A Necessary or Dispensable Human Attribute?
Access 2005-6 Major Project
Student: Julian Lees
Supervisor: Gordon Bartlett
Part 1: Introduction
In this piece of writing, I want to examine how men and women look at each other and don't see complete people, but beautiful or useful things (or the opposite of those) that they will try to use for their own gratification. In particular, I want to understand whether the way we look at people causes conflict and suffering, or conversely, is the satisfactory result of a consensus between the sexes regarding behavioural norms.
I have found it necessary to impose some limitations on the scope of this inquiry. Firstly, the whole matter that forms its substance has entered my consciousness over many years as an issue concerning the male objectification of women. Although the contrary relation is also widely manifest and increasingly deserving of discussion, I see this as a more recent trend in our society, in which the sexual objectification of women has been a central feature for centuries, possibly millennia. Most of the existing writing on this subject is from a female perspective, and it seems reasonable that any informed analysis of the counterpart male condition should take all those writings into account. I therefore feel more comfortable, at this early stage in my exploration of the subject, to confine myself mainly to looking at the more prevalent and widely documented phenomenon, and that within my own culture that is known broadly as 'the West'.
Of course, here I encounter an obstacle – that of my own gender. How can I as a man write meaningfully about a phenomenon, often seen as a major problem, that exists in a certain sense only in the female perception? It is women's consciousness that marks the discrepancy between their real existences and the often simplified view that men have of them. It is easily said that I cannot speak of women's perceptions without having a woman's consciousness. Many would say that men should stick to representing themselves, and feel satisfied enough in that.
While that is a perfectly justified view, if it were universally applied, the whole of literature would consist only of diaries, and most of science (always asking what one might see if one could stand in all sorts of unlikely places, like at the centre of a beehive, or on a beam of light) would never have gotten off the ground. To placate critics of my involvement in this topic, I would say that I have at my disposal two immensely helpful tools – first, my skill of empathy, and second, the women's writings that I have researched. At the end of this inquiry, I will make no claim to having uncovered any new or fundamental truth. I cannot speak for the female experience, only of it, and neither can I speak for other men. What I write will be inescapably subjective, and can only serve to inform readers of my personal and limited, that is, Western, white, middle-class, and male, understanding and views based on the particular texts that I have accessed.
So without further ado, in the following section, I intend to clarify some of the different ways in which distinction has been made between the sexes, and what exactly I mean by 'sexual objectification', of which I will supply some examples. In Part 3, I will address the question of whether sexual objectification is a natural, or a cultural, phenomenon, and in Part 4, whether it is freely chosen by people and therefore consensual, or whether it is always imposed by some people on others. In Part 5, I will attempt to make some value-judgement on sexual objectification, asking whether it performs some essential psychological or social function, or is merely a limiting and deleterious cultural construct that holds back human development. Depending on that outcome, finally, in Part 6, I intend to address whether as a society we are capable of moving beyond this mode of perception, and how this might be accomplished.
Part 2: Definitions
It seems reasonable first to ask, what are men, and what are women? Obviously, most humans fall into one of the two biological categories bearing these names – those with two X chromosomes being female, and those with an X and a Y being male. There are many features of the sexes that are the physical and psychological expression of these sets of genes that have therefore been designated 'male' and 'female' characteristics. But is that all? Is our sex based just on the information carried in a random spermatozoon?
In her book The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir makes the distinction between 'woman' as a biological entity, and 'femininity' as a social construction. She pointed out that while each of us is given certain things by nature, exactly what sort of people we turn out to be is heavily dependent on the social context within which we develop.
'I deny that anyone knows, or can know, the nature of the two sexes, as long as they have only been seen in their present relation to one another ... What is now called the nature of women is an eminently artificial thing – the result of forced repression in some directions, unnatural stimulation in others.'
(John Stuart Mill 1986 : 27 The Subjection of Women)
As Mill stresses, of the potentials each of us innately has, some are stimulated to very full expression, whilst others are suppressed. In this way, a girl's maternal instincts may be groomed for future motherhood by the provision of dolls for her to play with, while her brother's capacity for aggression is honed by playing with mock weapons. If she channels similar tendencies by pulling the heads off her dolls, she is liable to receive negative feedback from the adults around her.
De Beauvoir neatly states, 'One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.' In one sense this is a truism, in that few of us were anything much when we were born – but it permits that womanhood is reached by a process of becoming that is not predestined. The eventual outcome is contingent on much more than just genes. Although a person's sex may be genetically given, there are situations in which their gender may be determined on an ambiguous biological foundation, or even contrary to it. For example, in Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, a genetically male foetus develops female characteristics, and the condition may only be identified in the resulting woman by a skilled gynaecologist. Intersex children may be brought up as either girls or boys (though in some cases, they grow up to reject their gender assignations). In some South American tribes, boys displaying feminine (not female) characteristics are identified at a young age by the elders to be brought up as women. Despite their male bodies, they dress as women, and occupy themselves with activities traditionally regarded as feminine preserves. They are recognised officially within their community as belonging to a third gender.
