Objectification and the myth of female power.


A study in power: left- Audre Lorde, radical feminist poet and writer, right- rich handmaiden Beyoncé.

I have already commented about Wendy McElroy’s oversimplistic analysis of objectification. Her blindness is motivated by an intolerent worldview. Most people are not thus blinded, and it is easy for your average citizen to observe the mundane objectification that occurs all around us in marketing, the mass media, pseudo-science, and so on. Everyone sees it and knows it, whether they support it or not. As I pointed out in my entry on McElroy’s bumbling, there is a simple definition available on Feminism 101:

Sexual objectification is the viewing of people solely as de-personalised objects of desire instead of as individuals with complex personalities and desires/plans of their own. This is done by speaking/thinking of women especially as only their bodies, either the whole body, or as fetishised body parts.

Sexual objectification and racial objectification are both routine parts of media representations, and this is a part of life.

In response, people have used various rationalizations to try to sweep away this overwhelming fact of Western human life. The most popular, of course, is the “but what about teh menz??” argument: men are objectified by the media too.

It’s hard to make sense of this argument. Is objectification somehow not bad because it’s done to men? Is objectification not a problem because it’s shared evenly and now both genders are equally oppressed? But this is not what radical feminists want; radical feminists want the end of patriarchy, not equality. The fact that men can also be objectified is a bad thing, not a good thing.

A related, and equally mystifying, argument comes from people who say we are all objectified by social institutions. How can that possibly be a good thing? Saying that objectification is widespread does not make it a non-issue! In fact, you’d think people who agree with these arguments would feel even more urgently about ending objectification than others. To me it simply makes no sense for anti-feminists to state that objectification is everywhere and that this somehow makes it a non-issue.

Then there are the men who equate objectification with admiration or “being sexy,” and think that women should be flattered by being objectified. But a woman who sees another woman, representing femininity in general, being reduced to the status of object for everyone to see has no reason to be flattered. There is nothing flattering about being imposed a model of beauty, being conceptualized as a piece of meat or as an object of unwanted lust, or being portrayed as incapable. The belief that objectification is flattering can only make sense if you already believe that women are made to be objects.

Sexual attraction is not the same as sexual objectification: objectification only occurs when the individuality of the desired person is not acknowledged.

To find a woman beautiful is not the same as objectifying her.

Then there are the more hardcore genderists who resent the very concept of objectification because they believe
it is a direct assault against male sexuality:

Bullshit you don’t care about my erections… All of the rhetoric that feminists spew about how men “sexually objectify” women, and “sexualise women’s bodies”, and about how “pornography is degrading to women”—it’s all based on one simple contention that no feminist wants to state outright for fear of being seen as ridiculous: men should get boners for different reasons than they do.

(note the irony in choosing the blog name “Antifeminist Egalitarian”: there can be no such thing as an antifeminist egalitarian by simple definition)

I’m fairly sure females can’t get boners (in case any men are that ignorant, the term “lady boner” is just a metaphor, although a rather revealing one). That aside, the fact that men who watch pornography eventually become desensitized to objectification and get off on women getting abused is a problem. The problem is with “men who watch pornography,” therefore two-thirds of men, not all men. Erections are not the issue, women’s bodies are not the issue, pornography is the issue.

The effect of objectification in how we see human beings is measurable and powerful. A famous study (P. Bernard, S. J. Gervais, J. Allen, S. Campomizzi, O. Klein. Integrating Sexual Objectification With Object Versus Person Recognition: The Sexualized-Body-Inversion Hypothesis. Psychological Science, 2012) showed that sexualized men are seen as people, but sexualized women are seen as objects.

Caroline Heldman proposes a seven point test, with illustrative examples, to determine whether a particular image is an instance of sexual objectification:

1) Does the image show only part(s) of a sexualized person’s body?
2) Does the image present a sexualized person as a stand-in for an object?
3) Does the image show sexualized persons as interchangeable?
4) Does the image affirm the idea of violating the bodily integrity of a sexualized person who can’t consent?
5) Does the image suggest that sexual availability is the defining characteristic of the person?
6) Does the image show a sexualized person as a commodity that can be bought and sold?
7) Does the image treat a sexualized person’s body as a canvas?

Most of the time, sexualized images of men do not fulfill any of these criteria. Men are typically shown as their whole body, in a pose which conveys strength or control. There are of course exceptions, and those are just as wrong as objectifying women. But the effect is not the same in both cases: in the case of women, objectification only confirms the view of women as inferior, while in the case of men, there is a definite playfulness about it, because we know men are not actually objects.

Stephen Bond (who has a great web site) has something very interesting to say about that particular subject:

A male chauvinist looks on a sexually objectified “powerful” woman as an assembly of fetish objects. Her power is just another fetish object, something else to rub his dick on, along with her breasts, thighs, ass and face. Her power is the power of a dominatrix, and a dominatrix is every bit as objectified as a sex slave. She’s not a human subject, with agency; she cannot wield her power for her own liberation, but only for the sexual gratification of the men who objectify her. She humiliates men for their pleasure, but the ultimate humiliation is always hers, because even in power, she is disempowered.

