Monday, November 10, 2008

Second Thing We Do, Objectify All The Men

The Apostate has a post about the tragic lack of nude men (at least, full frontal) in mainstream cinematic sex scenes, and why that is. The basic answer is that male bodies aren't objectified. Men aren't adjudged to be valuable based solely on their looks. Indeed, it is seen as weird and deviant to objectify male bodies. The Apostate urges that women start to break down the fiction that male bodies aren't the proper targets for objectification.

But wait, you say, if objectification is bad, then why is justifiable to do it to men? The answer is not that turnabout is fair play. Rather, it gets into the nuts and bolts of what it means to objectify someone, and how being seen as an object interacts with our sense of personhood and human dignity.

I've written before that, in contrast to what is maintained or implied by certain feminist theorists, being seen as an object -- the site of another's wants and desires, or a source of instrumentality to another's ends -- is an extremely important element of our personhood. Of course, it's not all we want -- we want also to be recognized as beings with inherent worth and human dignity, and we also want some level of control over how we are seen as valuable even as objects. But it is untrue to say that acknowledgment of subjective value is sufficient for our happiness. In order to be fulfilled, we need to be seen and perceive ourselves as being seen as both objects and subjects, at the same time.

In modern society, men (particularly White men) have many avenues through which both our objective and subjective value can be expressed and verified. The panoply of legal and moral rights, designed with men in mind, affirm that we are "God's children" and are beings worthy of inherent moral concern. The social structures we create also tell us, again and again, that we are useful creatures whose objective worth is articulated through prestige, awards, reimbursement, and acclamation.

The joke that is often laid about sexual harassment is asking a man "how would you like it if a woman told you you were attractive and she wanted to bone you?" It's an inapt comparison, though. Because seeing male bodies as "objects" (that is, entities which are wanted for the express purpose of fomenting pleasure in another) neither exhausts our dimensions of objective worth, nor operates to the exclusion of the recognition of our subjective value, it does not threaten to colonize male bodies in such a way that we are only seen as sex objects. A man whom women treat and talk about as hot still has fundamental ownership of himself, and is not limited to only that metric of worth. Taking it from another angle, it's not that women don't want to be seen as sexually attractive by men. What they protest is that being the totality of the avenues they have for attaining valuation.

I draw from all this that, in ideal circumstances, it is best for all parties when they are seen as objectively and subjectively valuable -- including on the axis of sexuality. Circumstances are not ideal when either element of valuation squeezes out the other -- as it is for women who are seen only as valuable along the object-axis (the definition of objectification). Men, though, by and large do exist in the land of ideals -- both of our objective and subjective value is pretty well established. So go ahead, women (hell, go ahead men) -- lust after me. I like knowing that I'm wanted, and I'm happy that you gain pleasure from wanting me. There's no threat here.

UPDATE: One more thing that came to me: it seems that people like to be objectively valued, but only if they have some degree of control over it. I might take pleasure in being valued for my contributions to Big Company, in part because I voluntarily chose to work for Big and can, if I choose, leave. Often times artists who are beloved by their audience members burn out because they get tired of only being seen as a tool for the desire's of the masses (think Dave Chappelle) and can never "turn it off". This goes back to the need for balance between objective and subjective valuation, and brings into play another dimension that must taken into account when noting the objective value of men.


Anonymous said...

You're absolutely right and thanks for the trackback (I have automatic trackbacks only from Wordpress blogs).

Yes, the problem isn't objectification - the problem is when women's ONLY value is in their sexuality or perceived sexual worth.

Good post.

David Schraub said...

I'd define objectification as seeing someone solely as an object (bad), just maintain some definitional clarity, but we're on the same page.

The Gaucho Politico said...

is the problem really in seeing women *only* in an objective sense or is it even that the objective sense is dominant?

I am not a big reader of feminist or gender theory but i wonder if the historic influences of being an oppressed class have created a situation where the problems of objectification come when they are see primarily as sex objects.

your post would seem to support this because as you point out men have myriad avenues to affirm their self worth where women do not. The more options to affirm self worth the more we can tolerate the sexual worth appraisals.

so the definition of objectification is when the sexual worth is perceived to outweigh the intrinsic worth.

David Schraub said...

Men both have avenues to affirm their intrinsic (subjective) worth, and a plethora of avenues beyond sexuality to affirm their instrumental (objective) worth. Feminist theorist will argue that women aren't, at the root of it, treated as human in the sense of being conceded to be subjectively equal to men (just look at the titles of some prominent feminist books: "Bodies that Matter", "Are Women Human?"); meanwhile, their objective worth is tied nearly totally to their sexuality.

Anonymous said...

Men and women are biologically different. As a result, or because of, these differences, men are attracted to women in a way that is different than the way in which women are attracted to men. This is evidenced in our culture, including our movies.

Don't make it more complicated than it is.

PG said...


Men and women are biologically different. As a result, or because of, these differences, men are attracted to women in a way that is different than the way in which women are attracted to men.

So women aren't attracted to men's bodies, only to their minds and hearts?


I'm sure you're smarter than that, but if so, what's the point of your comment? Women's attraction to men's bodies will result in some degree of objectification of men. Men's attraction to women's bodies will result in some degree of objectification of men. I'm guessing your biological essentialism means you don't think much about same-sex attraction, but the same holds true there: lesbians will objectify their fellow women; gays their fellow men.

