Monday, 19 May 2014

The Objectification of Women

In 2012, the Observer of 18/5/14 tells us, the feminist artist-activist group, Guerilla Girls, reported that 85% of nudes in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art were female. For them this is an unhappy statistic, which confirms the status of the female body as, principally, an object of male scrutiny. Essentially a dynamic is set up whereby the male artist observes and/or enjoys observing the female body while immortalizing it for the observation and enjoyment of other males. This, they are saying, is what happens in human society. The Guerilla Girls also report that only 5% of artists in the Met are female dropping to 4.3% in the Tate.

At the same time one can report that, while the growing market in men’s cosmetics has hit an all time high of around $30 billion (before the recent dawning of the metrosexual this figure would have been a small fraction of this) the worldwide market for female beauty products is around the $170 billion mark. What does this tell us? Is it that women, worldwide, are forced into the preening and displaying role by a patriarchal conspiracy? Or is it that, in the human species, unlike in the avian world where male Peacocks and Lyrebirds strut their stuff, the female is the display sex whose natural role is to attract the opposite sex to wish to mate with her? Watching the Bafta Awards show recently I find myself watching a large number of generally short-haired men, all similarly dressed in monochrome (white shirts and dinner suits) together with a large number of women in an array of gowns, shoes, expensive hairstyles and a multiplicity of eye-catching colours and designs. Much female to female conversation touches on appearance. Is all of this a role which women have been strong-armed into by scheming and exploitative men or is it something that women just do and find fulfilment and self-expression in doing?

If the latter is true are the Guerrilla Girls' statistics as sinister as they might seem? Are all men voyeurs like the dirty old men who spied on and lusted after the youthful Susannah, or are they simply sexually interested as most women want them to be? Are we dealing with objectification in Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus or rather a celebration of the female form? When a woman is aroused by the form of a man’s body is she also committing the sin of objectification? Can any human of either sex escape such a crime while being sexually aroused? If the answer is no then the business of objectification is, surely, more complicated than might, at first, seem the case.

Sexual arousal depends on a reaction by the aroused subject to the sight of the body of another as a perceived object. There is no getting away from this. However, to suggest that the step from this to the condemnation of the perceiver for “objectifying” his or her lover is inevitable, is wrong. We all “objectify” each other because we perceive each other as objects but this is not a bad objectification. So, is there such a thing as “bad objectification”? My answer is yes.

It is a complex question because humans are complex in ways that Peacocks and Lyrebirds are not. Like them, we are endowed with physical bodies, some of them gloriously beautiful. However, unlike them, we are also endowed with persons which inhabit these bodies. Healthy human sexual union involves excitement at the physical appearance of the beloved simultaneous with encounter between the two persons involved. What is offensive is the removal of the personal element, thus leaving the body, female or male, as solely a physical object. This is when we start to talk about portraying women as cattle or meat.

On Television some stations are notable for espousal of policies that permit only youthful, slim, curvaceous, high-cheekboned and flawlessly complexioned females to present the News or the Weather Forecast. When they cease to fulfill these demanding criteria they are ruthlessly dispensed with. This, precisely, reduces these women to being solely objects and divorces them from the aptitudes that come with their person. This is bad objectification. One might extend this further by suggesting that, perhaps, the portrayal of the erotic is, even though it is titillating, good objectification because it does not seek to excise the personal from the models or actors involved. On the other hand much pornography is bad objectification seeing the female or male body as simply a commodity unharnessed from personal identity.

When the Head of the Premier Football League and a lawyer friend indulge in a conversation that refers to womankind as “gash” they commit the sin of reducing woman to their merely physical characteristics, thus depersonalizing them and reducing them to solely that which we have in common with animals. That is truly offensive but the offence does not reside in the healthy male interest in the female sexual organs but rather in the excision of the female person from the female body which their version involves.

To return to Giorgione; he is a lover and celebrator of the female form, not a dirty old man or a Lothario. His Sleeping Venus is a beautiful naked woman but she is also a distinguishably unique person with a distinct identity.

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