Many images of powerful women in our society are images of dominatrices: improbable sex objects, fantasies dreamed up by males for a male audience, in which female power is objectified and fetishised and subordinated to male gratification. Imperilled superheroines in skin-tight costumes, busty barbarian babes like Red Sonja, grotesquely proportioned computer game heroines like Lara Croft and the female cast of Soul Calibur and Dragon’s Crown, dozens of other nerd-oriented “strong female characters”: all over the Web, you’ll find male fans and creators trying to sell their jack-off material as empowering to women, when the truth is closer to the opposite.

This, I think, leads us nicely into the topic of the myth of “female power,” because the two topics are very much related. When people complain that women are “in charge” and have the “power,” what they are often really talking about is men’s eagerness to objectify women.

The typical example is that of strippers; people will readily argue that strippers are the ones with the power because they “make” men give them money “just” by undressing. The general implication of those statements is that men can’t control themselves, thus implying that the strippers are exploiting their natural tendencies, and that stripping is a trivial act which would not otherwise deserve remuneration.

In reality, men are not particularly mindless; those who enjoy strip clubs do so not because of something innate to men, but because they particularly enjoy objectifying women. And stripping is not a trivial act, but rather an act which carries a lot of significance in our prude Western societies.

A more recent example of the objectification=empowerment confusion, but also a more shameful one, is the feminist adulation of patriarchal mouthpiece Beyoncé. Because she sings about “strong women” and “girls” “running the world” (which in itself is insulting to all women), she appears to be powerful. But what she does is pandering to the male gaze, objectifying herself in sexual posts and in lingerie in order to make money. That’s great for her, if that’s what she likes, but it’s not feminism.

Like Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry, Beyoncé is a brand that needs to sell products. Empowerment is a very, very trendy product right now. Perhaps that’s why so many pop stars are throwing the word “feminist” around. Not too long ago, Miley Cyrus stated, “I feel like I’m one of the biggest feminists in the world because I tell women to not be scared of anything.” (Because that’s apparently what feminism is about—a collection of myths we circulate where women are fearless, goddess-like sexy heroes who have power).

This quote to me shows that the concept of the “strong women” is just another fetish for men to lust after (otherwise there’d be no such thing as “femdom” porn). Beyoncé is an object of lust and presents herself as a “strong women” because that’s what sells albums for her. I don’t doubt that racism has a part to play in this, as black women have been stereotyped as strong-headed and hypersexual, and Beyoncé is using that stereotype to objectify herself in the most effective manner.

There is validity, albeit in an ironic way, to the fact that Warren Farrell wanted the newest edition of his book The Myth of Male Power to bear a cover of a scantily clad female body part. Farrell stated:

Imagine the juxtaposition of the title, “Myth of Male Power” over one of these images. The cover alone will challenge the idea of male power in men and women alike on a gut level.

The point being, again, that men are powerless when faced with (in order of the images) 1. a woman’s torso, vulva covered with moss, and upper legs, 2. a woman’s back, butt covered by underwear, and upper legs and 3. the upper body of a blonde woman showing her breasts through a diaphanous piece of fabric and wearing pants. No actual naked genitalia is shown in any of the pictures, and these images are tamer than any stripper act or pornographic video. And yet, according to the MRAs who commented, these pictures are bringing them to their knees.

One can only wonder what happens to them when they watch porn. How could men keep their leadership positions as presidents, CEOs, and so on, if they are so easy to manipulate that a woman’s butt in underwear disjoints their brain?

As commenter Troiseme (sic) noted:

Let’s assume this is true. Let’s assume all men lose their “power” at the sight of a woman because of the biological urge to reproduce.

Now what? How do you fight biology with protest rallies? Do you want all men to get part of their brain removed after puberty? Do you put something in the drinking water to suppress the sex drive? Are these drinking fountains men-only drinking fountains? Where’s the activism that goes along with this?

Furthermore, even if this “women’s bodies make men go literally insane” belief was true, it would only prove that men are unfit for leadership. It is not a good leadership trait to be so easy to manipulate. Why should we let men rule everything when they will drop their responsibilities and commit improprieties (or worse) with any random woman at the drop of a hat?

In its usual political sense, “power” in a general sense refers to one’s capacities to act in and on the world, so it’s interesting to note the semantics involved in the word “power” being associated with women’s bodies, not anything women actually can do. It’s also interesting to note that when people talk about “sex” as a property of the media (i.e. “sex and violence”), they generally only refer to women’s bodies being exposed (not even men’s bodies, let alone actual sex).

