OPINION
03/07/2020 10:03 EST

Why Climate-Change Deniers Are Sexualizing Figures Like Greta Thunberg And Naomi Seibt

Greta Thunberg and "climate realist" figurehead Naomi Seibt are too often reduced to their looks.

Manu R.B/Alterphotos/ABACAPRESS.COM (left); ERIK S. LESSER/EPA (right)
Greta Thunberg (left) and Naomi Seibt (right).

Nothing makes conservative men opposing climate progress more uncomfortable than an opinionated woman.

Greta Thunberg’s work is legendary, even at 17. She’s worked to create awareness about the dangers of climate change, met with world leaders to discuss the importance of harnessing alternative energy sources, and proposed tangible solutions to potential future climate issues.

Her stance has attracted the attention of critics wishing to silence her, including through the use of unsolicited and explicit sexual comments. An Alberta oil company, X-Site Energy Services, recently took responsibility for a sticker that appeared to depict Thunberg, a minor, in a violent sexual position. A half-hearted attempt at an apology can’t mask how predatory and revolting a move it was on the firm’s part. 

This isn’t the first time that conservative trolls have used Thunberg’s physical appearance to define her. U.S. President Donald Trump’s former aide, Sebastien Gorka, referred to Thunberg as “thunder thighs, Greta Thunberg” in an interview with crime writer Andrew Klavan. (She was 16 at the time.) An interview with news outlet Breitbart described Thunberg as “hatchet-faced,” as if harping on her appearance were as legitimate a criticism as calling her “brainwashed” or a “puppet of the climate-industrial complex.” That’s saying nothing of the lewd remarks one finds on social media and in comment sections.

It is the same patriarchal power structure that insists that if you’re old enough to fight for the environment, you’re old enough to be a sexual object.

However, Thunberg is not the only victim of numerous sexual comments spewing from the mouths and keyboards of climate-change deniers, or “realists,” as they often prefer to be called. Nineteen-year-old Naomi Seibt, portrayed as Thunberg’s antithesis on both sides of the partisan divide, has also been sexually objectified — often by her own supporters.

Seibt’s pointed views and “don’t-panic-until-we-know-for-sure” environmental message have received praise from conservative climate-change deniers. Nonetheless, her influence, too, is often reduced to the value of her attractiveness. Seibt has been exalted in the minds of conservative climate naysayers because of her blond, white and “conventionally attractive” appearance. Though Seibt makes some valuable points amid her rhetoric, one only needs to peruse the comments of her YouTube videos to see that many people care less about her views than they do about her looks.

Why is it that sexualization, and specifically violent sexualization, is used as a tool against some successful, outspoken women, as well as a method to control or co-opt others? And why does this misogyny go unchallenged by some climate deniers, even when the targets are young women?

Thunberg is neither surprised nor fazed by the misogynistic reaction to her climate-action efforts. Why would anyone be? There is a strong link between male-dominated alt-right structures, climate change, and the sexualization of young women and teens

Studies have found that a common theme for right-wing climate sceptic groups is the perceived threat climate activism — a movement predominantly led by women — poses to the “certain kind of modern industrial society built and dominated by their form of masculinity.” It is the same patriarchal power structure that insists that if you’re old enough to fight for the environment, you’re old enough to be a sexual object.

The danger of this, beyond objectification, is that it distracts from the real issues.

There is a long history of men weaponizing sexualization to diminish the powerful personas and messaging of influential women. It occurs on both sides of the coin: as both praise for the women who agree to their agenda, and as retribution for those who don’t.

Women are constantly being evaluated for being either a threat to the establishment, or as a tool. If you’re a woman who’s ever been called a slut, a whore or worse for speaking your mind, you’ve been a victim of this mentality. Conversely, if you’ve been told that you’re sexually desirable after agreeing with a man’s objective or opinion, you’ve also become a victim of patriarchal control. 

In the eyes of many conservative men, a compliant woman is a useful woman. Constantly reinforcing the link between a woman’s value and her desirability — rather than her contributions or ideas — ensures this compliance and creates a state of dependency.

Ultimately, the threat and tool of sexualizing women works toward the grand objective of the game: to keep women at their most demure, and to keep men at their most powerful.

Climate change is only one stage on which women’s accomplishments are reduced to their perceived sexual worth. The danger of this, beyond objectification, is that it distracts from the real issues, whether they be the dismantling of problematic socio-political structures or the prospect of total planetary destruction.

I wonder how many more teenaged women will be casualties of the patriarchal structure of sexualization and repression. I’m hoping that, for once, the patriarchy can lay down its sword before the damage to our climate is considered to be irreversible.

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