Feminist perspectives on objectification.

Pornography has been criticized for objectifying women, and further that pornography increases male sexual objectification of women in general. As noted in class, pornography is by its nature objectifying, as it features people who are intended to be the objects of our sexual fantasies, at least while we watch. But does this make it inherently problematic? For those of you who are curious to read more, there is an excellent entry in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy which provides an overview of objectification in pornography, and whether it is a force of good or bad.

Feminist Perspectives on Objectification

Objectification is a notion central to feminist theory. It can be roughly defined as the seeing and/or treating a person, usually a woman, as an object. In this entry, the focus is primarily on sexual objectification, objectification occurring in the sexual realm. Martha Nussbaum (1995, 257) has identified seven features that are involved in the idea of treating a person as an object:

  1. instrumentality: the treatment of a person as a tool for the objectifier's purposes;
  2. denial of autonomy: the treatment of a person as lacking in autonomy and self-determination;
  3. inertness: the treatment of a person as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity;
  4. fungibility: the treatment of a person as interchangeable with other objects;
  5. violability: the treatment of a person as lacking in boundary-integrity;
  6. ownership: the treatment of a person as something that is owned by another (can be bought or sold);
  7. denial of subjectivity: the treatment of a person as something whose experiences and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account.

Rae Langton (2009, 228–229) has added three more features to Nussbaum's list:

  1. reduction to body: the treatment of a person as identified with their body, or body parts;
  2. reduction to appearance: the treatment of a person primarily in terms of how they look, or how they appear to the senses;
  3. silencing: the treatment of a person as if they are silent, lacking the capacity to speak.

The majority of the thinkers discussing objectification have taken it to be a morally problematic phenomenon. This is particularly the case in feminist discussions of pornography. Anti-pornography feminists Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, influenced by Immanuel Kant's conception of objectification, have famously argued that, due to men's consumption of pornography, women as a group are reduced to the status of mere tools for men's purposes. Moreover, feminists like Sandra Bartky and Susan Bordo have argued that women are objectified through being excessively preoccupied with their appearance. Important recent work by feminists has also been devoted to exploring the connection between objectivity and objectification. More recently, some thinkers, such as Martha Nussbaum, have challenged the idea that objectification is a necessarily negative phenomenon, arguing for the possibility of positive objectification. While treating a person as an object (in one or more of the ways mentioned above) is often problematic, Nussbaum argues that objectification can in some contexts take benign or even positive forms, and can constitute a valuable and enjoyable part of our lives. In her forthcoming work, Nancy Bauer questions the very idea that it makes sense to specify the marks and features of the term ‘objectification’. Such an attempt, she argues, will only distort the phenomenon in question (2015, forthcoming).

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