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Your random word of the day: Objectification

If you ever hear people talking about women’s role in movies, or video games, or the like, you may have come across the word “objectification.” I spent years being confused about what this meant, because nobody ever explained it very well, and thought it meant something crazy when actually it turns out to be something really interesting and important. A few years ago I finally got a better explanation, so today I’m going to share it. (And side note: if you’re going to comment here, read what I have to say carefully. If you comment and it’s obvious that you didn’t read what I said and are instead having a rant about your own thing, I’ll just delete the comment. K?)

So let me tell you what it isn’t, because you may have heard that, too. I had a teacher (way) back in high school who was very well-intentioned but absolutely terrible at explaining things, who somehow managed to communicate that “objectification” meant “treating people like things,” that any ad that “didn’t show the entire woman” -- e.g., had part of a woman’s body cropped -- was objectifying, and (via some lecture by Naomi Wolf) that such ads would therefore cause men to rape, murder, and dump women’s bodies in dumpsters. By the end of the week, the entire class thought she must be high as a kite, and that objectification was some kind of crazy nonsense.

What I finally figured out a few years ago was that the word “objectification” doesn’t come from the word “object” as-opposed-to-person: it comes from the word “object” as-opposed-to-subject. 

Here’s what it means: Say I’m telling a story. It can be a book, a movie, a video game, even the implicit “story” in a billboard, doesn’t matter. A character has a “subject perspective” if we see the story through their eyes: we get a sense of what they’re thinking, what the problems in the story mean to them, what choices they feel that they have and how they pick between them. A character has “object perspective” if they’re simply the thing that’s acted upon: we only really see them as they affect our main, subject, characters. 

Every story is going to have plenty of characters in object perspective: if you tried to tell a story where the reader ended up knowing the detailed thoughts of every single person, down to the guy who sells the protagonist a bottle of water and whose only line is “One fifty, please,” or the mook whose job it is to get gunned down on the way to the enemy base and whose only line is “urk!,” the story would be a total mess. Object perspective just means that the character isn’t ultimately important except as an obstacle: it’s not a bad thing.

Objectification is what happens when you have not only a single story, but a whole swath of stories -- something as wide as “the category of all spy movies” -- and you suddenly notice that there’s a pattern, for example “every single woman has an object perspective.” (It doesn’t have to be every woman for this to be the case, but if it’s happening a good 98% of the time then this is what we’re talking about)

And here’s the problem when this happens: if you’re reading a lot of these stories, and you don’t notice that it’s a pattern, it starts to just have this regular drumbeat that gets into your head without you noticing, where women (or whoever’s being steadily treated as objects -- this isn’t just about women, that’s just the common example) are “the thing you deal with to get to your real goal.” 

Just to understand this, remember the subtle way that stories can mess with your head. Have you ever watched a really good spy movie and then for the next day looked at every building around you as something you might want to infiltrate? Or played GTA5 for a couple of hours too many, and the next time you passed a police car had to remind yourself that no, the correct course of action is probably not to ram it? You’re not crazy: the whole point of fiction is to get you into other people’s heads, to show you what it’s like to think about the world from that perspective. And the way your head works is that you see the stuff, and for a little while your head mirrors it, until you’ve had time to really process through the story and it becomes part of your repertoire of ways to look at the world. 

That’s why objectification isn’t an issue so much about any one book or movie or whatever: after you process one thing, it goes away and you’re not in its headspace anymore. But if you start seeing the same pattern in a bunch of the things you’re reading and watching and playing, if every couple of days you find yourself in a headspace that sees the world like X, then X -- whatever it is -- becomes more and more a part of the way you look at the world. 

So why is this a problem?

So if you have a bunch of stories where women only show up in an object perspective, the pattern you’re getting in your head is that women’s thoughts ultimately don’t matter that much -- what’s really important in the story is the men’s thoughts. And you can imagine how that would mess with your head: if you’re male, the pattern is “yeah, whatever, the women will sort themselves out -- we should just do what’s important”, and if you’re female, the pattern is “what goes on with me isn’t really important, what’s really important is what happens to the guy.” That’s a subtle sort of thing, but it can really mess you up either way, especially if you don’t notice it’s happening.

So how can objectification mess you up in life? There are all sorts of ways, but they all have to do with turning your life (and other people’s lives) into a kind of script where you’re the star and they’re supporting characters, whether they like it or not -- or, even screwier, where they’re the star and you’re never anything but a supporting character.

Just as an example, consider what this can mean in a relationship. On the one end, you end up trying to script the lines, and pushing the other person into acting out the roles that you need them to act out. Maybe into being the one who takes care of you, or the one who nags you and so you get angry at them, or the perfect one who can do no wrong. (And therefore can never be allowed to screw up) Or on the other end, you can end up objectifying yourself, and not even thinking too hard anymore about what’s important to you -- you’re too busy fitting yourself into some role for the other person. And either way, you both end up play-acting scripts instead of paying attention to what would actually make you happy. Needless to say, this will not end well.

So it’s not that any one movie or book or whatever is making things bad. It’s that seeing a bunch of them, so many that it starts to seem normal, where all the people of one category are in object perspective gets you used to thinking of them that way, and then you start doing that the rest of the time without noticing it. And that screws up your life and generally makes you and everyone else miserable.

Some things that objectification isn’t

Something that objectification isn’t: It doesn’t have to do with whether the women are strong or weak characters. It’s just as true if all the women in the stories are super-powered killers that our hero has to fight through as it is if they’re all slaves of the evil Wombat Lord that the hero is rescuing. Of course, if you’ve got a bunch of stories where all the women are weak and powerless, you’ve got another pattern going which is going to be a problem in a similar way. 

And another thing it isn’t: It’s not really about any single book. Lots of conversations go totally off the rails when people start saying “but that book is different!” or “but that character is different!,” because that’s actually not the point -- a single story gets out of your head after a few days. Objectification is a phenomenon that matters when you’re talking about an entire corpus: you can talk about objectification in, say, action movies as a whole, or first-person shooters, or romance novels, and how a single story contributes to that.

And it’s not just about women, even though that’s the example you see most often. There are whole swaths of literature (e.g., what the marketers call “chick lit”) in which the men, for example, are all objects who exist solely to be problems or goals for the women. It’s not as big a problem because someone who’s reading those stories is also probably being exposed to a lot of other stories (via TV, movies, ads, etc) where the men are all subjects, so the pattern gets broken. That’s why people don’t spend as much time worrying about the objectification of men -- even though it certainly happens.

Fortunately, you can do something about it (not just for writers)

What’s great about objectification as a problem is that it’s actually relatively easy to solve when you’re telling stories. You don’t have to make all your protagonists and antagonists women, you don’t have to make all the female characters “strong” for some definition of “strong.” Even one little thing can make a big difference: look across the swath of characters that you’re writing about, and make sure that the reader is seeing the story from more than one perspective. The woman that James Bond seduces in Act I scene II? Don’t just tell me that she falls in love with his incredible manliness and they have great sex. Give me, the reader, a sense of how she’s weighing him in her mind -- the choices she’s thinking about, maybe what it is in her past and her life that makes this guy seem so damned interesting. When he vanishes the next day, let me see that from her side: is she glad? Upset? Does she feel betrayed? Relieved? Looking forward to telling her friends? To subtly hinting about it to her boyfriend? 

You don’t need to do this to every female character, any more than you need to do it to that water seller -- just let me know, as a reader, that all of the characters that I’m reading about have rich internal worlds and that there’s something interesting going on there. That their thoughts and feelings have value, even if that value isn’t the main point of the story.

If you tell a story like that -- and not just if you’re writing a book, but even when you’re telling me the story of what you did last week, or when you’re telling yourself the story of what happened on your trip -- you’re going to tell a much better story. And your readers, or listeners, or watchers, or you yourself, will come out of it feeling like they’ve seen more of the world.

