When feminists decry the objectification of women, most people immediately think of the images that saturate our magazines, movies, adverts and the Internet, of women in varying stages of undress, dolled up and presented for the male gaze. Yet, while sexual objectification is a huge problem, it is, sadly, only a fraction of the objectification of women that permeates our world, from the moment we enter it.
Because it is all too obvious and difficult to ignore, we tend to focus on sexual objectification. The difference between the way women and men are portrayed in national newspapers and other media is stark— women are too often reduced to the sum of their body parts, heavily photoshopped to fit into an ever narrowing ideal of female beauty. It grabs our attention, we recognize that something isn’t right, and we confidently assert that this is sexism in action.
And we’re right, of course. Yet, an overemphasis on the ‘sexual’ aspect can obscure the much more problematic aspect of ‘objectification’, the iceberg of which sexual objectification is the visible tip. After all, being presented in a sexual way doesn’t always mean objectification. Sexy pictures of men, in contrast to sexy pictures of women, frequently portray them as sexual subjects, actors exercising their sexuality, instead of objects meant to gratify someone else’s sexuality.
So, what do I mean when I say that sexual objectification is simply the most visible part of objectification? Well, let’s start by differentiating between subject status and object status. While a subject is active, with agency, an object is passive, being acted upon. This dichotomy is reflected in our grammar; when we hear, “Fiona stroked the cat,” we recognize that ‘Fiona’ has subject status, while ‘the cat’ has object status. Now in an ideal world, we would find ourselves randomly cast as either subject or object at different times, depending on the situation, with no problems. However, in society’s dominant narrative, subject and object status is heavily gendered, with men granted subject status the vast majority of the time, and women severely objectified.
These messages start right from the cradle. A study by Janice McCabe showed that male characters in children’s books far outnumber female ones, and that even when characters (eg. animals) are gender-neutral, they are often referred to as male when parents read them to their kids. This pattern is consistent in children’s TV shows, where only a third of lead characters are girls. The Smurfette principle, where only one female character is present in an entire cast of male ones, still holds true for many TV shows, with ‘female’ seemingly a characteristic of its own.
Having been brought up on a diet of stories revolving around boys and men, this male-centeredness continues to dog us throughout our lives. The vast majority of films produced tell the stories of men, with women cast as girlfriends, wives, or mothers, or in other periphery roles. In a typical year, only about 12-15% of top grossing Hollywood films are women-centric, focussing on women and their stories.
It isn’t just the media that does this. In everyday conversation, male pronouns dominate our speech and ideas. Every dog we see is a ‘he’, every stick figure a ‘he’, humans thought of as simply ‘mankind’. There are exceptions, though. Boats, cars, bikes and ships always seem to be ‘she’, but this is hardly exciting once we realise that they are all objects, and possessions of (usually) men, at that.
Anyway, the cumulative effect of all this is that we are socialising generation after generation to view the world, and the women in it, from the point of view of men. As a result, only men are seen as full and complete human beings, not women. Women are objectified — this means we are denied agency, and are seen from the outside, our own consciousness, our thoughts and feelings, utterly overlooked.
It is because society tells us that women are objects, not subjects, that Tomb Raider’s executive producer, Rob Rosenberg, finds it natural to assert that players “don’t project themselves into [Lara Croft's] character,” that they think “I’m going to this adventure with her and trying to protect her.” Even though they are actually playing as Lara.
It is because society tells us that women are objects, not subjects, that Stephen Hawkings can declare women to be “a complete mystery”, and have newspapers gleefully latch on to this, declaring women “the greatest mystery known to man”. It is a common refrain for men to bleat about not understanding women, but this is because they have simply never tried, because society has trained them to never look at life through the eyes of a woman.
It is because society tells us that women are objects, not subjects, that when society is presented with a case of male violence or sexual abuse, everyone looks at it from his point of view: “Oh, he must have been provoked to have done that,” “He was a nice man who just snapped,” “He must have been confused by her signals,” “Maybe he’s been falsely accused, how terrible to have to go to jail for that.” With every victim-blaming, rape / violence apologist comment, society reveals through whose eyes it looks, and the answer is invariably the man’s.
It is because society tells us that women are objects, not subjects, that even good men, when speaking out against violence against women, tell other men to imagine her as “somebody’s wife, somebody’s mother, somebody’s daughter, or somebody’s sister,” it never occurring to them that maybe, just maybe, a woman is also “somebody”.
It is frightening to consider just how deeply entrenched objectification of women really goes. We must certainly combat sexual objectification, but the battle will not end there. Women are objectified in more profound ways than we realise, and we must tear down every entwined shred of the patriarchy, in order to achieve our modest goal of being recognized and treated as human beings.