Justin Li

Defining Objectification


I want to discuss an interesting example of objectification. The point of this post is not to show that the incident is not an example of objectification, but to encourage crisper and more nuanced divisions between what is objectification and what isn’t. I will start with the original behavior, then describe why one might consider the behavior objectifying, then point out gray areas in the reasoning which goes against intuition.

Somewhat ashamedly, I was actually the “perpetrator” of this incident. Instead of repeating exactly what I said, however, I’m going to expand on the scenario. Let’s say that I know someone through reading their blog, enough to know their personality and thoughts. From that, I find that their intelligence, desires and life choices has artistic/aesthetic appeal, and therefore think of the author as a work of living art. Is that objectification?

I asked a friend this question. She told me that yes, it is objectification, and as explanation linked me to this blogpost on the Pervocracy, which offered a simplified definition (emphasis in original):

Objectification is focusing on a person’s usefulness to you with total disregard for their desires. In the context of compliments, it’s not saying “You turn me on.” It’s saying “You turn me on, and whether you want to turn me on is utterly irrelevant."

Saying “nice ass” to a person who’s deliberately wiggling their ass at you is a compliment; saying “nice ass” to a person who’s just walking by is objectification. “I want to sleep with her” is expressing desire; “I’d hit it” is objectification. “You’re sexy” is nice to say on a date because it’s a compliment; “you’re sexy” is hideously undermining to say at a business meeting because it’s objectification.

These examples suggest that the definition should be further qualified by adding the phrase, “when they have not given you explicit consent” – setting aside whether non-verbal behavior could be considered consent. Back to my incident, this assumes (let’s say correctly) that the author of the blog did not intend their audience to appreciate them as art. By thinking of them as art, without their explicit consent, I am therefore objectifying them.

There are two unintuitive implications of this logic. The first one has to do with the features with which I’m objectifying the author, namely, their intelligence and life choices. These are not the usual features for objectification and, crucially, are things that people consider crucial parts of personhood. It would therefore seem that by focusing on exactly the things that make a person a person (without consent), I am still objectifying them.

The second unintuitive implication focuses on the fact that I don’t know the author, but have only read their blog. Let’s say that, a couple days later, I found out that the blog is actually a work of fiction, and that the real author had written it for their own amusement (that is, I still don’t have consent to admire it). My actions haven’t changed, and in fact now I could never have gotten the fictional character’s consent. Intuition suggests that I am still objectifying something – but it’s unclear whether it is possible to objectify fictional characters. And if the answer is that yes, it’s possible, how is that different from any the analysis of any character in any novel?