Objectification and the Media: Imagining Equality

This is going to be similar in intent to my recent post on the legal system – a speculative attempt to consider possible ways that a system adapted to patriarchy could be changed to make it fit with sexual equality. In particular, I want to think about the media, in particular pornography, advertising, pornography-as-advertising, etc.

One way to conceptualise ‘oppression’ is in terms of the traits possessed by “the social subject”. (‘Subject’ here is a philosophical term, the opposite of ‘object’) The social subject is the person who thinks what “everyone thinks”, who knows what “everyone knows”, who does what “you do”, who notices what’s “obvious”. When a person is mentioned without any specific features being given, they will tend to be imagined as the social subject. Heidegger talked about ‘das Man’, everyone-and-noone’ (‘Man’ is German for what we would call ‘one’, as in, ‘whatever one does, it’s not enough’).

As is made obvious by our language, the social subject is, by and large, on the whole, in general and overall, a straight man. He also has class and race features but that’s not my focus right now. Because the social subject is a straight man, straight men find it easier to be subjects (to be people, to do person things, like decide, choose, act, take control, learn, be listened to etc.) while other people find it harder. Hence oppression in its various aspects.

Now one of the key things that subjects do is to look and to see. Objects on the other hand do not look – they are looked at. So from the beginning, in considering visual media, there is the basic ideology: men look at women. That’s why women’s magazines are full of pictures of women, while men’s magazines are full of pictures of…women!

Consequently, we should expect to find the way our male-dominated society has evolved to deal with visual media is biased towards the person looking, and against the person being looked at. The way to strike out at things like pornography is, I believe, ultimately not to isolate certain images and ‘ban’ or ‘restrict’ them, but to try to re-orient our relationship to images towards greater recognition of the person pictured.

One obvious way to do that, I think, would be something like an inalienable right to ownership of images of you.

By ‘inalienable’ I mean something like this: we have an inalienable right to life, because if we make a contract saying “if I do X, you can kill me”, and then I do X and you kill me, the contract is not a defense – you are still guilty of murder. Similarly, if I sell myself into slavery, and then decide to leave that slavery, my ‘owner’ cannot do anything to stop me – if they lock me up, they are guilty of kidnap or false imprisonment, because the contract is not a defense. Contracts in which I ‘alienate’ my right to life or liberty are void, because those rights are inalienable.

Of course, those rights can be forfeited – if I attack someone with a knife, and they stab me in self-defense, it is not murder because I forfeited my rights in attacking them. Similarly I forfeit my right to liberty by doing something for which I can be legitimately imprisoned (whatever we might think that is). But alienation and forfeiture are not the same.

Now at the moment, people like porn actresses and nude models typically have to sign “model release forms” by which they give control of images of them, and the right to sell or publish those images, away. The essential point of my proposal is to make forms of this sort void, on the basis that the right to control images of your body, especially its more private parts, is an aspect of self-ownership, and self-ownership is inalienable (which, as I argue here, is one reason why self-ownership bears little relationship to property-ownership).

Now of course there are complexities. There might be differences between nude and clothed images. Things would be tricky when multiple people were shown. At the moment, model release forms are only even necessary for publication, not for owning and selling images – that would have to change. News stories would work differently, as would photos taken in public places (these, note, are I think forfeitures, not alienation). But I don’t think it’s beyond the ability of humans to deal with complexities.

The result of a change like this would be enormous for things like advertising and pornography. A website with photos of 100 different models, which had paid for those photos to be taken, and paid the models to pose in them, would have to constantly be open to the possibility that any one of those models might at any time decide that they no longer want to have strangers wanking to photos of them, and demand that the photos be taken down. And because these models would not be legally able to give away their control, they would not be able to give the website any kind of security against them taking the fee and then removing the photo the next day.

Pornography (including the semi-pornography that pervades our mainstream media) would become a lot less workable as a business model. In its place, sexually explicit (or, indeed, sexually implicit) images would fit into different economic structures, structures which currently exist but in a marginal form. Websites filled with pictures of women and men who love modelling would still exist, but they would be much less sensible as an investment and thus would stop attracting money-makers and start attracting people who love photography. And websites where people posted images of themselves would similarly be unaffected. Naked women would come to hold the power in the pictures-of-naked-women business.

This would I think also change our public spaces. It might, in a sense, move them a bit more towards the Islamic idea of patterns and designs in place of representations, though obviously not all that far. At the moment, our visual memory and awareness of what bodies look like is largely controlled by the media sphere, which is dominated by people who want to sell us something (i.e. who want to create a need in us, a dissatisfaction). Making that not a viable business model would help to return that control to real life – to make our ideas be based on the human beings we see around us. I think this would be enormously beneficial, especially in relation to eating disorders.

That said, it would remove an option from women – if you can’t give away your control over images of your body, then you can’t persuade people to give you money in exchange for doing so. This is regrettable, but inevitable: removing oppression means removing those forms of self-preservation that rely on that oppression.

(Of course, changing the whole economic structure of society might also result in advertising simply disappearing as a phenomenon. And providing unconditional economic security would remove the incentive for people to go into porn because of poverty. But anyway.)

7 Responses to “Objectification and the Media: Imagining Equality”

  1. freethinker Says:

    good radical post.