In her 1976 study 'Just Like a Girl', Sue Sharp concluded that a person's gender is socially constructed upon a biological foundation (their sex), which in my understanding can in some cases even be completely ignored. As a basis for social interaction, a person's first consideration concerning another is not their sex, but their gender. Sex matters, and people cling to its supposed certainties, but its either/ or simplicity is insufficient information to provide a basis for people to modulate their speech, behaviour, and thoughts nearly to the extent that they do. A woman is a woman is a woman, in the majority of cases... but some are more feminine, less feminine, more emotional, more intellectual than others... some are mothers, some are fire-fighters, schoolteachers, or surgeons, and the unique mix of all possible characteristics determines the social projection of each woman's gender, and how others respond to her.
'Sexual objectification is the act of treating or judging a person with values generally appreciated in animals or objects (e.g. disregarding intelligence and problem-solving skills at the profit of other attributes like physical attractiveness, submissiveness, and gullibility) ... treatment [of women] as objects valued for their physical attributes, rather than their intellect.'
Sexual objectification is not to be confused with unwanted sexual attention, although that is a possible consequence. Objectification in its loosest sense here is to define the owner of a consciousness as a thing relative to the consciousness of the objectifier.
It takes various forms, the most ubiquitous of which is linguistic – the gender-neutral use of male pronouns, and the resulting masculine pretence to universal subjectivity, rendering women as entities forever talked about, rather than being included in the human viewpoint from which so many men purport to write. Socially, women are often seen as being married to particular functions – those of wife, mother, or whore, for example – which are always relative to men. The media have commodified the female image to such an extent that women have become commodities themselves, and both male and female expectations of what a woman is, or rather should be, become dominated by the perceptions expressed in magazines, film and advertising.
The result is that the general or male perception of women does not reflect the complexity and feeling of their real identities. They are reduced to a small reservoir of functions and images, and their qualities may then be rated according to simplistic criteria. Most people have experienced this either on the making or receiving end of the judgement 'Is she hot, or not?'. Certain aspects of women are venerated by men (breasts), while others are despised (periods). The real woman caught in this web of judgements faces the choice of whether to serve the expectations that are made of her, or to be herself.
'A lap-dance is fine, silicone implants – fine. But we don't like to see breastfeeding in public places.'
Part 3: Nature or Culture?
In a Functionalist analysis, women have a natural role to fulfil in society, outside which they will only become victims of anomie. Structuralists such as Talcott Parsons would argue that any perceived injustices in the relations between the sexes would disappear if only women would stop trying to become what they are not, in other words, to adopt masculine preoccupations, or ignore feminine ones. There are two problems with this analysis. Firstly, the model of the nuclear family that Parsons proposed as the ideal is only one of multitude of designs that has worked in particular places and times around the world. Simple societies often have more community-orientated family structures in which women's roles need not be so rigorously defined. In complex civilizations, any number of peculiar structures has been tried, and many have endured for long periods. This diversity leads me to question Parsons' justification for singling out his own ideas as those most closely reflecting 'nature'. Second, his views appear to be based not on any consultation with women. The model he proposes is one designed and refined by men, for men. It serves male interests, and does not take the feminine viewpoint into account.
'In all known societies, woman has always been looked upon as the other.'
(Simone de Beauvoir)
In much of history, women are viewed as property. They were regarded as chattels of the families, belonging first to their father, or if he died, their brother, and then to their husband. In most cultures this is reflected by the name transmission within families occurring through the male line.
Since the Greeks, European cultures have perpetuated a view that women are equipped with a lesser consciousness than men, as Eric Matthews explains:
'The only truly 'spiritual' relations must be those between men, since men alone have 'spirits', or subjectivity. Relations between men and women, or women and women, are reduced to a low level of pure carnality.'
ancient view underpins a vast proportion of the work of male writers
provides the dominant theme of our culture.
Luce Irigaray, a philosopher born in
'The subject has always been written in the masculine form ... even when it claimed to be universal or neutral.'
She used a deconstructive reading of several great works of philosophy to show that where the subject purports to be human it is in fact always masculine. As a consequence, women 'have been denied full subjectivity and reduced to the status of objects of a male gaze' (Matthews 1996).
It is perhaps a problem in academia that in the search for general or universal truths, in the quest to make a greater impact, personal opinion is accorded little value. Students set themselves the goal of producing work in which no personal pronouns occur, which may sometimes compromise the honesty of their writing. In this way, some very powerful voices in philosophy and other disciplines, due to their pretence to universal subjectivity, have had their opinions accepted as general truth. With a few statistics, any sociologist can change 'I think...' to 'Research shows...'. The resulting world-view leads, in Irigaray's words, to 'scientific or technical imperialism that fails to consider the living subject.' Within the feminist movement, mainstream (or 'Malestream') social research has frequently been criticised for making it difficult to find unskewed evidence to provide a sound basis for the discussion of gender issues.
