Follow-up to my article on the objectification of women.
My article published earlier this month, “It’s Not Misogyny — It’s Worse Than That,” had many readers and many great comments. That’s wonderful because the issue of discrimination against and oppression of women is something that needs more public discussion. I thank everyone who read and participated in the discussion.
I knew when I published that article that there needed to be a follow-up expanding on these important issues. In particular, the reality of objectification is broader and deeper than I could cover in the initial article. Several ignorant men responded to my first article with crass, ignorant remarks, demonstrating how deeply too many people feel the need to objectify other people. Others who commented have given me some valuable ideas to add to the discussion. I will incorporate some of their ideas here.
In this article, I will explore some other manifestations of objectification. I will start by extending my earlier remarks on the objectification of women and then discuss how widespread across society the phenomenon of objectification is.
Beyond Sexual Objectification—Women as Objects
Because I was responding to a recent incident of sexual abuse of a woman, my article focused primarily on the widespread sexual objectification of women. I mentioned that women are also exposed to being objectified as servant objects.
Even when women aren’t subject to sexual abuse, they are treated as objects to be owned and used by men. When one hears talk of women as property, denied basic human rights, one thinks of countries like Afghanistan. The reality is that men were entitled legally to own their wives and children as properties within living memory in many countries.
The legal concept of coverture placed women on the level of minor children, denying women legal identities and representations in society. These laws remained in place until the last hundred years. Similarly, you or your mother was alive while multiple countries still denied women the right to vote.
Even when women aren’t openly owned, they are often objectified. Let’s remind ourselves of what objectification means—reducing a person to an object. That reduction takes place in various forms and intensities, but it always is a denial of a woman’s individuality and free will. The woman in subtle or overt ways is depersonalized, simply something there of no importance.
Marinka put it very well in her comments.
This happens beyond the most obvious layers of objectification as well. Even when a man doesn’t behave like he has a right to your body and contributes equally to household chores, it can still be present in harder-to-pin-down ways. Like ridicule, negating feelings, and just straight-up ignoring needs and wants and ideas about in which direction to take life. But because one is treated well on the more obvious layers of objectification, (which already is something to be “grateful” for) it is harder to see the subtle erosion of not being treated as a human being whose individuality and agency matters. The woman is supposed to add pleasantness to the trajectory man wants to walk. Oh dear, if she thwarts that by having thoughts, feelings or ideas about that shared trajectory.
Marinka points out something very important—the ways in which women are objectified go well beyond the sexual or sensual and into everyday activities. In more ways than we can count, women are assumed to exist for men, even in subtle, almost mundane, ways.
He assumed that if he wanted it for me, then I wanted it, too. It never occurred to him to ever ask me what I wanted, and was always surprised that I had my own thoughts and desires.
I have heard versions of that experience told by numerous women. How many women have experienced a man who assumes he knows what is best for a woman? He will say he is being considerate, but without considering what the woman thinks and feels.
Women are expected to go along with it. It’s a man’s world, and women are bit players within it, socialized to cater to men. As another commenter expressed:
Women are conditioned to seek male approval, so being used by men is a sign of affirmation.
It’s important to realize that a society doesn’t have to look like A Handmaid’s Tale to be patriarchal. Life manifests on a spectrum. There are many ways in which women are disregarded, dismissed, and disparaged. Milder forms of objectification are still damaging to women and society at large. Not objectifying women involves much more than not raping or beating women. It involves not denying women their voices, their individuality, and their agency.
Sia recommended a documentary, Miss Representation, that portrays some of the ways that women are still denied full participation in society.
From the site’s description of the movie:
The media is selling the idea that girls’ and women’s value lies in their youth, beauty, and sexuality and not in their capacity as leaders. Boys learn that their success is tied to dominance, power, and aggression. We must value people as whole human beings, not gendered stereotypes.
Gender stereotypes inherently are forms of objectification. The concepts of “man” and “woman” are ideological stereotypes that define people, diminishing and at times stripping people of their individuality and rights. To see someone as a “woman” rather than as an individual is a form of objectification because you are reducing that person to gender roles, disregarding who they are.
Of course, we must never forget that when women dare to express or even have their own thoughts and desires, it makes men uncomfortable. Much of human society is geared toward ensuring that men aren’t made to feel uncomfortable.
