Revisiting John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (see here) took me on an unexpected exploration of the objectification of women. I referenced female photographer, whose work comprises self-objectification, loaded with sexual signals; she responded to my blog post, commenting that her work was ‘consensual objectification’ and she was comfortable in the knowledge that her 7.7k Flickr followers were predominately male. Putting the post up for discussion on the OCA’s photography forum then generated a range of responses and references.
In this post, I aim to come to an understanding of the arguments around sexual objectification. This is not to address broader questions of equality or the impact of the general portrayal of women in the media.
Objectification is a phenomenon; ‘The majority of the thinkers discussing objectification have taken it to be a morally problematic phenomenon’ (Papadaki E). This is perhaps where our challenges start in considering objectification in the context of photographs:
- A phenomenon is observable through our various senses in the real world. A photograph is not the real world, it has a malleable meaning depending on context and viewer. It can be used as an element in influencing perceptions or narratives, but not without a considered process of communication. We cannot assess whether a photograph alone objectifies without knowing its context; it is meaningless to do so.
- In defining objectification the 10 criteria referenced all relate to the ‘treatment’ of another person (Papadaki E), for example ‘reduction to appearance: the treatment of a person primarily in terms of how they look, or how they appear to the senses’. A photograph alone is incapable of communicating about how a person is treated. It shows a fraction of a moment in time, through the frame of a view finder, in two visual dimensions.
Therefore, attempting to assess whether a photograph on its own objectifies, is futile. It must be interpreted in a broader context.
The next point to consider is whether objectification is wrong per se, or whether there are circumstantial considerations, for example ‘consensual objectification’. An example of this in popular fiction is the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, with UK sales of over 12 million (Singh A); books with a central theme of sexual objectification and 80% sold to women ( US statistic -http://www.bowker.com/news/2012/Whos-Really-Reading-50-Shades.html). ‘[Martha] Nussbaum believes that it is possible that “some features of objectification … may in fact in some circumstances … be even wonderful features of sexual life”, and so “the term objectification can also be used… in a more positive spirit.’ (Papadaki E) This view appears evident in the Fifty Shades’ success. Everyday Feminism magazine asks the question:
There’s a long-standing debate in feminism about sexual empowerment: How do we know when someone is being sexually liberated versus being sexually objectified, since they sometimes can look similar from the outside?
The answer, they propose, is in determining who has the power. Deciding where the power lies may take some analysis and consideration, but it is a pragmatic model.
I will not consider any photographs (in their context) here, but have a useful model for viewing and interpreting work going forward.
Everyday Feminism [website]. How Can You Tell if You’re Being Sexually Empowered or Objectified? Ask Yourself This Simple Question? Available from: http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/04/empowered-vs-objectified/ [accessed 25.10.16]
MoMA [website]. Cindy Sherman. Available from: https://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2012/cindysherman/gallery/4/#/0/untitled-95-1981/ [accessed,25.10.16]
Papadaki, Evangelia (Lina), “Feminist Perspectives on Objectification”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Available from: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-objectification/ [accessed 25.10.16]
Singh A. 50 Shades of Grey is best-selling book of all time. The Telegraph [online] (August 2012). Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/9459779/50-Shades-of-Grey-is-best-selling-book-of-all-time.html [accessed 25.10.16]