For some unexplainable reason, I woke up at 5 this morning with R.E.M.’s “King of Comedy” (from the Monster album) stuck in my head. Obviously that means I need to write about the commodification and objectification of women.
Let’s start with objectification. Objectification is simply the process of recreating or using a person as a thing. We do this all the time. Some time ago, a friend told me that I was objectifying them by resting my head on them; I had turned them into a pillow. It is objectification to lean on someone when exhausted, as if they are a crutch. It quickly becomes apparent that some objectification is fairly mundane or benign, and other kinds of objectification are harmful. Sexual objectification is an obvious example of this.
Sexual objectification means turning a person into an object, accessory, or tool for sex. If you like sex in which either you or your partner is not an active participant, not giving and receiving pleasure mutually, then sexual objectification is probably gratifying to you. If sex is more than you using another person as a means to an end (your own sexual satisfaction), or being used to this end, then this kind of objectification is problematic.
The traditional view of heterosexual sex is deeply entrenched in objectification. The man is the pursuer, the initiator; he is necessarily aggressive, maybe even forceful. The woman is the pursued, the “end goal”, the object; she is passive, submissive, although in many ideal fantasies she also secretly wants to be pursued and caught. This view is reinforced in mass media the world over, in magazines, TV shows, movies, music videos, books, advertisements, video games. It is no wonder that lots of boys and young men are both confused and resolute about their understanding of a girl or woman who says no as just playing a role, and of girls and women who say yes as breaking that role (that is, as being sluttish).
Sexual objectification unavoidably sets the stage for the commodification of sex. Commodification is the process of recreating or portraying someone or something as a commodity– a good, an object for consumption. The ways in which sex is commodified still conform neatly to traditional views of heterosexual sex, which are also patriarchal. In this situation, men are the subjects and women are the objects. Patriarchy holds that sexual pleasure is naturally (or should be) centered around men; there is an emphasis on the uncontrollable nature of male sexual desire, whereas women are either passive recipients of this desire, or objects used to cater to it.
Women, specifically, have long been commodified as sexual objects (and men have, too, in a different fashion and to different ends). We aren’t just used to sell things, but we are things; we are figuratively “on sale” for consumption all the time. Although women are hypersexualized in this process of commodification, as individuals they are stripped of their own sexuality. If an object has a perspective on its own sexuality, its sexual identity or desires, it is in danger of becoming real, a subject. Commodification thus also means the smothering or eradication of female subjectivity.
I think a lot of men find all of this difficult to swallow. On the one hand, I guess I can see why it would be challenging to view things from such a different perspective– if you have always been the buyer, the consumer, there has probably never been much reason or incentive to view things from the perspective of the good/commodity. On the other hand, I think men can understand this perfectly; a large number of them are sexually objectifying and commodifying females all the time. I have a large number of very close guy friends who would adamantly deny this, but even if they truly see all human beings as, well, human beings, they surely experience their peers doing this much of the time.
What surprises me is when men have absolutely no qualms about doing this blatantly and shamelessly in front of women. I think this is because they feel either there is nothing wrong with it, or that there will be no consequences for doing it. For example, I was fundraising outside of a supermarket (for a project to end gender-based violence, no less) not too long ago, and I was observing a security guard as he was…observing a young woman coming out of the store. She was loading her groceries into a tuk tuk. She was wearing a dress, though by American standards I can’t say it was “too short” or what have you. The security guard was standing not far from her, staring at her– no, not staring at her, but staring at her behind. His stare was long and open, and at one point he even licked his lips. I had been talking to him earlier about the project I was helping fundraise for, so I felt it was not too out of place for me to ask, “What are you doing?” His answer was phrased completely innocently: “She’s a beautiful girl, why shouldn’t I look? Why is she wearing that dress if she doesn’t want me to look?”
This is an argument that I’ve heard time and again. Women secretly desire the male pornographic gaze on them. It’s what compels women and girls to wear make-up, to dress like the models on magazine covers, ultimately to sexualize themselves. Under the surface, all women really want to appeal to male sexual desire.