Side note: If you’re interested in the telling of stories, +Mary Anne Mohanraj once wrote a great article a  few years ago ( that talked about very similar things in the context of writing about characters of color. All the same sorts of ideas apply, and ever since I read this essay I’ve looked at stories differently: you realize how crappy writing feels when a character is “just vaguely a white guy, instead of being a Polish-American second-generation teenage boy whose restaurant-owning father died in the Nazi camps and who now works as a line cook in a grimy diner on the north side of Chicago. It is the specificity, the detail of our lives that makes our characters live and breathe, creating the illusion that the people we write about are real.”
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I believe the terminology comes originally from existentialism. (And thus was originally French.) Speculation: perhaps it came into use in feminist theory via Simone de Beauvoir, who was an existentialist philosopher and an important feminist theorist.
+Gary Walker I had the idea a while ago, but it all got written a night or two ago when jet lag woke me up at 2AM.  (And edited this morning)
Love the analysis of the subtle ways in which media changes the way we think and act - would make for a great rebuttal to any engineering student complaining about a required literature course (which, among my peers, happens quite regularly).
+Zach Alcorn Engineers seem to be terrible about that -- they're always complaining about any non-eng course they have to take. It's even worse than humanists complaining about having to take science courses. (Weirdly, science students always seem completely happy to take as many eng and humanities courses as they can possibly get away with)
I've never understood how anybody could genuinely resent a lit course.  Lit crit, maybe, although I always enjoyed my crit courses, but seriously, how do you dislike a lit course?
+Gary Walker Depends on just who the teacher is and what kind of lit. I've definitely had some pretty crappy ones in the past. :)
Well-written and well done. I think I've always seen it explained as the object-person dichotomy rather than the object-subject dichotomy. This makes much more sense.
"If you comment [ off-topic ], I'll just delete the comment."

Thanks for the objectified lesson. I'll avoid your articles in future. :)
Don't Mess with Bond! // But seriously, I had (what I later realized was) an odd policy on taking classes at UCLA. I tended to take pretty much anything that seemed interesting, no matter what the department or field (keep in mind that at the time, UCLA didn't even have a CompSci department per se -- any related classes were in the Math Dept., and my ARPANET work at UCLA was in a parallel universe essentially isolated from the curriculum (both philosophically and physically).  But anyway, I took courses all over the map just like I used to wander the campus libraries and pull books at random (I do that with Google Books now!)  I never felt that I was wasting my time, and I hope there were significant benefits in terms of diversity of information I absorbed. I also had some other unexpected side effects. For example, one day I received a letter informing me I was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa by virtue of my range of classes taken, but I had never even thought about PBK and I apparently hit their combo completely by accident. Anyway, diversity is good.
These subtle and not so subtle external cues that you are talking about are one of the main reasons I think there are so few women in STEM professions. The number one profession for women is still "secretary." A job where one is typically the "object" being acted upon instead of the originator of action (subject).
+Lauren Weinstein I was exactly the same way. I also rationed out my required general breadth requirements so that I would be guaranteed to have a perfectly good excuse to be taking at least one non-technical course each semester. 
I'm sorry, I really don't see the practical difference between your teacher's definition of "objectification" and yours.

- If you start seeing people as objects as opposed to subjects, you somehow deny that they are actors of their life as you are of an actor of yours. And that is how we deal with objects as opposed to persons.

- Showing only parts of the body of women in ads, in particular without the face, is (I take a shortcut here) really refusing to acknowledge (or ignoring) their ability to think and to choose, and thus to be sentient actors. And this is a pattern that we observe.
+Yonatan Zunger , this is explained very well.  Thank you for writing this all down.  If I may, I'd like to share this with my writing students.
+Romain Brasselet They're definitely related, but I think that what she said lost so much of the subtlety that it started to sound crazy. Basically, too many shortcuts for a first intro. On the cropping issue, for example, she seemed to think that if there was any cropping -- e.g., if the woman was standing behind some object -- that it was objectifying, and implicitly that if there wasn't cropping then it wasn't. So the half-naked woman sprawled on top of the muscle car was fine, but the woman in a business suit standing behind a high-end copier was a problem.

There's definitely that relationship between object-as-thing and object-as-non-actor. I think that "object-as-thing" represents the logical extreme of this, but a lot of the most important objectification happens in that space which isn't so extreme; e.g., the woman who's just there to have sex with the hero and then be ignored. I really had trouble understanding what the "thing" definition was supposed to mean until I started to get the more subtle definition, and figured other people may have run into the same problem.
Of course, +Christine Bogart! Anything public I write is meant to be shared. :) (You may want to give them Mary Ann's article, too -- it's really great.)
+Tau-Mu Yi That's definitely true -- I mentioned chick lit in the text to try to hit that same issue, but was torn between whether to discuss that or more traditional romance novels. I picked the former mostly because I don't know the romance genre as well. I suspect it may actually be much more true in romance.
Has your data analytics informed this realization? Also, with this viewpoint, I see a connection, I think prompted by your chick lit example, between the more generalized objectification and some strains of confirmation bias, eg. liberals stereotypical views of conservatives, and vice versa.
+Andy Dillon I haven't done any particular data analytics tied to this, although it could certainly be interesting.

There's definitely a tie between this and other things: the objectification is really just a special case of a much broader mechanism of narrative absorption, where the stories we read feed our models of the world. The whole "strong female characters" thing I alluded to is just another problem of the same form. I think there may be a whole separate article about that. 
+Yonatan Zunger, I left out a word/phrase. I meant your intellectual mindset coming from your search background with google, rather than application to this particular topic.
Speaking of engineers, have you noticed how just about every movie where it doesn't matter what the principal's job is, he's almost always a teacher, a lawyer, or in advertising. That's not a complete list by the way, it's just a kind of trend... if they're not teachers, they're always people that guys in the movie industry spend a lot of time with. They're almost never engineers, scientists, or anything else technical.
Heh. I spent most of my time at college taking unrelated classes. Yay for the German system, where all you needed to do was hand in your exercises on time and pass the final exam.

And your assumption about romance novels is indeed correct. I have a large stash that I'm happy to share with you ;)
+Andy Dillon Ah, got it. I suppose it must, but I can't think of any particular link. This was mostly prompted by the "AHA!" moment I had when I finally understood it (followed by "so that's what my teacher was trying to say!") -- I think it was triggered by listening to one of +Anita Sarkeesian's discussions of something-or-another. 
For a given corpus, do we start running into issues if audiences don't want to see brief "love" scenes elongated into the exploring the mind-space of the couple and their motives for making such lusty decisions?
Dear Sir, you have uncannily unraveled the conundrum that was my first marriage, in which I found that to (naively) describe someone's self-imprisonment to them does not enlighten them or set them free. Ancient history now, she has another more willing soul to impress her scripted limitations upon...(yes, I rant!)
On to more relevant points; this unconscious self patterning can be greatly worsened when embedded into another culture for extended periods of time.
I am guilty more so here in Thailand, I fear, than was when in China mainly due to the fact that I understood more of the language there. Once I was past the "guessing what the conversation was about" stage, my comfort level greatly increased.
Your assertions are sound and have given me a new incentive to once again bend my brain (and tongue) around a only partially familiar Thai language. My wife (unknowingly) thanks you, even if she only reaps the reward; maybe I will tell her why later. Cheers!
{deep breath} OK, two thoughts...

First, objectifying anyone, whether it's done in a movie or a book or in real life, speaks to a lack of empathy towards that person. There are entire swaths of society that every single person will objectify simply because we don't care enough to see things from the perspective of every person we interact with. The guy in that car over there, the crossing guard, the talking head on TV, and so on. We "objectify" nearly everyone. We could all use more empathy. That said, we'll never have enough to avoid doing this to the vast majority of people we see or interact with.

