Why Is This Still Okay?
The on-going fight against female objectification, even in 2019
1. the action of degrading someone to the status of a mere object.
Most of society can agree that objectification is harmful in some way or another to everyone involved, especially women. The biggest reason being that it tells women that they are only worth paying attention to when they have a body to offer, that nothing else about them matters or deserves consideration.
And so we are all familiar with the outrageously sexualized ad campaigns like these:
I believe many can agree that this shouldn't be happening. But objectification, in all its ugliness, is still alive and well. And there is a reason why.
Unfortunately, brands are all too familiar with the idea that sex sells. Even if it has nothing to do with the product being sold, the sexualization of women serves as an attention-grabbing image that commands consumer consideration. Brands hope that viewers' eyes might, in time, consider the rest of the ad and possibly their product.
Another reason that objectification is still around, even in the 21st century, is because inconspicuous imaging isn't easy to register. We continue to struggle in answering the question of where the line should be drawn. Progressives are often slandered for picking apart even the most subtle and seemingly harmless depictions of women, while those who support images that blatantly demean women hide under the pretense that they are simply admiring and celebrating female beauty.
Female objectification is still an issue that needs to be addressed so that one day it might be resolved. And so far, the best approach to spotting it is to take an Aristotelian approach—relating critical analysis of media imaging to Aristotle's philosophy of asking, "What is the purpose?"
Aristotle argues that everything has a purpose, and that the purpose should always be to attain some good. If a goal has a purpose that is good and it is achieved through goodness, then the goal itself, as well as the means by which it is achieved, is fundamentally good. That is how he determines ethics and morality.
Similarly, we can analyze the context of media, specifically photography and advertisement, to understand the purpose of the image and the subject(s) being featured. We can ask why each subject is featured on screen and what purpose they serve (for the scene as well as for the photograph/ad as a whole).
The photos below have been taken from clothing brands. Their names will not be disclosed.
This first photo is taken from a custom suiting company's look book for their 2019 Spring and Summer collection. The purpose of the photo is to feature the clothing for the look book, and the purpose of the look book is to advertise the clothing made and sold by the brand.
The male models have a clear reason to be featured in the photo. That reason is to model the clothes made by the brand. Everything else, however, is not so clear. The theme, whatever it might be, I cannot say, it's just that abstract, is loosely connected to the idea of spring or summer, and the women do not have a clear purpose either. The women themselves are not modeling to sell what the brand has to offer; they aren't even wearing clothing made by them. Their clothing is disproportionately more revealing and sexualized than the men's for no apparent reason. They seem misplaced in the photographs, as their intentions for being there in the space with these men are unexplainable.
The fact that the male model isn't even acknowledging the fact that the woman is sharing the space with him shows how little she means to the scene and to the brand's purpose of advertisement.
As for the photo on the right, it is even more embarrassing to look at than the first. The company doesn't even give the woman the decency or respect to show her face, one of the most, if not the most, unique and personal part of herself. That is how degraded she is. She is denied an identity, her identity. All she is is a body. The only purpose she serves is to display her buttocks.
I will be considerably more gentle with this photograph, as it is not outwardly harmful in its objectification. Some might even think that any analysis of this image might be stepping in the direction of unnecessary criticism.
To begin, there is nothing overtly wrong with this photo. The theme is one of romance. The woman is moderately dressed. She is not overly sexualized in any way. And we can see her face, thank God.
It seems, however, that the man, who we can properly assume is her partner or potential partner, is more invested in the drink than he is in her. The image, if seen in a certain way, can imply that she is not exactly worth his undivided attention or that she, by herself and in all her essence, is not enough for the man to enjoy the moment, that a drink is needed to satisfy him completely.
A slight adjustment to the photo would clear it of any misunderstanding or misreading. Simply remove the drink so viewers can see his face. And any adjustment to the amount of attention and acknowledgment he gives the woman thereafter will help further the romantic essence of the scene that the brand is most likely trying to convey in the first place.
Now, some might argue that the reason for the drink is so that viewers may see the subtle detail on the gauntlet (sleeve) of the shirt that is unique to the brand. But I would argue that changing the choreography to something as simple as the man brushing the woman's face can also display the shirt cuff in a manner equally as good. In all seriousness, there are many moments in which a man might find himself with his hand near his face, not just when he is holding a glass to his lips.
