Objectification of women is a term we’ve been hearing now since the days of women’s liberation in the Sixties; some feminists say it’s an outdated term and we shouldn’t be using it anymore, some say men will always objectify women, it’s just natural and we can’t stop it, and some say men are objectified too, either for their bodies in advertising, or for other things like their jobs or earning potential.
So I’ve sorted through the facts and here I present you with a handy guide to objectification.
Objectification literally means making somebody into an object, a thing rather than a human being. And it’s the first thing we do when we see another human being, it’s instantaneous primitive brain activity, which happens largely below the level of consciousness.
The primitive brain instantly classifies another human being by clocking physical characteristics: male body or female body, skin colour, height, skin tone, style of clothes etc, and then refines further. I’ve heard it claimed that this means that we are all inherently racist, but that’s misleading. In fact we are all innately other-ist; we do this checking and classifying job so that we can answer the question ‘should I run away from this person or do I want to mate with them?’ Sometimes we need to know that instantly.
All of that happens before we even begin to judge a person by what they actually say or do.
So objectification is innate, it’s not good or bad, it’s just a survival strategy which has been honed over a couple of million years.
We are not animals though, we have another part of the brain which makes us human. It’s this bit that gives us awareness and agency and the ability to think and reflect. We consciously use the ‘executive’ brain, and the less we use it the more we will unconsciously act from the primitive brain.
So when, for example, you see Simon Cowell instantaneously respond with repulsion when he sees a less-than-perfect physical human specimen walk out onto the stage to audition for the X Factor, what you are witnessing is a total executive brain by-pass.
We can consciously choose to see others as human beings and not things, and to treat people as human beings and not commodities. We can also consciously choose to be an object for someone and be treated as an object, or objectify someone and treat them as an object if they are willing. Nothing wrong with a bit of sexy fun time objectification if it works for you.
It’s always a part of attraction and our appreciation of another person in our personal lives, but it’s balanced by our feeling for that person as a fellow human being, and it only becomes a problem if we forget our human consciousness and act only from the primitive bit of our brains.
On a personal level, we generally don’t like to be treated as commodities – whether that’s as a body or as a meal-ticket – and on a public level, if one group of human beings is collectively dehumanised, it is licence for society to do the same, both in public and in personal relationships.
It has been a technique of regimes throughout history to dehumanise one section of humanity in order to abuse them with impunity. This is done by stereotyping a whole group, thus denying the members their individual humanity. Objectification, in its reduction of a human being to the purely physical, goes one step further than stereotyping, which is based on character traits as well as physical characteristics. Sexual objectification further reduces human beings to their purely physical biological function.
Our media negatively stereotypes many different groups – ‘single mums’, ‘benefit scroungers’, ‘inept dads’ and so on – but it is overwhelmingly women who are consistently sexually objectified.
A society that, through its images, represents women in this way, is a society which encourages us to treat them (or ourselves) as things, products or commodities which are, by their nature, interchangeable and disposable, and to see that as normal. A media which consistently reduces one group of human beings to their body parts encourages the members of that society to view them only from the most primitive level of the most primitive part of the brain. In other words, by representing women as less than human we encourage men to respond to women in a less than human way.
A civilised, responsible human society would never do that to any group of human beings would they?
Originally published in Alt Magazine