Whenever anyone brings up the concept of objectification of women in a blog, there are long and endless wrangles about what the idea means, and whether it is valid. One old-line feminist response to this would be, "Those men just don`t get it." I want to argue here that the concept of objectification really is in crisis. It may not be obsolete, but it cannot do all the things it is being made to do. This is going to be a fairly formal, not especially readable piece, because I think this is necessary to the topic.When things are emotional, it is especially important to be resolutely logical.
1. The notion of objectification has always had certain problems, especially in terms of communicating with men.
"Objectification" is a concept, an artificial way of bringing knowledge and experience together. This one is in the first instance a metaphor: a woman cannot really be an object, in the sense of being inanimate like a stone. Certain qualities of inanimate objects are imputed to her in certain circumstances. This is no different from a standard metaphor like "the girl is a rose." We don't say "the woman is an object," because of the way the metaphor is viewed. The point is not to assert that a woman is an object but rather to assert that this metaphor accurately presents the way men, or some men, view women. There is reference at once to "object’" as inanimate object and to "object" as grammatical object, the object of an action. In this case, the action would be male desire or some action coming from male desire, ranging from sex (construed as something the man does to the woman) through sexual harassment to rape.
Many women have found this concept helpful in formulating their experience, and women seem to communicate well with each other using it. In speaking to men, however, there are problems.
It seems like it should communicate to men about the way they should behave toward women, but it fails to draw any useful distinctions. If a man desires a woman, he is making her a grammatical object within the relevant category of verb. At the same time, not many would say that he is right away objectifying her in any negative sense. If he rapes her when she is unconscious, then he is certainly objectifying her, but no one needs this concept to think this action is wrong.
Between the two, how do we draw lines? Wikipedia remarks, "Objectification is an attitude that regards a person as a commodity or as an object for use, with insufficient regard for a person's personality." Well, that sounds bad, but in practice, what does that come down to? If a man sees every woman he meets purely in terms of the attractiveness of her body to him, he is objectifying her in these terms. But by this definition, if he pays some attention to her personality, he might still be objectifying her. It would be really difficult to literally pay no attention to someone's personality, given any exchange at all. How much attention is enough? As for "commodification," we are again in the realm of metaphor. A woman cannot possibly be a commodity, like copper, for instance. The idea seems to be that the woman appears as an aid to masturbation and not as a person. But once again, from the subject position, how does a man ever know where the line is? Obviously, there are times when a man focuses the bulk of his attention on a woman`s body, but is he in the wrong as long as he does this, and if he discusses Wittgenstein with her an hour later, does he put himself in the right? What if he cannot distinguish subjectively between his attention to her body and his attention to her personality? (The two seem to combine in the real world.) Should he analyze himself to find out if he is commodifying her?
The concept may serve as a starting point for talking to women about the way they experience men, but it is not a helpful principle for guiding ethical behaviour.
2. Certain consequences of objectification of women have been predicted which have not materialized.
One thing men have been told is that they shouldn`t consume pornography, because that's "objectifying women." We were told that if we looked at the centrefold in Playboy, our attitudes toward women would become bad, and we would surely compulsively become rapists. As Naomi Wolf remarked in a widely-circulated article in New York magazine, pornography is now everywhere, and yet this has not come to pass. Indeed, her claim is that we men are now failing to pay enough attention to women`s physicality. A study done at the University of Montreal involved in-depth interviews with 20 men in their twenties who are regular users of pornography. The study failed to find any bad effects on their relations with their sexual partners. On the sociological scale, studies carried out in Germany, Denmark and Japan traced the increased availability of pornography and looked for impact on sexual violence. All three studies concluded that after controlling for all the other variables they know about, increased availability of pornography results in reduced incidence of sex crimes. Another study shows parallel findings in the United States. There may be serious studies out there arguing the opposite, but all I see going the other way is moralistic, ideology-driven writing.
Is it time to discard the concept? Perhaps not. Women still find it helpful in making sense of their experience, and I take that seriously. It`s going to be hard, though, to retain the concept while discarding other ideas associated with it.