I have a theory; it’s probably been written about before and I make no claim of being original, but I’ve never seen it expressed before. I call it the Angel Complex. As Western societies move from traditionalist sexuality to liberal sexuality (after the sexual revolution), women are indoctrinated to be in sexualized mode all the time. Because of that, young men are surrounded with women who conform with the standards of sexiness, and are frustrated when these women don’t “follow up” on their obvious attempt at being sexy. A lot of these men, I’m sure, become MRAs.

Just to be clear, I am not saying that these men are right. Women who perform sexiness norms do not owe men anything. My point is that more liberal patriarchal norms can cause a conservative backlash, and that therefore the contradictions of liberal feminism do have a negative effect as well as a positive one. Again, the “empowerment” of women is said to lie within their bodies, not in anything they do.

5 thoughts on “Objectification and the myth of female power.

  1. pamelaofmelbourne May 7, 2014 at 05:48 Reply

    Interesting article, personally I’m not a fan of the term “objectification”. I think it’s too academic and abstract. It doesn’t really shows what’s wrong with our society’s ideas about sex and “sexiness” and the term is often defined in a narrow way that then enables most “sexy” things to slide through and be considered okay, even when they shouldn’t be. For example, I’ve seen liberal feminist articles about pornography (somehow these articles get published in academic journals, even though the arguments they contain are no better than those regularly found in comments on the internet) that states that pornography is fine because half the time the women initiates the sex act, so she’s not “objectified”. She is presented as having sexual desire and “subjectivity” and “agency” and [insert overly academic term here], so pornography is empowering to women, right?

    Wrong. Even when women in pornography initiate the sex act, they are almost always represented as having the desire to be sexually dominated. The sex acts they initiate involve violence, domination, degradation, etc. I daresay that pornographic films in which women initiate the male-dominated sex acts are worse than films in which the men initiate them, because the latter will not give men the impression that women in general like that sort of treatment (though typically the women featured in the film is “won over” by the end.)

    I think this example shows one the real problems with society’s portrayals of “sexiness”. Our culture tells us that “sexiness” must involve domination and submission. According to the culture “sexy” men have enormous muscles and even bigger bank accounts. Both of these things are sources of power. Women meanwhile are “sexy” if they are lying down (preferably under a man), can barely walk (because they’re wearing shoes that interfere with the natural way people walk) or are kneeling on all fours. Even when the roles are reversed, power is still portrayed as an essential part of sex/love. Sex/love themselves are seen as mystical forces that overpower people and force them to surrender. I think we desperately need a new idea of what’s “sexy” and what “love” looks like (hint it doesn’t involve whips and chains.)

    Another problem with “sexy” images in our society is that they promote the idea that physical attractiveness is super, super important if you’re a woman. For women, physical attractiveness is a prerequiste for “sexiness”. No amount of submissiveness on the part of woman can make her “sexy” in the eyes of society if she is not physically attractive (though as I said discussed above, submissiveness is considered a very sexy trait in attractive women.) The idea that one’s appearance is super important is the foundation for all (medically unjustified) negative feelings women have regarding their bodies. Men don’t experience nearly as much body hatred as women do, because they’re not encouraged to think that how they look is super important and “ugly” men are not treated all that differently to “attractive” men. Of course there are non-sexy things that encourage women to obsess over their appearances (e.g. toy commericals for dolls that exist solely to be prettified by girls who play with them) but “sexy” things that promote appearance obsession are all too often given a free pass in the name of not being “sex negative”.

    “…no feminist wants to state outright for fear of being seen as ridiculous: men should get boners for different reasons than they do.”

    I’ve learnt not to ever say “nobody ever promotes belief X” because no matter how crazy I think an idea is, somebody out there promotes it. I have no problem saying “men should get aroused for different reasons than they do”. Nobody should be aroused by violence, domination, degradation, etc. But I’m less concerned with asking the individual man to change what he is aroused by than I am with changing/abolishing the institutions which cause men to develop sexual desire for harmful things. Such insitutions include the sex industry, the media, the military, etc.

  2. Independent Radical May 7, 2014 at 06:33 Reply

    “Because she sings about “strong women” and “girls” “running the world” (which in itself is insulting to all women), she appears to be powerful.”

    You didn’t happen to come across my comment on Feminist Current’s blog post about celebrities, did you? Maybe you came across Morgan’s comment which I responded to.

    Anyhow to reiterate what I said in that comment, liberal feminists would not be endorsing a song that went “who runs the world? Jews!” but somehow when it comes to women’s issues all reasoning goes out the window and anything that makes one feel good is automatically seen as empowering, even when it’s obviously a total lie. Women do not in fact run the world, nor should they seek to. Equality means a world without ruling classes. The fact that we regard the statement “you rule” shows how deeply ingrained pro-hierarchy thinking is in our culture..

    • Francois Tremblay May 7, 2014 at 12:26 Reply

      I read most of the comments on Feminist Current, so it’s entirely possible. I think that line is derived from the “women are really in charge behind the scenes after all” sort of story that we tell each other to “prove” that women aren’t being oppressed.

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