The Other Objectification (is Objectification)

male objectification

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.

Women in Pornography: Annabel & Grace

chongI was first introduced to Sex: The Annabel Chong Story in the second year of my Film Studies degree in a week titled The Pornography Debates, part of the segment on gender representation. Now that I choose to write about gender in culture I regret not plunging myself into full engagement with the course; but despite my mental absence, I remember this documentary with trepidation.

 

Grace Quek is a Singaporean woman, better known under her porn star alias Annabel Chong, who gained notoriety for breaking the record for having sex with the most men at one time (251 in 10 hours) in The World’s Biggest Gang Bang. Her story caught the attention of student filmmaker Gough Lewis (who I recently learned was her then boyfriend,) who directed the ‘Annabel Chong story’, a story in fact about Grace Quek, sexual politics, the pornography industry, exploitation and emotional instability.

 

Quek’s story is both mesmerizing and frightening, and as a character she evokes immense respect, frustration and pity. I distinctly recall troubling, hugely ambivalent feelings of anger vs excitement, and dismissal vs curiosity; on first viewing, I had no idea how I felt about the story of Annabel Chong: a plastic, often embarrassing character that essentially never existed. I now see that Quek’s story is “where it’s at” (one of Chong’s favourite phrases), and it raises fascinating questions. The Pornography Debate’s place in gender theory is as frustrating as it is appropriate, and this film delineates the complexity of this regrettable dynamic.

 

Perhaps the most obvious question could be phrased as “is being a porn star a feminist act?” This reductive question has a longer answer. Quek went about being a porn star in the name of equality and expression and it could be convincingly argued that her venture was a feminist act. (Though Quek never uses the word ‘feminism’ specifically she often espouses feminist rhetoric.) Definitions of ‘feminist’ are often very disparate, and pornography debates illustrate this. Her claim that attempting to sleep with 300 men was a piss-take of the masculine notion of ‘stud’ is a legitimate concept found in both academic and everyday discussions of sexual politics. A student at USC during production, Quek’s academic excellence is evident in footage of her contributions in class and her teachers’ testimonies to the fact; she clearly and purposely conflates her academic work with that of her chosen career.

 

I don’t see Quek’s actions as ‘feminist’ ones, regardless of having faith in her stated intentions. The most solid insight that the film gives is that the pornography industry operates on a strong current of violence and sadism and systematically engages in exploitation. Much of this is directed at women, whether genuinely or just for show, and women participate either knowingly or with a view to ‘liberating themselves’. Quek’s claims that she wants to change views on female sexuality from stereotypes of passivity to aggression, and that she really enjoys sex, are just fine. Yet these claims are somewhat eclipsed by other revelations, and the insight provided into the industry she participates in. Participating in something on its own terms and claiming it as your own does not equate to subverting or defeating it.

 

Some of the most telling scenes are those in which Quek is at work; in an interview discussing her upcoming record attempt, John Bowen, director of the World’s Biggest Gang Bang, who speaks either for or over her, matter-of-factly informs the interviewer that “Little Annabel” is going to “take them orally, anally, vaginally, any way you can do it” for “as long as it takes”. After continuing “right now, we’ve got a nationwide search for 300 guys who wanna come in and fuck ‘er”, she is eventually addressed directly, with a pat on the head: “Why don’t you stand up, sweetheart, and take your clothes off and let the people see what they’re gonna fuck.” Quek giggles, smiles and agrees throughout, constantly glancing towards and deferring to Bowen and jumping up to strip meekly at his word. Later we are introduced to the notorious Rob Black (Porn Director of the Year 1998, who made his name with rape fantasy films), who, in discussing the commoditization and legislation of sex work angrily asks why you can’t “have a guy fuck a girl, and while he’s fuckin’ her, have another guy come over with an axe and cut off her fuckin’ head?” This regulation on “our sex”, he believes, is “bullshit.”

 

It is, of course, wholly possible to be a ‘feminist’ porn star (though an indistinct, nebulous concept), yet in the 90s porn industry Quek needed to do more than turn up for work, have sex and inform us she likes it to be advancing her agenda of destroying the cultural limitations on female sexuality. Other than a phone call with Black in which Quek sternly demands more money than her co-stars, she is rarely seen challenging anything of the ideology or systemic exploitation of the industry. In an admirable though contradictory statement, she also claims that she doesn’t care that she never received the $10,000 that she is owed from Bowen for the record she set, because she didn’t do it for the money.