Second, if the problem is that categorically women are more prone to this than men, I'm unconvinced it's markedly worse. Think of all those schmucks piloting the boats in the Bond movies who got blown up. Men. All those guards in the bad villains' volcano fortresses. Men. If the complaint is that there aren't enough movies with women as primary characters, then go write some. Ultimately, the complaint is that men have dominated creative fiction up until recently. Well, yes...that's an historical fact. But today, I don't see much perpetuating an imbalance...nearly all of the TV shows and movies I've seen the past several years have equal numbers of significant men and women characters, and for every one that's biased in one direction, there's another biased in the opposite.

So, ultimately, while I might agree that objectification is an issue to be considered, I disagree that women are still being unfairly and systematically abused in this fashion today.
Nicely written! Extra love for using the Bond image on an essay about recognizing when we remove agency from other people in our life. 

I'm particularly taken with your analysis of how objectification can be something we do to ourselves, and the ramifications of that in relationships. I know what it is like to fall into the trap of fulfilling a role in place of carefully considering my own needs and goals... when trying to conform to a scripted set of outcomes, I effectively lost any agency I had, which translates to not being able to freely use the best of my skills and talents.  Also, when you start looking at other people only as components, you've already rendered yourself into something less than a whole human by denaturing a very important trait: the ability to recognize the minds of others, and form bonds between those autonomous minds

What different lives we would have if we all learned early in life the difference between taking action and being an actor!
I have to agree with +Romain Brasselet. It seems like in the end it's just what you expect in regard to treating a person like an object. People don't sympathize or empathize with objects generally unless they attach emotions or relate to them somehow just as you were talking about doing by showing the more human side of a female character with Bond by revealing her thoughts instead of just being this thing that satisfies Bond's interests.
+Craig Froehle Really? You think women are not systematically treated much differently than men in the media? I suggest you start with the Bechdel test -

There is still a significant bias to give meaningful roles to men, while women end up playing eye-candy. (Also, compare the longevity of male vs. female acting careers)
Yeah, it's always Ms. Jamie Bond blowing up all those hapless male boat pilots and volcano guards.  What's up with that?  It's like men never get to do anything important.
+Rachel Blum Maybe my personal sample of the media is biased against the more misogynistic offerings out there. ;-)
+Andrew Piscitello I don't think that we need to make anything lengthy -- even very small hints (as +Mary Anne Mohanraj's essay talks about) can go a long way. And there are plenty of genres where even that would be inappropriate -- e.g., in a lot of porn absolutely everyone is an object, not just in the subject/object sense but in not too far from the person/object sense, and that's really on purpose. 

But it's one thing to make a choice like that deliberately, quite another to do it by accident.
I, in particular, appreciated distinction between "strong" and "objectified".  I've had the occasional conversation where I've complained about a female character and the response has been, "But she was strong and didn't take shit from anybody!"  And that was probably true, but it didn't resolve my feelings about the matter and left me without the words to describe why the character still bugged me.  Now I've got some clarity.

Also, I'm totally guilty of playing too much GTA3, seeing a taxi drive by and thinking, "I could totally jack that cab!" before my good sense kicked back in.  :)
+Lauren Weinstein , your wandering around the course catalog sounds like me: oceanography, literature, history, politics, art history, astronomy, literature...hooray for Oberlin's credit/no entry policy... if you didn't pass the class, it never happened.

I always thought of objectification as treating a person as an object: without regard for their internal motivation, feelings, or interests.  For example, car show "babes".  They are there to look good, not to think, or explain the car, or DO anything -- just passively attract straight male attention.  

Cropping can objectify if it's done "correctly" (so to speak), such as zeroing in on the woman's chest (this happens a lot).  She's not a person, she's a couple of breasts.
+Craig Froehle I'd strongly assume it is. I wish we moved to a world where this wasn't an issue, but it's far from solved.

(There's also the point that it's much harder to see this if you're not part of the group in question. I can certainly understand how, as a man, one would on first glance think we're living in a fairly equal world. Unfortunately, that'd be wrong :)
+Rachel Blum
Men get the same treatment in a different way though. Ever notice how guys are often treated like the dolt in media with the female partner that has it together?
When was the last time you saw a comical treatment of a woman or girl getting punched or kicked in the genitals? It happens all the time for guys.
It's legal to circumcise boys, illegal to circumcise girls even if it would be less invasive than male circumcision.
Women get reproductive rights, men don't.
I think right now there is just a lot more sensitivity in regard to women but it happens for both sides.
+Yonatan Zunger  I wonder if such subtle, nuanced explorations into the mind-space of individuals fulfilling lusty desires in an objectifying "collective" would be enough to overturn objectification.  I write this because I think these "collectives" in question already do explore these types of things (would be interesting to case study Bond films, for a start).  I think the way the human mind works--the way it generalizes/summarizes/aggregates information to make decisions easier and memory less cluttered--does not lend itself to remembering all of the "nuance."  
Dare I ask what exactly "male reproductive rights" entails?
+Craig Froehle I think that you've come across one of the things that was hardest to describe while writing this essay. It's a subtle point, and you're right about it. Here's what I was trying to convey:

* If you objectify people and/or yourself in your daily life, your life and theirs will end up a lot more miserable than it needs to be. That is therefore a bad thing and we want to avoid it.

* If, in the entire swath of narratives you take in, some categories of people are always (or almost always) in object perspective, you will develop the unconscious habit of seeing said categories of people in object perspective, and therefore life will suck for the reasons above.

* Every story will put some fraction of its characters into object perspective, which is perfectly fine. The problem starts to happen when an entire genre or other major swath of stories always puts some easily recognizable group in object perspective. (So e.g., the fact that the mooks in a Bond movie are in object perspective isn't part of any larger trend because, in one's daily life, "mooks" aren't a recognizable group of people you keep interacting with.) 

* Even when there's a major swath of literature that puts some group into object perspective, that can also be moderated if there are also large swaths which put that same group in subject perspective, and the people who are exposed to the first group are also heavily exposed to the second group. (So e.g., the fact that men are systematically in object perspective in chick lit is less of a problem because readers of chick lit are more likely to be exposed to things that put men in subject perspective, but OTOH people who watch action movies are less likely to regularly be exposed to chick lit)

One thing I didn't discuss is changes over time, and those have definitely happened, but they're not even. When I was picking the cover image, for example, I had to think about which Bond movie to use -- From Russia With Love is a great example. But more recent (Daniel Craig-era) Bond films have gone in a very different direction with this, especially with Judi Dench's portrayal of M. However, the change has been moderate and uneven. Bond films have gotten better, but if you look at action films as a whole, the improvements have been somewhat more moderate. Video games are still a particular disaster area.

And there are other indicators that, even in places where there's been a nominal improvement and we see women in roles that look like they should be strong, the deep issues are still there. Alison Bechdel's test for a story is, I think, a really interesting metric for this: a story passes the Bechdel test if it contains at least two named, female characters who have at least one conversation about something other than a man. You would think that this would be a pretty low bar, but it's rather horrifying to see how few films (in particular) pass it. I think that Bechdel test failures tend to be a sign that the women, even though they're playing more active roles, are still there to primarily help structure men's stories, so we're still ultimately seeing them (at least to some extent) in object perspective.

Anyway, the key point is that objectification isn't a property of any single text, and it's completely fine that some characters (of all genders, races, species, etc) are objectified in any particular work: the issue is what happens when it goes on systematically across many works.
+Rachel Blum I'm certainly not talking broadly about women in society as a whole. There are certainly issues regarding pay equity, safety, and so on that are nowhere close to being resolved. But, in books and shows and movies, I think it's much less of a problem than it used to be. I mean, just look at the Song of Ice and Fire books...non-objectified women everywhere (and far less likely than men to be skewered in battle, it seems).
Yes. It's a matter of perspective, of seeing through another's eyes. Good fiction should be all about that. Unfortunately, poor writers don't seem to have that much imagination; they tend to project themselves as the hero of the story.

