The COVID-19 crisis has thrown up an array of new habits and coping mechanisms. But the fetishisation, and even sexualisation, of prominent health officials is one of our more unexpected pandemic pastimes. Is this trend equality in action, or an extension of harmful objectification?
In Australia, a lot of attention has been focused on Victoria’s Chief Health Officer, Professor Brett Sutton. You can buy a Brett Sutton bedspread, join in with the Sutton stans on Twitter, or become a “Suttonette” and like the Brett Sutton is HOT Facebook page (along with more than 8,000 other people).
To put things in a global context, Sutton’s iconic status is not particularly unusual. Examples from India, to France, to New Zealand show various medical experts and administrators have become like rock stars; worshipped, even deified.
Much of the appeal seems to lie in their competence and confidence, offering a point of public reassurance in turbulent times.
The sexualisation of Sutton offers another dimension. He’s been dubbed a “silver fox” and a photo of him as a young man has been doing the rounds on social media with much accompanying commentary on his physical appearance.
If the professor had been a woman, this kind of treatment would have been acknowledged as unacceptable and we’d likely see a huge backlash against it. So why is this different?
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A different rule for men
There are several reasons why the sexualisation of men in public roles plays out quite differently to that of women.
Firstly, as a man, Sutton is not being reduced to his physical attractiveness through a prism of sexual inequality.
The concept of objectification – essentially the reduction of a girl or woman to her sexual body parts or functions – emerges from a broader context of sexual inequality between men and women. This can be anything from staring and catcalling in the street to violent sexual assault.
Any attempt by women to sexualise men doesn’t occur against a corresponding background of widespread sexual intimidation and abuse.
Read more: Sexually objectifying women leads women to objectify themselves, and harms emotional well-being
Fixating on a heterosexual man’s appearance therefore doesn’t have the same effect as it does for a woman. This is, in part, because it doesn’t have the equivalent cultural weight.
Comments about women’s attractiveness are both a cause and consequence of stereotypes about men’s sexual entitlement to women’s bodies. There are no analogous, longstanding stereotypes about men for women’s sexually-charged comments to feed on.
Sutton’s perceived attractiveness is also less harmful in terms of his status because it’s not seen as at odds with his competence. If anything, he is seen as more trustworthy or suitable for the role as a result of the “silver fox” tag.
This tallies with various studies suggesting men’s attractiveness has a more positive effect on their assumed intelligence, compared to women.
Good for the gander?
It’s difficult to imagine a similarly aged, grey-haired female professor being publicly praised and sexualised in the same way, let alone afforded as much assumed competence.
British historian Professor Mary Beard’s experience – the acclaimed expert was advised she “should be kept away from cameras altogether” by critic A. A. Gill – provides an instructive comparison.
But mass sexualisation of public figures shouldn’t really be the goal, either. So it’s slightly bizarre to see feminist commentators describing Sutton as a “CHOttie”.
Read more: Hey, sexy: objectifying catcalls occur more frequently than you might think
While such observations don’t diminish or reduce Sutton in the way they would for a woman in his position, the ultimate aim of feminism isn’t for everyone to be equally sexualised.
A feminist understanding of objectification is, at its heart, a critique of inequality. And it provides the groundwork for imagining a sexuality free from eroticised power difference.
The end game of liberation from patriarchy isn’t trying to recreate power dynamics that might enable some kind of shared objectification, it’s about abolishing those very dynamics.
Should we be worried about the current fixation with Brett Sutton’s looks? It’s hardly the most pressing problem in the middle of a global pandemic.
But it does provide an opportunity to reflect on how far we still have to go in terms of understanding the contours of sexism that women face in public roles, and the kind of steps we need to take in order to truly address sexual inequality.