Sunday, October 21, 2012

On objectification

In my previous post, I argued for the destruction of modesty. However, the more important issue is what should replace it. Modesty apologists often argue that when women dress immodestly, they “become objectified; they become objects of pleasure instead of independent, beautiful, free thinking, covenant making women.”

It is true that many clothes considered “immodest” may be used to objectify women. One need only browse through the latest issues of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition or Maxim to be assaulted with the worst of this type of objectification. It is even making its way down to girls as young as six years old.

The knee-jerk reaction to this kind of objectification is often modesty. However, modesty also objectifies. By keeping the focus on the body, modesty emphasizes its importance. The tighter the controls, the more women and girls obsess about their appearance. Rather than fighting the over-sexualization of girls, modesty contributes to it. Everything revolves around whether or not an outfit may be interpreted as provocative by the old white man or the sexual predator.

This tension is perfectly illustrated by this postcard from PostSecret:

In both situations, women are objectified. With the bikini, women’s bodies are put on display for the judgment and approval of men, and are forced to live up to an unrealistic standard of beauty. With the burka, women’s bodies are being hidden to avoid being sexualized by men.

One response to this dilemma is to simply redraw the modesty line. Women are encouraged to dress “tastefully,” not “trashy.” This seems to be the dominant approach, and it is followed by make-over shows like “What Not to Wear.”

However, this strategy is fundamentally flawed. It still keeps focus on a woman’s appearance. It still focuses on avoiding being too provocative for an unnamed (generally male) onlooker – the patriarchy’s “Big Brother.” It still objectifies. As a former member of the Quiverfull movement argues:
[B]y even accepting modesty as a valid area of concern for women, you have accepted a premise that defines women by their looks and objectifies them. Women have already lost the moment a modesty debate begins.
The true solution requires a closer examination of the concept of objectification. I propose three possible definitions of objectification.

First, objectification can be defined as seeing a conscious being as a mere object. However, this definition is problematic. Its central problem is that it is not clearly grounded in human happiness. If seeing someone as an object increases their happiness, then under this definition, objectification can be good. If one argues that objectification always causes unhappiness, then this definition simply creates unnecessary abstraction.

Furthermore, this unnecessary abstraction only creates problems. I find it hard to believe that men see women as nothing more than a blow-up sex doll – a true object. If one objects that men only partially objectify women, then I would argue that it is impossible to see an entity as both an object and a conscious being at the same time. Consciousness is something an entity either does or doesn’t have.

Second, objectification can be defined as dressing for the pleasure of the opposite sex. However, this definition is over-inclusive. It includes both situations of oppressive sexuality and situations of mutual pleasure. One can dress for the pleasure of one’s partner without being objectified.

Third, objectification can be defined as the systematic subordination of the happiness of women to men. A man objectifies a woman when he does not put her happiness on the same level of his, when he sees her as merely a means to an end, rather than an end in herself. This approach mirrors Kantian metaethics: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”

Seen in the light of the third definition of objectification, the core of the modesty dilemma becomes clear. The cartoonist Malcolm Evans illustrates this nicely:

Both modesty and over-sexualization use women’s sexuality to systematically subordinate women’s happiness to men’s happiness. Any attempt to play the game – by aiming for “tasteful” – simply reinforces the underlying power structure. Just as the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin argued that trade-unionism can never be used to break free from capitalism, norms of appearance predicated on male exploitation of female sexuality can never be used to break free from objectification. The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

The solution is to wear exactly what you want to wear, and to never make decisions based on the fear (or the hope) that Big Brother is watching. The solution is radical creative freedom.

And the master can always help things along by burning down the house himself.


KB said...

This post is fascinating. I had never made the connection between a burka and a bikini and how both objectify women. While I agree that the solution is to wear whatever you want, I wonder how many women may trick themselves into believing they are wearing what they want while subconsciously they are dressing for or to attract heterosexual men. The objectification would continue as men would still control women’s clothing choices. How do we break through such an ingrained system of control? Maybe greater awareness of this issue would help women to be more conscious of why they make certain clothing choices.

KSergent said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
KSergent said...

I think you make great points! I agree that the only way to break the cycle is for women to dress in a way that makes them happy. Personally, I like dressing up. I usually prefer to wear heels out. There will always be someone there saying I am "tricking' myself and actually dressing for a man. Maybe I am? Sometimes I feel like there is no win. I've learned that people will judge either way-- so as long as I feel good about myself, it's all good!

CET said...

While I agree that a woman in a bikini objectifies her for the judgment of men, I would add that she is often also on display for the approval of other women. In my personal experience, and I think most other women would agree, as women we are our own harshest critics. Women focus on their appearance not only to please and attract men, but also to feel superior to other women. This mindset doesn't benefit anyone and women objectifying each other is counterproductive. I think your solution that women wear what they want is right on the money. If we all threw caution to the wind and didn't worry about Big Brother or Big Sister watching, we might all feel better about ourselves in the end.