What happens is that because the youthful, white, straight, male is the most prevalent character (in US culture), by definition any perspective outside of that is exceptional.

I once had someone explain to me that he couldn't get into [X] type of stories because there was nothing in his background or experience that he could connect to. And, I wondered silently that he didn't see how funny that was when he suggested I try things clearly outside my background or experience. Which I do! Not just because that what makes up most of the stories out the but because I think that's the whole point of fiction. To take you beyond your ordinary experience. To help you see different perspectives. To help you imagine lives other than your own. People think we need science fiction and fantasy for that. All they have to do to encounter the alien is look beyond their own gender, age, race, or national experience. There are worlds of otherness right here. 

For all that I agree with you, +Yonatan Zunger, I think assuming a default majority perspective is a bit different than objectification. The subject is the actor of the sentence and the object is acted upon. In being acted upon, regardless of gender or race, the objectified people lose their free will, their ability to act independently, and thus are stripped their humanity. They are simply props in the narrative (the woman who is sadistically tortured and murdered at the beginning of a cop show). Objects not people. So I see both your explanations as correct and not necessarily contradictory.

Whatever terminology we use, though, the important question is who is the actor? Who is the one actively making things happen in the story? Who is important? When you spend your entire life being shown as the ancillary character in other people's stories, you begin to forget that you are the hero of your own. Much more destructive, as you point out, is that the people who are used to being the hero are trained to unconsciously dismiss you as ancillary. They stop being able to see you as a character, as a human being, in your own right. That's what objectification means to me.
+Tony Bonavera I think you may be unaware of what "female circumcision" actually means. It has very little to do with what's normally meant by circumcision and I strongly recommend you not look it up if you're on a full stomach. 

You're completely right that the "man-as-dolt" is a really weirdly pervasive image in media, especially on sitcoms. It's somewhat different from objectification, but it's the same kind of mechanism of repeated narratives that can be dangerous. I think I'm going to write a separate article on the subject of how we learn from narratives later.
I hear "men's reproductive rights" and immediately think Life of Brian.
+Tony Bonavera I'd suggest you do some basic reading on the topic first. 

Female circumsision is the equivalent of cutting off the top of the penis, so please don't even go there. (I firmly believe male circumcision is wrong too, but comparing the two is, uh, not a good plan). Let's not even consider that female genital mutilation - let's call it what it is - is about denying women their sexuality. Male circumcision is about religious beliefs and has little to no impact on male sexuality.

Women get reproductive right because it is their body. As soon as you're able to carry a baby to term, you'll get them too, promised.
+Michael Durwin "Write what you know" is a really dangerous maxim for writers. :) It's most often directed at beginning writers, but I've seen it horribly misused even there -- it turns everything into autobiography.

Anyway, even if you are writing what you know, that doesn't mean that your text shouldn't explore the head-space of the people other than the protagonist. In fact, if the text doesn't, you're going to end up with a much weaker story, one that feels kind of cardboard like the protagonist is watching a movie. 

And like I said, having some people (not things! This is an issue about the writing of character) in object perspective is perfectly fine and normal. But too much of that makes the story shallow, and doing it systematically about categories of people makes the story weirdly fucked-up. 
+M Sinclair Stevens Assuming a default majority perspective is definitely different. I linked to +Mary Anne Mohanraj's article about the former mostly because I think that some of her prescriptions for dealing with it are equally applicable to objectification, because the moment you start enriching the character from a default-majority cardboard cutout, you're getting into their cognitive world as well. Short of just telling the reader "oh, his father owner a restaurant and died in the Nazi camps," anything you do to actually show that is going to force you, at least briefly, into that person's subject perspective. :)
+Yonatan Zunger, thanks for not only writing this excellent piece but for doing the work (apparently from high school on up!) to figure out what objectification is and why it matters.
+Meguey Baker To be quite honest, post-high school I thought the entire idea was stupid and kind of amusing. It's only after I figured this thing out -- many years later -- that I finally realized why it was important in the first place. :)
+Craig Froehle I don't deny there are works that don't objectify. (And I have no idea if "Song of Ice and Fire" specifically does or not). I am talking about media as a whole. 

And really, there's plenty of objectification going on in modern movies and TV. 

The issues you mention - pay equity, rape culture, etc. - get reinforced via that objectification. If the majority of media treats women that way, it reinforces the idea that it's OK to objectify them. As a result, it's OK to treat them differently. They don't matter as much.

That's why objectification is bad. If worse treatment in media is all it was, it'd be much less of an issue. (It'd still be an issue :)
+Yonatan Zunger That's also clear. What makes it remarkable is that you appear to have taken it on yourself to figure it out, even if it's taken years to come to it. It's really refreshing to read a clear and well-thought-out piece by someone who apparently decided to put in the effort themselves, instead of asking someone else to do the work for them.
+Michael Durwin   If people wrote only what they knew, we wouldn't have any science fiction, historical fiction, and (one would hope) a lot less crime fiction. What's the point of writing fiction if you can't imagine something other than you are.
+Michael Durwin Okay. I'm going to hit this point from a different perspective. Let's say everyone did write only what they knew. Let's say all authors projected themselves as the subject of their book. (Which I think is lazy writing...even within a book, it's nice to see characters other than the hero have their own points of view expressed, as +Yonatan Zunger pointed out.) 

If this were the case, then why doesn't literature, film, TV and other media reflect the actual demographics of this world. They don't. Currently we're stuck in self-perpetuating cycle. One group is the actor. Everyone else is simply a prop.  If you see it enough, you begin to believe that not only is the world that way, but that it's the right and proper way for the world to be.
+Yonatan Zunger

No, I literally mean female circumcision, like the clitoral hood which is similar to the foreskin on men, not removal of the clitoris itself. I remember seeing a really good documentary about a fad in the UK that was happening in regard to women having parts of their labia removed because they thought it looked more appealing to do that.. In the documentary it said it was one of the fastest growing forms of cosmetic surgeries in the UK for women.

The documentary is called 'The Perfect Vagina' and the people that produced it have put it up on Vimeo:

I think that is extreme but still it shows that not all forms of female genital cutting are as bad as people make it out to be because women are choosing to have it done as a form of cosmetic surgery.

I was just trying to give another example of how men and women still get treated badly in different ways with different biases socially and some of them are quite severe.

For example in the USA it's illegal to alter a girl's genitals in anyway unless it's to treat some kind of problem. Even the suggestion by the American Academy of Pediatrics for allowing parents to do a ritual nick was met with outrage and controversy ( ). And yet it's perfectly legal to completely remove parts of a boy's penis.

Ritual nick of girl's genitals - outrage.
Removal of a boys foreskin - crickets.

It's also culturally acceptable and comical for males of all ages to be hit or kicked in the genitals. When was the last time you saw the same in regard to females being clobbered in their genitals?

In some cases a woman hitting a guy in his nuts is seen as empowerment and control over the male - like a form of rape.
One more little example and then I've gotta dash...

There's the whole "woman as prize" type of objectification. Hero saves the world and gets the girl. This happens with men, too. Usually woman plots and contrives and tricks man into proposing to her. Both cases are equally heinous because they strip others of their humanity. People are not prizes. And no one is entitled to "win" them.
+Luis Roca I'll take a first pass at that question:

Exploitation is when you objectify a group for the explicit purpose of making money off of it.
+Luis Roca The purpose of the video is to sell albums, sell the band, etc.  The women are being objectified in order to encourage that commerce.

