CN: Objectification, sexist slurs, sexuality, body image, racy imagery
In feminism, bodies are a touchy subject. There’s a lot of baggage around how women’s bodies are viewed, used, and treated, as well as our relationship with our own bodies. In addition, all of that baggage is influenced by things like race, class, body type, and ability. This shit is complicated.
It’s also a deeply emotional subject for most women. We’re taught that to be a woman means to have no intrinsic value and the only way we can make ourselves tolerable is through our appearance and our ability to reproduce.
We hear the message that we must be sexy and attractive according to an ever-changing self-contradicting standard and we hear it everywhere: from our relatives, our friends, our teachers, our employers, and most of all, the media. Even if you luck out and happen to have a few of these influences make the effort to take the emphasis off of physical attractiveness, the ideas are so prevalent in our society that you cannot escape them entirely. Having appearance, sex, and reproduction so closely tied to our sense of self-worth is not something we can just turn off.
With that in mind, a long-term goal of feminism has been to decrease the sexual objectification of women, whether that be in the media, on the street, or with our loved ones. But with the rise of third-wave feminism came a reclaiming of expression of sexuality and femininity. This movement pushed back on the sexual shame and negativity in our culture but it also pushed back on some ideas from second-wave feminism. When you are trying to untangle sexual empowerment from sexual exploitation, it can get complicated to determine whether the sexual expression you’re seeing is harmful or not, or whether you are sexually expressing yourself the right way. Are we being ourselves? Or are we being who the patriarchy wants us to be? How do you tell the difference? I have some tools to recommend to help with the process of untangling sexualization from objectification, and the resulting mess.
We hear the term “sexually objectified” so often in discussions about women’s bodies that it’s easy to conflate sexualization with objectification. I read an article that was extremely helpful in sorting out my own thoughts about the difference between these two concepts, and it was influential in my realization that they are not the same thing.
In “Subjectify Me: 5 ways to Tell if an Image is Objectifying,” Julie JC Peters lays out a really easy to understand list of definitive ways to tell whether objectification is happening or not as well as explaining what we can replace it with: subjectification. Peters writes, “In the context of a book, movie, or image, the subject is the being that acts, the main character. It’s essentially you: the one you can relate to and align with. An object is the thing acted upon.”
Understanding how to identify objectification in the first place made it easier for me to separate sexualization conceptually. Objectification takes a person’s humanity and autonomy away, which can be done without sex being involved, whereas sexualization can be done with humanity and autonomy in mind. To drive this point home, Peters gives an example of a nude photo shoot that definitely has sexual overtones but is not objectifying according to the rules she lays out.
Separating sexualization from objectification actually makes a lot of sense. A large number of women are sexual, they enjoy engaging in sexual activities, and enjoy behaving or dressing in a sexy way at least in some contexts. If it were impossible for women to sexualize themselves without also objectifying themselves, women would be limited to sexual expression that reinforces their own oppression.
The idea in Peters article that had the most impact on me was a combination of the first and second objectifying techniques: Faces and Pieces. The basic idea is that a sexual photo is objectifying if it focuses only on pieces of the body, and/or if there’s no face. If you watch virtually any mainstream music video with women in it, you’ll see this objectifying technique used over and over and over again: shots exclusively of butts, boobs, twisting torsos, and extended legs.
I call them, “meat shots.” It’s one of those techniques that’s used so excessively, it’s very easy to tune them out and consider them a normal part of music videos. But once you understand the concept, it’s hard not to notice them everywhere. In searching for photos to use for this blog post, I typed the word “woman” into the search bar of my favorite stock photo website. In about half of the photos, the woman’s face was not shown.
When I watched Beyonce’s music video for her song, “Flawless,” I was floored. It’s a song explicitly about feeling and looking sexy, and there are almost no meat shots in the entire video. By my count, there are three extremely brief shots of pieces of women’s bodies, but they never linger, and much more time is spent on Beyonce as the sexual subject. I can’t emphasize enough how rare this is in music videos of women period let alone music videos where sexuality is the subject. The video says yes, I’m sexy, I’m cool, and then I get on with my day.
Pair the ideas in Peters’ piece with this wonderful comic by Ronnie Ritchie on the difference between being sexually empowered and sexually objectified. Peters’ ideas are particularly useful for media forms like photos and videos, but Ritchie gives us a more overarching rule of thumb to determine whether sexual objectification is happening with or without the participant’s consent and therefore whether it’s empowering or not. In the comic, they look at how variables like class, race, age, and body type influence who has the power in a dynamic, and how that power influences whether something can be classified as sexual objectification or sexual empowerment.
Beyonce gets a lot of crap for being a bad role model due to her sexual content, despite being an extremely successful and competent pop artist. But Ritchie’s point about power sheds some light on how Beyonce’s sexuality is solidly on the empowerment side of the scale. Even if we didn’t know that Beyonce is financially well off and has a large degree of control over the content she produces, she tells us fairly explicitly in the lyrics in “Flawless” that she has the power here:
I know when you were little girls You dreamt of being in my world Don’t forget it, don’t forget it Respect that, bow down bitches I took some time to live my life But don’t think I’m just his little wife Don’t get it twisted, get it twisted This my shit, bow down bitches
Ritchie’s comic shows us whether we think a situation is objectification or empowerment depends a lot on the information we have about the people involved. When I encountered Lady Gaga’s album cover for “Art Pop” I was initially disappointed. It features a picture of her, naked, holding her breasts, with her legs spread and a large ball in between them. I’ve always admired the way Lady Gaga expressed her sexuality and the way she’d parody mainstream media’s presentation of women, but this cover seemed sadly reminiscent of boring old tropes used to sell music. Sure, Lady Gaga has the power to sexualize herself, and I believe that as long as you are well informed on the topic and you are indeed consenting to the act, it’s okay to objectify yourself or give someone else permission to objectify you. But Lady Gaga’s album cover just seemed predictable in comparison to her normal cutting-edge-self.
And then I found out that the picture on the cover is not actually a picture of Lady Gaga naked. It’s a picture of a statue of her naked. Gaga had a physical object of her naked body made. She literally objectified herself and used it as the face of her album on the subject of the intersections art and pop music. How entirely appropriate!
In other words, there’s a lot of angles to consider when assessing the actions of another woman and how she uses her body as well as what we do with our own. I highly recommend Peters’ article and Ritchie’s comic to further your understanding of the complex topic of society’s views of women’s bodies, objectification, and sexualization.
About the writer: Kella Hanna-Wayne is the creator, editor, and main writer for Yopp. In addition to creating a collection of educational resources for social justice, she works as a freelance writer specializing in content about her experience with disability, chronic illness, mental health, and trauma. Her work has been published in Ms. Magazine blog, The BeZine, Betty’s Battleground, and Splain You a Thing. You can find her @KellaHannaWayne on Facebook, Twitter, Medium, and Instagram.