Some thoughts on objectification

Tuesday 21st November, 2017

On Monday, July 18, 2016, over twenty-two million people in the United States alone tuned in to an extraordinary display of ideal corporeality. Set against a ripple of Old Glory red, a figure glided onto the screen, poised and primed, ready to address thousands gathered in the flesh. A body sheathed in cotton-silk—white, of course—with stiff balloon sleeves accenting the slim forearms, hands and long, tapered fingers that emerged from within the drapery. Before she even opened her mouth, the audience was enchanted. Here was a living sculpture, its surface iridescent but impenetrable, classical, monumental. Here was an immigrant, yes, but not that abject, shape-shifting spectre haunting the campaign’s most violent rhetoric. This was an allegory, an allegory of European racial supremacy consolidated in a female form. When the story broke, hours later, that the words she spoke were not her own, it did not matter. Such is the power of allegory: the meaning lies elsewhere.

Throughout the most recent Republican presidential campaign, female bodies were used time and again as a means of perpetuating, glorifying and ornamenting ideologies, rendering them infinitely more seductive. Not since the 1930s has ideal corporeality been placed so centrally on the political stage. Whereas before it was primarily the muscular, Olympian male figure that was deployed to express the given vision, emphasis now shifts exclusively to the female: wife, daughter, beauty queen, each of whom valorise objecthood over humanity. In a political climate directly informed by pageants, modelling agencies, reality television and celebrity, this shift is logical. It aligns with the pervasive consumerism of so-called ‘Western’ culture more generally, and thus may not immediately strike us as distinct. But, along with a multitude of other, more conspicuous factors, the instrumentality of the female body in securing political victory heralds the licensing of misogyny worldwide. What we are witnessing is a strain of misogyny that, while registered in the control of reproductive rights, transgender rights and sex workers’ rights, not to mention the silencing and humiliation of sexual abuse victims, is largely abstract and difficult to define, certainly on a legal level. So deeply embedded within mainstream culture, this variety of misogyny transcends the movement that has granted it fresh legitimacy. Hence many advocations of women’s rights appear in the same ideal guise as the agents, or, angels, of this misogyny. Chiseled lingerie models claim to guide feminism into a new era.

Here lies the conundrum of the allegorical female image: it is part of the very fabric of civilization. Pluralistic and polysemous, it resides in architecture as well as advertising, pornography as well as politics. Martha Nussbaum and Ann Cahill observe that within feminist discourse, the notion of objectification became something of a cliché before it was sufficiently theorised. Simone de Beauvoir made the reduction of women to mere things an overarching theme of her landmark work. Yet The Second Sex remains rooted not so much in representations of women, how images function in public and shape the limits of human achievement, than in the private worlds of lived experience, heterosexual intercourse and the stigma of maternity. For de Beauvoir, objectification was not about the plasticity of the gendered body—its status as a supranatural thing open, by definition, to endless modifications and enhancements that negate a flourishing interiority. Rather, objectification meant the traditional conception of woman as nature: the lactating, menstruating foil for man’s intellectual culture.

Other scholars followed suit, incorporating pornography and, more recently, internet misogyny, into the emphasis on private and unseen activities motivated by the lure of erotic domination. There is a sense in which, from the 1960s onwards, feminist theory could not keep pace with the intellectual transformations occurring alongside second-wave activism, namely poststructuralism and its complication of what, if anything, might constitute self-determination. The cultural manifestations of this are visible in the resurgence of idealised femininity—albeit in vernacular form—in the visual arts, through Pop and other postmodern aesthetics.

In recent times, a new type of feminism has emerged that pushes the question of objectification even further to the margins. Derided as a kind of ‘neoliberal feminism,' this phenomenon posits self-objectification as a means of ‘empowerment’. By choosing to become an object designed according to a normative template of desirability, the subject recovers her agency and gets ahead in the world, finally triumphing over centuries of oppression. Objectification is itself considered a human right, much like the ‘biopolitics of beauty’ prevalent in Brazil, for example, explored by Alvaro Jarrin, in which ‘the right to beauty’ justifies the eugenic practices of plastic surgeons working in impoverished communities. Lip fillers have recently been legitimized as a cosmetic among teenage girls. In his theory of fascism, Klaus Theweleit gives this notion a longer pedigree, arguing that, amid the earth-shattering revolutions of the late eighteenth century, the middle-class women who would have benefitted from their redistribution of power were granted ‘beauty instead of freedom’. Ever more prevalent in mainstream culture, particularly social media, the cult of the "businesswoman" parallels the defiant reclaiming of objectification by the objectified.