Another French philosopher, Michele Le Doeuff, made similar observations of literature. Francis Bacon described nature as a woman that false knowing treats as a prostitute, but true knowledge as a lawful wife. Le Doeuff concluded in her study of Bacon that this is hostile to women for three reasons: that the knower must be a man, that knowledge may be compared to the sexual penetration of women, and therefore, that women are incapable either of knowing or of reasoning – and certainly incapable of being philosophers. As one of the great English writers, Bacon's message has been received by thousands of readers, and thus disseminated widely in our culture. In more recent times, it remains alive and well, as revealed in her thoughts on Sartre:
'In his philosophical writings, I have nowhere come across a female character involved in a historic situation (the war or the Resistance, for example), nor even in a workplace situation (in the fashion of, for example, a café waiter). Woman is always seen only as a body, and a sexual body.'
(Le Doeuff 1991 Hipparchia's Choice, trans. Trista Selous, Oxford: Blackwell).
For Irigaray, language is primary; the construction of an identity is the construction of a language of one's own. Women are denied identity in society, she contends, because the language of that society excludes them. The norm is always male; women are seen always as the other.
Against this tide, many writers have attempted to redress the balance, and to show that a fundamental shift in perspective is not impossible, but could be achieved by a conscious effort. The following extract ridicules attachment to the gender status quo by likening it to the struggle for racial equality:
'Most of the clamour, as you certainly know by now, revolves around the age-old usage of the noun 'white' and words built from it ... The Negroists claim that using the word 'white', either on its own or as a component, to talk about all the members of the human species is somehow degrading to blacks and reinforces racism. Therefore the libbers propose that we substitute 'person' everywhere where 'white' now occurs. Sensitive speakers of our secretary tongue of course find this preposterous. There is great beauty to a phrase such as 'all whites are created equal' ... Think how ugly it would be to say 'all persons are created equal' or 'all whites and blacks are created equal'. Besides ... such phrases are redundant. In most contexts, it is self-evident when 'white' is being used in an inclusive sense, in which case it subsumes members of the darker races just as much as fairskins.'
(Douglas Hofstadter 1998: 141 A Person Paper on Purity in Language)
The ways that people talk about things both reveal and inform how they see them. Language is both the disseminator of sexual objectification, and the primary means by which it is inculcated in succeeding generations. Despite its central role in human consciousness, language itself remains flexible and fluid, and manifests in thousands of different forms, each attached to a distinct culture. It is difficult to talk about sexual objectification without reference to language, and as such reveals itself to be an aspect of culture, not nature.
Part 4: Imposition or Choice?
The question of whether sexual objectification is imposed on women or consented to by them is best answered in two stages: 'Can they avoid it?', and 'Do they accept it?'. Negative answers to these questions would show that this phenomenon is in fact forced upon women.
So, can women avoid the objectifying gaze personally, and can they avoid being presented with the view that women generally are objects of a male gaze? In the modern world, the most obvious answer to this takes the form of the mass media – a constant and unavoidable stream of images that frequently carry a very strong emphasis on women as sexual things. They are presented to male audiences as the idealised fulfilment of their physical desires, and to female audiences as the idealised fulfilment of their supposed personal ambitions (to look like a model in your twenties, to be a glamorous and successful working mother, and to look as though in your forties when in your sixties). I feel little need to write at length on this topic, but refer any doubting reader to an online collection of advertising images that explore this theme very fully at http://www.genderads.com/.
According to the Hypodermic Syringe Theory of the media, all these messages are injected into our minds with little resistance, and we soon adopt the viewpoints laid down for us. The most emphatic criticism usually made of this theory is that people simply aren't that stupid, that they consider carefully what they see, and absorb only what they agree with. That is true in many respects, but most people have a friend or several who is unreasonably concerned about their weight, know a woman who spends a considerable sum on makeup despite being young and having good skin, or have simply observed the frequency with which people expend their still-functioning mobile telephones in favour of the latest model. If there was nothing in it, advertising wouldn't pay... but it remains uncomfortable to admit, 'Gosh, we are that stupid!'.
Feminists often see the mass media as an extension of Patriarchy. Patriarchy differs from traditional slavery in that women have become their own oppressors – in newspaper personal ads, women sell body shape, while men sell their profession and 'hunter-gatherer' capabilities. Media stereotypes are met with agreement by people's actual behaviour.
the question remains, how did all this come about?
Herbert Marcuse, a critical theorist of the
A Marxist analysis might begin with a familiar theme, but with a different judgement. Instead of women's roles as workers, mothers and wives mutually profiting a good and natural social order, they are subjugated to Capitalist ends to which their enslavement is fundamental. Women are indoctrinated to fill certain niches or marketed as sexual objects to make money for the system and those who control it. This may be seen purely as Patriarchal exploitation, or also as money being made out of men's weaknesses. The sexes are carefully divided, but a clear argument is not made that either especially benefits from these arrangements. The true division here lies not between the sexes necessarily, but between the masses and their oppressors. One writer states that religion amongst all the social institutions that form the Marxist superstructure – though his words may be applied to any of them and indeed the topic of this essay – is 'a belief system whose chief purpose is simply to provide reasons – excuses, really – for keeping things in society just the way the oppressors like them.' (Pals 1996). Change is of course inevitable, but rarely does it occur in the direction hoped for. Fewer restrictions for women than in the past increasingly grant them the choice to behave as men have always behaved. Post-Feminists might welcome these freedoms, but many also bemoan the lack of real progress made. The state in which some people hold power over others and use it to treat them badly persists, only now an oppressor may be of either sex.
