Objectify [uh b-jek-tuh-fahy] v.
Degrade to the status of a mere object
Lately, this word keeps reappearing in discussions, performances, criticisms and casual conversations...As I spend more time in both artistic and feminist circles with my focus on women's sexuality, I see a great deal of the intersection of art, feminism and sex. “Objectify” is a word that is repeated, relentlessly, again and again. And I can’t help but wonder... have we lost all idea of what this word really means...or should mean, to us? And I can’t help but feel that we:
- Overuse this word.
- Don’t really understand what we mean when we say it.
- Don’t appreciate the damage we do to ourselves when we invoke it.
To be clear, I am talking about the use of objectify in the context of how we talk about art, the female form and sex. Women have a tendency to use this word when talking about art that typically focuses on the representation of women and, more specifically, their bodies. I attended an artist’s lecture and a woman in the audience got up and remarked about how she appreciated that some of the pieces by the artist represented the nude female form without objectifying it. What did she mean by that? Was she saying that nobody would find the images sexually arousing? Did she mean that somehow this representation of the female form was immune to being considered pornographic? Was it because the artist was also a woman and women don't objectify women? I suspect she was stating that the female form had been represented in a way that could be interpreted as sexual, being nude art, and that sexual interpretation was perhaps distasteful and shameful.
A few years ago, I was introduced to Tom of Finland's work while visiting a small gallery in NYC. During the conversations and while reading the exhibition literature, I noticed that the word “objectify” was noticeably absent. Viewers and visitors were comfortable with the graphic representation of sex, the male form and the sex acts portrayed. The underlying assumption here was that these images were “homo-erotic” as he is often described as: “the most influential creator of gay pornographic images.” What strikes me as remarkable is that women fail to see that the vast majority of classical and contemporary art (for the purpose of this post, let’s call this artwork that does NOT objectify women) that portrays the female nude is inspired or invoked by sexuality, in some form or other. Women often played the muse to the artist who created the work. The artist overcome with his passion for the subject, portrayed her as the epitome of his desire, an object to be revered, coveted and untouched. Many a Hollywood film recount the fictional tales based on historical facts.
If by using the word “objectify” we are using it to condemn the intersection of nudity, sexuality and the feminine form in art, then I think we have missed the point. When art celebrates the human body, we are celebrating that which is at the core of our survival as a species. Our desire, attraction and enjoyment of the male or female body derive from sex. Thinking about it, wanting it, or even experiencing it - is an important part of what makes us human. And that’s a good thing. We should not use words as code to refer to something that we might not be comfortable talking about. I, for one, love celebrating both the female and male forms in a way that is both artistic and sexual. Sex is passion, energy and inspiration. By glossing over a spread eagle pussy in a painting with the word objectification, we may be attributing shame, distaste and ugliness to a visual message meant to engage and stimulate our senses. And that would be a terrible shame.
Objectify is a dangerous word. Reducing a woman to the status of an object, a possession, is perhaps one of the greatest offenses against human-kind. Creating imagery that may, or at least attempt to, create sexual desire and arousal is not inherently objectification. As with all reflections, I feel we need to explore our reactions to sexually charged imagery. We need to examine why we find art, or even erotica and pornography for that matter, uncomfortable because it was created with, or causes the viewer to have, sex and sexuality in mind. Perhaps what we are really uncomfortable with is sex and sexuality itself.
Women are the key to solving this problem. I hope we all start to think about the language we use and the realities that make us squeamish or uneasy. Knowledge and understanding gives us power over ourselves. Power over our bodies. Power over repression. Power over the future.
Words are powerful weapons. Let's use them wisely.