People talk about objectification like it’s a bad thing. We hear it all the time: “Such and such a thing is bad because it promotes the objectification of women,” “such and such a thing propagates the idea of women as sexual objects” and so on.
We hear it in protest to many things: advertisements that feature sexy women, beauty pageants, modeling, stripping, porn and sexy clothing. We hear it in relation to relationships; often a relationship or an encounter that is purely sexual is viewed negatively, as somehow degrading because it treats the woman as a sexual object. We hear it in the derogatory way in which the word “slut” is used. And yet, too seldom do people question whether being a sexual object is actually bad.
Objectification is a necessary part of life. How many people can we actually care about? How many people can we actually count as true friends? The answer is probably not that many. For each true friend, there are a dozen acquaintances and friends of convenience. And so while there are some people who we see as ends in themselves, it’s natural to see the vast majority of people as means to ends — as objects. Charming objects perhaps, objects with some degree of sentimental value, but objects nonetheless.
Objectification is the inevitable byproduct of true friendship, its shadow; as surely as night follows day, the juxtaposition of objectification with true friendship is what gives the latter value. Objectification is necessary for true friendship to exist.
There are many different kinds of objects. Some people are cash dispensers; others are founts of wisdom. Some, like my intrepid editors at the News, are sounding boards for ideas. Some are outlets for emotional unloading. Some people aren’t actually interesting but are useful for making us look good and connecting us to other people. Others are colleagues or teammates, temporarily bound to us only because we perform common tasks.
We’re surrounded by a multiplicity of people we treat as objects — financial, intellectual, cathartic, social and professional objects — and there’s nothing wrong with these objectified relationships, provided they’re mutual. We’re all objectified in countless ways by countless people. We all use and are used in turn.
So what’s wrong with being a sexual object? How is it worse than being any other kind of object? What’s wrong with sexual objectification? Is it because it involves physical traits rather than mental? If so, emphasizing a woman’s body wouldn’t be condemned any more than emphasizing her facial features, which are probably the most important physical attribute. There’s no good reason why close-ups of breasts should be any worse than close-ups of faces.
Is it because it breaks complex beings into facets and emphasizes just one? There’s nothing wrong with that. We do that all the time. It’s not seen as bad when someone’s intelligence or musical ability is emphasized, even if it’s to the exclusion of everything else. We think of Einstein primarily in terms of his genius and Yo-Yo Ma primarily in terms of his musical talent.
Indeed, we take pride in good test scores, GPAs, intelligence quotients, record times — all these measures designed to break our multifaceted selves down into separate components for appraisal. As feminist Wendy McElroy argues, “Women are as much their bodies as they are their minds or souls. No one gets upset if you present women as ‘brains’ or as ‘spiritual beings … Why is it degrading to focus on her sexuality?”
I see no reason why we should consider the sexual objectification of women a bad thing. In fact, it seems that the more outstanding characteristics someone has, the more desirable traits a person possesses, the more likely he or she is to be objectified, as he or she can be objectified — prized above others — in terms of any of those traits. Therefore, the more someone can be objectified, the better, and the individuals best off are those who can be seen as multiple objects. Perhaps the saddest case is someone who isn’t objectified in any way, someone who is of no possible use or appeal to anyone else.
I’d like to see a world where female sexuality can be displayed and appreciated as shamelessly as every other form of aesthetics, as shamelessly as a symphony or a sculpture — a world where women will know no shame because they know they have no cause for shame, a world where the word “slut” won’t be derogatory. I’d like to see a world where a woman can be proud of being both a sexual object and an intellectual object, where the purely sexual can be seen as empowering instead of debased and oppressive, where a woman can recognize her sexuality as a tool just as formidable as her intellect.
Shaun Tan is a second year graduate student in International Relations. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.