Backtracking slightly, Marxist ideas about alienation and his theory of political economy may be applied to elucidate the position of women in society. According to this, women become objectified by being seen over several generations to put their energy into certain tasks such as reproduction, child-rearing, homemaking, and being sexually attractive. The feelings associated with these tasks become invested in certain ideas such as fertility, motherhood, domesticity, and sexiness. These are collectively developed into a social ideal of womanhood. Although each woman is identified with 'Womanhood', as a real person she cannot hope to match that ideal. She becomes its object, and the social conception of Womanhood assumes control over her, issuing all sorts of demands. She is then alienated from Womanhood, and its once-joyful tasks are reduced to means rather than ends in themselves. Instead of smiling to herself in the certain knowledge that 'I am sexy' or 'Bringing up my kids fills me with joy', she constantly asks herself 'Am I doing this right?'. Magazines and the gaze of her neighbours overtake her own judgements of her efforts, because she has lost the power as arbiter of her Womanhood, whose ends may then be freely appropriated by her father, husband, or boss for their own uses. Her successes and failures are no longer merely her own – they are broadened to be the failures of her sex. A wife in her family feels increasingly disconnected from her husband, as their aims are not the same. She feels isolated from other women, and the consciousness of her self-worth is diminished. Interaction with other women becomes focused around issues of motherhood or wifeliness. Expressions of the intelligence, uniqueness, and commonality of all women are reduced to debates on how to juggle infants and a career, get the family's shirts really white, or give the perfect blowjob. Her class consciousness and even her original sense of being a woman are eroded by the pressures of fulfilling her duties. Her social instincts atrophy, as no relationship is permitted to eclipse with its importance her defined roles of wife and mother. All relationships must somehow contribute to those aims. She is now a solitary object, subordinated to the demands of her sex – that standardised, prescribed recipe for what a woman should be. Believing this to be the right and true way for her to live, she has given in to false consciousness. The myth of its certainties is reinforced on all sides. Any happiness she finds within the myth is illusory. Only the abolition of ideas of conventionalised Womanhood by which she is objectified may permit the resurgence of real consciousness, and real happiness.
Marx's conceit that 'It is not consciousness that determines life; but life that determines consciousness. ... Circumstances, therefore, make man just as much as man makes circumstances.' may trouble us as an example of a piece of philosophy that excludes female subjectivity in the manner objected to by Irigaray as discussed earlier, but I reproduce it here to underline the point that he saw revolution as being necessary to effect change. According to this viewpoint, women cannot free themselves from the shackles of conventionalised womanhood until that institution has been thoroughly dismantled. Until such a time, their objectification would seem unavoidable.
The mechanisms of this process may be further explained with reference to Labelling Theory. Women are constantly reminded that they are perceived and commodified as objects. Even from early childhood, girls are groomed to subjugate themselves to male expectations, ever more rapidly expressing curiosity about makeup and adult clothing. 'Lacking any choice, labelled persons come to see themselves as the person they have been forced to become' (Jones 1993). This creates a loop of sexual inequality amplification that although checked considerably in recent decades, continues to stamp the minds of each generation of little boys and little girls with what they can expect from each other when they grow up. Even the Feminist movement itself can be drawn into this observation. By emphasising the suffering of women in the historical or current situation in order to provide a contrasting solution, Feminist labelling might be seen to confirm female victimhood. It is very difficult to have any discussion of these issues without contributing to their weight.
Of course, many people rebel against moulds that are imposed upon them. They are critical of the messages they receive, or learn to distinguish between seeing and believing. To contrast with the hypodermic syringe of a Patriarchy that fills our minds with instructions on how to serve the forces that dominate our culture, the Uses and Gratifications Model of the media permits audiences to react to what they see, and thus to perceive things in ways very different to how they were intended to be taken. This must also be true, for otherwise, all arguments against censorship, all protest, all satire... could not exist. The forces of domination are real, and very powerful, but ultimately not more powerful than the approval of the people. However bleak a situation may appear, there is always consensus to be found within it. Great optimism on this score however, I feel, may be missing the point. For as long as there is nearly one man for each woman, the female voices within our society in its present and ancient form will always struggle to be heard.
* * * * *
Having demonstrated to a reasonable degree that sexual objectification is not something that women are currently in a position to avoid, I now ask to what extent they accept the situation.
