Actress Angela Lansbury has been under fire this week for comments suggesting women are in part responsible for sexual harassment and assault.
“There are two sides to this coin,” Lansbury told the Radio Times in an interview. “We have to own up to the fact that women, since time immemorial, have gone out of their way to make themselves attractive. And unfortunately it has backfired on us—and this is where we are today.”
The Murder She Wrote actress continued, “We must sometimes take blame, women. I really do think that. Although it’s awful to say we can’t make ourselves look as attractive as possible without being knocked down and raped.” Lansbury rounded out her comments by saying assault is nonetheless inexcusable. “Should women be prepared for this? No, they shouldn’t have to be! There’s no excuse for that. And I think it will stop now—it will have to. I think a lot of men must be very worried at this point.”
The ninety-two-year-old actress seems to have clumsily suggested there’s a paradox when it comes to how much women aim to be attractive to men and then show dismay when men make advances. But not long after these statements were published, Angela Lansbury became a trending topic on Twitter due to public outcry. “When Angela Lansbury blames sexual assaults on victims being too attractive she needs a reminder,” actress Patricia Arquette tweeted alongside a photo of a horrific news story. “3 month old raped.” After next posting a news story about a ninety-year-old woman who was raped, she added, “it doesn’t matter how young or old, how beautiful or homely. Rapists rape. End of story.” Arquette continued her thread on Twitter with a point with which it’s difficult to disagree: “I hope you teach your daughter this—even nuns get raped. If she is ever assaulted it is because that attacked has no boundaries. Period.” [sic]
This is true. Sexual assault is always the perpetrator’s fault, and victims should not be blamed for the violating act—no matter what they were wearing, what their prior relationship was like, whether they froze or fought off the assailant, and so on. But I think in our haste to pile on Lansbury, we are missing an opportunity to look more deeply at a point that actually could use more exploration—the role of objectification in all this.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “objectify” as to “treat as an object.” When a man commits sexual harassment or assault against a woman, he is objectifying her—viewing her not as a person with rights, feelings, and dignity, but as an object for his viewing or consuming pleasure. Not all women who are assaulted are dressing to seek male attention, and not all women who are dressing for male attention are assaulted. So, Lansbury’s remarks may confuse more than they clarify; but they also seem to be pointing toward the elephant in the room that no one else wants to address. We women are not exactly helping curb the objectifying culture if we ourselves dress in such a way as to seek male attention as a pretty sexy thing, as opposed to the multi-faceted women we are. Can we be sexy and multifaceted at the same time? Sure! But sometimes it is the sex appeal that predominates.
Again, not everyone does this all the time; but c’mon, we’ve probably all done it at least once. Most women have dressed to try to bring attention to certain parts of her body as opposed to her mind, for example. When we do this, we’re at risk of objectifying ourselves. And because the objectifying cycle is very efficient, when we aim to get male attention, our goal is almost always successful; it’s far easier than displaying ourselves in a more authentic and vulnerable way.
Are women who objectify themselves asking for harassment and assault? No. But is it fair to say they may be asking for male attention? Whether or not we are aware of it—some of us are just subtly influenced by the media all around us that these are the standards of beauty—I think this is happening more than we’d like to admit.
Within this context of objectification, Lansbury’s comments make a little more sense: “Women…have gone out of their way to make themselves attractive. And unfortunately it has backfired on us.” Because objectifying and hypersexualized imagery of women is our current standard of beauty in America, it is backfiring. We are now objectifying ourselves, seeking the objectification of others, because we have fallen into the trap of thinking we must do so to matter. The impression in the media is that this is self-expression, but it might more accurately be called the new (objectifying) conformism.
I think it’s still unwise to suggest women need modesty police or to criticize women for how they dress, because it’s near impossible to distinguish whether or not someone is dressing with the intention of garnering male attention or whether they simply are attractive enough to get attention no matter what they wear. But we should be asking these questions of ourselves. While there’s still many gray areas surrounding the topics of women’s objectification and male sexual misconduct, and Lansbury’s words problematically seemed to blame women, the intersection of these topics is one that could use more thought and consideration on our part, not less.
Image: By Adam Rose/Turner Classic Movies