The objectification of women is a set of practices that plays a central role in the sexism of our society. I distinguish between a general notion of objectification (the Nussbaum-Langton list), sexual objectification (treating a person as a sex object) and eroticized objectification (the eroticization of objectifying a person). I’ll describe objectification in general here and the other two in subsequent posts.
The basic idea seems simple enough. To objectify a person is to treat her as an object, so objectification at its simplest could be described as a set of practices that involves such treatment. Martha Nussbaum has done some work to specify this set by cataloging seven different ways to treat someone as an object. They are:
1. Instrumentality: The objectifier treats the objectified as a tool for his or her purposes.
2. Denial of autonomy: The objectifier treats the objectified as lacking in autonomy and self-determination.
3. Inertness: The objectifier treats the objectified as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity.
4. Fungibility: The objectifier treats the objectified as interchangeable (a) with others of the same type, and/or (b) with individuals of other types.
5. Violability: The objectifier treats the objectified as lacking in boundary integrity, as something that it is permissible to break up, smash, break into.
6. Ownership: The objectifier treats the objectified as something that is owned by another, can be bought or sold, etc.
7. Denial of subjectivity: The objectifier treats the objectified as something whose experience and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account.1
To this list, Rae Langton adds three additional practices.
8. Reduction to body: The objectifier treats the object as identified with its body, or body parts.
9. Reduction to appearance: The objectifier treats the object primarily in terms of how it looks, or how it appears to the senses.
10. Silencing: The objectifier treats the objectified as silent, lacking the capacity to speak.2
The above list is formulated in terms of ways in which the objectifier treats the objectified, but there is an important epistemic component to objectification as well.
According to Sally Haslanger, Catharine MacKinnon holds that an objectifier represents and treats the objectified as “having by nature properties [the objectifier] desires” and “has the power to force [the objectified] to have these properties (and sometimes exercises this power).”3 Since the practice involves a sort of coercive reconstruction of the objectified by the objectifier, I will refer to it as enforced reconstruction. With respect to treatment, this idea adds little that is not already on the list. Indeed, we can understand Haslanger and MacKinnon’s notion as a general description of objectifying treatment. But enforced reconstruction adds an important epistemic element as well. In addition to treating an object in the ways described, the objectifier represents the objectified as having certain properties by nature.
This point is significant because operating under such a belief can conceal the wrongness of these kinds of treatment. If, for example, John represents Mary as lacking autonomy, then it will not seem to John wrong to treat Mary as lacking autonomy. In fact, if Mary has formed this belief about herself, as is often the case when oppressive gender norms are internalized, it will not seem wrong to her either. This list gives also rise to a number of further questions, particularly about autonomy and agency, that will need to be addressed in more detail.
1 Nussbaum, Martha. “Objectification.” Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 24, No. 4 (Autumn, 1995), pp. 249-291: Page 257. I have slightly altered Nussbaum’s wording.
2 I have slightly altered Langton’s wording.
3 Haslanger, Sally. “On Being Objective and Being Objectified,” A Mind of One’s Own, ed., L Antony and C. Witt. (Boulder: Westview, 1993) 85-125. Page 111 (Hereafter references with the abbreviation “Haslanger 1993.”); MacKinnon, Catharine. Toward a Feminist Theory of the State. (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1989). Page 122.