Among the many victories of successive waves of Western feminism, freedom holds a high position. For women, the freedom to publicly express their genuine, anti-normative thoughts, manifest their emotions, and define the shape and nature of their own being in the world is a rather new reality, still met with resistance in many societies today. Nevertheless, with this freedom comes great power, the kind that ensures recognition and acknowledgement, and can instantly take down, at least discursively, any remaining stronghold of patriarchy. Can this power be misused? Is it always discerning enough to not undermine its own premise?
Hot Dudes Reading is an Instagram community ran for the simple cause of collecting photos of attractive men reading in public places, from anonymous contributors around the world. Over 270 photos have been already uploaded, for a following of nearly 920 thousand, with an average of 40 thousand likes per photo and hundreds of comments. This is an imbalanced relationship: an overwhelming number of looking subjects combined with a relatively reduced number of looked-at objects. Does equally imbalanced power dynamics follow this?
These are not hot dudes reading, but images of hot dudes reading, an important distinction in establishing the nature of intention and the vectors of control, which follow the blueprint of patriarchal objectification women still fight against. The men depicted entered the public space, thus adjusting their expectation of privacy, but this does not necessarily translate to expectations regarding their image, recorded and deployed online, to be traded within a community of consumers. The awareness some of the subjects show to being photographed is paralleled by a prevalence of seemingly unaware men. To a contributor´s own admission, they often remain uninformed: “I bet he enjoys his scotch neat, still writes love letters by hand, isn't into online dating, and will never even know I posted this.”
The complicating matter of the liability of sharing images of strangers online seems to be simplified here by the clear-cut mix of intention, framing, and discourse that single out the subject of the photo. The accompanying captions contain almost always sexual innuendo, emphasising, on the surface, the empowering characteristic of this act.
The sexualising of these strangers is a process that most definitely starts before the photo is being taken. This raises questions of classification and definition: what is a dude? What makes him hot? The components of hotness and the classification of men into dudes and not dudes is essentially an act of exclusion, which, again, reproduces the normative format of patriarchy. The impulse of snapping a photo of a hot dude turns into a sort of a hunt for a prescribed, pre-approved type of man: only a particular body type, a certain age group and demeanour seem to be preferred/ accepted. When straying from the recipe, the “deviation” is emphasised as part of the allure of the photo: “Normally this time of year, pumpkin is the only spice I’m interested in, but after riding next to this silver fox, all I can think about is salt and pepper. He's reading a book about business etiquette, so it probably wasn’t a good idea that I told him that, just like his gray hair, I also look great on top.”
Is there any difference between this popular trend and catcalling, the highly-aggressive, insulting attitude of men towards women in public spaces? The argument can be made that the photographer here is not interrupting or expressing any form of sexualisation and demeaning behaviour on the spot. However, this behaviour is reanimated online, with the subject dragged into a disturbingly similar zone of objectification, where likes, comments, and re-shares stand in for slurs and innuendo. That women feel empowered by giving a form to their desires is unquestionable, but the fact that it comes at the cost of men losing control over how their image is being (ab)used needs to be questioned.
Words: Elena Stanciu