Your counterexample is both.  You're being put in every event photograph, not because you're talented, diligent and intelligent (although you are) but for an external value that you represent.  In other words, you are not the subject of the photograph, your ethnicity is.
+Tony Bonavera Really, it is not a "ritual nick". Removal or cutting of the clitoral hood impacts a woman's sex drive significantly. And I'm sure you understand the difference between adult women choosing to have that done, vs. applying it to girls without consent. (Let's not even go to the fact that most women choose this due to self-esteem issues around their vagina's look - something that's closely correlated to the prevalent objectification)

And no, it's not "crickets" about male circumcision, either. Plenty of people protest it. But it remains a fact that the vast majority of procedures on women proceed well beyond a change of the clitoral hood and carry huge safety risk, while male circumcision is a relatively safe operation. That'd explain some of the difference, no?
+Michael Durwin - 'write what you know' is a problem when most of the writers are from the same subset of the community. You'll end up with all the movies being about male out-of-work actors getting by on tips.
Exploitation is also when a writer places a woman in the story solely to serve as an incentive (one one level to the protagonist, really to the reader). It would also be objectification if each story had to have a nazi in it at some point. Or a Muslim jihadist, or a misogynist pig, or an alcoholic ex-marine, or a male prostitute with a heart of gold.

If they're placed, not at persons, but as an expected stereotype, then there's exploitation, and it's tied to the established objectification.
+Luis Roca I agree with +Gary Walker. To put it another way, exploitation is when the money goes to the pimp not the prostitute.

Not all exploitation is related to sex or gender. It happens when another profits from your talent or work. Many corporations exploit their workers. They objectify them, too, treating them like cogs in the machine rather than human beings. When corporations make decisions on working conditions, layoffs and benefits based solely on ROI, they have objectified their workers because they treat them as parts in the corporate machinery, replaceable and disposable. They don't factor in the human cost of their decisions. 

Once you have objectified someone, stripped them of their humanity, then it is quite easy to exploit them. You have stopped thinking of them as being a person just like yourself.
+Luis Roca I don't think I have a good enough handle yet on the uses of the word "exploitation" to write about it, unfortunately. :(
+Yonatan Zunger >  or the mook whose job it is to get gunned down on the way to the enemy base and whose only line is “urk!,”

Actually, that'd make for a more nuanced story. Pfft with all the enemy's soldiers being presumptively inhuman and worthy of death.
+Sai I agree, and I am reminded of a whole genre of independent films, where the perspective is shifted around the same events, showing them from shifting angles - or can I call them a genre because of a shared narrative gimmick? Probably not. I lack the correct word, being an amateur.
Great post. I only knew of the 'wrong' meaning and always thought of it as stupid. The correct one makes perfect sense.

But, I think action movies are actually a bad example if you wanted to put it in context of gender. Action movies have exactly one subject character — main hero character — everyone and everything else is objectified. The only thing that differs average action hero from the villain is that he chooses to do good and not evil, he doesn't particularly care about people being saved even, not to mention people standing in his/her way. Like +Craig Froehle said — it is general empathy issue. Women are just affected more, because it is usually easier to act upon them. But so are weak men.

So, no, I don't think putting couple of 'subject moments' here and there for the side characters is going to fix it (it'll make writing better, I give you that), because the problem is genre itself and it's message. And now comes the tricky part: is the message of being strong, determined and pursuing your goal no matter what wrong? What is better for the society: to tone down on strength, assertiveness and 'make-it-happen' attitude and risk turning docile and losing to another society that doesn't, or to find a way to make everyone strong? Not James Bond strong, but strong enough to deal with the Bonds on mental level.
Too long... if it takes that long to express... you don't know the subject
+Sai You're channeling the story that made me start thinking about these issues a few decades ago, Alexei Panshin's Rites of Passage 

From Wikipedia (because I'm too lazy to go searching through my books at the moment.)
The 1968 Nebula Award-winning novel Rite of Passage, by Alexei Panshin, mentions the protagonist's observations of the role of spear carriers in real life:

"A spear carrier is somebody who stands in the hall when Caesar passes, comes to attention and thumps his spear. A spear carrier is the anonymous character cut down by the hero as he advances to save the menaced heroine. A spear carrier is a character put in a story to be used like a piece of disposable tissue. In a story, spear carriers never suddenly assert themselves by throwing their spears aside and saying, ‘I resign. I don’t want to be used.’ They are there to be used, either for atmosphere or as minor obstacles in the path of the hero. The trouble is that each of us is his own hero, existing in a world of spear carriers. We take no joy in being used and discarded. I was finding then, that wet, chilly, unhappy night, that I took no joy in seeing other people used and discarded."
+Luis Roca I would actually go one step further and take the position that most commerce involves some degree of objectification of the other.  You must believe that you are getting a good deal, else you would not be willing to engage in the transaction.  If you are getting a good deal the implication is that the other party is not.  Very little commerce happens between equals.
+Michael Durwin No, "any woman" will not tell you that men have no idea what's going on inside their head. Most of us know quite well that there's a large amount of men who relate to us as a person, and strangely, as a consequence, understand just fine what we're thinking about.

In fact, there are great examples in literature of men writing very compelling women. Try Anna Karenina, for starters. Written buy a man in a time where women were much more likely to be treated like chattel, with first ideas of feminism coming from the main character.

As for J.K. Rowling, she has a girl hero. That'd be Hermione. 
+Luis Roca How much is the price of the unlocked Nexus 4 subsidized by Google?
This is a good explanation +Yonatan Zunger . Thank you for sharing this explanation for us, and as a personal story of something you have tried to understand in your life.

Reading this, I am reminded of something that I have tried to understand, is, what does it mean when a beautiful woman, who I know as kind sensitive loving person, and we are in love and making love, she says she likes to be objectified?

this isn't one woman, but several women I've been with say this. I never can get it, and just show them love like I know how, and usually it works out, but it's troubling!

Nice post! Just a tiny gripe, gta5 isn't out yet :3
+Sergey Galkin I don't think that action movies necessarily have to have everyone but the protagonist as object -- that's just lazy writing. Most protagonists have helpers, colleagues, friends, families -- not to mention antagonists. The more recent Bond movies, for example, did a pretty good job of that; the relationship between Bond and M in Skyfall, for example, feels really well-developed. 

There's a separate issue you alluded to, that some genres have the message that there's only one particular way to be strong. That's absolutely the case as well, and it's a whole separate issue to write about.
I think people are equal when they don´t assume to be objectified. 
+Michael Durwin I don't think that's actually true at all. Writers who can only write realistic characters who are basically versions of themselves aren't particularly good writers. I can think of lots of writers who have written fascinating characters who differ from them in any number of important ways, from the place or time period they live in, to their social class, to their gender, to their profession, to any number of things. 

(Actually, one of the best renderings of female characters I've ever seen in a book is by Terry Moore in  _Strangers in Paradise_ -- which is unfortunately a complete train wreck from a bunch of other perspectives, but damn, he seems to have an unnatural ability to capture women at a deep level.)
+Gary Walker I disagree as well -- trade isn't about coercion by its nature. (In fact, I'd argue that coercion is precisely the point at which free markets break down -- I've got another post in the making about that) A few days ago, I bought a rug from a man; we haggled over the price, and I'm pretty sure that he left thinking that he got a good deal, and I left thinking that I got a good deal, too. There was simply an overlap in the range of what the rug was worth to him, and what the rug was worth to me, and we settled on a point that was in the middle of both of our ranges.
How about this discussion, by the way? Is it objectification when men assume they have something relevant to say on the subject of how women are treated in fiction... to the point where relatively few women fit into the discussion? Or the result of objectification, perhaps?
That's probably the best explanation of objectification and what it really is that I've ever read. It's also one I can comfortably agree with (unlike many that have been spouted over the years).

