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.)
How objectification works in literature
So, given all this, let’s imagine a short story that has both a male character and a female character. The author writes them both in the first person, so that we can see how each of them views the same situation differently. This kind of story embodies both subjectivities. We can see through each subject’s eyes, equally. The story requires that we gaze from inside each character’s head, and see the unique way that the world and the other character looks to each of them. Literature is often judged on how believably characters are portrayed, and a good story of this kind would make both male and female readers feel, on average, reasonably well represented.
Literature is created by human beings; it isn’t “natural.” It’s about building imaginary worlds and then sharing them with other people. Authors write lots of characters and, for every character, they make a choice about whether the reader will gaze through their eyes, or whether the character will simply be gazed at by other characters and by readers.
Now, let’s invent a character who is a little girl in the 1960s. She is reading Huck Finn (one of my favorite books). Mark Twain wrote Huck in the first person because he wanted the reader to see everything through Huck’s eyes. Our little girl adopts his gaze, sees things from Huck’s perspective as she experiences his world. She loves Huck, and wants to be him, to float down the Mississippi herself. She reads more books, and the most exciting books have male protagonists who slay dragons, and go on adventures, and marry princesses. She loves to look out of the eyes of characters like that. But… all those characters are male. (This was the case when I was a kid.) The female characters are almost all written as objects. She learns that only boys get to do cool things, and think exciting thoughts. She hardly ever learns what princesses are thinking, because the author rarely tells her. Mostly, they just seem to be given to the prince as prizes in the end, like the ring in the Cracker Jack Box. So, she has a choice, she can be Huck, or she can be the princess. Which would you choose?
This is a form of literary indoctrination. There are now more books with active female characters, and a little girl today has more choice of who she wants to be, but boys and girls still do not have equal options. The emphasis on the male gaze is not a conspiracy, but it has the effect of one. Boys “naturally” learn that they’re supposed to subjects, but girls learn they can only be subjects if they are willing to spend much of their time gazing through the eyes of a boy. Black kids, or Chicano kids, and other children from minority groups have the same problem.. If you have to inhabit a white character to be a subject, and it’s clearly better to be a subject than an object, you’re going to inhabit the white character. Gay kids learn to look out of the eyes of straight characters. And so on.
It’s not a bad thing to learn to look out of the eyes of characters who are very different from you, but it is a bad thing if it almost always goes one way. If the vast majority of characters whose eyes we gaze through are straight, white, men, then the viewpoint of straight white men is naturalized — it is seen as “normal,” and all other viewpoints are seen as “different.” When a viewpoint is naturalized, we stop noticing that we’re using it, like a fish doesn’t notice it’s swimming in water, and like we don’t pay attention to the air we breathe. They only become obvious in their absence. It’s hard to change something that most people don’t even see.
Why is using a straight, white male gaze a problem, if most of us (white and black, male and female, gay and straight) don’t even notice that’s how we’re gazing? Straight white male characters often reflect the sexism and racism of their authors and society at large. For example, when that little girl in the 1960s read books about boys having adventures, and those boys made derogatory comments about girls like her, she needed to somehow ignore those comments in order to keep enjoying the book. If she reads enough of those comments about girls, she can easily come to believe that girls are the way that the characters in books describe them. In short, she learns not to be sensitive when she is insulted, and not to identify with the girls the boys negatively describe, and she may adopt their point of view. This is called internalizing oppression: in order to fully identify with many white, straight, male main characters, readers who are not white, straight males learn to objectify themselves in sexist or racist ways. In the end, they learn not to look out of their own eyes, but to look at themselves through the eyes of others who do not see them as equal.
Objectification in Film
So, now let’s skip to film. I like horror movies, so I’ll use those for my example. When you are watching a film, just as when you are reading a book, you are gazing at fictional characters. But film can give the illusion that you see what a character sees–the position of the camera can give you the feeling of being in a character’s head because of who it looks at. We call that the camera’s gaze.
We all know the genre conventions of horror movies — a group of kids in some isolated scary place, a freaky killer who picks them off one by one, until one brave kid is left or they all get killed. Pick your favorite off the video shelf and watch it. Watch what the camera looks at, and how. In most horror films, the gaze is almost always that of the killer, who is almost always male. The victims are both male and female, but the camera lingers longest on the “tastiest” victims, who are usually girls and women. Often the killer just seems to be getting the guys out of the way. The camera lingers on the victims and places the audience in the position of killer as he selects his next target. When the killer makes his move, we see the results of his work. We almost never see both the killer and the victim in the same frame, because it would ruin the illusion. What makes a horror movie “work” is that we can both fully inhabit the crazy subjectivity of the killer, and imagine the terror of our object, the victim. That wouldn’t work if we didn’t recognize our victim’s subjectivity. (A move psycho who took out his rage only on inanimate objects wouldn’t be very scary.)
Horror movies recognize both the male killer’s and the male and female victims’ subjectivity, so how is that objectification?
