BELDING: People are subjects, not objects

Shaun Tan, with his flippant use of word “objectification” (“For more objectification”), is right on exactly one count: that the way we talk about sexual objectification of women has become too detached and ambiguous for its full impact to be felt.

To start, let us remind ourselves of what objectification of women really means. It means that the appearance of female candidates for public office is discussed more often than their ideas in the media. It means that young girls, seeking to make themselves valuable in the eyes of their society, starve themselves to shape their bodies into unrealistic images of what is valued as sexually attractive. It means that women who live or work in major urban areas can expect to experience street harassment on a daily basis because men value their appearance more than their right to reasonable peace of mind. It means that sexually active women can never be completely sure if a potential partner will value a “no” more than he values them as sexual objects to be used for pleasure.

However, by dismissing the negative effects of sexual objectification, Tan not only encourages expectation of catcalling — he justifies it. After all, if, as Tan opines, female sexuality is a thing of aesthetic beauty meant to be enjoyed, expressing appreciation of that beauty ought to be regarded as a positive good.

Of course, as any woman who has ever been profoundly creeped out by an unwanted public sexual proposal can tell you, the effects of this verbal harassment are far from morally neutral. When we explicitly value women for their appeal as erotic objects, we never do so in a way that values or respects the woman in question’s sexual desires.

Beyond being degrading to women, the culture of objectification that Tan speaks of is inimical to the humanist values our university claims to promote. In society at large, but especially in an institution that seeks to provide a humanistic education, objectification of any sort cannot be tolerated.

We need not interact with the people who work in our dining halls in the same way that we interact with our sisters or our childhood best friends; that would be an unreasonable expectation. It is not, however, in the realm of the absurd to treat the people who work in our dining halls as though they have lives and act as fully human subjects in their own lives. We don’t need intimate relationships to prove our essential humanity; anyone who values another person can take no other reasonable position.

Objectification negates this basic tenet of humanism; it defines the worth of human beings as relative to their perceived utility. The sexual objectification of women is particularly pernicious. Instead of anything the female half of humanity creates, it values the sexual excitement the idealized female body incites in the male body. That is what the word objectification means.

I suspect that Tan does not believe this; however, his column’s defiant and contrarian reclaiming of the word incites people, particularly men, to not take the consequences of this idea seriously. His is an attitude that the Yale community, if it is as firmly attached to humanist values as it claims to be, simply cannot tolerate.

The opposite of objectification is not, as Tan seems to argue, the suppression of women’s sexuality. The culture we ought to be striving for is one based on respect. Tan hopes for a world where female sexuality can be “displayed and appreciated as shamelessly as every other form of aesthetics.” In doing so, he betrays the fundamental gap in understanding of the proper function of sexuality in our lives. As a feminist, I believe that female sexuality should be enjoyed and respected for its own sake, for women’s sake, and not for the pleasure of outside observers.

By rejecting objectification, we are not striving to go back to a pre-Sexual Revolution understanding of sexual relations. Rather, what we who rail against the sexual objectification of women seek is a community where all people’s sexualities can be enacted and respected for what they are: sexual subjects, not objects.

Comments

  • The Anti-Yale

    *We need not interact with the people who work in our dining halls in the same way that we interact with our sisters or our childhood best friends*

    I worked in the dish-room at my first college, Ithaca College, scraping trays and sorting plates and stuffing them into the dishwasher. It might do Yale students good to do the same. Get your hands dirty.

    At Kent State I worked pumping gas third shift at an all night gas station three days a weekend.

    At Yale, my third college, I was an apartment superintendent, and had to compact a hundred pounds of garbage a day and hand carry 100 yards to the dumpster.

    At Middlebury, I had to work 7-3:30 on a high-school paint crew painting bathrooms and classrooms, to afford the tuition at Bread Loaf.

    It might do Yale students good to get your hands dirty and find out that people in the real world are worthy of being interacted with “in the same way that we interact with our sisters or our childhood best friends.”

  • River_Tam

    Amen, Paul Keane. Amen.

  • Jess

    @theantiyale: Maybe you should try being contrarian with people who actually disagree with you.

    It’s just a fact that I’ll never spend as much time with the people who work in the Davenport Dining Hall as I’ve spent with my little brother. They will never mean as much to me as my brother means to me. That doesn’t mean I have the right to treat people I only interact with occasionally as if their significance in my life is only as an object.

  • River_Tam

    @Jess, I note the sentence did not mention social betters:

    “We need not interact with *our professors and TA’s* in the same way that we interact with our sisters or our childhood best friends; that would be an unreasonable expectation.”

    or perhaps your social peers:

    “We need not interact with *fellow students* in the same way that we interact with our sisters or our childhood best friends; that would be an unreasonable expectation.”

    Nope, you chose to say:

    “We need not interact with *the help* in the same way that we interact with our sisters or our childhood best friends; that would be an unreasonable expectation.”

    Saying that the comment was simply about the amount of time you’ve interacted with someone is quite the stretch. What you were saying is “we don’t have to treat the help like they’re our friends but we do have to treat them like they’re human.”

