Idealized Sex Objects and The Meanings of Words
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:
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.
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.
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?
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.
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 disorders, body shame,self-worth and life satisfaction, cognitive functioning, motor functioning, sexual dysfunction [PDF],access to leadership [PDF] and political efficacy [PDF]. Women of all ethnicities internalize objectification, as do men to a far lesser extent.
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.