Objectification of women is a recurring theme of feminist discourse. The basic idea is that women are objectified when they are viewed or treated primarily as objects rather than as human beings, whether this is through pornography, modern advertising, or direct interpersonal interactions (cat-calling, ogling, groping, etc). Objectification is a form of dehumanization that can facilitate direct harms like sexual assault as well as more indirect harms like mental health problems, eating disorders, body image issues, etc.
But objectification is not at all a simple concept. Martha Nussbaum has argued that not all objects are treated the same, so it’s worth examining which particular ways we treat objects are inappropriate for treating humans. In her essay Objectification (pdf here, also appearing in her book, Sex and Social Justice), she suggests we treat objects in at least seven different ways, conceptually distinct but not mutually exclusive; indeed they’re often overlapping and mutually reinforcing.
- Instrumentality: The objectifier treats the object as a tool of his or her purposes.
- Denial of autonomy: The objectifier treats the object as lacking in autonomy and self-determination.
- Inertness: The objectifier treats the object as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity.
- Fungibility: The objectifier treats the object as interchangeable (a) with other objects of the same type, and/or (b) with objects of other types.
- Violability: The objectifier treats the object as lacking in boundary-integrity, as something that it is permissible to break up, smash, break into.
- Ownership: The objectifier treats the object as something that is owned by another, can be bought or sold, etc.
- Denial of subjectivity: The objectifier treats the object as something whose experience and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account.
Some of these are a little confusing without examples. I couldn’t make sense of “agency” but by “inertness” Nussbaum seems to mean something like “involving processes”; she gives the example of a word processor as something that is not inert, whereas a rock is inert. We use many objects instrumentally, as tools for our purposes, but we often wouldn’t use an ancient tree in a forest as a tool; we may treat an animal as a tool, but rarely merely as a tool, perhaps because animals have subjectivity. Ink pens are fungible and instrumental, but Michelangelo sculptures are not; both lack autonomy and subjectivity and can be owned.
We treat human beings in many of the ways above and it’s not always objectionable. We use merchants, physicians, and various other individuals who provide us goods or services primarily instrumentally, and yet we rarely think of this as denying them humanity. Anonymous commercial transactions – at least those that take place without face-to-face or verbal contact – typically disregard subjectivity; games might also be seen to involve an ignorance of subjectivity, though for both of these examples I worry I might be stretching the concept beyond its proper limits. Fungibility seems quite dehumanizing at first, but democracy – from national elections down to private straw-drawing – is predicated on a certain kind of fungibility of citizens. Children, acknowledged fully as human beings, are routinely denied autonomy not only for their own good narrowly construed, but as part of the process of cultivating moral autonomy. Some aspects of parenting also resemble ownership. And even violability has unobjectionable instances, if we accept consensual penetrative sex as an example of such.
It’s worth quickly noting that even blatantly evil treatments of human beings do not involve each of the kinds of objectification listed. Slaves are treated instrumentally, as owned, and non-autonomously for sure, but they are anything but inert (an inert slave would be of little use), and their fungibility and violability are limited. Meanwhile the torturer treats their victims as violable, but neither fungible (assuming the torture is part of some interrogation) nor lacking subjectivity (their feelings matter rather a lot to the torturer).
The lesson seems to be that there is something especially problematic about instrumentalizing human beings, something that involves denying what is fundamental to them as human beings, namely, the status of beings as ends in themselves. From this one denial, other forms of objectification that are not logically entailed by the first seem to follow.
But Nussbaum also acknowledges that even instrumentalization can be benign, and offers the example of using her sleeping lover’s abdomen as a pillow. What matters critically for any analysis of objectification is the context of the whole relationship of the objectifying and objectified individuals. In the pillow example, of course, the two lovers enjoy a relationship in which each is respected as a full human being, and not “primarily or merely as an instrument”. In a D.H. Lawrence example she discusses, two lovers refer to each other in terms of their respective genital organs, which are even given proper names. At first glance this looks like a reduction of full human beings to the mere objects of their body parts, but in context (both of the story to the reader and of the full relationship to the characters) this is actually a humanizing objectification, or so Nussbaum argues. The objectification is mutual, symmetrical, and it occurs in the context of a respectful relationship. It also recalls that humans are embodied and sexual as well as dignified and respectful.
Nussbaum enriches the concept of objectification by clarifying its manifold nature (her seven kinds of objectification) and the central importance of contextual understanding, which can make the difference between dehumanizing versus benign objectification. So far so good in theory, but I quibble with Nussbaum in some of her application to pornography. One of her examples is a Playboy photo and caption.
[4.] Three pictures of actress Nicollette Sheridan playing at the Chris Evert Pro-Celebrity Tennis Classic, her skirt hiked up to reveal her black underpants. Caption: “Why We Love Tennis.” Playboy, April 1995.
[…] The Playboy caption reduces the young actress, a skilled tennis player, to a body ripe for male use: it says, in effect, she thinks she is displaying herself as a skilled athletic performer, but all the while she is actually displaying herself to our gaze as a sexual object.
This is not even a pornographic image featuring nudity and sexuality from Playboy Nussbaum is discussing, but commentary on a publicly available image.
Who is objectified in Playboy? In the immediate context, it is the represented woman who is being objectified and, derivately, [sic] the actress whose approach (“why we love tennis,” or “women of the Ivy League”) – assisted in no small measure by the magazine’s focus on photographs of real women, rather than on paintings or fictions – strongly suggests that real-life women relevantly similar to the tennis-player can easily be cast in the roles in which Playboy casts its chosen few. In that way it constructs for the reader a fantasy objectification of a class of real women. Used as a masturbatory aid, it encourages the idea that an easy satisfaction can be had in this uncomplicated way, without the difficulties attendant on recognizing women’s subjectivity and autonomy in a more full-blooded way.
