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“Objectification” isn’t to blame for All The Bad Things

March 24, 2014

If you spend time around the familiar haunts of feminism (strands of Tumblr, feministing, Jezebel) you might see that this thing called “objectification” banded about a lot. Objectification is a fairly straightforward word in its basic definition; humans beings (usually men) treating other human beings (usually women) as objects for their gratification, as opposed to as whole human beings with thoughts, desires, wishes and autonomy.

By and large I have no objection to that definition, but in practice the concept of objectification becomes more complex. Just because you can read a definition of objectification off of a page and agree that it is a Bad Thing, that doesn’t mean that you can recognise it when you see it in the big wide world.

If objectification is simply the act of identifying a person as attractive only in the physical sense, then we have all objectified. That person who you spared half a glance to on the train. Nigella Lawson. Colin Firth. Anyone who people can agree is attractive has basically been universally objectified; you don’t know these people, yet you see them as sexual. You can’t help but do so because attraction is primal and based on the senses, one of the main ones being sight. You cannot see personality and your sexual response isn’t going to wait around until you do.

Objectification then, must refer to degree more than action. Our more sexually liberated world (in some spheres of existence) allows women to verbalise, at the very least to each other, which people they find most attractive. This is objectification just the same as when it occurs in men, but in my experience, only the most highly strung or conservative men actually take issue with it.

This increase in the female objectification of men (or of other women, y’know, whatever) suggests two things: 1) that objectification is at least partly nature, else the drive wouldn’t exist in the first place; 2) that acceptance of this drive increases its frequency. To what degree it increases the frequency isn’t clear. It doesn’t seem to be at a level in women worth complaining about, though some do think it to be at a worrying level within men.

At some point, objectification became seen as a widespread social problem. The reason for this cannot be the thing itself, because a social problem is as a social problem does; if objectification (a very private thing) is universal but has no effect, it must be harmless in and of itself. If it is not harmless, it must be causing other behaviours which are harmful.

Which ones it is causing will be debated fiercely for years to come, but let say at the very least it causes catcalling and body shaming. The former is an aggressive expression of your appreciation of someone’s looks, the latter an aggressive expression of your lack of appreciation. Here I come back to rising female objectification in men as an example of how objectification itself isn’t the issue; despite the fact that men objectify women more than women objectify men (if only because of its having been well-established, socially) body shaming from women onto men is not less degrading or less offensive.

We aren’t used to it, so some of us still naively laugh, but it is not a more tolerable trait on women than on men. It may be an increase in objectification that is causing this change, or it may simply be that women emulate what they see of men because it is seen as a “privilege” and thus desirable; men can body shame women, so why can’t women body shame men? That would be the subconscious line of thinking.

In order to become a systemic problem, any social problem has to work its way unquestioned into the fabric of society. A society that comes to see any one set of people as being part of a set objectifies its members by default. Objectification becomes, not the every-once-in-a-while admiration or rudeness of a stranger, but the constant inability to engage with the very obvious fact that the people who you objectify are people, whether you know them or not.

So objectification is as much a symptom as a cause; because a group of people can be loosely lumped in together, wide-scale objectification is not only encouraged but impossible to avoid. If one person is an object, and she is just like all the rest, then they must all be objects. My suggested antidote to this is not that we hastily avert our eyes from all people we find attractive, lest we leap lecherously onto them in the middle of the crowded Tube, but rather that we work on ways to cease identifying people as being primarily part of a generalised group – particularly as large a group as “women”.

In a society that favours grouping as a means of identifying characteristics, it id unlikely we will ever get rid of casually lumping people in together based on easily identifiable (and thus quite possibly irrelevant) traits; to start with, some people desire them. “Gay” and “black” are descriptions that can be important modes of self-identification for those about which they apply. Even if you believe that the wish for such self-identifiers is born out of a counter-cultural movement that would not exist were it not for prejudice, it is not people outside these groups to demand that people within them cease to identify in the way that suits them best.

The better way to tackle the problem is to make sure that one sees the group someone else belongs to as a secondary trait rather than a primary one. Primary traits could be defined as all the parts of a person’s personality that you must take time to uncover. This covers everything from the weak and general “nice” to the ultra-specific “otaku”.

This is easier to do with generalised groups about which we can all agree the members have little in common with each other. Ironically, whilst having taken longer to get off the ground, LGBT rights are continuing to establish firmly that not all people within LGBT are of the same type, in a way that feminism has not quite been able to achieve in regards to women, perhaps because of its confused aims; is it empowering to identify as a woman? To be feminine? To be sexy? To be sexual? Or are these distractions from a greater goal?

More likely, however, it is because our ideas about men and women, both being accepted mainstream strands of society, are more firmly established than our ideas of LGBT. They are established by authoritative systems and individuals over a long period of time. There have been vested interests in claiming that men are better at X compared to women and vice versa, thus men and women are different. There is a large market for baseless claptrap about the ways in which men and women differ. Some people find these conversations fun and stimulating – I’d say they are, provided they are inoffensive and that those involved do not expect to arrive at any conclusion.

An interesting aspect of gender politics is that is often the ideas that people most agree on that are the most damaging, either because they are simply incorrect or because even if they are not, arguing that the World Should Stay The Same and Everyone Must Know Their Place based on the trends of the past is inherently limiting to us as a species and inhibits our social evolution. In order to change the inequities that exist, we must personally take the initiative to challenge our most deeply ingrained notions of gender.

Meanwhile, the best way to avoid objectification is to be mindful of the fact that it exists, and you do do it. Then you can check yourself. If you check yourself, the likelihood that you are one of the worst offenders is greatly diminished.

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From → Gender Politics

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