However, I really can't relate to your description of how stories affect people. Perhaps it's just the examples you chose to use but I can't think of a case where I carry fiction into my real life.
+Yonatan Zunger I don't think coercion enters into it either.  I was simply speaking to the degree to which we tend to depersonalize other parties in commerce.  I'm sure you and the guy you bought the rug from both walked away happy.  I'm sure Google is as happy with selling +Luis Roca a Nexus 4 at a subsidized price point as he is buying it.
+Gary Walker We sometimes do it, but I don't think it's intrinsic to commerce. At least, I hope not...
+Andreas Geisler I really hope that women don't feel that they can fit into this discussion -- and I see quite a few here, not to mention on other reshare threads of this. 
+Eoghann Irving I had a lot of trouble with writing a good example for this, but it's something I actually want to write about a lot more. I picked some fairly crude examples (GTA and so on) but the phenomenon itself is generally a lot more subtle. I'm reminded about the old suggestions that Ronald Reagan thought he was living in a Western, for example -- not that he literally thought he should ride in on a horse, but that he tended to see the world as split into Good Guys and Bad Guys, that certain kinds of bravado would always win the day, and so on. It was an absorption of narrative tropes into his way of framing problems. And I think we all do that: I can think of quite a few books which really influenced me, for example, and shaped the way I tended to see conflicts or challenges. (Dune would be a major example of that)
It is always possible +Yonatan Zunger that I am simply not aware of this happening in my life.. Or possibly my penchant for over-analysing everything just gets in the way.

But when I look at my reading preferences and compare them with how I  approach life, there is really not that much in common. Of course I have always rejected hero worship and role models.

Never the less I think you make a lot of excellent points. It was just that element that didn't really connect with me.
I think - at least with regards to advertising - on top of the cultural backdrop that incentivizes certain roles (which would otherwise be chosen by fewer), men will tend to respond more to visual stimulus than women. So I do believe even in a more egalitarian world, you would still find a disproportionate amount of women (advertising) in object roles. Since you will still find women willing to pose and such media will be able to move products. As long as it was a choice one must not enforce the matter. Ideally, society would be educated enough to realize this hack speaks less of men than to generalize an object role on women.

But that is a seperate from the issue of women having less meaningful roles in told stories. I think part of that problem is that there are plenty of women who buy into this notion of a woman's proper place and I wonder if they are not a majority of the dominant age group. And so the people pushing blockbusters are risk averse and do not wish to push any envelopes with regards to the story they think people want to hear. And so the cycle is fed.

At least that partially accounts for how overtly sexicst people are a minority in today's society yet we continue to find so much objectification (i'll also clarify I don't think overt sexicsm is the problem, it's the subtle stuff that accumulates to create waay more drag for women trying to make progress).
+Rachel Blum

No that doesn't explain the difference at all. What does explain the difference is a bias toward protecting the female sex and not protecting the male sex.

It shouldn't matter to you that male circumcision can be done safely if you are opposed to similar procedures being done to females. How can you defend non-therapeutic male circumcision for boys while oppose it for girls?

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggested that parents be allowed to do a ritual nick to satisfy their cultural needs. Not remove anything, not disfigure. Yet that was viewed as horrible while removing part of a boys penis is perfectly acceptable still.

There is obviously some kind of disconnect happening between the sexes and how treatment and respect to ones body is being viewed. It's definitely not equal and it reminds of how there is a similar disconnect in regard to how the sexes view objectification. It's like how differing perspectives can allow suffering or unequal treatment to go unnoticed.
There never fails to be someone who must insist upon playing derailment Bingo.  

In other news, thank you +Yonatan Zunger for the insightful words you've added to the discussion here.  It's full of clarity and I hope that it helps people come to a better understanding about this particular issue as you've described it and as it pertains to storytelling.
+Tony Bonavera, I think that we're going very far afield at this point. Let's move discussions of circumcision to a separate thread.
+Juaquin Anderson I just saw your comment now, and I think it's a really interesting question. I suspect that someone telling you this means something very different by "being objectified" than the sort of objectification we're talking about here. My guess -- and it's only a guess, not knowing the women in question and not knowing the context -- is that what you're really hearing in those cases is an urge to be treated, for a time and by someone they already know cares about them, as a fundamentally sexual being. It may be tied in to any number of fantasies about consent, dominance, or other topics. And I suspect that +A.V. Flox would have a much wiser answer than me about this.
Sexual and social status objectification are high up there on the list.
Interactions become more about playing a role in order to achieve, acquire or gain access to something. Soooo... men are objectified as well, but normally for the status that can be accessed through them, not generally as a sexual prize.
Reading back through the thread, I don't dismiss out of hand  +Craig Froehle's point that men are also objectified in Bond films and the like, for example, when they're the bad guys for the hero to blow up. This is exactly the point that Alexei Panshin was making in describing spear carriers. "A spear carrier is the anonymous character cut down by the hero as he advances to save the menaced heroine. A spear carrier is a character put in a story to be used like a piece of disposable tissue."

Perhaps the better measure of inequality is not looking at how often we objectify women versus men, blacks versus whites, gays versus straights but how often we subjectify them. Wasn't that the original question? Who is the protagonist, the character with whom we identify? The person through whose eyes we see the events unfold.  And this can also include the antagonists, or supporting characters if they written in a way that we also are able to empathize with their viewpoints, root for their victories and cry during their defeats. 

I hate seeing this discussion break down into gender wars. The point of being able to recognize objectification is understanding which characters are a one-dimensional plot devices. Some thing to be used as a hurdle or a reward. Not a person at all.

Maybe tomorrow's word for the day should be subjectification.
+Juaquin Anderson What +Yonatan Zunger said :) There are many issues that can play into this. Some women do indeed have the wish to explore this side of their sexuality in a setting that they know to be safe. Take it as a compliment they even discuss it with you - it often means sharing a very deeply buried part of their desires. And it means they trust you enough to be vulnerable to you.

I'd love to say that's the only reason, and kink is a fun thing to explore - but there's a flip side to this. Some women think this is what men want to hear, and think this is a way to treat men nicely. And then there are women who have issues with their self-esteem and see themselves as "deserving" to be treated badly. (In which case she needs a therapist, not sex.)

Ultimately, only you two can figure out where the desire comes from, and if it is something that both of you wish to explore, and should explore.

(And I'm absolutely looking forward to +A.V. Flox 's take on this, too)
+M Sinclair Stevens I like that phrasing of it. The problem (as I was trying to highlight, but this is something that's always easy to ignore) isn't that particular people are objects in some stories -- it's always about the systematics, about some groups of people always being object, or equivalently never being subject.

A good post on subjectification, and what it means to see a character's perspective, would be a great idea. It should probably be written by an actual writer of fiction, though, so I'm out. :)
Many women know how easily men can be manipulated salaciously. How overt or covert that manipulation is depends on the awareness of the man, of course. But apparently the male brain is wired to respond to sexual stimuli in a steeper curve than the female brain. This is a generalization, of course, and not true for all individuals, ymmv, etc.
Of course there are many other forms of social manipulations that can be carried out, based on whatever people are motivated by.
So, in terms of getting what one wants out of another person, it would seem that is the approach sometimes taken. Personally, I find an indirect approach such as this to be objectification.
I would add, a more skilled female is capable of conducting such activities under the radar. But then again, the same could be said about a male in such a position, or any position for that matter, of manipulation.
In any area of practice the question then becomes, are you obvious? or subtle?
+M Sinclair Stevens FWIW on subjectification: I find that this is a pretty major issue in politics, religion, etc. People on a given side are often pretty much totally ignorant of what the other side actually thinks, rather than their perversion of it to fit the role of the evil antagonist in their own story.

