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Idealized Sex Objects and The Meanings of Words

July 22, 2013
Nintendo's Birdo character, a pink lizard creature, winking at the viewer over her shoulder.

Not even Birdo is immune from the boobs n’ butt pose.

There’s been a lot of talk, criticism, and examination these past few years about the role of women and men in our media. It’s one of my favorite past times, as anyone on my Twitter feed could tell you. More and more, we’ve been talking specifically about the role of women in modern video games, and with the release of Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes Versus Women in Video Games series, it’s absolutely a conversation we should be having.

But any conversation or debate should start with an understanding of what different words mean. Time and time again, I have seen and heard people using the words objectification and sexualization interchangeably, and pretty much ignoring the word idealization when it should apply.

So for you, dear reader, I’ve created a primer on these three words, what they mean, and when you should use them. Let’s get to it!

Let’s start with objectification, because for some damn reason I like to tackle the hard stuff first. To objectify something, it needs to be turned into an object. Wikipedia addresses this well, saying, “objectification means treating a person as a thing, without regard to their dignity,” and goes on with these bullet points:

  • as a tool for another’s purposes (instrumentality);
  • as if lacking in agency or self-determination (denial of autonomy, inertness);
  • as if owned by another (ownership);
  • as if interchangeable (fungibility);
  • as if permissible to damage or destroy (violability);
  • as if there is no need for concern for their feelings and experiences (denial of subjectivity).

A lot of words, I know. Let me dumb it down. A person becomes an object when we don’t want to know who they are as a person. For an example, let’s look at the cover of Twilight:

The cover of Twilight, depicting a pair of hands holding an apple.

I know. I’m sorry.

We know that those hands belong to a person. But for the use of this image, they are nothing but a pair of hands. These hands have no face, and thus no identity. They could be anyone’s hands. They aren’t expressing anything about who they are. We don’t know what these hands are thinking or feeling, and these hands are having no effect on the world around them. These hands are a prop to hold an apple. They are an object. Tada, objectification.

I chose this cover because it’s an example of objectification without being sexualized. Sexual objectification is far from uncommon, though. Before we tackle sexual objectification, let’s get an idea of what sexualization is. According to the Free Dictionary, to sexualize is to make sexual in character or quality, to make or become sexual or sexually aware, or to give or acquire sexual associations.

Sexualization is making something sexual, be it done by us or to us.

But what does sexual mean? Well, as a society, we’re more or less come to an agreement on what is sexy. Sure, you might not agree personally, but the norm of “sexy” is well established: young, and fit. Muscles for the men, breasts for the women and- no, wait. We’re creeping into the sexual ideal territory. Sexualization is not just being attractive, it’s also being overtly sexual.

A photo of a woman clothed, a woman naked, and a woman naked with makeup, big hair, and sexual posture.Yes, this woman is sexually attractive. She’s young and pretty, but she isn’t sexualized until the final image. There she has big hair, make-up, a see through shirt, as well as an arched back and pouted lips while her hands stroke her breasts.

Here is the difference between idealized and sexualized. Ezio Auditore da Firenze from Assassin’s Creed II is idealized.

Assassin's Creed II's Ezio Auditore, standing with weapons.

Mm. Yeah.

With his rippling muscles, sexy smile, and devil-may-care attitude, there is no question that many ladies (and men) would cheerfully give him a tumble. But he’s not sexualized in any of his games. This is a sexualized SFW Ezio. Can you spot the difference?

A drawing of Ezio lounging sexily with a bottle of wine

Fan Art by Matsuaki

This Ezio is lounging, grasping a bottle of wine near his happy place very suggestively, and giving the viewer a inviting look and come-hither smile. This drawing is sexual as hell. Everything about it is begging us to scamper on over and release his hidden blade. Note that he’s still fully clothed. It’s his pose, his expression, and his props that make him sexual. Anybody in the same exact pose would be sexual.

That’s what sexualization is. Not JUST the clothes worn or the skin shown, it’s how the character presents all that skin or hot body.

An attractive character without that extra steamy drip of sexuality? That’s just idealization.

So there we go! On their own, objectification, sexualization, and idealization are fine. There’s nothing wrong with using a hand on your book cover, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying sex and sexuality with enthusiastic participants, and there’s nothing wrong with admiring a handsome person.

But when we get into sexual objectification? Things start to get… problematic.

