn apart. This happens across our culture, and manifests itself in a variety of ways – in the discourse around bodies, around intellect, around character. It’s certainly prevalent in the way we talk about bodies – I can’t see there being a ‘dad bod’ trend for women anytime soon – but appears in public life, too. Men are allowed get away with actions that would bring down women’s careers. Columnist writes a dodgy piece? Well, he was trying his best. Man gets a fact wrong at a debate? Well, he probably knew the answer.

This all speaks to a cogent problem we still have, which is society is coded to have us believe that all men are modestly downplaying how virtuous they really are, and all women are sneakily covering up their lack of virtue. When a woman screws up, the mask has slipped. She’s revealed she’s secretly stupid, hysterical, or in a word, Wrong. When a man screws up, it’s a temporary blip on his otherwise stellar record. Until we find a way to fix this, then I imagine our newsfeeds will continue to serve us this content, and our hospitals overran with orthopaedic injuries from male back-patting.

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