Feminism F.A.Q.s: What is Objectification?

by | October 15, 2012
filed under Feminism, Pop Culture

Feminism FAQs Title Screen

by Jarrah Hodge

My latest episode of Feminism F.A.Q. is on the issue of objectification, specifically sexual objectification, and why this is an issue for feminists. Check out the video below and read my notes and the transcript after the jump.

A couple notes:

I know I will have missed some groups and individuals working on media literacy and objectification so feel free to add them in the comments below on this post and/or on YouTube so others can check them out. One I know I missed, which I’m kicking myself for, is About-Face, a non-profit out of San Francisco that does great work deconstructing issues like objectification in advertising and the media. A lot of the information for this video came from their “Facts & Research” page on their site. Links to the other organizations I mention in the video are below the transcript.

One part that I wrote in the script for the video but had to cut for time was a reference to a recent study in the European Journal of Social Psychology, which found that people (of any gender) tend to use local rather than global mental processing when looking at women, viewing them part-by-part. By contrast, men are generally processed as a whole rather than as the sum of their parts.As study author Sarah Gervais says: “There could be evolutionary reasons that men and women process female bodies differently, Gervais said, but because both genders do it, “the media is probably a prime suspect.” The study also found:

When the experiment was adjusted to create a condition where it was easier for participants to employ “global” processing, the sexual body part recognition bias appeared to be alleviated. Women were more easily recognizable in the context of their whole bodies instead of their various sexual body parts.

It’s a hopeful sign, and it’ll be interesting to see where future research goes and if it can help change the tendency for objectification in the media.

A final note because I know I’m going to get asked: yes, I know men can get objectified too. In fact, there seems to have been a rise of objectifying images of men in advertising, although it’s still less prevalent than for women. Further, Gervais’ study indicates that objectification of men in the media has not had the same effect as it has for women.

Objectifying anyone isn’t cool, but the reason I think it’s fair to focus on sexual objectification of women and girls isn’t just that it’s a larger and more visible issue. Objectification of women and girls is influenced by systemic gender inequality and a larger media context that tells women how they can and should dress, behave, and think. The stereotypes women and girls are presented with are limited and though messages are often mixed, one rings through crystal clear: your worth is determined by your physical/sexual attractiveness and your ability to attract a man. When that’s combined with so many objectifying comments and images of idealized beauty (most of which are pretty unrealistic/unattainable), it can be toxic. And there’s a wealth of evidence to show the negative impacts it has on girls and women.


Hi, I’m Jarrah Hodge, editor of the Canadian feminist blog Gender Focus. Welcome to Feminism F.A.Q.s. Today: what is objectification?

Simply put, objectification is seeing or treating another person as an object rather than an individual with their own personality, identity, and thoughts. One type of objectification particularly of concern to feminists is sexual objectification, which is when another person – usually a woman – is seen or treated as a sex object there for the pleasure of the viewer, who is assumed to be male.

So how do we recognize objectification? Well, it can happen in a couple different ways. A really common way is called “dismemberment”, which is woman to her body parts, as you often see in advertising. If you’re looking at an ad where there’s a picture of a woman’s body part, it isn’t her face, and it’s sexualized or fetishized, it’s probably objectification.

Objectification also occurs when a woman is reduced to her appearance and not given a voice. So if you’re walking down the street and you see some guys point at a woman and joke about how hot she is and how they’d like to have sex with her, that’s a type of objectification.

Now there’s nothing necessarily wrong with experiencing sexual desire for someone – where it becomes a problem and objectification is where the person’s thoughts, feelings, and identity are totally ignored and they’re just assumed to welcome the sexual attention.

Objectification for me is a bigger picture issue. The problem comes from the cumulative effect of all the images, characters and comments we see every day in the media, in advertising and pop culture, that leads to this belief that the women you encounter in real life aren’t fully human and that it’s ok to reduce them to stereotypes and sexual fantasies.

That attitude leads to sexual harassment on the street, such as cat-calling, and in the workplace, accompanied by derision targeted about women who don’t welcome the sexual attention.

When you see and hear these things all the time it can start to make you feel that your only value is your sexual desirability. That can negatively impact women and girls because it can increase body insecurity, decrease your ability to negotiate safe and rewarding sex, and lead to a feeling of not being valued for your competence or your true identity.

Unfortunately, since objectification is a big-picture problem with many players, it’s one that takes time to resolve. Luckily there are some great feminist groups doing work on media literacy so we can better understand and critique the messages being handed to us in the mainstream media, as well as lobbying for more diverse representations of women and girls. If you’re concerned about this issue, consider supporting them. And in the meantime, try to remember that behind every body is a human being too.

Links to Organizations Mentioned in the Video:

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