Friday Fragments: Object Lessons

My Internet Crush

Before I get to the serious bits of the post, there’s something I need to get off my chest. I have a little Internet crush on Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield. He tweets spectacular photos of Earth from space that will make you fall in love with your planet (follow him @Cmdr_Hadfield). He’s musical! He’s buddies with Captain Kirk! I think someone should use this guy as inspiration for a romance hero. Maybe the heroine could have a Twitter meet-cute with him while he’s in space. Kind of an ultra-modern epistolary romance. He could write a song for her. But then something would have to go wrong for them . . . .

I Object! Or Do I Objectify?

Thanks to Twitter, I’ve been thinking about sexual objectification this week. First, there was the Superbowl. In Canada we don’t get a lot of the cool ads, but my tweetstream was full of both complaints about ads objectifying women (we’re looking at you, GoDaddy!) and discussions of hot men in underwear–sometimes from the same people. 

Then, there was the blog (I’m not naming it here because my point isn’t to call particular people out; it’s an example of a larger phenomenon) that celebrated Black History Month by spotlighting actors of African heritage in its “beefcake” post, a regular feature.

Both these things troubled me, as do all the “man-titty” covers in romance (and that term for them), especially the headless ones. And, to some extent, the tweeting and tumblring of hot men in various states of undress to which Romancelandia is prone. If it’s wrong to objectify women, isn’t it equally wrong to objectify men?

I’m not sure how to answer this question, except with more questions. For instance, are these images of men sexually objectifying? Are we objectifying men when we look at them? I think sometimes, unquestionably. This fascinating TED talk from Sociological Images contributor Dr. Caroline Heldman (hattip Carolyn Jewel), argues that images where a part of the body stands in for the whole person are objectifying, for instance. Headless, bare-chested men on romance novel covers would seem to qualify.

Heldman’s video (which is only about 13 minutes long and well worth watching) explains some of the harm that objectification can do to women: constant exposure to sexually objectified images of women leads us to “self-objectify;” to be more depressed; to evaluate our bodies constantly; and, in some cases, to enjoy sex less because we have difficulty being active, desiring subjects and disassociate during sex. But in a culture where women are far more likely to be sexually objectified than men, is the comparatively little male objectification that harmful to real men? I suspect not.

I don’t think all objectification of women is harmful, either, or that it is avoidable. I’m still working my way through this amazing post, “Towards a Definition of Eroticism,” from Remittance Girl (hat tip Amber Belldene). Her exploration of eroticism suggests that objectification may be an inextricable part of desire:

There are compelling arguments from Marx to Beauvoir  and Foucault to suggest that the controls [on sexuality] set in place have simply institutionalized this objectification rather than avoiding it and, within the field of psychoanalysis, it is questionable as to whether humans possess the even capacity to desire without objectifying what is desired.

It’s not surprising that objectifying another, using him or her as a prop to satisfy our own desires, can be pleasurable. But I think that being objectified can also be pleasurable, at least for some people or in some situations. How much of a woman’s pleasure in feeling like a desirable object comes from being part of a culture where she’s told an important aim of her life is to be desirable is an open question. But does it matter? However instinctual desire is, I don’t think we can experience it in a way unframed by culture.

I wonder, then, if there are ways to turn the tables on a sexist culture, ways for women to enjoy sexually objectifying images of men, that are not demeaning or oppressive to men. Could equal-opportunity objectification, where both men and women get to play at being sexual subjects and objects, make objectification less harmful? Context probably matters again. Playing that game with someone you trust and know respects you is a different matter from playing it with someone who really regards you as nothing but an object. Playing requires an active choice to engage in the game, not just being acted upon.

I think the extent to which sex objects are commodified matters too. Women as sex objects are used to sell things much more often than men are–and women are sold as sex objects more often than men are. Remittance Girl points out that objectification and commodification of human beings is not always sexualized:

Certainly many philosophers warn of the dehumanizing aspects of using humans as sexual objects, but it must be said that this objectification has always occurred. It has not been primarily as a consequence of allowing our sexual urges free rein, but of economic predation. We’ve been using each other as beasts of burden since civilization began.

This, I think, is why the Black History Month beefcake bothers me more than Becks beefcake. There is, needless (or is it?) to say, a long history in the US and elsewhere of treating black people as objects to be bought and sold (and as highly sexualized objects), and in that context, marking Black History Month with a post celebrating the bodies of black actors is thoughtless at best.

I think for sexual objectification to be something positive and pleasurable, we have to be self-conscious about it, aware of these contexts, to ask questions about how and why we are deploying potentially objectifying images. Maybe not all of the time. Maybe most of the time we get to play uncritically. But every once in a while, I want to step back and ask myself just what I’m playing at.

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12 Responses to Friday Fragments: Object Lessons

  1. willaful says:

    How about that breast exam video that everyone loves so much? I find it very disturbing.

    My husband is regularly enraged by my romance covers that feature a dressed woman and a half-naked man. But then he bought me the “Men of the Stacks” calendar for Christmas. Perhaps it was that self-consciousness/sense of humor it displays.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I haven’t seen that video. Do I want to?

      I think the humor/parody in a calendar like that does make a difference.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          Wow. That’s equal opportunity offense. Love how the nurse falls over when she sees him.