Further, if you try to subjectivize them, you get branded part of them, the enemy, etc.
That post was well written. I'm surprised that you didn't mention the Bechdel Test in the main post, but it was brought up in the comments.

That said, now I want to read the story where the hero rescues the evil Wombat Lord!
A.V. Flox
I have been summoned! I have a lot to say about this topic, +Yonatan Zunger, but I'll begin by addressing +Juaquin Anderson's comment.

I think, Juaquin, that the reason this topic is so important to write about -- as Yonatan has done here -- is that it's often conflated with sex. Objectification is about seeing individuals as passive participants instead of protagonists in their own stories. This can be sexual but it needn't always be the case.

In the context you give, of a woman who is with you and feels cherished, I see it, as +Rachel Blum suggests, as a way of letting you know that she wants you to take the initiative in sex. The reason BDSM comes up is that it's a very well-structured dynamic that enables people to take active or passive roles for a specified time, for the experience these enable, without blotting out their individuality.

Your partners may not have been referring to bondage, but simply to a sexual dynamic where you are more vocal about your desire, or more active in leading the proceedings. As with anything else, people have preferences in their desires, and there's nothing wrong with taking the role of receiver provided you remember that the person in that role is individual, and exists beyond your desires and expectations.

So long as this is clear, there's no danger in taking any role you wish within your interactions.
+A.V. Flox FTW as usual.  here's what I almost wrote when I was dragging things off toward economics but didn't and probably should have:

Objectification isn't, of itself, good or bad, but rather just something human beings do.  We can't see everyone and everything as subject all the time.  Can you imagine how tiring that would be?  Not merely the people you interact with significantly, but everyone?  Human empathy is a very important evolutionary development.  The ability to de-emphasize that empathy is just as important.
+M Sinclair Stevens wrote:
"Maybe tomorrow's word for the day should be subjectification."

An excellent idea -- although I don't agree with +Yonatan Zunger that this requires a fabulist to address.  Perhaps you would care to expand on what you've already written? 

I think this is a crucial idea that molds social policy and social consciousness is myriad ways. History is generally taught as the actions of the perceived subjects of history.  If an entity is not presented as a subject, de facto they have been, to at least some degree, erased from history.  A simple example:

The Articles of Confederation are generally taught to be the product of the Second Continental Congress - the Euro-American participants of this Congress are subjectified as the creators of this document and the concepts it represents.  However, at the time of Second Continental Congress, the American colonies had a complex political relationship with the Iroquois League, whose presence has been considered a pressing reason for the colonies to unite and/or whose structure of government was the original inspiration for the Articles themselves.  Because the Iroquois League is rarely subjectified in US history, most students believe that the aboriginal North Americans had no role (significant or otherwise) in the creation of the US as an independent nation.   
+Sai I wasn't suggesting that we always see the point of view of the antagonist. What I was saying was that we're spinning  our wheels here crying about which gender (age, race, etc) is most often objectified (the acted upon prop or plot device in a story) when the real inequality is actually in how infrequently they are the subject of the story, the actor (by which I mean the active participant).

However, when you mentioned telling a story from the political or religious opposition's point of view, I thought for a moment I could use as an example the story of the Good Samaritan. But no. The story is told through the point of view of the person who is beaten and robbed, not from the point of view of the Samaritan who is just inserted in the story to prove a point.

As you say, such attempts are ripe for criticism from both sides, as humorously illustrated here:
Jesus Teaches About "The Good Samaritan"
+Gary Walker I agree that always actively regarding others as subjects can be fragmenting and exhausting.  However, I think the critical issue is the frequency with which we fail to consider others as having the possibility of being subjects.
+Gary Walker As Yonatan pointed out in the original post, we're not talking about subjectifying every guy who sells the protagonist a bottle of water. This is about recognizing who gets to be the subject of the story, how often, and why. Is there a marked disparity between the demographics of fiction and the demographics of reality in the terms of whose stories are spotlighted? And even among those people who are merely props in the plot (the guy selling the water) is there away to humanize them, to give them a character trait or backstory, to provide as +D. Luria refers to as the sense of possibility that they could be subjects of some other story.

Walk down the street. You might not know or care that all the people you see are looking back at you through the lenses of their own subjectivity. You needn't empathize with all of them to understand the concept that they each have their own story. Right?

To see other people only as pawns, as a means to one's ends, is sociopathic. Or lazy fiction.
I like Asimov's take on the story of the Good Samaritan. 
I did a script-writing course a while ago - one of the things we covered was that all protagonists get a story arc - that is, they change and learn over the course of the story.
Any character who doesn't change, is not a character, but more like part of the setting - or a trigger, maybe, for the plot.
To take it away from gender, your basic 'hero's journey' has a wise elder early on in the story to guide the hero.  Often, they function as a bit of a guidepost in the story, not really a character in their own right.  (Think Glinda the good witch in the Wizard of Oz)
In a good story, even the romantic lead who functions as the reward for the hero should get a story arc of their own.
not everyone is susceptible to adopting repeated messages as truth.  there's a term for this in advertising (which escapes me at the moment)
but the opposite happens, the more the message is repeated the more we (i happen to be one of them) tend to think that the whole thing is just bull%$#  
Very cool, I thought I knew what objectification meant. Thanks
+M Sinclair Stevens   "Who is the protagonist, the character with whom we identify?"   You bring up a lot of good points.  Are we starting to enter the territory of the financial realities of the way movies are designed?  There is some sort of feedback loop here that can probably be addressed by people much smarter than me: movie makers/script writers know darn well what types of protagonists audiences would like to see in their movies and cast them accordingly.  Similarly, they know what tropes to aim for, which objects to include/exclude, plot points that are successful/unsuccessful, etc.  Movies are being constructed through data-mining and logistic regression procedures to optimize box-office intake to the point of re-writing various movie lines because of a higher probability than the intended audience will find such lines funnier.   Modern movies are indeed formulaic.  Because they can make gobs of money that way: we, as audiences, want to see it (the constructed movie).  Which provides positive feedback to the system, and we loop through the cycle again.   

In a more ideal world, where hundreds of millions of dollars aren't on the line, the cycle could be broken by responsible movie-makers and script-writers by only creating movies/stories that essentially randomize the character attributes assigned to the protagonist and supporting cast (completely eliminates accusations of bias in any direction), eliminate forms of objectification that are viewed as negative by our culture, and so on.   
Addressing the point +Eoghann Irving brought up, of not being all that certain he's that influenced by a piece of fiction, I think it's not necessarily clear which is the chicken or egg, or that there is a meaningful distinction.

Maybe we're influenced by this type of objectification in fiction to turn around and practice it on people.

Maybe because we tend to objectify various classes of people, we turn around and produce entertainment that does so.

Maybe we've got a positive feedback loop going in which both are actually true.
Ah right +M Sinclair Stevens , you take the dual case, instead of boosting the symmetry on who is objectified, focus on addressing the asymmetry in the subjects. 

At least with minorities that one is simple, if your target is the widest possible audience then you do not want a subject that is other to the majority.

The issue of lack of interesting subjects that are women (who are not minorities in any sensible reading of the word) is much harder. I think in part is cultural momentum. Women as backdrop was taken as a given back in the day and both genders bought into such treatment. If you read papers, articles and even writings by luminaries (men) from back then (including Asimov) it is disgusting what their use of language takes as obvious when talking about women. It will take a generation or two before the echoes of beliefs from time past, fades. But still, I think things are continually better than they were with regards to interesting female subjects. In movies, tv, books and games. 
I agree with +Andrew Piscitello that the structure of most blockbusters is pretty rigid. I have no idea who the typical audience of action/sci fi summer movies is, but if it were mostly male then I understand why the executives would cast mostly hetero square-jawed not-book-worm male subjects (from a merely psycho-statistical understanding). And even when casting female, fan service concessions is nearly always in the form of impractical attire that has trouble staying together. Similarly, if it is the case that purposefully predictable wedding date movies does well with women then such stereotyping will persist. I think this is now mostly an issue of profit maximizing than subjugation.

