Picture a strong female. Either a real one that you know, or a character in a story. She has a name, and, please, some defining characteristics and purpose. Now: objectify her.
Thank you. The thought experiment is now over. But one last thing before you go.
What did that look like? I am going to assume, quite safely, that your woman lost clothing, changed poses, became younger, and was suddenly holding firearms.
Did you note that I specified ‘strong’ female, instead of just a normal one? Did you wonder why I felt the need to employ this already tired definition?
Sexual objectification is the most visually enticing and rampant extension of objectification, and consequently the most discussed in cultural discourse and at the forefront of ‘women’s issues’. It’s also undeniably the swag younger cousin of the sexual ‘difference’that women are perceived to embody, and therefore the unwitting scapegoat of sexism itself.
What all the slow-motion jiggling and ever-so-slightly-open-mouthed back-breaking poses distract us from is its insidious has-been of an older cousin (if you’re enjoying the familial analogies: the true purveyor of the incestuous birth-giving of contemporary gender understanding).
Pure, unadulterated, everyday objectification!
This is the true barrier to understanding and dismantling discrimination; sexual objectification is the skin that’s formed on top: it’s everywhere, we can’t help but pick at it (….enough analogies: Ed.) We often nonchalantly miss, and at worst express contempt for, the existence of female agency. This is general objectification borne from a history of oppression, repression and ignorance that, after legislative and rhetorical gains for human rights (sorry, women’s rights) remains active in our cultural understanding.
It is found from discussions of women’s clothing and how they ‘should’ appear (#bitchesplease), from the niqab debate to the rape apologies, to the complicated transition to motherhood/or not, and far beyond. Our ideology states in deafeningly silent address that women are subject to ever changing goalposts, that we fail to meet the standards set out for us, and we fail because we’re women. And also that we live in a post-racist, post-feminist, post-stratified society and we’re humourless about this hilarious utopia.
British MPs cannot legislate what women can wear in order to make them more free to wear what they choose; wearing a certain outfit does not instigate or make you complicit in an assault; a woman does not lose her agency once she becomes pregnant, in favour of the ‘agency’ of the fetus; a new mother’s priority is not to “lose her baby weight in just six weeks!”. These are all very obvious examples of an ignorance of women being people who should and can make their own decisions, and yet scores of people who have risen to hold cultural and political power are happy to entertain these ideas, even fight for them. In front of everyone. Awkward.
At 51/52% women are the majority, yet a minority in all visual, aural and public spheres except childcare, nursing etc. (natural, woman-y jobs.) Examples of ‘strong female characters’ in our media are blithely given – look at those storylines, look at the ratios, look at the positions of the women. The non-leads are girlfriends, wives, mistresses, strippers, prostitutes, mothers. All of these are positions that necessarily feed off the male agent, the one who can, the one who acts. The ‘strong female lead’, then, is foregrounded, but still primarily malleable and sexy; a mirror of the problematics of the stock male lead (i.e. these characters are designed to feed the identities of a notional male audience.) As John Berger said in Ways of Seeing (1972) “Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” This creepy cultural classification remains, centred around sexual objectification, underpinned by the wider objectification at hand, which ensures that examinations of patriarchy’s structural underpinning of the inequality and violence in society go largely unheeded.
This is our culture of white, straight androcentrism, in which (certain) men are people and women are quietly standing next to them, no matter how loud they shout. Situations are changing, but those who are fighting (globally, on a multitude of jutting, cascading fronts) are fighting centuries of prejudice and misunderstanding. A similar situation can be seen working in our post-racist, non-stratified utopia; indeed, the ubiquity of whiteness is as conspicuous as the ubiquity of the middle class heterosexual cis-male. The ubiquity being: in positions of power, pretty much everywhere.
We often automatically see objectification as sexual objectification, because it appears in our visual field daily. Treating someone as an object runs far deeper and wider than just sexual dynamics – it begins with ignorance and a lack of understanding, becoming an issue of violence and prejudice against anyone we don’t understand. It takes particularly viscious forms in sexual violence, assault and warfare (military AND class.) We are all guilty of it at some level, whether conscious or not. What are we willing to accept, and what in ourselves and how we interact (or not) with others needs to change, individually? Culture is sometimes, but rarely, overhauled in anger; 95% of the time it needs purposeful recreation by sustained debate, active co-operation, and most of all listening to other people speak.
Discuss it; discuss humanity, choices and difference with people who aren’t like you. They’re all people. And they aren’t like you! It’s the most fascinating, banal thing.