Last week, actress Ashley Judd penned an open letter excoriating the media and society for objectifying women. She explored the "conversation about women's" bodies, the ways in which society uses visible women as lightning rods for critique and criticism — particularly when they do not conform to expectations and norms, or when they fray from traditional social spheres. But Judd went beyond commenting on misogyny and our society’s patriarchy. She also raised the issue of female participation — the extent to which women take part in their own crucifixions.
This is the critical paradox: Those who suffer most participate in perpetuating the attitudes and acts of their suffering. If women conform to the paradox, we must ask: Do some women want to objectify and be objectified? Is it possible that women enjoy being seen only or primarily as sexual objects or objects over which others should exercise control?
Marginalized classes and social groups often speak the rhetoric of “we”: “As women, we must,” "Together, we can,” “We, as women are.” But are women actually a “we” — one in solidarity? For every “positively present” woman — one who represents strength, capability, intellect, or influence — there is a “girl gone wild,” a celebrity stripped for a “sexiest” or “hottest” list, and a woman who aims to invoke no other image than that of a woman on her knees.
Objectifying women requires participation — by men, yes, but equally by women who choose to engage, both as objects and as those objectifying. We read that women “are being used,” and that they “are objectified,” but this passive way of framing suggests that women are not responsible. They are. Judd, by raising the paradox, entertains the possibility that women, as a whole, may not want to dismantle patriarchal objectifications.
There is tension between the positively present and public representations of women. By “public,” consider women offered as objects for consumption — images in advertising, art, magazines, television, video games, and in mainstream and pornographic films. Across all mediums, women are bodies on view far more frequently than are men. One of the central issues is a matter of unequal representation in the positively present versus public dichotomy.
Despite the ways that women are positively present, these presences are few compared to the ubiquity of women positioned as objects, and the reduction of women to belittlingly sexualized archetypes. Positive presences, even in the form of interpersonal relationships with women, are distanced and “exceptional.” These women do not reconcile with public, consumptive presences. As a patriarchal-molded society, we have a history rife with objectifying representations and reductions of women. This extends to the proposition that we perceive a woman first as an object, and in generalities borne of objectification, before we consider her as an individual. Because the dichotomy’s two parts are disproportional, we do this despite the existence of positively present women.
Arguably, women, as participants in objectification, respond to the centrality of objectified women in the public sphere. With media’s omnipresence, its images leap into our subconscious, playing off the brain’s processes of construction and categorization, affecting and influencing how we view and interact with the world. Everyday experience and scores of research document society’s exclusive, objectifying focus on women in television and print advertisements, painting and portraiture, and the sexual encounters of Hollywood films. Nowhere is this more evident than in the pornography industry. Women’s bodies are centrally framed, pushed to the limits of invasion and use for according response. Men are largely nothing more than headless bodies attached to penetrating appendages. With all of these mediums, it is the frame, not the substance, that is problematic. In the instances that women are decentralized, the medium becomes heterodoxly “special interest.”
In our society, women have the right and ultimate choice to do what they choose to do. A woman may feel legitimately empowered by self-objectifying — invoking objectification against herself or against other women in order to ascend or equalize. However existent are empowered women, their presences have not achieved the critical mass to meet the tipping point for a paradigm shift. Though it may be an exercise in catharsis, women who objectify other women through reduction or critique only perpetuate the patriarchy.
Considering women as a group, self-objectification neither diverges from the patriarchal model nor comprehensively changes the focus of objectification’s lens. Though premised on the notion of progressive activism, a woman’s participation in objectification will crash headlong into the institutional and historical objectifications of women. Biological and social factors, not yet dismantled, make this inevitable. To change perception, women must change the story, not the narrator.
As much as Judd may have expanded conversations about objectification, conversations will not wipe out its pervasiveness. Profitable industries fixated on objectifying women, and those that exist for the purpose of critique and fear of critique, did not self-reckon, they did not shut down. Society, then, requires something more than conversation. Progress demands that women disassociate from objectification’s strictures by increasing positive presences and refusing to participate in its alignments. Action with these aims must be absolute, less fractured and marginalized. How does society take a more meaningful step? How do women? As Judd’s piece has underscored, the critical question is: Will we ever?