          Not that I don’t care about breast cancer, but a lot of the advocacy is objectifying. The idea that we should save boobies because they are sexy, for instance.

  2. Erin Satie says:

    I wonder if the real issue isn’t so much objectifying as projecting.

    We’re always seeing people partially, in one of their aspects, or letting parts eclipse the whole. Even people we know very well. The colleague you spend every day with is a mystery at home; a good friend is a different person at work. Just like it’s hard, if not impossible, to be a whole person – to be all your parts at once.

    So if it’s normal, or even necessary, to reduce people to their parts – let’s say the relevant parts – I think it’s pretty universally harmful to turn people into a blank canvas, to erase the messages they’re sending in order to substitute different ones, that you find more appealing.

    But, of course, that’s what models are paid to do – to make a blank canvas of their bodies, upon which people can project. I suppose there are other jobs which demand the same. I can accept that as work, but not as intimacy.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I absolutely agree about the blank canvas and projection. There was going to be another section of the post on that, but it was already tl;dr. Maybe I will write a Part II.

  3. “in a culture where women are far more likely to be sexually objectified than men, is the comparatively little male objectification that harmful to real men? I suspect not.”

    Given reports such as the one stating that

    The number of men suffering from eating disorders is rising, says the Royal College of General Practitioners.

    It says it wants doctors to be more aware of the problem because it is usually seen as a female issue.

    “If doctors see a young man who is thin they are more likely to think that he is depressed,” a spokesperson said.

    The NHS says there’s been a 66% increase in hospital admissions in England for male eating disorders over the last 10 years. (BBC)


    Pediatricians are starting to sound alarm bells about boys who take unhealthy measures to try to achieve Charles Atlas bodies that only genetics can truly confer. Whether it is long hours in the gym, allowances blown on expensive supplements or even risky experiments with illegal steroids, the price American boys are willing to pay for the perfect body appears to be on the rise. (New York Times)

    I suspect that the objectification of men can indeed be harmful.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, as I wrote that, I was thinking about the rise in men having plastic surgery, too. And I think these issues are often more significant in some gay circles where youth and attractiveness are as important for men as for women (I am sure heartthrob actors face these pressures too). So it isn’t the same level of problem yet, but it could be. I don’t want to contribute to making a man wrestle with body image the way I and my female friends often have.

  4. VacuousMinx says:

    Great post. You made me go back and reread Nussbaum on a Saturday morning, though. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I think that sexual objectification in the context of a relationship between two people who know and respect each other is a very different thing than the other types of objectification you’re talking about here. When you reduce someone you know and love to a body part, with their willing and active consent, you’re not dehumanizing them in the same way. Even between strangers, if both parties are consenting to the objectification in an informed way, it may not be problematic.

    I don’t think objectifying men somehow makes the objectification of women less dangerous or less problematic, it just extends the problem to a new sphere. It’s not just about the object, after all, it’s about the person who is objectifying. I don’t want to be the type of person who chops off a man’s head, metaphorically speaking, so that I don’t have to think of him as a intelligent, sensitive being with the same wants, needs, etc. that I have. There have to be better ways to empower women to access and enjoy their desires.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes. There is a real disconnect, often, between the headless cover and the exploration of mutual desire inside.

      These are two different kinds of objectification. What linked them for me is the point in Heldman’s video that objectified images in the media can lead women to self-objectify and affect their intimate relationships. So different from consciously choosing to be/enjoying being an object for your partner.

  5. jillsorenson says:

    Hmm. I complained about the sexist superbowl ads and then linked to a sexy cover. This is like a subtweet I’m sure is about meeee, all me! First, I don’t agree that headless or half-head covers are more objectifying. I find the “staring at me” covers creepy and I prefer to imagine a face. I’ve always considered sexy covers (of men, women, or both) to be appropriate for sexy books. That said, I’m leaning towards shirts on and dying for fresher ideas than the bland waxed chest or 50 Shades style.

    Second, I don’t feel that women objectifying men is equally wrong when women are in the power minority. If men are suffering from objectification, I think it’s due to societal norms, which are controlled by men. They think they have to be well endowed, muscular, handsome because other men have deemed it so, not women. But of course we internalize this and contribute.

    Another difference I see between a sexist ad and a beefcake post is context. In the ads, women have no voice. The roles are often non speaking. They are created for men by men (ignoring the fact that female football fans are almost half the audience). A beefcake post is aimed at romance fans, women. And romance itself gives men a voice (via a female author, granted) through his POV in the story. On the surface, a sexy bikini ad and a sexy male underwear ad seem the same, but the history of oppression and silencing is one-sided.

  6. Thank you so much for mentioning my post. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I think when we talk about ‘objectification’ we can mean a way of seeing the ‘Other’ (the object of our desire) which ranges from someone (we want to love, posses, care for, cherish, have hot sex with) to something (that we use – really just use.) Not the kinky ‘I’m gonna use you’ prospect, because being able to find the eroticism in that requires the inherent recognition of the others’ undeniable humanity and the transgression inherent in temporarily suspending acknowledgement of it.

    People who really USE other people as commodities don’t find it erotic. They just find it expedient.

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