I’m really just writing this as an excuse to tell more people. JK. But really, I’m a libertarian feminist. Of course I’m going to take this occasion to pen a think piece.
The list has elicited a debate among feminists about whether lists like this harm or hurt our causes. For me, the question is complicated. On the one hand, my causes are helped. The piece got significant traffic, much of which was directed to my sites and social media profiles. As I’m in the business of changing hearts and minds, a bigger audience is pretty key to that end. So for that reason, and because who doesn’t like hearing they’re pretty, I enjoyed the attention of the piece.
However, the list does bring up two feminist issues which I’d like to address at some length. The first is objectification, and the second is gendered evaluations.
Some have objected to the list, and others like it, for objectifying the women on it. I see the point here. By focusing on how we look as opposed to what we do, some would say we’re reduced to objects. We’re things to look at, not agents to listen to. Two points here. First, the list, and others like it, don’t focus on looks exclusively. This list in particular highlights the work of the women listed. And they are listed both for their looks and for the ideology to which they ascribe.
But the larger point here addresses the basic meaning of objectification. And this is important. Objectification happens in the mind of the objectifier. To objectify someone is to reduce them from an agent to an object. An agent makes choices, takes action, impacts their world. An object is acted upon. To see someone as an agent is to recognize their agency. It’s to respect them as a full person. To see someone as an object is to reject or ignore their humanity to focus only on their appearance.
Saying someone is beautiful doesn’t objectify them. Agents can be beautiful. Seeing someone naked doesn’t objectify them. Agents can be naked. The only thing that objectifies someone is failing to recognize their agency.
So was Austin Petersen objectifying me when he wrote the list? I doubt it, as he clearly recognizes my work and accomplishments. Are the people who read the list doing so? Maybe. But that’s their responsibility, not that of the list.
But here’s the bigger issue that the list brings up, and in some ways feeds into.
Think about punditry. Think of all the stunningly beautiful female pundits there are. Now think about all the stunningly handsome male pundits there are. Now think about how many fat or unattractive female pundits there are. Now think about how many fat or unattractive male pundits there are. Are you noticing a difference? Have you ever seen a list of the Top 20 Hottest Male Libertarians? [Edit: ask, and ye shall receive]
Men and women are evaluated on different bases for the same work. Looking at it objectively, the job of pundit should require attractiveness no more for men than for women. And yet it does. The standards for men and women are different.
And this state of affairs isn’t benign for women. It actually creates a system wherein women simply can’t win. If they aren’t attractive, they are ignored. Even when they happen to be brilliant. Of course there are exceptions and this isn’t a hard and fast rule, but we all know it to be largely true. The hurdles to prominence for unattractive female thinkers are quite high.
That leaves just enough attention for the women who are pretty enough to be tolerated. But then those women are dismissed for being pretty! We are told that we don’t have anything valuable to say, and that people only listen to us because of the way we look. It’s meant, of course, as an insult to us. It’s punishment for daring to introduce ideas which threaten existing ideological frameworks. And in this way is a high compliment, because if we weren’t introducing anything new or interesting, if we were just pandering to our base by parroting talking points with our prettier-than-average mouths, we wouldn’t be called out for it. No one would be put off enough to bother mentioning it.
But it actually ends up insulting the people interested enough in these new ideas to listen. It tells them, “You are too shallow to evaluate ideas on their merits.”
Listen, I like looking at pretty people. All else being equal, I prefer a pretty face to a less pretty one.
But let’s not pretend that this state of affairs isn’t robbing us of some really important thoughts from some less-than-symmetrical female faces. Let’s not pretend that a situation in which there is no winning doesn’t put off all but the most bullheaded of women from the commentary game.
As long as these lists keep getting created, I’m going to be grateful to be on them. Whatever the rules of the game are, I’m going to play. Because I have freedom to preach and converts to win. But that’s not going to stop me from calling it out when the rules are clearly bullshit.
Here also are my thoughts on the matter in video format: