A glib response to the question ‘what is objectification’ might be ‘to treat people as objects.’ And one might answer, so what?
Because even within this definition, there’s a huge spectrum. After all the way you revere a priceless Ming vase is different to the way you treat a toilet brush. Is objectification always bad, as so many would have you believe? I don’t think so because a) life is not binary, b) we objectify as a way to understand the world around us and c) good and bad are, in many cases, relative judgements.
Yet to clarify why it might be harmful, I’ll start with the two key aspects of objectification; agency and responsibility. Theoretically at least, people have both agency and responsibility whilst objects–both a toilet brush and a vase–have neither.
- Agency can be—and often is—simply defined as the power to choose our own actions, the power to decide.
- Responsibility can be—and often is—simply defined as the responsibility for our own actions and decisions.
In this blog then I’ll cover physical objectification (there’s more types but it’s a good start). Because there are two dimensions–for now, and because I like charts–I can draw them like this.
There are some instances where objectification is entirely appropriate and needed. For a short while–for example–a baby cannot walk, and cannot feed itself. They have no agency, no power to decide on where they go or what they do. As parents or caregivers we take on this agency. We are literally a baby’s arms and legs… we dress them, we feed them, we pick them up and put them down. As their ability to act increases, they will move over the course of their lives from quadrant C, to quadrant B, like this:
But the progression from childhood to adulthood is not linear (and it doesn’t stop there). Toddlers have the power decide over their own actions long before they can take responsibility for their actions. No one in their right mind would say it was a toddler’s responsibility for getting hit by a car when crossing the road. This means that as a parent you have an enormous power and responsibility. It is the power and responsibility for two people. It’s fairly mind-blowing because it is literally the power of life and death. How and when to relinquish agency and responsibility to your child is a bigger topic (and not one for this article). Suffice to say teaching and supporting a child’s growth into assuming responsibility for their agency, is a life work and a different progression for every child. But despite it’s importance, we don’t do it very well, if our constant debate on rape culture is anything to go by. Talking of which…
One of the worst punishments we give in our society is to objectify people by taking away agency, by imprisoning people who we believe do not deserve to keep it because they have used their agency irresponsibly. What have they done?
Usually, they have diminished other people’s agency in some way; in the case of rape, the rapist has overruled another person’s power to decide whether to engage in sex or not and made the decision unilaterally for them. Unsurprisingly, those who rape usually have a sense of entitlement that the agency of the other person belongs to them. Those who rape often do not understand where their agency stops and another person’s agency starts. The limit between these two is called a boundary and crossing it is a violation; many of those who rape or violate others in some way, have very little understanding of boundaries.
Understanding boundaries also comes into play when considering responsibility. A common ‘defence’ used by those who rape is to attribute responsibility for their own actions onto the person whose agency they have assumed. The ‘She was asking for it’ line of rebuttal means that the person who rapes, holds the other person responsible for their own rape. This is impossible. Yet it gets even more blurry for many when someone has said ‘yes’ but the circumstances of that ‘yes’ was either under the influence of alcohol (meaning their own agency was reduced, but they chose to reduce it by consuming alcohol and it was assumed by a predator) or because they found it impossible to say ‘no’ because they were in a situation where they had no power to do so. This is what we see in abusive relationships and why we say that consent is not a one-time agreement. Consent has to be continually given and can be retracted at any time.
This overstepping of boundaries used to be enshrined in our systems–since by law a married woman had no power to say ‘no’ to their husband. The very act of marrying someone was viewed as a blanket consent (which now we know to be an impossibility since consent is not a one-time deal and stands independently of marriage). This view was described by Sir Matthew Hale, in History of the Pleas of the Crown (1736), where he wrote that the wife “hath given up herself in this kind unto her husband, which she cannot retract.” There is increasing acceptance thankfully, that marital rape–of either party–is recognised as violence and abuse, driven by a misplaced sense of entitlement over someone else’s power to decide over their own actions. It is a consequence of objectification and difficult to eradicate because it is, as noted, precisely how our modern society and systems have been constructed. The person who feels entitled to sex from their partner just because they are married, is demonstrating their belief that their partner’s body belongs to them and they therefore have power over it. Whilst entitlement can be and is both experienced and acted upon by both genders, it is usually from the man towards a woman. Yes, it’s that word. Patriarchy.
Patriarchy as a system has undeniably advanced us as a civilisation. It worked to allow our society to grow. But it also meant that women were once bought and sold, that they were subjugated in order to facilitate such a process and that they had less power. They were possessions and objects, even if some might have been as revered as the priceless ming vases. In order to survive, women also perpetuated these beliefs either consciously or unconsciously. The choice was to suffer social death as an unmarried woman or gain status by hitching their wagon to a man who already had it. Both are forms of objectification, of using one another for a purpose. But the locus of power or agency is with the men, which is why we consider that a patriarchal system is oppressive to women; it reduces their agency and their capability to decide.
As might be evident, ‘bad’ objectification involves a lack of consent, because if you cannot consent, you have no power to decide. You have no agency. But if objectification is consensual, can it be a good thing? What does consensual mean? If Hollywood sells a film on the basis that you can objectify Alexander Skarsgård’s muscular torso for fun, has he given his consent? Is it okay if Kim Kardashian sells her brand with her butt?
The simple answer might be yes. Kim has given her consent for her image–an object–to be objectified. Since her image is an object, it’s okay to objectify it. But it’s a slippery slope, because since Kim shows her butt via this object to everyone in the world, it leads to a sense of entitlement… ‘we should be able to see her butt whenever we want!’ After all, she’s given her permission…hasn’t she? No. and unfortunately this entitlement is all to common because with the rise of technology, we find it increasingly difficult to tell where the image leaves off and the person begins. She’s given her permission for you to objectify that particular image, not her, nor the images taken by the paparazzi without her consent.
And there is–as always–a more complex answer. Because beyond this obvious ramification there’s a bigger issue of whether we really know what we’re doing to ourselves when we do it. In the short term, objectification is fun for the objectifier… just like one cigarette, or one drink. In brain terms, it is also similar…a hit of dopamine whenever we want it. Objectifying rewards us in the short term. What does it do in the long term?
Our confusion between increasingly realistic depictions of women and men in images, especially when they’re sexualised plus our own inclination to treat people for a functional purpose and the legacy of ‘women as property’, impacts the way we treat real people, in real life and in turn impacts the way we act ourselves. We idealise the images which attract so many. We absorb these into our psyche almost imperceptibly, which gives rise to body disorders and unrealistic relationship expectations. We want to be idolised, we think, in the same way. So we turn to diets, drugs, excessive body morphing training, and plastic surgery to try and reach unattainable ideals, ideals which have often themselves been airbrushed, photoshopped or otherwise computer generated to give us maximum gratification. Our grasp on reality and ideas of what is ‘normal’ alters the architecture of the brain based on false imagery so that we no longer find reality as gratifying as fantasy, or at the very least we want to change real people so that they become ‘more’ rewarding to us. They exist to please us and we have objectified them.
So-called consensual objectification in the media drives entire industries, bombarding us day in and day out with images which means that we imperceptibly at first, but over continual exposure to think of people as products, treat them a objects and if they too have unclear boundaries, they will start to act like objects starting us off on a dizzying degradation of our self-esteem. Thus without a firm handle on boundaries which only comes by continuous education, and by fits and starts of awareness over the process of a lifetime, it leads to treating not just their images, but all people as objects, existing simply to fulfil our needs and opening up an enormous worm hole to abusive relationships.