Okay, time for some theory… This is a companion piece to Intentional and Interpretive Sexualisation.
Martha Nussbaum is a noted American philosopher. The fact that she specialises in Greek and Roman philosophy is enough to impress me.
Whilst she has written on a wide range of topics this article will focus on her critically important theoretical contribution to the issue of objectification. In particular I want to focus on her seven conditions of objectification as defined in her essay Objectification.
1. Instrumentality: The objectifier treats the object as a tool of his or her purposes.
2. Denial of autonomy: The objectifier treats the object as lacking in autonomy and self-determination.
3. Inertness: The objectifier treats the object as lacking in agency,and perhaps also in activity.
4. Fungibility: The objectifier treats the object as interchangeable (a) with other objects of the same type, and/or (b) with objects of other types.
5. Violability: The objectifier treats the object as lacking in boundary- integrity, as something that it is permissible to break up, smash, break into.
6. Ownership: The objectifier treats the object as something that is owned by another, can be bought or sold, etc.
7. Denial of subjectivity: The objectifier treats the object as something whose experience and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account.
At this point I’d like to give a special note to Dr Jennifer Wilson who directed me to the work of Nussbaum through her blog No Place for Sheep and her entry What is Objectification, Anyway? In that entry she points to an interesting contradiction – that many of those who complain about the objectification and sexualisation of women and girls conform to several of Nussbaum’s conditions. In other words they have themselves become objectifiers.
An image may invite the objectifying gaze. The viewer may accept. However, it’s a big leap to assume that all viewers who find an image “sexy” will inevitably progress from that opinion to objectifying a woman the next time he or she is face to face with one, and will inevitably set about finding ways to use the woman as a means to an end. This assumption imbues the image with nothing less than supernatural powers, as well as denying the viewer’s autonomy and self-determination. It also denies the viewer agency. It denies the viewer’s subjectivity and it also silences the viewer by imposing another’s values on the viewer’s gaze. According to Nussbaum, these are all acts of objectification. In other words, when concerned citizens make these assumptions, they treat the viewer as less human than themselves.
Indeed, such an attitude towards a woman could be read in Nussbaum’s criteria as treating her as if she is lacking in autonomy and self-determination, and treating her as a person lacking in agency. It also denies her subjectivity, and attempts to silence her by imposing an interpretation other than her own on her actions. In other words, the concerned citizens are engaged in objectifying her.
In several entries on this blog I have directly quoted people who have posed nude as children for photographers and artists. It was painfully apparent to me that the critics of these photos – those who complained that they sexualised and objectified; those who complained that they are child pornography – made no attempt to consider what the subject of the photos thought. Yet, as I have explained, several of these subjects have made a sophisticated defence of their role as a nude subject, especially Jessie Mann.
There is a good reason why the moral conservatives do not, following Nussbaum, take the subject’s experience and feelings into account. That is because the subjects, with few exceptions, do not accept the conservative narrative.
The problem is ideology. Whenever someone comes from an ideologically predefined position they tend to engage in the process of objectification. All ideologies have this tendency: religious ideology, political ideology of the left or right, feminism.
In the case of moral conservatives (including authoritarian feminists) who claim that nude photos of children objectify and sexualise we see conformity to all seven of Nussbaum’s conditions.
1. They make an example of particular images to prove an ideological point. This is instrumentality.
2. They believe the subject has somehow been forced or manipulated into being the subject. If they are a child they argue they are too young to consent. Thus they deny the subject’s autonomy and self-determination.
3. Following point 2 they believe the subject is passive; a victim. Thus they view the subject as inert.
4. They lump all such images together and generalise. This is fungibility.
5. They make of the image what they will and do not consider how the subject wants the image to be seen. In other words, they do not respect the boundaries of the subject. This is violability.
6. They assert that there is only one way to view the image, this is a form of intellectual or interpretive ownership.
7. They do not take into account the experience, feelings or opinion of the subject.
All of these conditions were in place in all of the controversies over nude photographs of children. When Hetty Johnston made the complaint against Bill Henson she made absolutely no attempt to talk to the subject of the photo. However, the journalist David Marr in his book The Henson Case, made a point to talk to the subject where he discovered that she was a willing and intelligent model.
