Fun with developers’ penises and PHP: the male gaze, revisited.

The male gaze is a term used in critical media theory to describe a story, scene, or specific shots that are framed from the perspective of men, for the pleasure of other men. The concept of the male gaze applies to more than just film, however. It applies equally to the framing of the ‘Enhance Your PHPness!’ t‐shirts distributed by Web & PHP magazine at PHP UK 2013.

Enhance your PHPness, a joke that assumes its audience is male. Image: @mrhazell

This weekend, I gave the opening keynote at the UK’s premier PHP conference, PHP UK 2013. It is a conference that has a special place in my heart as they believed in me enough four years ago to give me my first chance to present the opening keynote at a major international conference. And it has been a wonderful ride ever since. I had a lovely audience and my talk was very well received. I ended up missing most of the first day as Laura and I wanted to be there for a friend who wasn’t feeling too well. As such, I was blissfully out of the loop on the whole PHPness affair until the organisers mentioned it to me at the closing social.

Initially, I wasn’t going to make a comment because others, like Cal Evans, had already called out the issue. What made me finally decide to write this post was seeing a tweet from Stefan Koopmanschap and the resulting conversation.

Unexamined male privilege

Unfortunately, it seems that many in the PHP community do not understand what the problem with those t‐shirts is. Web and PHP Magazine, the folks who printed the t‐shirt, put out a blog post today defending their decision. And we have a lot of unexamined male privilege being showcased in tweets like this one:

Somebody get that dude a t‐shirt with a penis on it, right away!

Perpetuating the male gaze

The problem with the t‐shirt isn’t whether or not people are offended by the ‘joke’ or not. The problem is that it talks to a male audience. The enhance your PHPness/enhance your penis double entendre speaks to people with penises. Its audience is men. It is perpetuating the male gaze. Women — apart from some transgender women — do not have penises; the t‐shirt is not even talking to them, it is only talking to people who have penises. The underlying assumption, therefore, is that developers who do PHP are men. The double entendre only makes sense if it is assumed that the PHP developer is male. Hence it is perpetuating the male gaze.

Regardless of what Web & PHP magazine’s original intentions were, they should have understood — once it was pointed out to them — that the t‐shirts helped to perpetuate the male gaze at a predominantly male conference. Surely, that’s not something people who care about greater diversity in the community and at events would want to knowingly perpetuate.

The male gaze

I’ve written at length about the male gaze before, so I won’t repeat myself here. Please read my earlier article for more examples and details. It’s easy enough to perpetuate the male gaze and those who do it don’t always do it consciously. The thing not to do however, is to continue defending it when it is pointed out to you. And I believe that this is where Web & PHP magazine initially went wrong on Twitter and continues to go wrong today. This was the initial Twitter conversation on the subject, to give you an idea of just how badly they handled it:

The hardest battle

Unfortunately, a number of women also voiced their support for the t‐shirts (e.g., The PHPness riot and sexism overreaction by Erika Heidi). That always makes it harder both for other women and for men who care about diversity to argue this issue. Laura Kalbag has a great post on just this subject titled Women and Conferences in which she says:

I used to not understand the fuss around women at conferences, I thought that we should all just carry on with what we were doing well already and not get caught up in needless controversy. I even wrote a blog post saying exactly that a couple of years ago. I’d never experienced (to my knowledge) any difficulties because I was a woman.

She goes on to say:

But then I started hearing more about/was exposed to women who did have bad experiences. And I attended a few events where I just didn’t feel comfortable. It took me a while to pinpoint why I didn’t feel right. I didn’t realise right away that it was the lack of diversity that made me feel singled out. I realised that it was also the reason I felt uncomfortable when I was invited to women-only events. It wasn’t because I want to be surrounded by women, it’s because I want to be surrounded by diversity. It’s unique perspectives that bring more interesting solutions to problems and promote innovation.

And she hits the nail on the head with this line:

At these events where I felt uncomfortable, I didn’t have any bad experiences, it was more that I felt people didn’t expect me to be there; I wasn’t the target audience.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how the male gaze works.

So what should we do?

Here are a few quick tips:

I feel that the biggest problem I’m seeing is a downright denial from some people that sexism could ever exist in the PHP community, even when faced with a textbook example of an object that perpetuates the male gaze. The first step towards making things better is to stop being defensive and acknowledging that there is a problem. And I sincerely hope that Web & PHP magazine, the organisers of the PHP UK conference, and the community in general will do just that.

Further reading