    That’s mighty charitable of you. That’s practically loving your neighbor as much as you love yourself right there.

    (here’s a tip: if you don’t think the sentence is offensive, go and read it to a few people who actually work in the dining hall and see what they think).

  • Jess

    @River_Tam: You’re right, that’s a problematic way to phrase what I meant. I used it as an example because the ways in which people objectify dining hall workers are more obviously problematic than the way that they objectify their professors, which makes it an easier point to argue.

  • The Anti-Yale

    *It’s just a fact that I’ll never spend as much time with the people who work in the Davenport Dining Hall as I’ve spent with my little brother.*
    @ Jess:
    Just a FACT?!

    I’m glad you know how to predict the future. For all you know you might fall in love with a person washing dishes in Silliman, marry, and beget children.

    PK

  • The Anti-Yale

    *”We need not interact with our professors and TA’s in the same way that we interact with our sisters or our childhood best friends; that would be an unreasonable expectation.”*

    River Tam:

    That’s what etiquette was for, (before we dismantled and abandoned it in the name of authenticity) : To invite all those of any social class or degree of personal intimacy into an egalitarian safe harbor of polite social intercourse.

    It’s a lost world. Now we’re just boors and bumblers and hook-up artists.

    Ugh.

    PK

  • River_Tam

    @PK

    To hear some tell it, the etiquette of the past was a polite veneer on a much darker authentic social order (ref: George RR Martin).

  • The Anti-Yale

    Yes, RT, but it was a safe harbor, a kind of holding-pattern in which you knew what to do and what was expected and which gave you an elegant exit from further involvement should you want it.; It was an Antechamber to the Instant Intimacy of today. It presumed that people had “time.”

  • jmaust

    River_Tam and theantiyale, you are both being absolutely ridiculous.
    You have managed to latch onto the one point in an otherwise exceedingly well-written article that might potentially be misinterpreted as a condescending remark. Jess made it abundantly clear that most of us might not have the same relationship with the dining hall workers that we do with our siblings, but that we should still respect them according to their worth as human beings and not according to whatever “utility” we think that they might have. Had she replaced “dining hall workers” with the word “professors”, the two of you might not have made such ludicrous comments, but her point would also not have held the same weight. This condescension that you seem determined to attach to her article is misplaced, because she’s pointing out a fundamental flaw with both Tan’s reasoning *and* the way that many Yalies look at our workers. She’s critiquing an unfortunate mindset that some people have, not positing that mindset as her own.
    Before you play devil’s advocate with someone you agree with, make sure you actually think about the argument.

  • The Anti-Yale

    I understand the argument. I just find it ironic that in advocating egalitarianism the author is redolent of elitism.

    PK

    PS

    Not that it makes any difference, but I thought “Jess” was a male. I’ll change “beget” in my previous post to “conceive” to accommodate the gender confusion.

  • River_Tam

    > Before you play devil’s advocate with someone you agree with, make sure you actually think about the argument.

    I agree with the prescription, but not the sentiment behind it (as expressed, veiled, throughout the piece and on full display in the line I highlighted).

    You can argue for treating people as ends in-and-of-themselves for many reasons. Ms. Belding does it out of paternalism (ironic word choice, I suppose) – she opposes objectification because it harms poor defenseless women. It’s a paternalistic system of ethics, which doesn’t sit well with me (ref: Kipling’s White Man’s Burden, Plato’s Republic, Hobbe’s Leviathan, and most recently the left-wing Christian movement in America) She might reach the right conclusion (respecting people == good), but it’s no better than drawing it out of a hat at random, and it comes attached with all kinds of sad baggage, like considering it sufficient to treat the help as if they were human.

    Rather if she’d argued, for instance, that objectification is morally wrong because it treats others fundamentally differently than it treats the self (ie: we treat ourselves only as ends but others as means to our end), I would have had no problem with her position.

  • jmaust

    @theantiyale:
    You clearly don’t understand the argument, because she isn’t.

  • Branford73

    One of the problems in the discussion is defining “objectification”. Tan makes it too narrow, arguably intentionally and offensively so. Belding makes it stretch too far. To be useful, the term “sexual objectification” should refer to the pattern of thought or speech that reduces another person to his or her sexual appeal, particularly the appeal of his or her physical appearance. It can be offensive if the object is a man or woman, but get let’s get real, unwanted sexual attention is foisted upon women much more often than it is upon men.

    Tonight’s evening news discussing the Cain mess pointed out that complaints of sexual harassment in the workplace have increased from 11% to 16% recently (I missed the time period of the comparison). No doubt some of the imbalance is due to a much higher percentage of bosses at any level being men

  • bcrosby

    @River_Tam: So you don’t think that objectification causes more harm to certain groups than others? Because that seems pretty false – objectification doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it is inextricable from larger issues of power relations and systematic sexism. This isn’t to say that objectification as such isn’t morally problematic – I think it is (at least insofar as one can talk meaningfully about objectification as such), and I imagine that Jess does as well…but that doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t be more concerned about the role objectification plays in supporting a culture deeply toxic to women.

