It is scarcely news that objectification is rampant in our culture. The treatment of women as sexual objects has become so commonplace that it is now scarcely even worth noting any more when yet another ’empowering’ film or book or TV show turns out to just be an excuse for wall to wall tits and ass. This piece by Maureen Dowd in the New York Times manages to be both hilarious and depressing at the same time in that it shows that the (generally male) creators of these shows tend to claim that they are depicting strong female characters, and yet what those female characters spend their time doing is, well, giving us as much jiggle and joggle as possible. And though it is mildly comforting to learn that the proposed Wonder Woman show never actually got aired, because it was too bosom-fixated even for TV executives, it is not at all comforting that now an empowered woman is defined as being one who goes out of her way to become a sexual object.
Now, I could go on about what this says about male attitudes to women, and male attitudes to sex, but I have covered those subjects before, and at some length. What I propose to do here is to discuss the more complex question of women’s attitudes to this objectification. This is a complex topic, as the standard myth of our time is that men sexually objectify women, while women object like anything, but cannot do anything about it due to the dead weight of the patriarchy. This is, in bare bones, the base of Laura Mulvey‘s ‘male gaze‘ theory, that is to say, that men objectify women and women suffer objectification. The reality is more complex. First of all, to say that women do not sexually objectify men is nonsense. However, there are a number of pointers to something deeper and more disturbing.
First look at the strange world of the modern romantic comedy. The standard current romantic movie portrays women as helpless things who are basically miserable until they find a good manly man who will make them his sex-toy and absolve them from having to think, ever, ever again. This might be taken as being pure male chauvinistic fantasy about what unrepentantly sexist men would like women to be, only these films depend on a largely female audience, and surely if they didn’t like the message they wouldn’t go to see them? In answer one only has to cross media and look at the amazing success of the Twilight franchise, which proposes that the correct role for a modern woman is gazing adoringly at her perfect man, while doing whatever he says and showing no independence of spirit or mind. Again, it is women who consume (and produce) this pabulum, so it can scarcely be the case that they object to being objectified.
Therefore the Mulvey theory, and the myth are false: at least some women seem to embrace being treated as sexual playthings. This seems inherently wrong: why would any woman want to be reduced to a mere breast-transportation device when she has the chance to go out there and have a life not at all dependent on her sexual attractiveness? The rather frightening conclusion that I work out over the remainder of this piece is that any marginalised group is likely to end up embracing precisely the stigmata of its marginalisation as a part of its identity, and this positively welcome and encourage its marginal status, leading to an unholy feedback loop. Thus Christina Hendricks turns herself into little better than a walking bosom and Stephenie Meyer tells young women that they just want to be door-mats. They would all be interpreted, according to the myth, as being dupes or agents of the patriarchy, but the awful truth is that they are not, and probably seriously believe that they are doing their bit for women everywhere. For by the lights of the group of women who have come to identify with that which is used to marginalise them, they are.
Though is common currency to use the words ‘objectification’ and ‘objectify’ as meaning ‘bad’, in fact objectification is not only a very natural thing to do, it is a very necessary part of human intercourse. When you or I interact with anything – your computer, a pet or another person – the interaction is mediated by a mental model that we have of that thing. That is to say, when I interact with someone I know, I do not approach the interaction as if it were our first. Instead I bring with my my mental model of that person based on all our previous interactions, and I am liable to interpret everything they say and do in terms of that model. So if someone has a particular verbal tick, or has a tendency to express themselves somewhat gloomily, then I will respond to their statements differently than I would to someone who could announce their impending demise as if it were good news. This model is therefore an extremely valuable thing, as it allows me to take short-cuts, and use previously acquired knowledge to gain a better understanding of what is going on than I would if I were to be ‘unprejudiced’. But this means that in fact I am interacting with the model rather than the person, because I say what the model tells me I should say in order to make my point, and interpret what they say based on the model. In other words, I interact directly with the model and only indirectly with the person, so I have objectified them, in that I am replacing them with my model.
Now it could be argued that this is not quite the same kind of objectification as is treating a woman as nothing but a sex object, but a little thought shows that in fact they are exactly the same thing. If I treat a woman in a way that represents her purely as an object of sexual desire, then that means that the model which intermediates all of my interactions with her is based purely on her sexual allure and my reaction to it. So when I turn a woman into a sexual object I am merely applying the same mechanism whereby in all interactions we represent people as private models which become, for us, those people, and taking an extreme approach in terms of those of her characteristics that I consider memorable. Viewing a woman as nothing but a mind, and ignoring her sexual nature would be just as much a distortion. So objectification itself is not a bad thing. Problems arise only when we do not allow our model to reflect all the information we have about the person, but choose only to represent certain characteristics. Again, we all do this to some extent, but the greater the mismatch between our representation of the person and the actual person, the larger the problem, and the greater the extent to which we do indeed negate their personhood and make them into an object purely of our own construction.
The problem we face then is this: many men, for one reason or another, find it hard to treat women as their coequals, and prefer to model them purely as sex on legs. The curious thing is this: we would always expect a small number of women to play along with this (there have been gold-diggers down the ages), but we seem to find large numbers of women who enthusiastically embrace the role of man’s brainless sexual object. Simple logic says that this should not be so, but it manifestly is so, and the reason why is my next topic.