A woman's naked body used as a shelf for fashion accessories.

This right here.

By now you should be able to guess what sexual objectification is. It’s turning a sexualized body or body part into an object, such as the woman-table above. She has been dehumanized. She is not a person with an identity or who is worthy of respect, she’s a sexy T&A table. So she not only becomes a thing, she becomes a thing that you want to have sex with.

Here’s the thing about objectification: you cannot do it to yourself. There is no such thing as self-objectification. It can only be done to you. When a woman decides to hit up comic-con dressed as a sexy Twilight Sparkle, she’s sexualizing herself. A viewer might look at her and think, “That is a nice set of tits.” The viewer has objectified her.

The woman in the above ad has been depicted as a table, but she never separated herself from her humanity. She might be thinking to herself, “Damn, these lights are hot,” or, “The minute I get home, I have to clean out the cat box.” She never stops being a person to herself. Hell, even if she’s thinking, “I am a table, I am a table,” she’s still a thinking, breathing, living human being with a life, dreams, and ideas outside her tableness.

Sexual objectification removes that humanity. It turns women’s bodies into part of the product, something that can be bought and sold, acquired and kept, used and thrown away.

Now, sexual objectification does happen to men. Look at any Abercrombie and Fitch window display. But far more often women are sexually objectified, and the ramifications of this rampant sexual objectification are troublesome. In this article from Ms.:

In a culture with widespread sexual objectification, women (especially) tend to view themselves as objects of desire for others. This internalized sexual objectification has been linked to problems with mental health  (clinical depression“habitual body monitoring”), eating disordersbody shame,self-worth and life satisfactioncognitive functioningmotor functioningsexual dysfunction [PDF],access to leadership [PDF] and political efficacy [PDF]. Women of all ethnicities internalize objectification, as do men to a far lesser extent.

Beyond the internal effects, sexually objectified women are dehumanized by others and seen as less competent and less worthy of empathy by both men and women.

I might have gone off the rails a bit here. I just wanted to cover definitions, after all. But this is important, and the studies back up the problems with sexual objectification.

To sum up! Objectification is turning something into a dehumanized object. Sexualization is making yourself or another person sexy, while still retaining an identity. Idealization is a beautiful or handsome person or thing, not necessarily overtly sexual. Sexual objectification is turning someone into a dehumanized object that you’d like to screw.

And it’s also a shitty thing to do to someone. Let’s stop that.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 22, 2013 1:24 pm

    Fantastic post. Very informative and even fun to read. With all the examples of these words being thrown around, it’s nice to have a clear source to explain what’s what. Great work! 🙂

    Side note: I once sexualized myself. The results weren’t very sexy, but I did laugh a lot. 😛

  2. July 24, 2013 4:12 am

    Nice example with Ezio; he can climb my walls any day.

    I’ve heard the example that if you can replace the role of as person in a video game with an object, like a sword, then that’s how you know he or she is being objectified. It’s reasonable to say that, historically, this has been women in video games. And it totally is a discussion that needs to be had.

    • August 14, 2013 10:02 am

      Really? What games?

      I guess… ok let me rephrase that, what games with story? I suppose older platformers, you know Mario and the like, have objectified women but then technically you could replace Mario with a moving sword and it would still be the same game. Besides his art style the old Mario really didn’t have an personality either. The new ones tend to give their female characters a bit more power, Mario Galaxy for instance. Anyways, besides that I can’t really think of any RPG, FPS, TPS, or RTS that objectifies women. Sexualizes and idealizes sure, all the time, but not objectified.

      • August 14, 2013 12:38 pm

        Now hang on. Replacing Mario with a magical moving sword still means that the sword is active and doing something, ie has agency. An object, such as a lamp in Kelly Sue Deconnick’s famous example, does nothing. Just as a lamp sits in a store and waits for you to buy it, an objectified character sits and waits for a more active character to move the plot along. It’s not just about personality or how fleshed out they are, it’s also about how much influence they have on the plot, the story, the world.

        There are many layers to objectification, so a character might be objectified in one instance or in one way, and not in another. For example, the waves of faceless minions you have to mow down to beat the level could be considered objectified, in that they have no identity and they are a meat obstacle in your way. Other times, Miranda from Mass Effect has had instances of objectification, notably when she is framed in cutscenes as just an ass. A beautiful, beautiful ass.

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