Indeed, in some of the cases I’ve examined there is absolutely no evidence of any of Nussbaum’s conditions in the image making process. The subjects report that the image maker treated them as active autonomous agents with valid feelings and opinions. Indeed, many of the subjects felt that they were the co-creators of the images and that their contributions were valued.
But this extends well beyond just the issue of naked children, it also extends into many of the complaints about sexualised images involving child or adolescent models. I have also commented on several of these cases (The Fanning sisters, Hailee Steinfeld), particularly the case of Thylane Blondeau.
Once again the critics jumped in without properly investigating Thylane’s life. Although it would be inappropriate to seek to interview Thylane herself (her parents are very protective for good reason), it was certainly possible to talk to her parents, her agents and the photographers who work with her. I had no trouble finding out about one of her principle photographers, Dani Brubaker, and having some private correspondence, all of which confirmed that Thylane is well adjusted and being looked after by all concerned.
This is where we get back to the issue of intentional and interpretive sexualisation/objectification.
To avoid any form of objectification it is absolutely essential to consider the intention of both the image maker and the subject. Objectification begins the moment you place your interpretation above that of the subject. But this is the nature of the moral authoritarian. They know what’s best. Their interpretation is right and they will impose it on everyone as the only possible interpretation. The subject’s view does not matter.
This is not to say that sexualisation and objectification does not happen. Clearly it does. The image maker may indeed fulfill all 7 of Nussbaum’s conditions. He (and it is usually a he) may treat the subject as an object and not involve them in any decision regarding the image. He may even lie to the subject about the intended use of the image. There have been cases where subjects have complained about and even sued over the images being misused. But even here we need to be careful. The moral authoritarians often simplify some of these cases and again ‘instrumentalise’ them. A perfect example is Brooke Shield’s case against Gary Gross. The moral authoritarians have insisted that this is an example of the sexploitation of a minor. But once again they have NOT listened to the subject, Brooke Shields herself. She is on the record as saying that she has no objection to the photos themselves and has said she appreciates the way artist Richard Prince has reused them. She is happy for people to see nude photos of her as a child. Her objection, and the substance of the court case, was that Gross had betrayed her by offering them for sale outside of the agreed purpose. In other words, Gross had exploited Brooke by seeking to profit from her images without considering her wishes. So Gross objectified her – and the moral conservatives objectified her again by refusing to listen to her.
Such double objectification has led to some of the subjects claiming to be re-victimised by those moral authoritarians who claim to want to protect them. In her novel The Effects of Light, Miranda Beverly-Whittemore passionately argues to be respected as a subject.
My whole life, you guys have let me decide about being in the pictures. But now I’m eleven. Now I want to do more than be in them. I want to tell people how good they are. (pg 245)
It comes down to this. The people who vilify Ruth’s photographs, who blame them, don’t understand the fundamental point that in those photographs, Pru and I got to be in ourselves… the self that’s in them is the self I want you to know. (pg 255)
Of course, this is the last thing the moral authoritarians want to hear, that the subject approves of the images and, heaven forbid, rejects their negative interpretation. This is why they systematically silence the subject.
This does not mean that no one can make an objection to an image. There are plenty of reasons to criticise specific images. It just means that any criticism needs to be honest and not pretend to speak for the subject who may be a willing and intelligent participant in the image making process.
The moral authoritarians won’t like this simply because it strips their objection to such images of a certain degree of moral outrage and urgency. They derive a good deal of momentum from alarmist declarations of harm. During the Henson moral panic, the moral authoritarians were making elaborate claims about the harm done to the subject and therefore to all potential subjects. Quite simply the wind would go out of all this bluster if the subjects said that no harm had been done, indeed, that they had even enjoyed the experience. This would lay bare the nature of their real objection – they don’t like the images on moral grounds. But this in the final analysis, is a very weak argument and they know it.
But there is more to objectification, as Nussbaum explains – and I’ll look at that in future posts.