What’s the Matter with Sexy Ads?

January 26, 2013 / no comments

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This post was originally written in response to Patriot Daily’s diary, “Objectifying Women Not A Progressive Value.” She has a whole gallery of graphic ads and commentary, and I recommend a visit.  My original post is still up at DailyKos, but this is the expanded, updated version.  As you’ll notice, I’m not posting images, because I think this would defeat the purpose of the essay, but you can see a good set of examples in Business Insider’s list of “The Sexiest Ads of 2012.”

Half-naked women in bikinis! Olympic athletes montaged into soft porn! Ads that promise the girl along with the car!  What’s the problem with objectification, anyway?

What is objectification, anyway?

Objectification is all about how one person relates to another.  There’s a subject (let’s call that “you”).  You’re complicated: you have an eye, a heart, and a brain, and you use them all when you look at an object.  You can look, for example, at inanimate objects:  the table, the door, the keyboard. When you look they seem, from your perspective, attractive, or useful, or ugly, or boring, etc. In short, you attribute traits to them based on their value to you, as well as on their objective characteristics (short, tall, big, red, etc.).   In theory, we call this look “the gaze.”  Subjects gaze: they look at other things from their own perspective.

That was pretty straightforward, so let’s complicate.  You (the subject) are looking at another person (the object).  But that person is also her own subject, and is looking at you.  In her eyes, you are the object.  Every person is a subject, looking at objects.  We can’t ever be another person; we always gaze out of our own eyes.

But we can recognize that other people are subjects, too, even if we can’t climb into their heads.  We can understand that they are somehow different from chairs or doors or keyboards.  This is called recognizing subjectivity, and as you might guess it’s an important part of empathy — feeling what you think other people might feel. (Neuropsychologists and evolutionary biologists are now discussing whether our capacity to emphasize is a product of mirror neurons in our brains.)

So, if we’re all subjects, and we’re all objects to other people, how is “objectification” in advertising (or other media) a bad thing?

Let’s go back to the empathy part.  Part of being able to recognize another subject is being able to imagine ourselves in their position.  We can look at them looking at us, and realize that we are both doing the same thing.  Most of us like it when other people recognize us as subjects.  It doesn’t feel good when they don’t recognize us, because we feel like we’re not important, or we don’t matter as people.  (Think of the last time you were at a party or a meeting, and you didn’t know anyone, and felt ignored because no one came to talk to you, or asked your opinion.) Continue Reading…

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