I don’t think there’s any word more commonly misunderstood in feminist discourse– both by feminists and non-feminists– than objectification. This annoys me, because it’s actually a really useful concept.
Most important misunderstanding: objectification is not a synonym for attraction. Let me say that in shouty letters. OBJECTIFICATION IS NOT A SYNONYM FOR ATTRACTION. Feminists (at least, the sort I want to associate with) have nothing against attraction, not even the attraction of men for women. They’re against treating people like objects! A few moment’s reflection can see that those are two fundamentally different things.
For instance, consider a non-sexual example of objectification: the headless fatty phenomenon.
[A person with a belly whose head is cut out of the picture. I looked up ‘Obesity Epidemic’ on Google News and this was the illustration of literally the second article. The first was illustrated with doughnuts.]
“Headless fatties” are used to illustrate articles about obesity. Instead of presenting fat people as a diverse group with a variety of reasons for being obese and a bunch of interests, personality traits, and desires that are entirely unrelated to their weight, headless fatty pictures erase the humanity of fat people and reduce them to a single thing– their number on a scale. Instead of being, say, my queer, agender friend who likes hippos and Supernatural and arguing about which Avengers ought to bang each other, they become simultaneously an object of scorn (“ugly, undesirable whales who don’t eat anything but potato chips amd never exercise except to pick up a remote”) and threat (“you might become one of these terrifying beast-monsters… at least, if you don’t buy our diet plan”). This is the rankest objectification… and it has nothing to do with sexual attraction! Rather the converse, in fact, as the alleged fact that no one wants sex with fat people (ha. ha. bloody. ha.) is used as a reason why one ought to dislike them.
So let’s consider the thornier issue of sexual objectification.
Not all erotic imagery is objectifying. For instance, (super NSFW) Sex Is Not The Enemy and Male Submission Art are full of erotic pictures where you get a sense that the people involved are, you know, people who have personalities and lives beyond being sexy. If you like artsier stuff, Robert Mapplethorpe’s pictures work too (Google at your own risk). Whatever. But compare with this picture:
Which is basically just “here are some sexy legs, buy our stuff.”
Now! Objectification is not necessarily a bad thing: you are probably going to treat the barista making your coffee at Starbucks as a Caffeinated Beverage Delivery Object, and that’s cool. Even sexual objectification is not necessarily a bad thing. If I see someone with a hot ass, I’m going to primarily think about their ass, and not their unique and authentic personhood. And, you know, if there were only a few ads that were objectifying and they used a variety of bodies, I wouldn’t really have a problem with it. You don’t always want to engage with the model’s personhood, sometimes you just want to see what the sexy shoes look like with some feet in.
But it’s not just a few ads.
I’m not sure if I’m more disturbed by the ad that wanted to show the lady was confident without actually depicting her doing anything remotely confident (I mean, I know they want to show off the lingerie, but couldn’t she be seducing the guy she liked or something?), or the creepy vacant-eyed person biting their thumb at me. Seriously, I have only ever seen that expression on people on mega-doses of interesting psychedelics.
Anyway! The problem here is that the pervasiveness of the “women as sex objects” thing sends the following messages:
- Women are supposed to be sexually attractive. Sexually attractive men are impossible.
- Women are only valuable for being sexy. Sexiness is the only worthy goal for women to try to achieve. Sorry, ladies, no one is interested in your brains or personalities or Nobel Peace Prizes. They just like your boobs.
- The only sexually attractive women are thin, young, white, perky-breasted, feminine and otherwise conforming to our ten million arbitrary specifications.
- If you do not conform to the ten million arbitrary specifications, you are a failure as a woman.
These are pretty crap messages, I think everyone can agree!
So basically! If you’re one of those dudes who is all “my sexual desire is oppressing women!”, relax. Unless you think that women are primarily useful for sexual purposes (in which case GTFO my blog), it is cool to have sexual desires, to desire conventionally attractive women, and like porn. It is even cool to wank to objectifying imagery! It is not cool to make objectifying imagery that promotes crappy stereotypes, or to have the entire culture* only sexually objectify one rather tiny segment of the population. We cool?
So, to sum up:
1) Sexual desire =/= objectification.
2) Erotic or sexualized imagery =/= objectification.
3) Objectification =/= necessarily bad.
4) Objectification = treating people like objects instead of people.