    ‘Islamic idea of patterns and designs’ came about only because of forced repression. The female body found textual representation in works like Al-Ghazali’s. So it was the same as it is in the West now: the ‘social subject’ is the straight man, and the lustful gaze comes only from the male.

    That is what needs to change. The social conditioning that entitles and the system that enables the male to lust. And I think your two posts (this one and the one on rape) propose a good way for that to happen.

  2. I Don’t Really Know What I Think About Pornography « Directionless Bones Says:

    […] idea, which I’ve discussed before, is inalienable image self-ownership: i.e. you cannot sell a video or photo of yourself naked or […]

  3. Q Says:

    I find your quick summary of the subject as the one who does the acting and therefore the looking as insufficient to explain a problem with pornography.
    Firstly, I’m really not sure that straight men are typically the subject in an undefined context. Straight people, sure, but I think that gender bias determines when we associate things with men and women, and that if you eliminate that you might not see anything more.
    Secondly, even if straight men spring more naturally to mind than straight women because of their tendency to occupy positions of power, I’m not sure that the reasoning should go untested that assumes that their predominance in the mind does not also make them usually the object in an undefined situation.
    Thirdly, there are plenty of other reasons that have been considered and accepted for a long time that explain why magazines tend to feature women to look at and not men. It would be nice to see some attempt to address these, at least to prove that there’s room for your idea to have a significant effect.
    Lastly, if these bad things really do lead to pornography, then pornography is bad by association, and we need to address the problem of the normal (as in statistically most visible) being assumed in every case.
    If pornography is bad for different reason, then this line of argument isn’t really necessary and was just some amusing rhetoric.
    Your need ‘to strike out at things like pornography’ assumes that pornography is repugnant whilst in the process of explaining how repugnant things lead to pornography. That’s approaching a circular argument, but isn’t one: it just belies another motivation or rationale which isn’t actually explained in this piece.

  4. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “I’m really not sure that straight men are typically the subject in an undefined context.”
    The obvious first exhibit is the use of male pronouns as neutral, the use of ‘man’ and ‘mankind’ as neutral, the use of terms involving ‘-man’ as useful, etc. More could be dredged up if necessary.

    “I’m not sure that the reasoning should go untested that assumes that their predominance in the mind does not also make them usually the object in an undefined situation.”
    But the thing about ‘objects’ is that pretty much everything is an object, and only some things are subjects. The ‘social subject’ is a person, and has personal features, but there isn’t so much of a ‘social object’ because everything that people ever deal with is an object. If anything it would be activities, like sport or work.

    “there are plenty of other reasons that have been considered and accepted for a long time that explain why magazines tend to feature women to look at and not men. It would be nice to see some attempt to address these”
    That wasn’t directly my point here, but what sort of things do you have in mind? I mean, if this phenomenon is replicated in language, in magazines, in politics, in the economy, and, in fact, pretty much everywhere you look (e.g. the sexual double standard makes perfect sense if you assume men are subjects and women objects), so parsimony will incline me towards it anyway.

    “if these bad things really do lead to pornography, then pornography is bad by association”
    My views on pornography have actually shifted a few times back and forth but ultimately my position is exactly what you say here: that it’s not in itself a special case, just a particular form of this more general phenomenon. Sexual images happen to be of particular import because of the link between sex and objectification (which is not in itself a bad link) – sexual desire is for the other person as embodied, and hence in their objecthood (perhaps among other things).

  5. Q Says:

    ‘use of male pronouns as neutral’
    You almost answer it here. That a word can hold two meanings is not unfamiliar. These pronouns are both male and neutral. This might reflect a historic trend, but I haven’t seen any evidence that it changes our thought in such dramatic ways, rather than being a reflection of the past.
    If pretty much everything is an object, then how come you leap to explaining women being the object in this case? Surely the acknowledgement that the object is so vague and truly undefined means that although you expect men to do the looking, you really cannot say at what they are looking.
    ‘what sort of things do you have in mind?’
    I was thinking of differences believed to have a basis in biology such as women’s propensity to value relationships over strength and looks, which contrasts with mens’ tendency to value the physical, and the explanation that women have evolutionarily socialised in less strenuous work and formed relationships with children, whereas men have indulged in more physical pursuits.
    There is also the idea that because women know that men value the physical so much they examine each other, because they have less interest in men’s physical attributes than in ensuring that their own can ensnare a satisfying relationship.

  6. Q Says:

    Whoops! Yet again I forgot to tick the box asking to be notified by e-mail. This is doing so.

  7. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “These pronouns are both male and neutral. This might reflect a historic trend, but I haven’t seen any evidence that it changes our thought in such dramatic ways, rather than being a reflection of the past.”
    You say you’ve seen no evidence that this makes any difference. I see massive effects of some cause (the general dominance of manhood in society across the world for millenia) and a network of related causes, and I link them together.

    Let me ask this: given that there’s fairly direct evidence that people discriminate in general against women, for instance being inclined to regard a paper as less compelling if they think it’s written by a woman, what seems like a more likely explanation than one that incorporates concern with words among other related phenomena.

    I do hope it’s not ‘during evolution, people evolved to disparage women’s intelligence because it was good for their genes’.

    “I was thinking of differences believed to have a basis in biology such as women’s propensity to value relationships over strength and looks…”
    I don’t think this is the best place for a systematic ‘why does the women-are-oppressed hypothesis seem more compelling to me than various evolutionary stories’ discussion. It does, and that was a presupposition of this post.


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