Humans are pre-programmed to objectify. So how can we help it?

LouisaPower & Privilege, What The Matriarch Sees

Across the world, the dark is rising.

And at this point of the story, I always thought that I’d be a resistance fighter. One of those who fought against evil at the cost of her own life. But my misty eyed fantasies of what a worthy person I could be when push came to shove, are crumbling. Because what am I doing apart from shaking my head in disapproval?

As the world whips itself into polarized positions, this weekend has been an eye-opener for me. I’ve argued with friends and slashed through the veil of leeway that we usually give to one another. My own behaviors have been challenged in turn.

“So when you went to see Alexander Skarsgård in Tarzan, it wasn’t objectification?” said my male friend, “aren’t you just pulling the gender card?”

Because I went. I saw Tarzan. I objectified, and thoroughly enjoyed doing so, thinking it at best harmless fun and at worst a sort of inconsequential revenge for all the years that my sisters and I have been objectified. This is what the men go on about, I thought. Yes, it’s fun. Besides, surely the price of a cinema ticket makes no difference in the grand scheme of things…. does it?

Objectification is a sin, so Pratchett’s Granny Fairfax says, but it’s also a part of our humanity. We all objectify in order to make sense of the world. We objectify to reduce the complexity of the amount of information we can handle and we live in a world of information overload. It means we often reduce people to their functional purpose and what they can do for us. And since our survival mechanisms operate according to what is the most net rewarding modus operandi and reinforce the neural paths which our minds deem ‘right’ by our hormone levels, objectification begins at birth.

Children seek to fulfil their needs from their parents, they attach to their caregivers as a source of food and comfort. As a means of survival, babies who are incapable of rational thought, objectify their parents. They know no better. And they are, as we all are, undoubtedly visual beings. According to ‘research at 3M Corporation we process visuals 60,000 times faster than text.’ Experiments with newborn children to test whether they recognise their mother’s faces are performed with photographs in order to remove all the ‘all the usual stimuli associated with the presence of the mother’s face.’ Those babies show clear signs of recognition which, it’s been suggested is associated with ‘a rewarding outcome’1. Our most basic mind mechanisms reward us for simply looking at a photograph because we do not have the ability at such a young age to distinguish between a person and a photograph of a person. That technology can capture an image of a person is not biologically understood. It is learned. And recognising the difference requires the awareness of our social brain, the pre-frontal cortex. But our pre-frontal cortex does not replace our reptilian instincts, it only modifies and regulates them (and sometimes not even this). 

We live in times which are more visually stimulating than any other. Technology has created flashing billboards, streaming television and a panoply of stunning graphics. We’ve devised dating apps like Tinder and Badoo which allow us to discriminate on a purely visual basis. That which shines brighter attracts our attention, we are magpies. But the rise of technology means what attracts our attention is images of people, increasingly computer generated and photoshopped. We make 3D people into 2D images and it brings us pleasure without expending the effort of developing a relationship with them without having to grapple with their flaws which reflect our own. Emotional labour means ever more effort.

If our mind’s neural pathways are rewarded merely by looking at photographs or moving pictures of people in 2D it’s easy to imagine that our reptilian minds perform a benefit-cost analysis and have figured out that certainly in the short term, we can get more of a dopamine kick from objectification. Not only by looking at photos which are actually objects, but also making the short leap to treat people the same way.

Nowadays the uncanny valley is not as uncanny as it used to be and the bleed that occurs between how we might ogle Alexander Skarsgård playing Tarzan over a bucket of popcorn and how we might reduce him to an object and ogle him in real life is ever more blurry. Tarzan looked human, but a lot of him was computer generated. If by seeing him my pleasure centres are activated without me making any effort to treat him as a person, my mind might subconsciously evaluate the potential effort needed to do so and may well conclude that my best and more rewarding path is to continue to objectify. So we seek short-term gain at long-term expense–which is what we’ve always done–because it takes responsibility and consciousness not to do so. And yet surely the simple knowledge we have as adults, that people are not ‘objects’ should preserve us from treating them as such, or should it?

A growing body of evidence2 suggests that when both men and women focus on women’s physical attributes, women are literally objectified. If for example, a woman appears in a bikini, respondents attribute them with less ability to think, less ability to feel and less ability to exercise power than their dressed counterparts. Not only this, but treating women as objects means they act as objects. ’When women’s appearance is focused on by others (male or female), they literally objectify themselves.’ Female participants who underwent a ‘full body gazing’ performed less competently on a series of math problems, became more passive, and were less willing to protest for women’s rights when recalling a past instance of being ogled or receiving sexual comments from a man. Notably this ‘effect replicated across female targets of varying attractiveness, status, familiarity, and race but not in response to comparable male targets.’

With the rise of focus on imagery and physicality in general, the more powerful women become and the more they assume the same roles as men have traditionally occupied, my guess is that men will be objectified in their turn. And not only on screen as Tarzan. At what point will men too perpetuate this behaviour and start to act as objects? I believe in gender equality. I do not want my daughter to be as objectified as I have been and nor do I want that for my son.

So yes, even a cinema ticket holds power. It matters. Because these not only my behaviours, as the box office can testify. People act in ways which are consistent and repeatable which means that together we are powerful, unconsciously or consciously, whether for the light or for the dark. Every act matters. I will not stop from examining my own behaviours. I will not stop from calling out those behaviours in others. I will act in accordance with what I want the world to become for my children. And I’ll be damned if I’ll be the person who watches the dark rising without doing anything to stop it.


1. [(1995) Mother’s Face Recognition by Neonates – A Replication and an Extension]
2. [Seeing Eye to Body: The Literal Objectification of Women Nathan A. Heflick1 and Jamie L. Goldenberg]