To truly objectify someone is to diminish, demean, or simply refuse to acknowledge his or her humanity. How, exactly, can that ever be a good thing?
I plan to have my creative writing class read a story that I was introduced to in grad school. I hope it doesn’t upset them like it first upset me, or do I?
Milan Kundera’s “The Hitchhiking Game” is a short story that appeared on the syllabus of a humanities seminar I took a few years ago. The theme of the course was “love,” and I don’t mean the warm, fuzzy, Disney-approved kind. It was Lolita-love, A Rose For Emily-love: obsessive, irresponsible, stomach-turning.
In “The Hitchhiking Game,” a nameless young man and woman embark on their first vacation as a couple, and en route, slip into a sexy stranger role-playing game. The woman becomes a hitchhiking seductress (which is, at first, a challenge for her modest and insecure personality) while the man deviates from their previous travel arrangements, taking his girlfriend to a cheap hotel in another town and liquoring her up at dinner. He toasts to the woman’s “kind, in which are combined so successfully the better qualities of the animal and the worse aspects of the human being.”
“By ‘kind’ do you mean all women?” asked the girl.
“No, I mean only those who are like you.”
There’s been quite a bit of recent buzz on the matter of objectification, from Role Reboot’s own Emily Heist Moss on ogling World Cup athletes to Ann Friedman’s “When a Little Objectification Goes a Long Way” published last week on The Cut. I myself have been getting a fair number of questions from male friends and acquaintances who want to approach women in non-threatening and respectful ways, but are unsure of how to do so without eliminating lust from the equation entirely. After all, this would dilute sexual experience down to what Friedman calls “essentially gentle lovemaking with lots of eye contact…not exactly a headboard-banging night.”
But I take issue with Friedman’s assertion that “a little objectification is a good thing” when it comes to kickstarting a relationship’s zsa zsa zsu. If we view objectification as encompassing all things sexual—from unwelcome street harassment to some very welcome dirty talk in bed, for instance—we not only blur the lines of consensual and mutually participatory behavior, we unnecessarily demonize it. No wonder we’re confused about how to appreciate one another’s bodies. No wonder I read Ms. Moss’s article and blushed, wondering if my own desktop background of a shaggy-haired hockey hunk was out of line.
And so I don’t believe that we can talk about objectification in a real way without a proper definition in place. The best I’ve been able to come up with is this: Objectification means seeing someone exclusively as a sexual object, instead of a human being with sexual dimensions. To truly objectify someone is to diminish, demean, or simply refuse to acknowledge his or her humanity.
Beyond the familiar Madonna-whore complex and other silly issues of cognitive dissonance (like the popular notion that women can’t be both smart and sexy), street harassment is a great illustration of what it means to objectify.
One of the downsides to moving closer to the city last year is that I now jog in a relatively busy neighborhood and not a quiet park, and there wasn’t a day all summer that I managed to escape being hollered at least once. Most of the comments are some variant of “I like what I see,” an indication that I am not an autonomous runner but just part of the scenery for someone else’s viewing pleasure, or “Look at that,” a pronoun reserved for literal objects.
Additionally, dehumanization occurs because objectification is not based in romantic love, friendship, or fondness—whatever you need to fuel a healthy sexual relationship—but in hate and scorn.
A few days ago, a Facebook friend shared that a man yelled, “hey mama!” as she was leaving the grocery store, and when she didn’t respond, he immediately hurled a callous “bitch!” her way. Jekyll-and-Hyde transformations like these (many of which now happen online) are instantaneous because the nice guy “hey mama!” act shatters against the ego blow of rejection. The objectifier gets angry at a resistant woman the same way he would flip out about a broken appliance that ceases to perform its “function.”
Though Friedman includes a pertinent study from Bridgewater State researchers Laura Ramsey and Tiffany Hoyt, who find that “34% of women in the United States report having unwanted sex with their partner,” she merely scratches the surface of the abusive mentality that drives objectifying “jerk” behavior.
Domestic abuse counselor Lundy Bancroft points to the role of pornographic images of women in his book Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men:
Most pornographic images regrettably fit well with the abusive mindset. The woman is available and submissive. Reduced to a body, and usually further reduced to just her sexual organs, she is depersonalized. The man owns her, literally, because he owns the video or computer image.
For many abusive men, pornography has…helped to form their view of what women are like and what they ought to be. When a graduate of what I call “The Pornography School of Sexuality” discovers, for example, that his partner does not find a slap in the face arousing, he thinks that’s evidence of something wrong with her sexually, not him. His mind-set is: The women in the magazines and videos all like it, so why don’t you?
The jerk, the abuser, the objectifier—whatever term we would like to use—is unable to separate fantasy from reality and transposes a simplistic, manufactured concept on a multi-dimensional being, just as the young man in “The Hitchhiking Game” does to his girlfriend once she assumes a “role out of trashy literature.”
In contrast, an acquaintance who recently dropped “I have to tell you: Your legs look fantastic” into a conversation is not objectifying me because his comment was not motivated by the desire to belittle or humiliate, and because he registers me as Chelsea, a complete and autonomous person.
As you can imagine, the man and woman in “The Hitchhiking Game” have caused irreparable damage to their relationship by the end of the story. After the man makes love to the beautiful, alien body of his own girl, whom he hated, the young woman tentatively reaches for his hand and then a pleading, sobbing voice broke the silence, calling him by his name and saying “I’m me, I’m me…”
The key to recognizing and celebrating the sexual facets of your crush, your partner, or even your desktop background of a hot athlete is to keep in mind that this person—like you—is comprised of interests, ambitions, and kinks that make their world go ‘round.
Objectification can never be positive, only destructive, when at the heart of it lies the loss of identity.
Chelsea Cristene is a community college professor of English and communications in Maryland. She runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen and also writes Gender on the Rocks, a blog about gender, relationships, culture, and the media. Find her on Twitter.