In no situation is there a greater potential for submission to a stranger on a general principle, or to protest their actions, even if only to ourselves, than in the direct gaze, be it momentary or lingering, that each person gives and is subject to perhaps hundreds of times in a week. In contemporary British heterosexual culture, a persistent gaze between strangers carries various possible meanings. A man looking at a man for any reason usually avoids doing so conspicuously, but if he should gaze openly, may experience feelings of power, with rising adrenalin. The object of his gaze senses aggression, or suspects homosexuality, or simply asks himself 'Do I know him?'. He assesses the potential for conflict and either avoids eye contact, stares pointedly back, or escalates the encounter to a verbal stage. A woman looking at a woman feels most of the things that a man feels looking at a man. The object may experience a sensation of being admired, of being different, or of being disliked. A man looking at a woman for any length of time is in many cases viewing her as an attractive object placed on the earth for his visual satisfaction. His is a lecherous gaze. The woman gazed upon may feel admired, annoyed, or scared, and may either court it (she is then often viewed as a slut), or shun it (which may also be interpreted in sexual terms, as playing hard to get, or being frigid). Either way, she is tempted to view men (I think justly, in this regard) as being rather simple creatures. In the opposite case, a woman looking at a man may feel similar things to a man looking at a woman. The man might feel harassed, but is more likely simply to receive an ego boost.
It should now be evident that by looking at people in a certain way, we limit and polarise their choices of what they can be to us. The question is whether either men or women are more likely to invite others to perceive them as sex objects. Cases may be made that particular ways in which people attend to their appearance, or pose in certain contexts (girls on a night out, male surfers on a beach), constitute their ripening themselves for sexual predation. This asks the further question, 'Who decides the meaning of an action?'. A man on a beach might look toned and tanned as a natural consequence of his lifestyle, and be there only to surf. But he might have chosen his lifestyle to appear more attractive to women. Or he might be a useless surfer, and be posing with that hope. He might be gay. He might have recently emerged from a harrowing relationship, and be seeking to unleash Havishamesque vengeance on the owner of any lascivious eye to fall upon his accomplished body. Anyone looking at him must decide for themselves. Even if they decide that they cannot be sure of his motivations, that is itself a decision. True, the surfer may know his reasons, and the girl on the town may know hers. But few people ask, or completely restrain their instincts from contaminating their perception of what they are told.
Symbolic Interactionism tells us that 'I am what you think I am'. There is a limit to the extent that people can manipulate and use the labels that others give them. Baudrillard inserts the argument that self-perception is flexible: although some people may objectify me in a particular way, others will do so differently, and I'll put on different masks, wear different identities, depending on my audience, or even my fancy. This enables me to perceive myself differently at different times, but does not necessarily allow others to see more than one view of me. Few people, I think, gain full control over the selection of which faces they show to others. Actors can do it, but it requires greater energy than letting each audience choose what it wants to see. There is therefore little we can do to influence the thoughts passing through the mind of the gentleman across the pub, be he knitting his brow or flashing his most endearing smile.
This mask-swapping that forms the basis of the Dramaturgical Model of selfhood is a strong argument against the idea that each of us has any fundamental identity. We are created in response to social forces, either in reaction to or in consensus with them. The way in which a woman sees herself depends on the exact condition of her social context. This refutes any argument for an essential nature of women that might be used to say that women generally invite or repel the male gaze. Each woman's attitudes are a reaction to her wider culture and her immediate society, which are highly variable. One might argue that many women have been colonised by ideas that are not really their own, with which they are not truly comfortable – but who can say which ideas fall into that category? Germaine Greer argues that penetrating the body outline is a form of violation in itself... but many women enjoy penetrative sex without the feeling that they have been violated or used. To tell them that they have been colonised by male expectations, and that their pleasure is somehow illusory, would seem to be counterproductive.
So if girls and women are taught that power, respect and wealth can be derived from one's outward appearance, and they take it on themselves to cultivate it for their gain, are they quite blameless? Each woman lives in a particular reality, and decides that she wants to pursue certain goals. Is there a right or wrong way for her to go about this? Some would say that merit in one aspect should not be traded for advantage in another. Others would say that the rules that permit such transactions add both to the complexity of our society, and thus to the opportunities within it. In a simple situation, its limits are reached sooner. From the grass roots, women have always sought new ways to interpret their environment to enable them to attain their ends.
'Whatever name we give it, we shall always find in human beings this great line of activity – this struggle to rise from an inferior to a superior position, from defeat to victory, from below to above.'
Progress has always been made by a combination of success in the terms of the status quo, whilst slashing at its roots. Certainly, and even despite the discussed limitations on the certainty of outcomes, women do manipulate men's perceptions of them for their convenience. After all, the alternative was frequently and even remains starkly unattractive. Friends, a husband, a good job – these things didn't happen without some effort by women to present themselves in a particular way. Even now, it often seems that men remain the arbiters of all women's efforts. Whether they were unconsciously colonised, or have full awareness of their reasons, women collude with male agendas through fashion, sex, behaviour, speech and so on. If there were no men, would makeup and heels still be seen as empowering by even the most ardently optimistic Post-Feminists? Would Madonna's self-determined defloration still be seen as having been a good 'career move'? Though no longer forced, in order to participate in mainstream society women are still strongly encouraged to fulfil male expectations of them.
'Women have the right to do what they want, that is to want what they do – not to have sexual practices imposed upon them.'