 

As the film progresses, the more we learn about Quek, and the more her self-exploitation/liberation becomes unbearable. After discussing being gang-raped as a teenager, and subsequently addicted to drugs, we see her self-harming while tearfully admitting that “life makes you numb” and this is a way to feel her pain. I don’t feel it right to speculate on the exact link that all of these elements of her life have, but on seeing her advertising the gang bang, uncomfortably and monotonously inviting us to have “intercourse” with her while batting fake ‘come-to-bed’ eyes into the camera, it is all the more upsetting to know that a vulnerable and victimized individual is actively pursuing a venture which requires her to be an object for others’ pleasure, in a potentially masochistic process of hyperbolic de-ja-vu. Quek’s face during the gang bang scenes displays immense pain; we learn that the reason she stopped at 251 men instead of the intended 300 was due to tearing in her vagina.

 

The original ambivalence that I felt after seeing the film reflects the ambivalence and complexity borne from the issue of female sexuality and its exploitation under patriarchy, specifically as a commodity. Long misunderstood as sinful, shameful, and worst of all, commodifiable objects in themselves, many women continue to understand their sexuality and bodies on these terms. It then follows that choosing to sell one’s own body and sex equates to liberation from the sinful, shameful, externally-owned scenario. In fact, it ensures the perpetuation of a cultural climate that understands the owning, selling and availability of women for others’ pleasure as commonplace and inevitable. Feminism is about improving the lives of women, away from violence, disrespect and wider inequality and under-representation. To promote equality in the porn industry, the violence, degradation and dehumanization of women must be attacked. Quek bravely and determinedly participated in the porn industry for her own complex reasons, but hardly on progressive terms. She has since retired, and I sincerely hope she has spent time healing.

Beauty That’s ‘Real’

swimsuit ad“Love the skin you’re in!”

“Real women, real beauty.”

“Beauty at any size!”

You’ll likely recognise the above phrases, which, rather than necessitating quotation, were plucked from my arse. I mean mind. (Bum/mind/waist-to-hip ratio; telling the difference is as hard as it is futile.)

Such clichés are the mantras of the body-positive ‘movement’: a barrage of messages women have been receiving via advertising campaigns and glossy magazines in recent years; a compassionate and diligent deflection against beauty standards imposed by advertising campaigns and glossy magazines, in the preceding and, indeed, same years.

On the Huffington Post this week, ‘Health Coach and Emotional Eating expert’ Isabel Foxen Duke posted an astute article titled ‘Why ‘Love Your Body’ Campaigns Aren’t Working’. Highlighting the above paradox of the media and beauty industries, she notes that growing up:

“I would see images of “real women” and think to myself, I don’t want to be one. I wanted to get ahead, stand out, be special”.

I have previously written about the cause-and-effect of the wondrous ironies of body-positive rhetoric, but recently the debate around Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches campaign, and Duke’s article, have illustrated not only the need to pay close attention to the reinforcement of damaging standards and ideals in the very conversations that purport to combat them, but also the need to discuss this double-standard when you see it, continually, until it takes hold.

I know the experience Duke describes to be that of many of the brilliant and big-hearted women who get behind the body-positive movement, and they do so with much strength and determination. It feels like a transformative shift in understanding for those of us who are highly body-critical, and is potentially the first step towards making one; logically, we ‘believe’ it, as a rule for ‘all women’, especially those we love around us; but most desperately we attempt to finally stamp ‘PWNED!’ on dusty, neglected certificates of self-worth.

Yet via these campaigns, fully grasping self-worth is essentially impossible. We still want to compete to get ahead, stand-out, be special; as though we have to fight each other for these scarce statuses. Our society’s structural misogyny is underpinned by the individualism promoted under capitalism, which works to prevent us from collectively understanding and willfully departing from forces which restrict us. True acceptance and transcendence from the pain and damage of the beauty myth is engulfed by a two-fold fallacy.

Firstly, the mainstream idea of body acceptance is borne at least in part from a market drive for it. Magazines and corporations that make money from selling you ‘beauty’ need you to continue wanting that in order to survive. Dove knows that there’s a huge demographic out here who are rejecting, in some form, the beauty standards that they have thus far peddled. They also know that this is a highly emotional and contentious issue that will get them a lot of attention if they appear to be on the ‘good’ side, and will earn your trust and appreciation; then they can sell you more products! Win/win! Unless we’ve all entirely missed their development team’s ironic sense of humour, Dove’s oxymoronic Pro-Age and anti-aging ranges of products highlights their rejection of the ‘acceptance’ they are selling.

