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?
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.