The decision to have such freedom is still too frequently a personal one, to be made with little support or understanding from male partners or even other women.
Many women enjoy putting on makeup, but they also demand it of themselves. In a climate where willingness to submit to such practices may influence earnings or prospects for promotion, women's motivations for self-adornment are frequently instrumental. But something extra is required to explain the mania with which a proportion of women maintain their appearance:
'The woman who checks her makeup half a dozen times a day to see if her foundation has caked or her mascara run, who worries that the wind or rain may spoil her hairdo, who looks frequently to see if her stockings have bagged at the ankle, or who, feeling fat, monitors everything she eats, has become, just as surely as the inmate of the Panopticon, a self-policing subject, a self committed to a relentless self-surveillance.'
(Sandra Bartky 1990 Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power)
The parallel of a half-silvered window, or the unblinking eye of a security camera does help to explain why some women will not emerge as far as the mailbox at the end of their garden path without first having applied makeup, or done their hair, or dressed presentably, or performed whatever ritual they believe is necessary to complete the image they present publicly, to protect themselves from its critical gaze. This fear is the extension and internalisation within women of male power. The relationship that exists between the sexes is a power relationship.
Part 5: Useful or Deleterious?
In this section I ask to what extent sexual objectification has the power to cause harm, or conversely if there are instances in which it may have some social benefit. These effects may impact differently on the subject and object as individuals, and on society more generally.
As far as the subject of the objectifying gaze is concerned, to fundamentally misappreciate one half of the species, aren't these men missing something rather important? I would argue that having a limited perception is to have a limited mind. Sexual objectification is therefore just as harmful to men as to women – but in ways that may not be obvious or objectionable to them.
In the previous section, I showed how for the most part, subjection of women to the male gaze is non-consensual, and started to discuss its deeper effects. At this point I wish to extend that theme with reference to two recent television programmes, and pornography.
Channel 4 produced a documentary called Skinny Kids. It begins with the premise that 'Every woman has something ... they don't like about themselves', and shows how this can create severe problems such as eating disorders or exercise mania not just in young women but in adolescent and pre-adolescent girls. The family transmission of shape and weight concerns can even affect six year-olds, who are worried about far, diet, and their weight. Despite their parents' professed horror at these obsessions, they set a formative example to their offspring by forever buying slimming products, eating less, and weighing themselves. In some households, the dieting food Slimfast is an ordinary grocery item.
Children are often caught in a vicious circle with no logic. A growing twelve year-old interviewed wanted to lose a stone (a seventh of her entire weight). Her solution included going to the gym, which would cause her to gain muscle mass, thus gaining weight on top of that which is a natural part of growth. The only way for her to actually lose weight in this situation would be literally to starve herself.
Children surveyed in a primary school equated fat children with a host of negative characteristics (they were allegedly lazy, smelly, without friends, and disliked by their parents), but equated thinness with all the opposite characteristics. The children made polar judgements that reflected adult perceptions, but with greater frankness.
Anorexic girls use magazines filled with thin celebrities as inspiration to persevere in not eating through pangs of hunger. A psychologist interviewed on the subject of teen idols said: 'They're powerful, they're beautiful, they have lives that are apparently attainable', and a nurse at an eating disorder clinic observed: 'All the time we see perfection portrayed as a size 8, our children will have to endure more and more eating disorders'.
same psychologist, learning that a mother taught her daughter to apply
makeup (not just a bit of lipstick, but a careful layering of
all the trimmings) at age nine, commented that 'The boundary between
and adulthood has been eroded'. That
girl would take a torch into the cinema so that she can check her hair
guarantee a perfect exit to the car after the show, at which point, she
'people will see me'. This level of
attention given to presenting her appearance can have no conceivable
a primary school child, and the paranoia that motivates it is
highly damaging. The desire to conform
to parentally-reinforced media standards of female appearance in the
of course opens a new market, first for publishers, then for the
portray. The chain catalogue store
Curiously absent, for the most part, from this equation is the direct influence of men and the male gaze. The female preoccupation from a young age with body-image is the result of reinforcement by female role-models, especially parents, celebrities, and other media images, and heightened by competition with peers. Teen and pre-teen girls are a growing market that is being targeted by its lowest common denominator – the desire to grow up, as much as to be beautiful. All the effects described are the result of a meeting between female values and socialisation on the one hand, and media values orientated towards profit on the other. Direct male reinforcement (that is, the personal gaze as distinct from the demands of the market) at these highly impressionable and crucial stages of child development is not seen to be a factor.
Another Channel 4 production, Ten Years Younger, is a makeover show in whose each instalment a woman with body-image issues is given a comprehensive treatment by a series of experts in plastic surgery, cosmetic dentistry, makeup, hairstyling, and fashion to reduce a vox pop assessment of her age by ten years. It goes a long way to answering the question, why are women driven to obsess about their appearance, their clothes, their painfully beautiful shoes? At an age when wrinkles are natural and inevitable, why should they aspire with such energy to cheat these superficialities? The show demonstrates that the fear of negative reinforcement by men, being ignored by strangers, and being criticised by friends are to blame. Looking good is a prerequisite for avoiding the unkind reactions of others. In the instalment I viewed, a naturally ageing woman was subjected to public humiliation and the surgical reconstruction of her face, and goaded to cultivate a different taste in clothes, makeup and hairstyling that she would struggle both ideologically and financially to maintain. Throughout this ordeal, her boyfriend was forever on hand to tell her that she looked 'much better than before' after each grisly step towards her eventual, if momentary, style nirvana. If these are the effects of sexual objectification full-blown in a mature, rational woman, I cannot but conclude that it is an insidious and grossly harmful force.
