Observations: Objectifying Women

The Arts


To observe is to pay attention, to notice. The objectification of women is not a new topic, by any stretch of the imagination, and you won’t find a thorough discussion of it in this post. Still, I couldn’t help but pull together commentaries, images, and videos from some of my recent travels through books, magazines, and videos, which highlight the pervasiveness the phenomenon.


It begins with my World Policy Institute colleague Mira Kamdar, who, in response to the brutal gang rape of a young Delhi woman, wrote about her experience growing up in India in a family with conservative gender norms. Here’s a short passage:


I understood from this a horrible revelation: My grandfather's obeisance to a rigidly traditional non-relationship between father-in-law and daughter-in-law came from a fear that familiarity would open the door to sexual attraction, or worse. This fear was not unfounded: India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data for 2011 indicates 94.2 percent of rapists are known to their victim. My aunt’s invisibility and the modest dress and comportment I was supposed to adopt were designed to protect our virtue. In effect, we women were to maintain a kind of purdah. The word, of Persian origin, means “curtain” and defines a state where women are concealed from the view of men. A woman exposed to male view was a woman, I learned, in danger.


The implication is that the way men see women is the real danger; instead of changing our ways, however, women must change the way they behave.


I then came across this (dated?) observation from the essayist and critic John Berger in his seminal work, Ways of Seeing (1972), where he speaks about this observation/objectification:


Men survey women before treating them. Consequently how a woman appears to a man can determine how she will be treated. To acquire some control over this process, women must contain it and interiorize it. That part of a woman’s self which is the surveyor treats the part which is the surveyed so as to demonstrate to others how her whole self would like to be treated. And this exemplary treatment of herself by herself constitutes her presence.


Berger goes on, dedicating the entire chapter on how men see women, on how women see themselves being seen by men, and how this translates into the depictions of women in art and advertising.


The real woman is replaced by a consumptive desire for the woman-object. Today, that sort of imagery is blatant in advertising, and I need not re-hash the discussion here. Sex may not have always been used to sell material goods, but sex appeal has always been a selling point in itself.


Even the attractive know this much, despite their attempts to put distance between themselves and the very sex they sell. Making the rounds is a Ted talk by Cameron Russell, a model since her teenage years, confessing that she simultaneously capitalized on her modeling craft while at the same time somehow feeling guilty for her efforts. (Not guilty enough, however, to pursue different kind of career. But should she have to?) 



Looks are not everything, we know this, but how many (men) would have watched Russell's video if she was dowdy, old, plump, or bedraggled? We are very willing to judge books by their covers. We assume that the beautiful are the most capable and the ugliest the least. And then we must admonish ourselves when we are called out on our superficial prejudices.


What if the Ted video was delivered by Susan Boyle and Ms. Russell would have walked onto the Britain’s Got Talent stage? What conclusions would you have immediately jumped to, and what would have been the consequences?




What do you make of this painting, “Portrait of a Young Woman and Child, as Venus and Cupid” (c. 1675) by Peter Lely?


“Portrait of a Young Woman and Child, as Venus and Cupid” (c. 1675) by Peter Lely The Mantle


One might consider the portrait a beautiful rendition of a comely woman disguised as the goddess of beauty, dispassionately staring back at the viewer and secure with her nakedness. A mischievous Cupid tugs on the cloth covering her last bit of modesty. The work seems average and typical of 17th century European oil painting.


Who is the woman, though? Most likely it is Nell Gwynn, the mistress of King Charles the Second, who not only secretly commissioned the work, but “came to Sr Peter Lillys house to see it painted, when she was naked on purpose.” According to Berger, Gwynn’s nakedness “is a sign of her submission to the owner’s feelings or demands. (The owner of both woman and painting.) The painting, when the King showed it to others, demonstrated this submission and his guests envied him.”


With this context, does our impression and opinion of this oil painting change? Do we no longer see a typical nude allegory, but instead 17th century pornography? Are we now voyeurs?


When we view women (or men) as sex symbols—in art, in advertising, in life—we take agency away from the person who does not want to be objectified. The objectified now find that their own body and image is out of their control.  

Consumerism, John Berger, Sex