Jill Rodde said...

I think you're absolutely right in saying that it feels good to be objectively valued, and it feels good to know that other people find you attractive. And you're also right in pointing out that having control over the ways in which that objective value is expressed to you is a big part of finding that empowering.

However, I think you're missing the point that female sexual objectification really doesn't confer value onto women at all--rather, the way in which we are objectified robs us of value. If I'm catcalled on the street, or grabbed in an elevator, sure, my existence has served someone else's ends in some way, but it does not make me instrumental or useful in a personal way. It's an assertion of his public ownership of my body--that he has the right to comment on it, its merits, flaws, fuckability--and that's the important part, not necessarily my attractiveness or myself as an entity.

What you're getting at, that our corporeal selves, and the sexual expression of those corporeal selves, can (and should!) be fundamentally empowering, is right on. But I think that it's important to recognize that that's not the way women's bodies are objectified either.

PG said...


But surely there are multiple kinds of objectification? You describe an assaulting and harassing objectification that I think most decent people agree is bad. But there also is the objectification inherent in someone's coming up to you based on the one thing he knows about you up front -- you're physically attractive -- and wanting to get to know you better. Someone who can move easily between understanding you as subject and as object still engages in objectification, but not a kind that devalues you.

Jill Rodde said...

PG, you're right on about the degrees of objectification. It can definitely be empowering.

But both men and women are already objectified in the way you described as positive--being approached because physical attractiveness sparked interest. For men to objectified in some public way (for example, in film), as opposed to a private or personal way (for example, in a bar) requires, as the Apostate pointed out, that we rethink how we view male bodies.

I was arguing that we also need to rethink how we publicly view female bodies, because as it stands, it is not an empowering objectification. We don't put nude women on screen because it serves some objective purpose. It's mostly prurient.

There are certainly some depictions of female bodies that make them sexual objects in a positive way. (A great example, I think, is the scene in Angels in America when Harper drops her robe and screams at her husband, "Look at me!") But when there's some kid who's watching this film and rubbing one out to Mary Louise Parker, I'm guessing that while she might find it flattering to be alluring, at the root it's not going to contribute to her personhood because it's a sign of his ownership, and not a recognition that she is instrumental, even if she serves his ends.

I guess what I'm saying is that it would be great if, in this scene, Joe (the husband) also stripped off his clothes (for the attracted-to-men crowd) and we all looked at their bodies and said, Wow, that's beautiful/sexy/alluring, and I like it because I like sex, sex is good, and it's good to see attractive people who reify the idea that sex is good.

It would be great if we demonstrated that our sexual bodies were positive. But that requires us thinking that our sexual bodies are positive, and we don't. We view them as something we have to control. We can control women's sexual bodies, but we don't control men's sexual bodies, so why would we put them in even a fiction situation in which we do?

David Schraub said...

I don't understand this statement:

We don't put nude women on screen because it serves some objective purpose. It's mostly prurient.

Prurience, it seems to me, is without a doubt an objective purpose -- it serves the instrumentality of getting men off.

Nor is it necessarily robbing women of value. The sexual gratification male viewers get from saying Parker naked is, at least in part, the reason why she was cast, and the reason why the scene was not played by special guest star Barbara Mikulski. More generally, since Parker was hired to give aesthetic pleasure to her viewers (broadly defined -- appreciating her acting, her persona, her body, etc.), I'm not sure how we can distinguish instrumental usage by a viewer who really gets a lot out of her facial expressions versus one who really gets a lot out of body parts points southward -- particularly on this ground of "ownership".

I still believe in my criteria of control and balance. The problem with street harassment is that women can't avoid going out in public, so they lose control over the space in which they can consent to being the subject of objective valuation -- just by stepping outside, they're fair game. When Parker performs for an audience, by contrast, there is implicit license for the audience member to find that pleasurable -- something that she knows (indeed, is being paid for) and has control over (in that she can elect not to perform. Insofar as there is a problem with regards to how I view Parker, it would be a lack of balance -- the countervailing expression that she is a subjectively valuable human being. But that doesn't inherently flow from viewing her nude body as sexually stimulating.

PG said...

Yes, I think the key is being that person I described -- "Someone who can move easily between understanding you as subject and as object." One of my female friends recommended Casino Royale to me pretty much entirely on the basis of Daniel Craig's gettin' nekkid. If she actually met Mr. Craig, she would be able to appreciate his wit, charm, etc., but until the opportunity arises for her to encounter him in a subjective way, it's quite all right for her to enjoy him in an objective way. (And indeed his career along with that of many other people depends on our willingness to objectify -- otherwise our screens would be populated solely by Steve Buscemi and Kathy Bates, who are fine actors but decidedly not people for whom you go to a move to see them take their clothes off.)

Anonymous said...

Your arguement is flawed. You don't see full frontal nudity of men or women in mainstream cinema, because common censorship standards require a major hike in rateings for genital nudity. So, the lack of men's full frontal nudity is nothing to do with agenda's of objectification. Men are objectified quite commonly in media. Watch desperate housewives if you want an example.

Im not saying their is a equal proportion of objectification, but I hardly think more is particulary useful for anything. The fact is, the sexual objectification of both sex's is growing at an alarming rate. It's effects are clearly seen in growing rates of anorexia. Which btw in some countrys men now consist a quarter of those afflicted, and grow.