Now I’m going to introduce a new idea. Subjectivity and objectivity are relational, but not all relationships are as equal as they were in the short story about the boy and girl I described in the literature section. The new term is subject position. In horror movies, the subject position of the victims is one of powerlessness and terror. The killer holds all the power, and the victim has none. In a horror film, the killer is an “agent” and the victim is… a victim, powerless. The killer is the one who can stop and start the action in the scene, not the victim. (This power is often displayed when the camera lingers on a victim and we think the killer is going to attack, and then gasp with relief as his gaze moves on.)
In horror films, power is usually split along gender lines. Male subjectivity is powerful, and female subjectivity is weak. (Reversals of this convention take place, and put a new spin on old plots, as in the Nightmare on Elm Street series or Scary Movie spoofs, but these reversals only “work” because they challenge our expectations and surprise, underlining, once again, how rare they are.)
This male/strong vs. female/weak dichotomy is drummed into all our heads from a very young age. It’s repeated in every form of media we see. And repetition is incredibly powerful. We become what other people, and hence, we, believe we are. (For a very readable survey of how this works in racial terms, I strongly recommend Are We Born Racist?) Women rarely have the opportunity to inhabit strong, positive female characters in a subject position, but they have endless opportunity to inhabit male characters. Judith Fetterly, long ago, wrote a wonderful book called The Resisting Reader about exactly this problem; too little has changed since she wrote it.
Objectification in advertising
Now that you’ve got the concept of the “camera’s gaze,” you can easily apply it to advertising copy. You can tell, pretty quickly, if the camera’s gaze is male or female. The male gaze is ubiquitous in advertising, and especially in advertising that uses women’s bodies as part of a sales pitch. A woman who thinks about buying products will notice that many of the products she wants to buy (from cars to computers) are pitched to men, using female bodies as “bait.” And not only are they bait, but they’re shot in a way that emphasizes that the male subject is the agent, and the female object is powerful only because of her outside appearance. It’s not that different from horror movie subjectivity, but instead of being confined to a theater, where she can take it or leave it, that subject-object relation is absolutely everywhere.
Advertising, for the most part, turns us into men looking at women. It turns up the volume on power inequities my making the male character whose subjectivity we inhabit as powerful as possible in relation to the weaker female object. Even ads aimed at women (cleanser ads, ads for lingerie or perfume) work on the same principle. The woman is usually shown as an object whose new appearance is pleasing to onlooking men, or she’s shown as a subject whose only desire appears to be to please men. On the rare occasions on which she’s portrayed as having some power (able to fool men to get what she wants), the representation is stereotypical (women need to be beautiful or treacherous to get men to give them things; or, women are portrayed as fooling men in order to get men to do healthy or smart things). Advertising works by playing on the desires of men to be more powerful, and the desires of women to please powerful or to invisibly assist weak men so that they look more powerful.
These desires portrayed in advertising are no more “natural” than other fictional representations. These desires match those of the majority culture, which is sexist and racist. They reflect and replicate existing inequities. It’s a rare ad that sells via real social transgression — usually the ads we view as socially transgressive are actually behind the social curve. For example, “groundbreaking” ads featuring normalized gay couples didn’t start appearing until the demographics in the regions they were aired seemed “ready” (in the eyes of the ad agency). Ads want to attract, not alienate.
How do I know what kind of objectification is bad? Am I always evil for drooling over women in bikinis?
There’s an interesting correlation between the roles given to women in advertising and the roles given to women in pornography. The poses are interchangeable, though the outfits differ. This is because advertising is a kind of pornography. It isn’t selling sex directly, but, then, neither is porn. Both are selling power and desirability to men in the guise of a product, and using the promise of the bodies of women to do it.
Every representation of a human being involves some level of objectification. The real questions are: How damaging is this objectification to segments of the audience? How does this objectification support or challenge the current power structure? Whose point of view is naturalized? Objectification, remember, is subjective.
As a feminist, I’m interested in equality for all. So I find objectifications that depend on racism, sexism, or homophobia—that naturalize inequality and affirm stereotypes—to be offensive and “wrong.” The objectifications you personally dislike will be based on your own value system, so I can’t tell you what they should be. All I can say is that it’s important to recognize how literature, film, and other media, including advertising, reinforce inequality, and dictate to us (usually without our conscious realization) which subject positions we should inhabit.
How do we know that objectification can be harmful?
It’s clear that negative stereotypes are harmful, and most of the objectifications in advertising play on negative stereotypes. For lots and lots of social psychology and sociology and neuroscience surveys to back this up, I suggest the following reading, in addition to Are We Born Racist?
- Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel
- Racism, Sexism, and the Media: The Rise of Class Communication in Multicultural America
- The Psychology of Prejudice and Discrimination
- The Harms of Crime Media: Essays on the Perpetuation of Racism, Sexism and Class Stereotypes
- Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do