By HANNAH ZEAVIN
November 1, 2011
The treatment of persons as objects has a long history. The main feature of this violent trend involves the specious manipulation of science and rational thought in order to subjugate persons of supposedly inferior races, religions, and genders. Stripping a category of people (Blacks, Jews, Women, Native Indians) of referents to their humanity is and was the first step towards enslavement, systemic oppression, and the creation of an out-group. The OED has a two part definition of “objectify”: verb [trans]: 1) express (something abstract) in a concrete form : good poetry objectifies feeling; 2) to degrade to the status of a mere object : a deeply sexist attitude that objectifies women.
Tan, whose op-ed in the Yale Daily News today, “Tan: For More Objectification,” requests that his readers become more comfortable with the objectification of women, is perhaps not aware of this word’s proper definition. Or, perhaps, he is not versed in the origins of international conflicts, or the most shameful parts of American history, and how the use of objectification played into their outcomes. Tan cannot possibly mean that he wants Yale women to be, “degrade[d] to the status of a mere object.”
Tan writes, “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.” The OED thinks not. To be objectified means one, categorically negative thing, though it can occur in multiple ways: “degrade[d] to the status of mere object.”
Symbolically, one might think of a friend (and I would not want to be a friend of Tan’s reading the News this morning) as equivalent to an object and its set of offered services. Tan sets up a number of equivalencies: Friend = $; Friend = brain; Friend = psychoanalyst; Friend= social connection; Friend = Job = $. Only one of these is an object: the financial object. In order for such an equation to be true, there must be no intellectual or emotional feeling tied to the relationship (objects cannot think or feel). The friend-as-money must not be able to control her money or herself, because as an object she has no agency. If this is true, then Tan is correct. One can be used and use in return. The privilege of being a man, or straight, or white, or of a high socio-economic class, or having cultural capital means that historically one has avoided being objectified in a way that makes the ramifications of objectification particularly consequential or widespread. Tan asks his reader to consider these ramifications: “too seldom do people question whether being a sexual object is actually bad.”
Feminists have attached so strongly to the idea that objectification is bad (where Tan says it’s natural) due to the violent ramifications of being a living, breathing object. Philosophers Martha Nussbaum and Rae Langton have described ten features of objectification. Some of these tenets Tan addresses in his article. Tan discusses the “instrumentality” inherent in objectification, or, “the treatment of a person as a tool for the objectifier’s purposes.” In setting up his equivalencies, he also infers, “fungibility” or “the treatment of a person as interchangeable with other objects.” Tan does not find these features morally and ethically repugnant, as Nussbaum and Langton do.
Tan asks us to define what’s wrong with being a sexual object. He finds it no worse (or not wrong at all) than being any other object. He writes, “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.” Reducing someone to their sexualized parts (lips, breast, buttocks) is to degrade someone from whole human with complex mental and emotional as well as physical capacities into a part that is useful as object to the objectifier’s gaze. Where eyes gaze back, and so are less useful as sexual object because they have some agency, hips and legs do not. Thinking of a particular brand of heteronormative pornography, the money shot or the cum shot is the woman being used at climax by her user. This is a much more explicit and radical example of the same set of relationships Tan is hoping to defend.
Tan does quote feminist Wendy McElroy who asks, “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?” Here, Tan sets up a false equivalency, asking why it is so particularly wrong to think about foregrounding sexuality. Sexuality, thanks OED, has three definitions: 1) a capacity for sexual feelings: she began to understand the power of her sexuality; 2) a person’s sexual orientation or preference : people with proscribed sexualities; 3) sexual activity.
Each of these definitions have agency built into them: capacity, one’s own preference, one’s own activity. Being proud and identifying one’s own sexuality is not self-objectification. It is not reduction of person to sexual parts, rendering it a tool. Tan writes, “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.” But sexuality is not mere aesthetic, and women should not be displayed as objects of art, for one’s use, pleasure, or abuse. Women are human, and the point of any one’s life is not to be in service of another.
Perhaps this is why he has asked his readers why it might be bad to turn someone into a sexual object. Nussbaum and Langton also identify the denial of autonomy, or “the treatment of a person as lacking in autonomy and self-determination,” inertness, violability, ownership, denial of subjectivity (feelings and experience), reduction to the body (and body parts) and silencing as features of objectification. To be violated, without agency or subjectivity, owned, and reduced to one’s body parts allows one to be the object of violence. Sexual and gender-based violence is, at least to my mind, bad. It has individual ramifications, like the tragic murder of Tiana Notice, who was killed by her ex-boyfriend. It has community-wide ramifications, such as reducing incoming freshman to their bodies and a beer scale as in the Pre-season Scouting Report of 2009. These ramifications are negative, and if we take Tan at his word, he would like to see more objectification and the hostility and threat to safety that accompanies it.
Hannah Zeavin is a senior in Yale College. She is the Editor-In-Chief of Broad Recognition.