If that woman wanted that security guard to stare at her while licking his lips, I’ll eat my hat.
But that’s besides the point. This idea of women’s secret desire for men to visually consume them is based on a much more sinister myth: the idea that women secretly want men to fuck them. This sounds so absurdly egotistic and narcissistic as to be unbelievable, but when I look around myself I can see how it sort of…makes sense, in a sort of droll, male-centered way.
In high school I had a friend whose room was covered with large, glossy posters of Playboy Bunnies. There was one at the head of his bed that I can’t seem to forget; whenever I think about this person, I inevitably think of this poster. In it, a typical white, blonde “Bunny” is positioned on the floor with her butt high in the air, her knees bent, and she is propped up on her elbows. She is looking at the camera with an ecstatic, childish expression, and she is wearing nothing but bubbles. Yes, only soap bubbles, on her breasts and her crotch. I remember feeling horribly uncomfortable when I would go to this friend’s house to play video games with him and our other friends– all of whom were Good Christian Boys who regularly attended church and youth group. And stuff. Only one of my guy friends had the nerve to ask him if it wasn’t such a great idea to put up posters of mostly naked women on your walls– wouldn’t God be offended? (God definitely would be offended, since the Christian God hates women, after all. Ho ho ho, surely I’m just kidding…)
When I look around myself right at this moment, I am in an internet cafe in which every computer besides this one is occupied by a young man or boy. I am tempted to check each screen to see how many of them are watching porn, but I don’t want to get kicked out. Don’t worry, most of the younger guys are just playing WoW… Well, I guess that’s sort of the same as watching porn, isn’t it? Anyway, on the walls are posters advertising various Khmer and other Asian websites, mostly for games. Almost all of them feature partially-naked women, even the cartoon ones. The one behind me features two realistic-looking cartoon women with guns posed between two bulky men in armor; both women have huge breasts and long, skinny bodies. One is wearing a low-cut top with her midriff showing, and the other is wearing shiny black leather (she sorta looks like a dominatrix with that nazi hat on).
I could describe the other posters in here, but I won’t bother. You get the idea. Anyway, from your own experience, you already have an idea, I’m sure. Just looking around us at other people, at billboards and posters, at book covers and album covers, at music videos… We are constantly being inundated by this shit, all the time. Taking all this in, it isn’t hard to see why girls and women are so easily recreated as personality-less, consumable objects devoid of agency.
Perhaps the absolute worst part is that it is not only men who recreate and consume women as sex objects, but women recreate and consume women as sex objects, as well. Actually I think that’s why it is such an immense challenge to confront and negate these processes of commodification and objectification. Women and girls commodify themselves, early on and often for their entire lives. We hypersexualize and objectify our bodies, our sexual identities, but to what end? Ultimately it seems entirely dissatisfying, time-consuming, and hurtful. The results are a preoccupation with unattainable “beauty” standards, self-loathing of our own persons, and jealousy and contempt for other women whom we perceive as surpassing our own efforts. If you fail, all you get is some really low self-esteem; if you succeed, you get to be a sexually-consumable object for male-centered pleasure, which really only holds if you are available for consumption 24/7. Congratulations.
What I would like for us to do, then, is to reject our own commodification. Question yourself, question others, question culture, when you feel compelled to do something, go somewhere, dress some way, say something. I don’t believe this is easy, but I have learned multitudes about myself through such self-reflection and critical thinking of my surroundings. But it is as they say: once you’ve seen, you can’t un-see. Maybe ignorance is bliss, but transcendence is better.
I’m not king of comedy,
I’m not your magazine,
I’m not your television,
I’m not your movie screen
I’m not commodity
I’m not commodity
[R.E.M., "King of Comedy]
p.s. This is a really aesthetically-shit but highly informative website on some particulars of how women are portrayed as sex objects in certain media.
p.s.s Post on the sexual commodification of men forthcoming.