Gender issues are exceedingly complex and nuanced, and comments threads in this series seem to show that it’s very difficult to put together a coherent argument for any position on the topic. In cases like these, it’s helpful to turn to people who have spent far more time thinking about the issue than I have.
Quoting early feminist philosophers, Nussbaum notes that objectification is often described as happening when women are “dehumanized as sexual objects.” Thus, “admiration of natural physical beauty becomes objectification. Harmlessness becomes harm.” The rampant objectification of women leads to a reality in which many women “can grasp self only as thing,” and in which “all women live in sexual objectification the way fish live in water.” According to many, objectification cuts women off from self-expression, self-determination, and their own humanity.
Nussbaum sets out the goal of her paper like this:
I shall argue that there are at least seven distinct ways of behaving introduced by the term, none of which implies any of the others, though there are many complex connections among them. Under some specifications, objectification… is always morally problematic. Under other specifications, objectification has features that may be either good or bad, depending on the overall context… Some features of objectification… may in fact in some circumstances… be either necessary or even wonderful features of sexual life.
Examples of objectification
Nussbaum then gives a series of examples of what could be plausibly called “objectification” by many people; example she uses to illustrate her arguments throughout her paper:
His blood beat up in waves of desire. He wanted to come to her, to meet her. She was there, if he could reach her. The reality of her who was just beyond him absorbed him. Blind and destroyed, he pressed forward, nearer, nearer, to receive the consummation of himself, be received within the darkness which should swallow him and yield him up to himself. If he could come really within the blazing kernel of darkness, if really he could be destroyed, burnt away till he lit with her in one consummation, that were supreme, supreme. (D.H. Lawrence, The Rainbow)
Yes because he must have come 3 or 4 times with that tremendous big red brute of a thing he has I thought the vein or whatever the dickens they call it was going to burst though his nose is not so big after I took off all my things with the blinds down after my hours dressing and perfuming and combing it like iron or some kind of a thick crowbar standing all the time he must have eaten oysters I think a few dozen he was in great singing voice no I never in all my life felt anyone had one the size of that to make you feel full up he must have eaten a whole sheep after whats the idea making us like that with a big hole in the middle of us like a Stallion driving it up into you because thats all they want out of you with that determined vicious look in his eye I had to halfshut my eyes still he hasn’t such a tremendous amount of spunk in him. (James Joyce, Ulysses)
She even has a sheet over her body, draped and folded into her contours. She doesn’t move. She might be dead, Macrae thinks… Suddenly a desire to violate tears through his body like an electric shock, six thousand volts of violence, sacrilege, the lust to desecrate, destroy. His thumbs unite between the crack of her ass, nails inwards, knuckle hard on knuckle, and plunge up to the palms into her. A submarine scream rises from the deep green of her dreaming, and she snaps towards waking, half-waking, half-dreaming with no sense of self… and a hard pain stabbing at her entrails… Isabelle opens her eyes, still not knowing where or what or why, her face jammed up against the cracking plaster… as Macrae digs deeper dragging another scream from her viscera, and her jerking head cracks hard on the wall… and her palms touch Macrae’s hands, still clamped tight around her ass, kneading, working on it, with a violence born of desperation and desire, desire to have her so completely… that it seems as if he would tear the flesh from her to absorb it, crush it, melt it into his own hands… And Isabelle… hears a voice calling out “don’t stop; don’t stop,” a voice called from somewhere deep within her from ages past, ancestral voices from a time the world was young, “don’t stop, don’t stop.” It’s nearer now, this atavistic voice, and she realises with surprise that it is coming from her mouth, it is her lips that are moving, it is her voice. (Laurence St. Clair, Isabelle and Véronique: Four Months, Four Cities)
At first I used to feel embarrassed about getting a hard-on in the shower. But at the Corry much deliberate excitative soaping of cocks went on, and a number of members had their routine erections there each day. My own, though less regular, were, I think, hoped and looked out for… This naked mingling, which formed a ritualistic heart to the life of the club, produced its own improper incitements to ideal liaisons, and polyandrous happenings which could not survive into the world of jackets and ties, cycle-clips and duffelcoats. And how difficult social distinctions are in the shower. How could I now smile at my enormous African neighbour, who was responding in elephantine manner to my own erection, and yet scowl at the disastrous nearly-boy smirking under the next jet along? (Alan Hollinghurst, The Swimming-Pool Library)
She had passed her arm into his, and the other objects in the room, the other pictures, the sofas, the chairs, the tables, the cabinets, the “important” pieces, supreme in their way, stood out, round them, consciously, for recognition and applause. Their eyes moved together from piece to piece, taking in the whole nobleness quite as if for him to measure the wisdom of old ideas. The two noble persons seated, in conversation, at tea, fell thus into the splendid effect and the general harmony: Mrs. Verver and the Prince fairly “placed” themselves, however unwittingly, as high expressions of the kind of human furniture required, aesthetically, by such a scene. The fusion of their presence with the decorative elements, their contribution to the triumph of selection, was complete and admirable; though to a lingering view, a view more penetrating than the occasion really demanded, they also might have figured as concrete attestations of a rare power of purchase. There was much indeed in the tone in which Adam Verver spoke again, and who shall say where his thought stopped? ”Le compte y est. You’ve got some good things.” (Henry James, The Golden Bowl)
In each case, a human being is being regarded and/or treated as an object, in the context of a sexual relationship.
Quoting Nussbaum, but in list form:
- Tom Brangwen sees his wife as a mysterious inhuman natural force, a “blazing kernel of darkness.”
- Molly reduces Blazes Boylan to his genital dimensions, regarding him as somewhat less human than the stallion to which she jokingly compares him.
- Hankinson’s hero Macrae treats the sleeping Isabelle as a prehuman preconscious being ripe for invasion and destruction, whose only quasi-human utterance is one that confirms her suitability for the infliction of pain.
- 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.
- Hollinghurst’s hero [William Beckwith] represents himself as able to see his fellow Londoners as equal interchangeable bodies or even body parts, under the sexual gaze of the shower room, a gaze allegedly independent of warping considerations of class or rank.
- Maggie and Adam contemplate their respective spouses as priceless antiques whom they have collected and arranged.
Nussbaum then distinguishes “seven ways to treat a person as a thing,” which I shall examine in the next post.
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