The same can be said of these photos as the first image analyzed. The theme is unclear, and the women have no relationship to the men in the scene or to the brand's purpose of advertisement. She has no meaningful place. The photos could fare just fine without the women's being there. I guarantee that removing the women wouldn't change the message of the ad. It wouldn't even alter the positioning of the men. That is how inessential they are in the space and to the scene.
The last two photos, in particular, perpetuate the idea that woman is a mere background for the man, an object to blend in with the surrounding, like a piece of furniture. Remove her, and he won't even notice she's missing.
In our patriarchal society, the power—the status, the money, the strength, the competence—one possesses exists as an indicator of a person’s value. Likewise, this idea is also the intention behind objectification—ignoring a person's identity and autonomy in order to create an image that can be easily controlled and used to satisfy one’s own sexual desires.
Now, some might disagree that the photo above perpetuates objectification. They might say, "She isn't naked. You can still see her face. She's standing with the man, not for the man."
But with a closer look, it maintains a patriarchal essence. The photo revolves around the idea of possession. The man owns the car and the woman sitting atop the vehicle. And especially for a clothing brand, the car and woman are unnecessary ornaments—ornaments purposefully placed to sell the fantasy that a luxurious suit can give a man access to a luxurious car and a luxurious woman. The woman serves no other purpose.
This photo is so poorly staged that I would even argue that the brand failed to advertise itself. The man, along with his suit, is drowned out by everything else around it. It looks more to me like the car is being sold along with a woman and the American dream.
This is another photo by the same company as the one above.
The man, of course, is present in the photo to sell the brand's product: suiting. The woman, herself, is not wearing anything made by the brand, thereby eliminating any possibility that she might be modeling for direct sales purposes. And the clothing she is wearing is revealing. So what purpose does she serve? The brand most likely featured her in order to perpetuate the idea that a nice-looking suit will attract a nice-looking woman, an addition to the luxurious lifestyle. This is the only message she sends. And it just isn't compelling enough to justify her being there.
Some could argue that there is a purpose to the woman's presence in the photo. But the question that needs to be asked in response to this presumption is if the image's goal is being achieved through ethical means. And these two fail to do so. They use a woman's body as a mean to an end. She is relegated to the role of an object that is interchangeable and expendable. Although the goal these images hold of selling the clothing is acceptable, the method by which it is being achieved is not. And so these photos fall short.
In recent years, brands and advertising campaigns have made a move to fight female objectification. One of the most notable strategies is offering images, however serious or satirical, portraying reverse objectification, that is, the objectification of men by women. Some examples look something like this:
Now, however admirable these ads are with their intentions, they still miss their mark in negating objectification. They, unfortunately, really only serve to perpetuate the issue even more.
You cannot fight fire with fire. And these ads only serve to affirm the idea that men can be just as sexualized. Reverse objectification accepts the idea, set by the patriarchy, that control and domination equate to power and respect. And it is this exact idea that the entire feminist movement is trying to dismantle.
Just because society objectifies women, it doesn't give people the right to start objectifying men. This strategy simply will not fix the issue.
With all of this being said, it can become quite demoralizing seeing how seemingly unavoidable objectification can be. Some might think, "If all of this is considered objectification, we might as well stop putting women in media."
But this article does not stand to say that there aren't plenty of ads and photographs that feature women and successfully respect and value them in the process.
Some may ask, "Well, what does that look like?" Some may think, however serious or parodic, that the only way to respectfully depict women is to completely eradicate sexuality and dependence from images, that is, feature women who are fully clothed and/or stand without the company of men.
This simply does not have to be the case. We do not have to censor ourselves or repress women in order to respect them. The best distinction between respectful and objectifying portrayals of women is the ability of the image to tell a story.
In all the examples above, we had to ask, "What is going on in the photo? Why is the woman there? What is she doing?" In these photos, it's easy to say that interaction between the subjects is very limited, and the relationship of the woman to the purpose of the brand's message and product is unclear or altogether nonexistent. She is interchangeable. And she is expendable. She, given the right amount of editing, could be removed from the photo entirely and barely change a thing.