One wonders, where do so many men who do not presumably pay much attention to beauty magazines receive their rigidly defined ideals of feminine appearance? They are equally subject to the images of advertising, but this does not suggest the right to make judgements that a large number of men feel that they possess. A key difference between the sexes in the sourcing of images is that men are far greater consumers of pornography. This industry, said Germaine Greer, '... which has become so much a prescriber of women's behaviour, has been developed according to men's strange fixations and infantilisms and fetishes ...' Ideas that were once personal to the fantasy of the individual are now accessible as the vast subgenres of an organised, categorised, and global pornographic industry. The quiet little thoughts that occur to people during periods of sexual introspection are now writ large across millions of magazine and web pages. Porn has become a unifying force for male fantasy, and for the sexual demands that men make of women.
This incarnation of the commodified female image gives rise to the idea of the 'man-made body'. It need not even be made of woman. It may be cybernetic, or even a man. The videogame sprite Lara Croft and Thai transexuals have for large audiences become acceptable substitutes for images of real women. The problem for those real women, of course, is that they are made of more than polygons or makeup, and suffer if they are compared to these male constructs. In criticising some feminists' definition of women's ultimate freedom only being possible through liberation from giving birth, Greer contends that 'The focus has always been "Let's see if we can do what they do inside their bodies in a petri dish, and then, we can maybe even get rid of them. We can hysterectomise the lot of them. They can all be Barbie dolls, and they'll have big tits and small asses, and no pubic hair, and we'll like them very much better than we do now." Do we liberate them by eliminating female functions? Is it womanhood we want to be free from? And my argument would be NO!' Women's essential biological functions and their physical attributes that vary greatly between individuals are not readily packaged as the standardised, marketable conception of them. Their commodification in any form is highly destructive both to the quality of their relationships with men and to their understanding of themselves.
In their landmark studies on the subject, Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin developed theories concerning the full extent to which pornography both depicts and effects the subordination of women. They observed that pornography according to their definition always portrays women as subjected, 'there to be violated and possessed ... Men treat women as who they see women as being. Pornography constructs who that is.' (MacKinnon 1987). This problem, they argue, extends to causing violence against women, and rape. This might at first seem far-fetched – that a man jerking off in a crescent of explicit photographs is somehow being altered in a way that increases the likelihood that he will force himself on the next woman he sees as being available. But Rae Langton gives an explanation of precisely how this is possible.
She tackles the matter by examining the issue of silencing – that a woman's voice might not get her message across to a man, especially in the instance where he is demanding sex and she is refusing it. Langton distinguishes between three types of speech: locution (the action of speaking, or simply saying the words), illocution (taking a non-verbal action BY saying particular words, such as assuming a state of matrimony by uttering the words 'I do'), and perlocution (causing particular, intended effects by one's words being understood in a particular way by others). She outlines how pornography may bring about both the illocutionary and perlocutionary silencing of women, illuminating the connection between objectification and violence. In a situation in which rape may occur, a woman is illocutionarily silenced if the man simply doesn't comprehend the meaning of her word, 'No!'. According to Langton and MacKinnon, pornography creates the impression that women always want sex, that they enjoy being overpowered, and that 'no' doesn't really mean 'no'. In experiments, male subjects' ability to recognise rape as rape was diminished by exposure to pornography. Illocutionary silencing may therefore be brought about by pornography causing men to fail to interpret women's protests correctly, leading them to commit rape. Perlocutionary silencing may occur when a man does understand the meaning of the word 'No!', but it does not have the intended effect on his actions. Again, pornography may be implicated in creating the callous attitude that causes men to treat women with so little regard for their rights and feelings in such instances.
But attempts to single out pornography from its context in the commercial media have been criticised. Carole Vance sees the media as often portraying women 'in a demeaning, trivializing and sexist manner' (1992 More Pleasure, More Danger: A Decade After the Barnard Sexuality Conference), and reminds us that everything from mainstream TV and Good Housekeeping magazine to Gone With the Wind and the Bible share the responsibility that pornography should bear in unacceptably pruning male perceptions of women. Others have even made arguments that pornography performs a valuable function in de-sublimating male desires, giving them for the most part relatively harmless expression. It is said that countries exist with especially liberal censorship laws that apply to pornography, that enjoy low incidences of rape. I think this angle would require very careful exploration before any judgements could be reached, not least because the conditions across the world's borders affecting the frequency and manner in which cases of rape are reported and recorded are extremely diverse.
