Saturday, October 31, 2015

Why objectification sucks

I just finished listening to an interesting podcast about the Piers Anthony book A Spell For Chameleon, and what the two podcasters found objectionable about it (short answer: A LOT).

A Spell For Chameleon - cover image
They're probably discussing the best way to get into a teen girl's pants.
I took a Vow of Anthony Abstinence some time in the early '90s, so I haven't plowed through the content of the approximately 5,000 titles he's written since then, but I did read A Spell For Chameleon in high school, and I agree with the podcasters -- in addition to the painful puns, clunkily-written logic puzzles, and reams of bad exposition, Anthony's writing features rampant sexual objectification of all its female characters.

Then I started thinking about how often some people use the word "objectification," to the point where no one seems to hear it any more. The word sails in one ear and out the other without disturbing anything in between. So what exactly is objectification, anyway, and what is it about the act of objectification that people find so despicable?

Short answer? Objectification is treating people as though they were objects.

Long answer? Well, I tend to think in terms of analogies, so here we go: Let's say you really, really love chocolate -- the warm rich dark scent of it, the artfully molded sheen of it, the way the sections of a chocolate bar softly give way when you snap them, the bittersweet silkiness of melted chocolate on your tongue -- oh yeah. But you're trying to lose weight or keep your blood sugar down, or have some other very good reason not to eat chocolate right now. So when confronted with the sweet temptation of a chocolate bar, you have two paths to consider: should I give in and eat it, or exercise self-discipline and leave it alone? Whether you choose to deny your urges or indulge them, it's all your decision. No one in her right mind would ask you to consider the chocolate bar's feelings on the subject, because chocolate bars don't have feelings. They are lifeless objects, and you can pretty much do whatever you want with them.

OK, let's jump to another level: consider our cat, Roxy. Barring greater understanding of animal thought and behavior, I would classify Roxy as sentient, but not sapient. In other words, she is a living being with thoughts and feelings, but she does not display a capacity for human-level intelligence or reasoning. Roxy can show us by voice and body language that she is happy, sad, scared, hungry, playful, loving, or standoffish, but she cannot tell us directly that she has an ear infection, nor can we explain to her why we have to take her to the vet or that the ear drops she hates will make her feel better. Because we love Roxy and took her into our home, we have a moral responsibility to care for her -- more than just the fun of playing with her and petting her. That means giving her good food and fresh water, clipping her claws, cleaning her litter box, tidying up the hair she sheds everywhere, taking her to the vet, and keeping her out of danger. Because she isn't sapient, and because we can't explain things to her, sometimes our judgment calls override her desires -- so she goes to the vet whether she likes it or not. But if she shows us she doesn't want to be petted right now, we don't force her to take our affection; we stop petting her. Frankly, that's the least we can do.

Now, on the final level: an adult human woman... me. I'm a living being with thoughts and feelings, and the ability not only to express them, but to understand and think about similar expressions from other beings -- so I'm both sentient and sapient. As an adult, I have full bodily autonomy and the ability and right to make decisions about my own life, even when those decisions are imperfect. To wholly objectify someone like me -- to treat me like a chocolate bar, a brainless object to be consumed solely for any desirable physical properties I might have, or to be cast aside if I'm not physically perfect -- is deeply evil. Even partially objectifying me -- occasionally recognizing my rights, but overriding my choices whenever you think you can do better -- is to treat me as though I were an infant or some kind of pet, which is horrifying. The only way to show you recognize my humanity is to treat me like a human being -- not as an object, nor as a child, but as a person.

There are a number of ways we, as a culture, choose to treat people as objects.

Headless fatty
Image borrowed from a liposuction website.
This is one way -- what Charlotte Cooper calls a "headless fatty," an image of an overweight-to-obese human being (usually, but not exclusively, female) photographed from the neck down.

Headless skinny
Borrowed from a weight loss clinic website. (That's not how you use a tape measure, BTW.)
Interestingly, this image is just as objectifying as the other one. When you can't see someone's face, look into her eyes, catch something of her individuality, it's easy to focus on that person as a simple collection of body parts, to choose to accept or reject that person based solely on the relative attractiveness of those parts.

Engraving of the United States slave trade
Yet another example of objectification in U.S. history. If you stop thinking of people as fully human, it becomes very easy to treat them as chattel.

One form of objectification is the use of female bodies in advertising. There are probably a bazillion sports car ads featuring attractive women, their gazes either sultry or vacant, their bodies artfully splayed across the hood of a new red car. The suggestion is obvious: if you buy this car, women like this will be sexually available to you. (Maybe it also suggests that the woman comes standard with the car, or is some kind of optional extra. Better check the trunk.)

Journalists pride themselves on their objectivity, but even they fall prey to the practice of objectification. News stories about famous men who appear in public tend to focus on what they have to say. News stories about famous women who appear in public tend to focus on such key issues as their makeup, hairstyles, clothing and jewelry. (When Emma Watson arrived at the United Nations in September 2014 to announce the HeForShe gender equality campaign, an embarrassing number of news outlets wasted precious inches of text cooing over her Dior coat dress. Really, people?)

The process of inuring children to objectification begins early. How many fairy tales, for example, use some version of the following trope? "And to the brave knight who did this deed, the king promised half his kingdom and his daughter's hand in marriage." As a girl who loved fairy tales, I was usually so involved with the story that I didn't stop to think: How was the princess supposed to feel about that little arrangement? But the story isn't structured to encourage us to empathize with the princess as a human being, only to accept her status as a thing, a prize for the hero to win.

One of the alarming personal traits of a certain current presidential candidate -- and one of many reasons why I will never vote for him -- is his casual objectification of women. The man claims he loves women, but I notice he goes through them like chocolate bars. He has shown over and over again, in his private life and in his public comments, that he thinks of women as desirable objects to be used and discarded -- and it is particularly telling that the highest, and indeed the only, form of praise he can give a woman is that she is beautiful. Not intelligent, not capable, not kind, not loyal, not generous, not funny. Only beautiful. That word, in his mouth, becomes an insult -- and I don't want a man who treats over half the population of the United States as things, rather than people, ever to be in charge of this nation.

I believe that all human beings, male and female, were created in the image and likeness of Deity. That belief alone should inspire in us a basic respect for other people. But even if you have no particular faith tradition, you should consider the practice of objectification as a terrible waste. Each time you do so, you are making the world a poorer and more unsafe place. You are robbing yourself of the chance to get to know an amazing, richly complex, multifaceted individual whose like has never existed before and will never exist again. And you are failing to find your own humanity.


MarieC said...

As always, very well-said!

Soozcat said...

Thank you!

Chrys Houghton said...

Reminds me of the thing I'm writing... I think you know what I am talking about, but I will just call it project V and K, because I'm not there yet. It's like the Unstoppable Force (V) vs the Immovable Object (K). V is all like, "I want you to join me so I can control you and call it raising you as my own!" and K is all like, "Uh... No." Long story short, you know in extent what I am talking about, you know you love it, and I agree with your blog post! :3