I have a healthy dose of respect for Hugo Schwyzer, and find myself paying closer and closer attention to him as I enter a situation much like his, a male instructor in a Women’s Studies program. I don’t always agree with Hugo, but I’m always impressed by the way he deals with often sensitive and often highly personal topics. In this post, “But you’re pretty”: a pro-feminist musing on why compliments don’t help, Hugo responds to the targeting of Jill at Feministe on a bulletin board at her school, where students posted and then viciously attacked photographs of her. That women are judged, marginalized, and even endangered by their looks is a cornerstone of feminist thought, but to see it in practice is still horrifying. Hugo addresses the converse of this — how compliments can be threatening and marginalizing, even when well-intentioned:
How many bad pick-up lines start with overzealous praise of a woman’s appearance? Men use these lines because as hackneyed as they are, they know sometimes they work. By the time they reach college, most men recognize that a great many women are deeply and profoundly hungry for praise, and by offering that praise, guys will be able to gain an opening. When men praise the beauty of women they barely know, they are employing an old patriarchal strategy that preys upon a serious vulnerability.