Personally, I would say that as a species we progress not by rejecting or censoring ideas, but by building larger ones to envelop them. By constructing a new ideological context for pornography, it loses its power to harm and degrade its audience. By providing a regulatory framework for an industry in which abuse is a problem, its workers are protected. To circumscribe what already exists is to ensure its repetition in the future. If we continue to move forward in our search for new understanding of our culture and ourselves, we express our true nature as human beings.
Part 6: Eradicable or Permanent?
'All democratic experiments, all revolutions, all demands for equality have so far, in every instance, stopped short of sexual equality.'
(Rosalind Miles 1988: 287)
Is the eradication of sexual objectification a realistic aim? Can we get rid of it in the manner of racism or sexual discrimination? There are various problems connected with different methods by which this might be achieved. Any attempt at censorship of pornography or of the media more generally suffers from being designed and enforced by government, and thus lacks sensitivity to the needs of women whom it intends it serve. Canadian legislation intended to censor material deemed offensive to women caused not just pornography but safe sex manuals and sociological tracts discussing these very issues to be impounded by law officials at the border (who as it happens were generally male). MacKinnon proposed a different solution: that of legislative provision for civil liability cases to be brought by women who have personally been the victims of harm brought about by particular materials. This would place power in the hands of victims, and would provide a real test of the destructive capabilities of those materials implicated. Unfortunately, this solution also suffers from a tendency to cause an over-reaction, this time corporate rather than governmental. The actual decision of which materials should be available would always rest with the publishing companies, who, fearing a mass of lawsuits would pull just about anything with sexually explicit content from the shelves. Such laws could be appropriated by religious fundamentalists and other groups whose concerns it was not their intention to serve.
The key point here is not just that new definitions are required, but that women should have the right to define. This would bring about a revolution on a Copernican scale affecting how legislation is drafted, and the philosophy underpinning every transaction between people in our society. The erosion of the male grip on the right of definition cannot be instantaneous, but the fruits awaiting men are attractive. Men's self-appointed position at the centre of the universe is maintained by a fear and contempt of women that stems from their self-enforced ignorance of them. They seek to overcome their dread by 'physical and intellectual mastery over the female principle (and hence over actual women)' (Miles 1989). This puts them forever in a defensive position. Male fantasy is the other great area of resistance to change: it is convenient for us to overlook reality in order to pursue our idyll (in the manner of Humbert Humbert in Nabokov's Lolita). But a man in a reverie is jolted and jarred by each contact with reality, and this can only hasten the acceptance of a new and more accurate perception.
The central problem may not lie within objectification at all. An object exists as such only in relation to the subject that perceives it. If a subject exists, then all other things naturally fall under its subjective gaze. The view that people have of each other stems completely from the view they hold of themselves. Feminist commentators have frequently observed that women have been excluded from history, from philosophy, because they were not viewed as being included as full members of the human species. But the problem is not really that men view women as being insignificant – it is better explained by seeing that men have an inflated sense of their own subjectivity, of their importance. No amount of evidence of the wonders of nature, or the vital role that women have played in human history, will persuade a certain kind of mind from seeing so much of existence as being somehow inferior to itself. To dissolve the problem of a limited perception of everything and everyone else, people must first remove the obstacle of their own subjectivity. Rather than wage war on objectification in others, each should explore opportunities for their personal de-subjectification – to weaken their own self-concept as a platform from which all other concepts must be viewed.
The ego stands in the way of empathy, in the way of any true understanding. Only through self-inquiry, and the assiduous education of our children, can we hope to solve the problem of how we destroy that upon which we gaze.
A note of pessimism...
'If someone had told me in 1977 that in 1997 men would comprise over a quarter of cosmetic-surgery patients, I would have been astounded. I never dreamed that 'equality' would move in the direction of men worrying more about their looks rather than women worrying less. I first suspected that something major was going on when the guys in my gender classes stopped yawning and passing snide notes when we discussed body issues, and instead began to protest when the women talked as though they were the only ones 'oppressed' by standards of beauty.'
(Susan Bordo 1999: 217-8 The Male Body)
'The increasing pressure on men to conform to unattainable standards of beauty is far from a sign of progress: it is, instead, a sign that the problem has grown.'
It is possible to view this phenomenon in a more positive light: the growth of sexual objectification of men, particularly of celebrities, has at least led to greater equality of the problem. This has been held up both as a proud and a shameful legacy of the Post-Feminist era.
That this debate exists at all is in my opinion to be viewed as a great achievement of the last few decades. Already, the Feminist movement has transformed the landscape in which we communicate with one another. Sexual objectification is perhaps an especially deep-rooted phenomenon, but I am confident that our society will progress far beyond its present acceptance of it. This will be brought about by the earnest efforts of concerned individuals, but exactly what conditions shall ascend in legislation, in the media, and in everyday conversational language, remain to be seen. Though no end is yet in sight, and its form cannot be assumed, I am optimistic that women, or why not everyone, in Gerda Lerna's words, 'will simply step out under the free sky'.
'All truth passes through three stages: first it is ridiculed, second it is violently opposed, third it is accepted as being self-evident.'
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