Embracing the oppressor
As I said above, one only has to look at the utterly mystifying enthusiasm with which large numbers of women of all ages have embraced the Twilight phenomenon to see that the role of being an object of the male gaze and no more is actually quite attractive to women. It is worth observing that the reasons aficionados give for this (in so far as they do articulate them) appear to be something along the lines that it would be so wonderful to be so desired, to be loved by so wonderful a man, and that that is enough. In other words, becoming a sexual object is not a problem so long as one receives the tribute of the whole-hearted adoration of a good, or exemplary, man. That this is wish fulfilment is obvious, but it is a very strange kind of wish to have. Obviously being in a position to have somebody else take over managing all of life’s little inconveniences for one is superficially attractive, for who has not felt the urge to just let go and have everything done for one, but to extend this from a passing hankering into a permanent end state of pure passivity, in which one only has to be in such a way as to satisfy the male gaze’s requirement for sexual excitement, is not so obvious a goal.
Moving on, the modern movie romantic comedy preaches a basically anti-feminist message, telling us that what women really want, if only they can be honest with themselves, is to forget career self and any form of ambition other than the ambition to find a real manly man who will give them so many orgasms that they need never care for anything again. It is fashionable to explain this as the back-lash of the misogynists who run movie studios against uppity women, but this explanation forgets one basic fact: if the men who run movie studios go so far as to have an agenda, it is that making money is good. If there was a market for intelligent films about women, then Lars von Trier’s Melancholia would have been one of the biggest grossing films of 2011, whereas in fact it failed to recoup its extremely modest production expenses. The simple truth is that many women choose of their own free will to go and watch sexist drivel for the same reason that they choose of their own free will to read Twilight. Clearly the idea of being a woman who has nothing to do but be a sexual object is attractive.
As evidence for this hypothesis that the attraction lies in being able to merely be, that being a sexual object is better than being an active agent, here are some examples from the world of comics. Now, comics are generally a male preserve, but there are a few characters and comic series that have appealed to women. Let us start with the extremely popular character Harley Quinn. All that we need to know is that Miss Quinn started out as a villain’s girlfriend, in a highly abusive relationship, but eventually she went independent. Now I observed in the referenced piece that there are essentially two versions of Miss Quinn: the utterly dependent girlfriend who sticks by her man no matter how much he abuses her, and the forceful (if deranged) woman who runs her own life. What I found strange was that observation of comments by woman fans showed that they largely preferred the abused girlfriend version, the reason given (indeed, given in some comments on my essay) being that that relationship involves a great love, and that being with such a great man she had to expect that her ego would be destroyed and that she would be dependent, and that his trying to kill her from time to time was just something she should tolerate, because she had found true love. So, once again, but now in even more extreme form, we find women actively preferring what they should recoil from, because a great love, and becoming the lover’s object of affection, is the best thing a woman can have, and compensates for all else.
Objects by their own will
We see a theme emerging here. It is that there is a clear belief among a large number of women that being a man’s sexual object, and being utterly dependent on him, is life’s only legitimate career goal. Now, we could see this as a form of Stockholm syndrome, with the oppressed woman identifying with her oppressor’s view of her, much in the way that (say) many Saudi women seem to have convinced themselves that the fact that their lives are utterly circumscribed shows how special they are, because they have to be looked after at all times. However, Stockholm syndrome only works as an explanation if the sufferer has no option but to go along with an imposed reality. In spite of the dire warnings of those feminist critics who see oppositionism as an end in itself (which is, dare I suggest, just as much a distortion and a form of objectification as is seeing being a man’s sex toy as an end in itself), the cultures of Western Europe and North America do not on the whole prevent women from exercising basic freedoms. What we see here is not conditioned adoption of an enforce abnormality, but deliberate retreat from reality into the self-created abnormality of desiring to become a sexual object.
To see why this might be the case, let us look at one last example. The character of Lois Lane, Superman’s girlfriend, needs no introduction. From 1958 to 1974 she had her own comic, titled Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane (note that her name comes second). The stories are largely light froth, but, as I discussed in this piece, they are notable for their extremely misogynistic tone. They read as if they were written by a typical chauvinistic 1950s man, which was in fact the case. And yet women bought the comics in sufficient numbers for the series to last sixteen years. What I concluded was happening was that women were saying to themselves: ‘Look at that, Lois Lane has everything, but even she has to put up with stuff from men that I do; obviously my life isn’t that bad after all.’ Now, that might sound just like a natural precondition for Stockholm syndrome, but what comes next is the distinguishing factor. If a group has been socially excluded on some grounds or other, then the only way its members can achieve any form of social stability is for the group itself to cohere. But now, the only factor that its members have in common, the only thing that makes the group make any sense, is precisely the factor that led to its exclusion. So, American women in the late 1950s were a hugely diverse lot: scientists, secretaries, housewives, actors, writers, academics, politicians, musicians, etc. The only things they had in common were the stigmata of misogyny: the idea that women were silly, childish and frivolous, and obsessed with getting their man. And so, the one factor promoting cohesion, the cause of the exclusion, becomes not just a factor imposed from outside, but a way of defining the group. Women, in order to define their own in-group ended up embracing the 1950s male idea of women as their banner, and could then look down on those women who refused to play with any categorisation and insisted on being themselves.
My thesis is, then, that what we are seeing in the curious embrace of sexual objecthood is simply the definition of an in-group of women who obtain social cohesion from maintaining and emphasising outmoded traditions, and who look on those who do not play along as being some kind of enemy of stability. For being a sexual object is the great leveller: anyone can do it. All one needs to be a sexual object is to have a body and to be prepared to allow men to use it. Making ones own path is much harder and requires work and talent. So young women queue up to prostitute themselves to unpleasant young men on television programmes, and others flock to absorb regressive piffle, not because of a conspiracy of men, but because of a conspiracy of women.