I just got in a fight with one of my closest friends. He posted a picture of a young Thai woman who was running to take a picture of her friend holding a flag in the protests that are ongoing in Bangkok. His caption read something along the lines of, “That protestor is cute.” I called him out on it and pointed out that his objectification of a female protestor was demeaning.

His defense?

  1. I’ve read too many books
  2. The protest is corporate sponsored
  3. His white female friend was more angry with me than he was for calling him out

We’ve been friends for nearly 20 years, and i know that he is, generally, fairly open-minded. He did, after all, attend Evergreen State College, run an anarchist collective that included an ELF office, and has fought his white privilege the best way he knows how. He is now an expatriate living in Thailand, struggling to find a home where he can feel comfortable in his own body (another topic, altogether). In the 20 years that i’ve known him, he has pined to return to Thailand (where, as a son of a missionary, he spent a rather formative year – again, another post!), and finally simply folded everything in and moved there. He has, by his own admission “embraced the culture” and generally only hangs out with Thai “girls” (today, i finally corrected him and asked him to refer to his companions as “women”).

I’m not a particularly ardent feminist. I don’t think i’ve ever actually openly stated that i am one. However, i do take umbrage with diminishing the female protestor experience to a single quip of her appearance. I rarely get angry. I more rarely respond on social media. But i was particularly frustrated in that moment. Perhaps it’s because so many women have been erased from histories of revolution. Perhaps it’s because i know him well enough to understand that women are actually objects for his gaze and consumption – no matter how much he may deny it. The truth is, in that moment, a young woman was enacting a political ideal. Whether she was doing it for the photo op (as he insisted), or in the flurry of the rush of a protest (that anyone who has ever been to a protest has experienced), or she was testing the boundaries of a new political subjectivity was not the point. We all become political beings at peculiar moments in our lives. And there is always an unpredictability in political mobilization. But what is not unpredictable, is the white male gaze on a young woman of color that first sees her as a sexual or affective object.

I make my friend sound terrible. He’s not. He’s a sweetheart and well-meaning, but he is a great lesson for me. I know his intentions and i understand his motivations. I know that he perceives himself as harmless, and i actually accept that he is. However, there is a point when personal harmlessness and well-meaning intention is no longer an acceptable excuse for ignorance. And demeaning a woman in the midst of a protest to only her cuteness is ignorant. In the argument that ensued, he refused to acknowledge the potentiality of her political subjectivity. She was only “playing” at politicalness. Apparently, there was “a line of  100 people waiting to hold that flag.” I was called out for taking offense: “Not a single Thai would take offense. You have been trained to take offense.” It’s a curious thing, this notion that my agency is tied to what i have been taught. This was also his response to my discomfort with being harassed all NYE by a rather inebriated man who thought i was there for his personal amusement (another post). It’s a fantastically silencing tactic – women clearly have no agency because the patriarchy (the Catholic Church, polite manners, etc.), and the reactionary anti-patriarchy (feminist movement, academia, etc) have taught us how we should and should not react to men / moments / moments scripted by men, according to him. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

When i teach Gender and Geography, i craft the course around war and revolution (with a little peace thrown in for good measure). My only goal is to help students realize that women are political beings, too. It seems ridiculous to have to articulate that to a class full of young adults, but the truth is, they have never heard of the women of the French Revolution, the milicianas of the Spanish Civil War, or the soldaderas of the Mexican Revolution. If they’re lucky, they’ve seen idealized visions of the Women’s Land Army, Red Cross Nurses, or maybe even munitions workers in the US during WWII (hello, Rosie the Riveter) on television or in movies. When we think of politics and revolution, we imagine men – sometimes scrappy proletariats, sometimes regal imperialists, always men. Why is that? Why is the only surviving popular image of the women in the Mexican Revolution Adelita – hyper sexualized in a low-cut blouse (i’m sorry, but my great-granny was only 4’10” and stout with a high-collared blouse under her bandoleer). Why did Marina Ginesta die in near obscurity, despite her image becoming iconoclastic? And why could i not find an English-language obituary for her that didn’t simply focus on her looks?!

His comment, he asserts, was not an objectification of this young woman. He holds no responsibility for his response. He was enjoying the moment for himself, admiring a woman for her beauty (“What’s wrong with that?” he asked). How do we break through the barrier? His defense, after my (admittedly badgering-like) insistence was “I would never devalue their struggle. I have spent hours interviewing women here actually… to learn about what is going on. To say one woman running with a camera is cute does not invalidate why she is there! I want more cute people fighting for liberty.”