According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, objectification is a central notion to feminist theory. Among the listed features of objectification found there, I’d like to focus on number seven in particular:
Denial of subjectivity: the treatment of a person as something whose experiences and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account.
Non-living objects – and even some living ones – are not typically perceived to have a mind capable of experiences. Cars, for instance, are not often thought of as possessing the capacity to experience things the way sentient beings do, like pain or sound (though that doesn’t always stop drivers from verbally bargaining with their cars or physically hitting them when they “refuse” to start). Accordingly, people find different behaviors more socially justifiable when they’re directed towards an object, as opposed to a being capable of having subjective experiences. For instance, many people might say that it’s morally wrong to hit a person, because, in part, being hit hurts; hitting a car, by contrast, while silly or destructive, isn’t as morally condemned, as the car feels no pain. As people generally don’t wish to be treated in the same fashion as objects, their objections or being objectified would seem to follow naturally.
It has often been asserted that focusing on someone’s (typically a woman’s) physical characteristics (typically the sexual ones) results in the objectification of that person; objectification which strips them of their mind, and with it their capacity for experiences. They’re reduced to the status of “tool” for sexual pleasure, rather than “person”. This assertion makes a rather straightforward prediction: increasing the focus on someone’s body ought to diminish perceptions of their capacity to experience things.
When that prediction was put to the test by Gray et al (2011), however, the researchers found precisely the opposite pattern of results across six experiments: increasing the focus on a person’s physical characteristics resulted in the perception that the person was more capable of subjective experiences. In the first of these experiments, subjects were presented with either a male or female face alone, or those same faces complete with a portion of their exposed upper body, followed by questions about the ability of the pictured person to do (behave morally, control themselves) or feel (hunger, desire) certain things, relative to others. When more of the person’s body was on display, they were rated as slightly less likely to be able to do things (2.90 vs 3.23 out of 5), but slightly more able to experience things (3.65 vs 3.38), relative to the face-alone condition. It’s also worth noting that a score of 3 on this scale denoted being average, relative to others, in either agency or experience, so showing more skin certainly didn’t remove the perception of the person having a mind (they were still about average); it just altered what kind of mind was being perceived.
The basic effect was replicated in the second of these studies. Subjects were asked to assess pictures of two women along either physical or professionalism variables. Subsequently, the subjects were asked which of two women they thought was more capable of doing or feeling certain things as before. When the woman in the picture had been assessed along the physical variables, they were rated as being slightly more capable of experiences, but slightly less agentic; when that same woman was instead assessed along the professionalism variables, the reverse pattern held – more agency and less patiency.
The researchers turned up the sex in the next two studies. In the third experiment, subjects saw one of ten target men or women in a picture, either clothed or naked (with the sexy parts tastefully blurred, of course), and assessed the target along the same agency or experiential dimensions. The naked targets were rated as having a greater capacity for experience, relative to their clothed pictures (3.28 vs 3.18), while also having less agency (2.92 vs 3.26). Further, though I didn’t mention this before, it was the female targets that were ascribed more overall mind in this study, as was also the case in the first study, though this difference was small (just to preemptively counter the notion that women were being universally perceived as having less of a mind). On a possibly related note, there was also a positive correlation between target attractiveness and mind perception: the more attractive the person in the picture was, the more capable of agency and experience they was rated as being.
Taking that last experiment one step further, one of the female targets that had previously been represented was again presented to subjects either clothed or naked, but a third condition was added: that woman also happened to have done an adult film, and the (highly sexualized) picture of her on the cover was rated along the same dimensions as the other two. In terms of her capacity for agency, there was a steady decline over the clothed, naked, and sexualized pictures (2.92, 2.76, and 2.58), whereas there was a steady incline on the experiential dimension (2.91, 3.18, and 3.45). Overall, the results really do make a for a very good-looking graph.
Skipping the fifth study, the final experiment looked at how a person might be treated, contingent on how much skin is on display. Subjects were presented with a picture of a male confederate who was hooked up to some electrodes and either clothed or shirtless. It was the subject’s job to decide which tasks to give to the confederate (i.e. have the confederate do task X or task Y), and some of those tasks ostensibly involved painful shocks. The subjects were told to only administer as many shock tasks as they thought would be safe, as their goal was to protect the confederate (while still gathering shock data, that is). Of interest was how often the subjects decided to assign the shock task to the confederate out of the 40 opportunities they had to do so. In the shirtless condition, the subjects tended to think of the confederate more in terms of his body rather than his mind, as was hoped; they also liked the confederate just as much, no matter his clothing situation. Also, as predicted, subjects administered fewer shocks to the shirtless confederates (8 times, on average, as compared with almost 14). Focusing on a person’s body seemed to make these subjects less inclined to hurt them, fitting nicely with the increases we just saw in perceptions of capacity for experience.
Just to summarize, focusing on someone’s physical characteristics, whether that someone was a man or a woman, did not lead to diminished attributions of their capacity to have experiences; just their agency. People were perceiving a mind in the “objectified” targets; they were just perceiving different sorts – or focusing on different aspects – of minds. Now perhaps some people might counter that this paper doesn’t tell us much about objectification because there wasn’t any – sexual or otherwise – going on, as “sexual objectification is the viewing of people solely as de-personalised objects of desire instead of as individuals with complex personalities and desires/plans of their own“. Indeed, all the targets in these experiments were viewed as having both experiences and agency, and the ratings of those two dimensions hovered closely around the midpoints of the scales; they clearly weren’t be viewed as mindless objects in any meaningful sense, so maybe there was no objectification going on here. However, the same website that provided the sexual objectification definition goes on to list pornography and the representation of women in media as good examples of sexual objectification, both of which could be considered to have been represented in the current paper. For such a criticism to have any teeth, the use of the term “objectification” would need to be reined in substantially, restricted to cases where depersonalization actually occurs (meaning things like pointing a video camera at someone’s body don’t qualify).
While these results are all pretty neat, one thing this paper seriously wants for is an explanation for them. Gray et al (2011) only redescribe their findings in terms of “common-sense dualism”, which is less than satisfying and it doesn’t seem to account for the findings on attractiveness very well either. The question they seem to be moving towards involves examining the ways we perceive others more generally; when and why certain aspects of someone’s mind become relatively more salient. Undoubtedly, the ways these perceptions shift will turn out to be quite complex and context-specific. For instance, if I was going in for, say, a major operation, I might be very interested in, to some extent, temporarily “reducing” the person doing my surgery from a complex person with all sorts of unique attributes and desires to being simply a surgeon because, at that moment, their other non-surgery-related traits aren’t particularly relevant.
While it’s not particularly poetic, what’s important in that situation – and many other situations more generally – is whether the person in question can help you do something useful; whether they’re a useful “tool” for the situation at hand (admittedly, they’re rather peculiar kinds of tools that need to be properly motivated to work, but the analogy works well enough). If you need surgery, someone’s value as a mate won’t be particularly relevant there; after you’ve recovered, left the hospital, and found a nice bar, the situation might be reversed. Which of a person’s traits are most worthy of focus will depend on the demands of the task at hand: what goals are being sought, how they might be achieved, and whom they might be most profitably achieved with. Precisely what problem the aforementioned perceptual shifts between agency and experience are supposed to solve – what useful thing they allow the perceivers to do – is certainly a matter worthy of deeper consideration for anyone interested in objectification.
References: Gray, K., Knobe, J., Sheskin, M., Bloom, P., & Barrett, L. (2011). More than a body: Mind perception and the nature of objectification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101 (6), 1207-1220 DOI: 10.1037/a0025883