In photos respecting women, there is more of a story involved; there is more substance. Subjects are given a sense of autonomy, as they are allowed to interact with each other and their surroundings. (More direct interaction helps solidify the woman's purpose, making her removability more difficult. And so she becomes more essential to the image's meaning.) There is tangible emotion and an obvious relationship intermixed between them, and it is easier to see the purpose the woman serves to both the scene and the brand's message.
Removing the woman would remove the message. This is what sets respectful images apart from objectifying ones.
This photo was created for a Valentine's Day advent. The complementary caption reads, "Love is in the air this season. Ask her to be your Valentine in [brand name kept confidential]."
The subjects are allowed to interact with each other, and a clearer, more solid relationship between the two is established. The story may be read in this way: The man and woman know each other or are in the process of getting to know each other. The man, fueled by his affection for this woman, offers his assistance with her shoe, and she accepts the offer. The emotion that can be discerned from this image is one of romance and chivalry—fitting for the theme of Valentine's Day and the brand's message.
She is important to the image and message conveyed by it. Remove her and the theme of Valentine's Day is destroyed altogether.
This is a photo from another custom suiting brand. The caption for this photo reads, "His & Hers. Special shout-out to all the couples who have shared... the [brand name kept confidential] clothing experience together!"
The purpose of this image, as stated by the company, is to express the message that the brand can create suits for both men and women. The theme is blended with humor by featuring a couple. Regardless of the legitimacy of the couple beyond the lens (in real life), this is the relationship for the two subjects in this scene.
The woman is central to this ad because its message is to advertise the company's ability to create clothing for women. She serves the purpose of completing the theme as well as modeling the brand's clothing. The man serves the same purpose of completing the theme and modeling the company's clothing. Take away the woman, and the entire message falls apart.
The sexual innuendo depicted in this scene is appropriate to the message, as it relates to the couple being in love. And neither person is being overly sexualized or more sexualized than the other.
The subjects in these two photos happen to be husband and wife. But regardless of their relationship in real life, the one in this scene is romantic. And so the theme follows: A husband and wife are enjoying a walk on the beach together.
They are allowed to interact, and through their interaction, they express the theme of romance, companionship, and happiness. The man's purpose is to fulfill the theme and model the company's clothing. And though the woman isn't modeling the company's clothing herself, she is vital in fulfilling the theme. Remove her, and the goal of clothing advertisement remains, but the theme of romance no longer exists.
The image above is an example of one that contains sexuality and still respects the woman being featured.
The story for this photo may be read as follows: A man and a woman, whether or not they are partners or potential partners, are enjoying their time together.
This photo allows interaction between the two subjects and demands that both people be present in the scene in order for the story to be conveyed.
It also offers a clever spin on female objectification by offering its reverse counterpart, male objectification, in a more subtle way.
The man's body is revealed more readily than the woman's, and the woman is allowed control in this setting—commanding the situation, being physically higher than the man.
This image does not accept or perpetuate the idea of objectification by virtue of the fact that it is not the goal the image intends. This reverse objectification is simply a byproduct. The image's true intention lies in its desire to tell a romantic story, not combat female objectification by promoting male objectification.
And it differs from the example of male objectification analyzed in the beginning of this article because there is more substance to the scene. As this is supposed to be a love scene between two people, an element of romance and respect pervades the image. Neither person is taking advantage of the other in a sexually harmful or demeaning way, unlike that of the male objectification ads above.
Media objectification is, unfortunately, only one sector in which sexual degradation prevails. Many other industries, if not all industries, use the sexualization of women in order to execute their economic, social, and political agendas. It's 2019 and it still exists.
If anything is going to change, especially in the media industry, it has to start with viewers and consumers. This article stands to encourage you to challenge conventional portrayals of women, so that you may be better equipped to fight against sexual objectification. It is up to us, as individuals, to enlighten ourselves to the detriments of sexual objectification and recognize respect as something more important. And it's only after we start to react that industries will realize that they do not have to use sex to communicate to us.
Thank you for reading.
If you enjoyed this article, I encourage you to check out my other article. Click the link below.