The resentment some men feel when they don’t get what they feel they are due is an example of how their sense of “justice” is offended. Society has taught them that they are owed certain things if they follow a certain script.
Some men, when this warped sense of “justice” is offended, take it out on women. Objects are to be used.
Objectification of women is not about sex; it’s about power. (Source: Piqsels)
Objectification of Labor and Consumers
Unsurprisingly, some readers brought up the issue of objectification within capitalism. This idea, of course, comes from Karl Marx, who claimed that capitalism reduces labor to commodities, thus reducing workers to objects. Moreover, Marx claimed, capitalism objectifies and alienates people to the degree that the capitalist superstructure determines all social interactions. Society is thus reduced by capitalism to objectified interactions among capitalists, workers, and consumers. This objectification provides the basis of capitalism’s commodity exchange.
Our society is shaped by economic forces, no doubt, and economic forces are shaped by the desires of the wealthy (mostly men, by the way) who control big business. We are all objectified by big business, which considers workers to be “human resources” stacked next to the resources of raw materials and production machinery. Objectified workers are used by big business for profit not much differently than any other object.
The rest of us are objectified as “consumers” to be manipulated and used for profit. Some will retort that capitalism requires businesses to satisfy customers, but such a view is utopian ignorance. In capitalism, you can make money by making an inferior product and convincing people that they need the product. That’s what marketing is, and marketing is objectifying the consumer as a set of demographic characteristics to be manipulated. The best-selling brands are not the highest-quality brands but the brands that spend the most on marketing (manipulation).
But Marx also objectified people with his theory of dialectical materialism. Marx did not see people as individuals with free will and agency but as objects determined by economic forces. Marx and many Marxists are guilty of perpetuating capitalism’s objectification of people, in essence just rearranging the objects within a reductionist economics. In both capitalism and Marxism, people are mere objects controlled by economic forces.
Nonobjectified economic relations can be recognized within a free enterprise model of commerce. In free enterprise, commercial relations intertwine with interpersonal relations, allowing mutual recognition of all involved. Businesses that are not capitalist or Marxist are free to deal with people as individuals rather than as objects.
Objectification by Science
It is no coincidence that Karl Marx developed his theories of objectification in the scientific age. Some of his followers gladly take on the label of “scientific Marxism.” Science is also guilty of the objectification of people, especially when science is deified.
Science is a set of tools to develop models of how objects function. Science achieves its aims by reducing its objective scientific and mathematical mapping of phenomena to repetitive sets of mathematical rules. In other words, the purpose of science is to objectify everything.
There is a point to science’s methodology, and it is useful. Science is good at mapping, modeling, and manipulating objects. However, just as some men are blind to how they objectify women and some businesspeople are blind to how they objectify workers and consumers, some scientists are blind to how they objectify people.
Scientists (mostly men, by the way) are as prone as the average person to seeing other people as objects. The problem with science is that its success in objectifying objects and processes gives science’s practitioners the false sense that their methodology always works. Science is not good at understanding people. When science tries to study people while forgetting that people are not objects, science fails.
Objectification by Politics
I don’t need to say much about this subject. Whatever political system is used, people are objectified. Even in democracy, with its principle of one person one vote, the individual is reduced to a demographic characteristic—an income group, a race, a gender, an age, and so on. The politicians have little if any interest in individual people, only in “the voters”—an objectified abstraction.
Objectification as Exclusion and Domination
Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas wrote eloquently about the ethical demands placed on us when the individual person faces us. The presence of the face of an individual person is a divine commandment but without divine authority. It stops you from doing whatever you want to the other person. To deny the ethical obligations that we have to Others, Levinas said, we must first deny their faces—deny that they are a person like us.
Objectifying another is to withhold from them recognition as a human being. All injustices are preceded by objectification to a lesser or greater degree because objectification allows one to justify as ethical using another person as one would any other object.
In objectification, we are excluding others from ethical consideration. We are drawing a circle of ethical value and excluding the others from it. This creates an Us and an objectified, dehumanized Them placed outside the circle of ethics. In our decision-making, we need not concern ourselves with the interests of the objectified. This is what makes domination possible. And domination is what objectification is all about.
The 2000s lad culture that Russell Brand epitomised wasn’t funny then. It looks even more hideous today.
Young women who challenged the swirling misogyny were bullied and harassed – it’s high time we listened to the victims…www.theguardian.com