Secondly, assuming (less cynically) that this is a step in the right direction, the ideas still play by the rules of the value structure it claims to reject. Every message that informs us not to worry, we are beautiful despite our size, despite our ‘flaws’, despite our inability to lose weight, continues to frame the conversation under the heading Beauty is Important, Necessary, Fulfilling, Enriching. It continues to promote its own importance, encouraging ignorance of self-improvement in any other way; of other people; of political dynamics; of spirituality; of critical thinking; of the inane, false standards these messages hold us to.

Duke stated that “women want to experience, they want to feel, they want to be… far more than they want to look. Unfortunately, we’ve been taught that looking a certain way is a prerequisite for “achieving” throughout the rest of our lives.” Her article is commendable, in that it acknowledges that most women worry about body and beauty, and this is a real issue that creates pain (I would add: created for us, and by us, under patriarchy.)

“If we don’t actively dismantle the myths that have been embedded into women’s psyche around weight historically, those myths will linger, regardless of how many plus-sized models they see on billboards (again, important first step, but not necessarily the “answer” for women suffering from body hatred now).Indeed. The only way to find an answer to this falsehood is to reframe the questions; so that at some point, we instead ask others.

We all can, and have achieved many things. We can and will continue to. Physical appearance doesn’t truly factor into happiness or success: an employer may well hire you based on your appearance. Do you see yourself being happy working for that employer? And who says getting the job you wanted will make you happy or successful? Yet another accepted standard of happiness that you are allowed to redefine as you see fit.

Thankfully, you may also define beauty; personally I’ve found it in plenty of places. Not only are they not all visual, only a minority was attached to human flesh.

Tootsie & Misogyny: Dustin Hoffman’s Epiphany

In this short clip of an American Film Institute interview with Dustin Hoffman, he reflects on the memory of his realisation that he was, like all of us, culturally ‘brainwashed’. I love this clip not only because he speaks about it at all (and on record), but also because he obviously feels it so deeply. This is the answer to prejudice, I think; to feel the effects and experiences of the (perceived) ‘Other’.

While I could discuss the merits of this video for hours, it’s quite late, and no need; Hoffman’s soul speaks very gently and clearly for itself.

I feel privileged to have seen this today – found at TheMarySue.

Navigating a Culture of Sexual Objectification

…is something 52% of the population must do, daily.

In fact, it’s something 100% of the population must do daily, but 48% (probably) don’t internalise it as self-image. Although…I’m sure there are tribes that never see any mainstream media, and people who don’t leave their houses or have a television or have the internet….

I promise I’m trying, Inclusion and Accuracy.

Guesstimate: about 89% of the population see images, and films, and television programmes, and news items, and magazines, and adverts, and people that continue to sexualise cis-femininity. Daily. It’s toxic, it’s both surreptitious and brazen, and it affects YOUR BRAIN. And it will affect the brains of your children if you don’t teach them otherwise. This is why when you see any media which promotes anything Bad, you should punch your child. Hard. It’s called aversion therapy, and it works. (You’re welcome.)

Sociological Images has provided all of humankind, that is, everyone that is not one of the PhD-holding editors of the blog, with a series of posts about sexual objectification in (mainly advertising) images. The author, Caroline Heldman, defines the posts as “a series about how girls and women can navigate a culture that treats them like sex objects.” Nice one Caroline; frankly, it’s about time. 24 years into my life (after being groomed by media for all of those, but studying and deconstructing media for four of them) I actively see myself as a brainbodysoul subject, and it feels good in my brainbodysoul. But the grooming runs deep in all of us (eww) and unfortunately, it seems that all people need a frequent reminder that we humans are complex beings and not just the shoulds and givens that our constructs and institutions insist and demand we are and be. So, in conclusion, stop watching and start reading.

There are plenty more interesting articles on sociology, and images, on Sociological Images. But first, check these out as a 101 to not caving to the continual insistence that the female body is SEXY, and that that fact is important to you (oh, and empowering. Definitely empowering.)

Part One: http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2012/07/02/sexual-objectification-part-1-what-is-it/

Part Two: http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2012/07/06/sexual-objectification-part-2-the-harm/

Part Three: http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2012/07/10/sexual-objectification-part-3-daily-rituals-to-stop/

Part Four: http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2012/07/13/sexual-objectification-part-4-daily-rituals-to-start/