Monday, June 15, 2009

Objectification: It's Quantity Not Just Quality

So as it happens I am in Paris, visiting. Two things always strike me immediately on arriving here. One, everyone is better dressed than I am. Two, I encounter far fewer images of women that are 1) scantily-clad and 2) being used to sell me something.

This second thing tends to take me by surprise. You tend to think, well, Paris, a city of romance and fashion, in a country of topless sunbathing; there must be a lot of images of women around, right? But there aren't really. There are some, for sure, but there are also images of men and children, and of buildings, and of landscapes, and so on and so forth. The main thing is that there aren't that many images around with women in them, and in the ones there are, the women are usually beautifully dressed, engaged, intelligent-looking, or at least presented in a dramatic and interesting way.

My main response to this is Ah, how relaxing! Indeed, I tend not to notice how stressful and anxiety-producing it is to be constantly bombarded with images of women's bodies to sell diet products, images of women's bodies to sell cars, images of women's bodies to sell consumer electronics, and images of women's bodies to sell a whole kind of cultural narrative of women-as-decorator-items, but only-if-they-look-just-right.

The usual line on this sort of thing is that what's wrong with using images of women's bodies to sell things is that the women in question are objectified, and that this is inherently wrong.

But as it stands, I don't think this line of thought can be quite right. Because people use other people -- and their bodies -- for all sorts of things all the time in ways that are just fine. We have sex with people; we watch them play sports; we pay them to cook for us; we enjoy looking at the curve of a stranger's neck or a rippling set of abdominal muscles. When we do these things respectfully and kindly, none of them seems to me bad in itself.

Furthermore, it doesn't seem that the more objectifying the worse it is, necessarily. If an artist creates a sculpture of a headless woman from a model, and puts it in a gallery, this strikes me as a much better form of objectification than when a Maxim editor pastes a photo of some girl who looks 16 next to a caption about how she's an aspiring model and speaks several languages. This despite the fact that in absolute terms, the sculpture shows an objectified woman in a more extreme, literal sense.

But I think the usual line of thought is almost right. What's missing are two ideas. First, being treated as an object is always bad when it's something you can't opt out of, when you're treated just as an object whether you like it or not. Second, one way conditions arise under which a woman can't help but be treated as an object is when women, in general, are just generally treated as objects, all the time.

Now this second item rests essentially on quantity, not quality. That is, it's not the details of some particular act of objectification that make it bad; it's whether there are so many acts of objectification of that type around that they create the effect that women are, in a sense, objects -- objects we may use to sell things.

Basically, the idea is that when women are frequently and relentlessly objectified, this creates a tendency for people to regard them as objects whether they like it or not; since they can't opt out they can't be treated as fully human with full agency. But when particular people are occasionally objectified in particular and uncommon ways, no such danger arises.

If I am right this explains why the Maxim pictorial seems worse than the sculpture, even though the Maxim story "humanizes" the woman depicted and the sculpture does not: objectifications like those in "lad magazines" are relentless, and present a kind of objectification that is very pervasive already.

If I am right this also explains why the same sort of objectification -- in, say, pornography -- is more of a problem when it depicts women than when it depicts men. Because women really are in far greater danger, in our society, of being regarded as less than fully human.

Of course, if I am right this also explains why I find Paris so relaxing in this regard. Sure, women may be objectified on the catwalks of the great fashion houses, when it is their bodies we want to use and look at. But there it's not too relentless, or too pervasive about it, and therefore, in itself, it feeds less pernicious effects than the ubiquitous girls-in-ads of North America.

So . . . how do you create a culture that doesn't constantly use images of women's bodies to sell crap? I wish I knew.

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