  • River_Tam

    > So you don’t think that objectification causes more harm to certain groups than others?

    I think it’s true but irrelevant to the moral argument you need to make against objectification. It certainly does not bolster a case that Ms. Belding tries to make based on “respect” for fundamental humanity.

    Slavery as an institution might de facto harm black people more than white people, but that’s not the right reason to end it.

    > it is inextricable from larger issues of power relations and systematic sexism.

    These are smaller issues, not larger ones.

  • The Anti-Yale

    I am not questioning the sincerity of Ms. Belding’s thesis, merely the consistency of her idealism.

    The latent classism coozes through the cracks of the argument of someone who has never collected garbage for a living or had to replace dirty toilet seats for a living in a low-income apartment building, or paint the walls around the base of school toilets lying on one’s back with your face in years of accumulated filth waxed into the crevices of the tile.

    Until you have to get filthy because you need the money to survive, be cautious before using the lives of others who are in such situations as illustrations for social pontifications.

  • bcrosby

    With all due respect, Paul Keane, you don’t know Jess or her class background. I’m not disputing that Yale is a place of immense privilege, or that the University engages in a pretty blatant project of class homogenization with regards to its students, or that classism is a big issue on campus, but Yale for better or worse (mostly for better) simply isn’t the place it was when you went to YDS — and so your insinuations about Jess’s class background are frankly insulting.

    Moreover, I remain unconvinced that Jess’s argument is itself classist. What Jess writes is true: Yale students, on average, are not terribly likely to form long-term relationships with Yale Dining staff. Now, this fact may well be evidence of deep-seated classism among Yale students – I wouldn’t disagree with you if you claimed it was – but simply stating it does not make the author classist. If anything, her argument is anti-classist, arguing that Yalies tend to view Dining Hall workers in a particularly objectified way – and that that is a problem. Yes, her phrasing was a tad unfortunate, but her point still stands.

  • River_Tam

    > With all due respect, Paul Keane, you don’t know Jess or her class background.

    “Gurl, you don’t even *know* me!”

    > Yale for better or worse (mostly for better) simply isn’t the place it was when you went to YDS — and so your insinuations about Jess’s class background are frankly insulting.

    With all due respect, bcrosby, I’m pretty sure Paul Keane was basing his criticisms of Ms. Belding’s argument on her own writing, not on the class backgrounds of past graduates of YDS.

    > This condescension that you seem determined to attach to her article is misplaced, because she’s pointing out a fundamental flaw with both Tan’s reasoning and the way that many Yalies look at our workers.

    They are not *your* workers. This is a fundamental error of Yale students and their paternalism. The guy swiping you into the dining hall is not *your* worker any more than the master’s aide is *your* worker or the professor of your econ seminar is *your* worker (and you’d never call a professor “our worker” — again, the classism sneaks through).

    They are employees of the university (and in the case of professors, as a Columbia University faculty member famously proclaimed – they *are* they University). We are just students – someone who is paying money for the privilege of being educated at Yale.

  • The Anti-Yale

    I didn’t even know “Jess”‘s gender. I’m extrapolating based on my inferences from her WRITING—and the illustrations of filthy work come from MY life. If she has collected garbage , replaced toilets seats in a low-income apartment building or painted the baseboards around school-house toilets because she needed the income from those jobs to survive, I will gladly apologize to her .

  • Inigo_Montoya

    > (and you’d never call a professor “our
    > worker” — again, the classism sneaks
    > through).

    He probably *would* say “our professors,” but “our professors” has fewer unfortunate implications than “our workers.” This country does not have not a long history of treating university educators as chattel.

    River, I’m guessing that your aim is to beat the leftist cultural criticism types at their own game: namely, inferring the subtle (or not so subtle) sin of privilege from word choices and the connotations thereof. I think the way in which Belding and bcrosby would respond would be to embrace your criticism, argue that they too are vulnerable to privileged thinking, and say that this only further demonstrates the need to work against privilege and the thinking it produces (in fact, that’s more or less what bcrosby *did* say in the course of making the slip you point out).

  • bcrosby

    Oi – first of all, I never used the language of “our workers.” Second of all, what Inigo_Montoya said.

  • River_Tam

    @Inigo_Montoya:

    You know me a little too well.

    But my aim is not merely to highlight the existence of privileged thinking (any PoLer can do that), but to highlight the paternalism of the progressive movement. Even when it reaches the right conclusions (on occasion it does!), it does so by accident and via arguments that only serve to highlight its hypocrisy.

  • Inigo_Montoya

    > You know me a little too well.

    What can I say? We fictional masters of hand-to-hand combat have to stick together.

  • PhysicsAlum

    Dear god the comments on this website depress me sometimes.

    *Slowly backs away and then turns off computer.*

  • dalet5770

    Typical human frailty. That is, until we have to count the body bags – of war, or take the census!