The one further thing that needs to be said about the picture is that in the Playboy world it is sexier, because more connected with status, to have a woman of achievement and talent than an unmarked woman, in the way that it is sexier to have a Mercedes than a Chevrolet, in the way that Agamemnon assures Achilles that the horses he is giving him are prize-winning racehorses and the women both beautiful and skilled in weaving. But a sleek woman is even more sexy than a sleek car, which cannot really be dominated since it is nothing but a thing. For what Playboy repeatedly says to its reader is, Whoever this woman is and whatever she has achieved, for you she is cunt, all her pretensions vanish before your sexual power. For some she is a tennis player – but you, in your mind, can dominate her and turn her into cunt. For some, Brown students are Brown students. For you, dear reader, they are Women of the Ivy League … . No matter who you are, these women will (in masturbatory fantasy) moan with pleasure at your sexual power. This is the great appeal of Playboy in fact: It satisfies the desires of men to feel themselves special and powerful, by telling them that they too can possess the signs of exalted status that they think of as in real life reserved for such as Donald Trump.
I’m not inclined to defend “Why We Love Tennis”. But there is an obvious disanalogy between the objectification of Nicollette Sheridan and Women of the Ivy League. In the former, the actress is being objectified without her knowledge or consent, and it’s entirely out of context. In the latter case, the Brown students have consented, and it’s a heavy burden on the critic who would assume they have no good, informed, self-fulfilling reasons to do so, or that they are contributing to their own dehumanization. With informed consent comes a kind of mutuality. A sample Brown student – unlikely to be reasonably classified as deprived or desperate – makes her image available for her own purposes, which could be anything from getting the “achievement unlocked” feeling of bravery for its own sake, to exploring an exhibitionist aspect of her sexuality, to getting a little extra money to jump-start paying off her student loans.
Nussbaum seems to believe that any sexual objectification of a woman, if it is to avoid dehumanization, must involve engagement with the woman’s whole personality in some “full-blooded way” as in the “complicated” context of a relationship. This seems quite demanding for the needy sexual creatures Nussbaum tirelessly reminds us we are, and for whom opportunities for sexual satisfaction in a world of sexual scarcity can even be thought of as a basic capability without which a human life can be judged diminished.
In thinking about just what kind of sexual objectification is dehumanizing, I think there are some pitfalls we want to gingerly step around. We want to avoid prudishness. Sexuality is as diverse as humanity itself, much of it taking forms that many observers find aesthetically displeasing if not disgusting. In determining which of these behaviors are dehumanizing, we should be wary of mistaking our aesthetic reactions for ethical judgments. (Nussbaum cannot be criticized on these grounds).
We should also acknowledge that some activities which could in other contexts only be construed as dehumanizing objectification may, in the sexual context, actually derive much of their power and appeal from their subversion of or play on traditional tropes and social relations. This doesn’t mean our sexual fantasies are immune from criticism. Indeed, given the harms of sexuality under patriarchy, it’s incumbent upon us all to subject our sexuality to honest criticism. But the conclusions shouldn’t be foregone. Part of attending to context in the case of sexuality is understanding the motivations, intentions, and situational construals of the individuals themselves. What are we thinking, and what are our reasons? Why do we get off on this of all things? And whatever our motivations, is this perpetuating harmful ideas about women (or transgender people, gays, etc.)? These aren’t facts that can be simply read from uninterpreted sexual acts like letters off a page.
Finally, we want to avoid condemning the probably universal and almost certainly ineliminable role that fantasy plays in our imaginations. These are fantasies both about the loves and sex we may have and the unrequited loves and impossible sex we will never have. Projecting another human being in our own minds for our own purposes does not require or imply forgetting that in real life that individual lives their own life for their own purposes. One can regard a “woman of the Ivy League” as both a sexual creature and an estimable Brown student, yet never “just a cunt”.
While it is unclear from the essay, I infer that Nussbaum follows the radical feminists in condemning pornography generally (though I must add that she explicitly draws no legal conclusions from her critical assessments of Playboy, etc.). This would be an interesting position to hold given her defense of in-person sex work (a subject I hope to write about in the future). I think this is a mistaken view, or at least incomplete. I grant that pornography as it has existed for much of recent history and as it has been used by many men and women unconcerned about the objectification of women and its dehumanizing ramifications is problematic to say the least. But one can also use pornography with a critical eye, discerning its problems, avoiding its worst examples, and always remaining aware of the humanity of the performers. Pornography itself can also be reformed. So-called “feminist porn” is growing in market share. And in recent years some productions have included interviews with the performers. The performers, in a basically nonsexual environment, talk about why they do what they do, what they get out of the performance, etc. I think this innovation has the potential to effectively remind the viewer that the performers are human beings that exist outside the very limited fantasy world they’re about to enjoy. Greater visibility of porn performers (and other sex workers, such as strippers) outside the context of their performances can aid in their humanization as well. The public persona of, e.g., Stoya is a model here. Finally, including actual sexuality in sex education, and not just threats of dire consequences and implicit shaming, can provide a healthy counterbalance to the baleful influence of some pornography. And in the long run such education might add some cultural reform pressure to the industry.
Nussbaum’s convolution of objectification into a family of related kinds and her insistence on contextual analysis are just the beginning of understanding how objectification turns into dehumanization. Considerations of mutuality, internal construal and intention, and an earnest openness to critique all matter in assessing whether someone is guilty of dehumanizing their fellow human beings, or if they are just trying to get off with a minimum of casualties.