So in summary, I think we are past the point where women are expected to act only at the behest of men (developed world at least) but these object roles persist in stories because. Unlike say the issue of equal pay and glass ceilings, the issue of damsels does not provide a united front amongst women. But despite the fact that clichéd roles continue (due to demographics and box office receipts whatever), we do see many more strong female leads. In movies, in the depiction of princesses, on tv and in games. 

And for books, you have always been able to find strong women subjects.
A.V. Flox
+Gary Walker, I think objectification is bad because it's not simply the act of being momentarily unable to empathize, but rather the consistent inability to do so, reinforced by unspoken social constructs of what types of people are more fit (and to some, more natural) protagonists.

Think, for instance, about the Metroid franchise. It was such a shocker to discover Samus was a woman. This is not a momentary lack of empathy for women, but the result of centuries of narrative that star men in roles of the hero. It's a problem. We've made some limited advances here, but we're still lacking strong protagonists in our narratives of people of different races, sexual orientation, body-ability, and so on. This matters.
+Rachel Blum - You mentioned the Fire and Ice series.  One thing it's almost too good at is not objectifying the participants.  You're deeply inside the heads of a wide range of characters, some better than others, some good, some bad, some both.  male, female, young, old.  It's a tremendously wide and nuanced point of view.  It's one of the things that I love about the series.

disclaimer:  haven't watched it, just read N-1 books (ran out of stamina for the savagery of the world, and then it was too heavy to pack for the move to Paris).
"You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door." —Zork

I talked about this thread with my son this morning and he mentioned that he was made aware of subjectification (who actively propels the story) quite early in his life because of  his books like the "Choose Your Own Adventure" series and video games like "Zork" where the protagonist are written in the second person.

The hero of these stories is always "you" and so can be any race, color, age, gender, or nationality. Thus he was able to imagine the hero as such, both projecting himself as he was and imagining the story as played by the Japanese girl next to him. He said he found it quite jarring when video games became graphical and the game's version of the hero constrained his own imagination.
+M Sinclair Stevens There was a graphic novel that nobody bought that Epic put out in the late 80's called The One where a kind of oversoul character determined that the fundamental error in human beings was eyes.  They focus so much of our attention that they raise trivial differences to the point where they give rise to segregations of all people into groups of us and them.
Fire and Ice has different issues with gender relationships than objectifying.  But I think that's outside the scope of this thread.
+Gary Walker I suppose I would write it just the opposite way...a multi-bodied entity who can see though many eyes. It takes two points of view to see in perspective. That's why we have two eyes, to perceive additional dimension. So,  the more the merrier.

I think it was one of +Dan Ariely's "Predictably Irrational" studies that demonstrated people favored their group no matter how arbitrary and short-term those group assignments are (people assigned randomly to groups that were then referred by a color name: red, green, blue). Knowing this can be used for team-building but only if you build your team by excluding and tearing down other teams.

Sadly that's what we do with all identity politics. While there is certainly good to be had in discovering that there are people like us in the world, that we are not solitary, it all goes sour as soon as we start building ourselves up by tearing others down. This happens individually but it happens more effectively when you can ally yourself with a powerful group.

When diverse groups work together, we all build and benefit. When they don't, we're just scrabbling over the same pile of scraps. 

One important role that fiction plays is that it provides the possibility for us to glimpse the world through another set of eyes. There are 7 billions sets of eyes on this planet right now. I don't think fiction is currently keeping up with the boundless variety of reality.
Thank you +Yonatan Zunger , you just helped me figure out why I like the Song of Fire and Ice series so much. Excellent commentary!
I'm actually  more disturbed by the blatant assumption that no one can possibly write about anything other than what they themselves are.

How sad.  How unimaginative.
+Michael Durwin I'm not sure what exactly called for an ad hominem here. It's perfectly valid to voice our expectations of writers even though we aren't at all, or we aren't as accomplished.

And the issue is not that good books and movies are few and far, but that the bad ones all pretty significantly skew in one direction. And let's please not blame the unavailability of high-end media like movies on amateur or lightly talented writers. While I have a lot of grievances about Hollywood, the people working there are certainly anything but amateurs or lightly talented..
In a related, true life story, I found it interesting that +Max Huijgen describes Edward Snowden's problem as one of objectification and losing sight of the human element.

"The net effect of being isolated in Hong Kong is that Edward Snowden became an ‘ object’, a part of a huge roller coaster in which he was just an instrument for all parties involved.  A chess piece in world relations as well as for personal egos."
I did not understand one word of what you were getting at. To me, objectification is fairly simple, but then, maybe I've got it wrong.  It's when men see women only one way and don't see the person as a human being with her own thoughts. In other words, every single time a guy hits on me just be looking at me, he is objectifying me. He isn't seeing me. He is seeing a woman - a thing, something that interests him for whatever reason, but it's his reason, not mine. If he saw me as a human being, he would have seen me as a an object, i.e. without feelings, emotions, thoughts, etc. 
+Michael Durwin English words have multiple senses. "Objectification" as a synonym for "apotheosis" (something very bizarre -- where did you find this synonym list?) is separate from "objectification" in the sense used in literary criticism.
+Michael Durwin Exactly. Spear carriers. We call this "personifying" a role but that's not what actually happens. Instead the person is stripped of personhood to play a role. It's a mask, a cardboard stand-in of the person. Often unnamed. "Sales clerk." "Bad guy." "Antagonist." "Mentor". That's why one of the  criteria of the Bechdel test is that the characters have names—a first step, to identifying them as people and not just props (objects) used to forward the action.
+Michael Durwin In really lazy writing, all the characters are objectified. They are merely exist as pawns of the plot, with no subjectivity at all. This is true even of the cardboard cutout protagonist. 

I suspect I've just revealed my bias for character-driven, as opposed to plot-driven, fiction. I'm of the school of writing that says if you create fully realized characters, plot will evolve organically from their own inner conflicts.

As children we typically begin our introduction to literature with fairy tales and parables. Princess. Evil Sorcerer. Or even Good Samaritan. Apparently many fiction writers never move beyond that level. But, that's okay. There's room in our calendar for those days when we just want chase scenes and things blowing up.
 +M Sinclair Stevens Nothing that bores me more than a character driven story. I avoid them like poison. I think people who write character driven stories have no imagination. 
Man. My brain always gets a good workout reading your post which is good lol!.

You really did go deep into this hot topic and it is very insightful so thanks.

As compsci graduate i have always known what objectifying means from a compsci perspective as we have been taught to think Objects all the time.

Didn't know about its deeper meaning from an English language perspective. To be fair though i have always scuked at English,. still do hehe.

It is interesting your connection with relationships. Objects with attributes and methods, relationships with other objects as i see in compsci.

For the life of me i have never thought about it in person to person relationship. As much as we try and abstract it in real life it is never ever that simple. 

Without thinking about it i am guilty of objectifying in this sense or stereotyping groups of people in my life as the selfish group or the useless group etc. I didn't really thought much about it until now which in itself is the real problem as you mentioned. Good to know now rather than later.
Done! Public post if anyone wants it:

Intro (for non-Spanish speakers): This morning the fantastic +Yonatan Zunger shared a post ( about an article in The Onion (the English version of The World Today) which I love and shared some time ago and which also brought a reference to an old post of his I had missed (the one I share below) ... and it's so brilliant that I asked permission to translate the whole thing* to give it wider dissemination, there it goes # bigpostincoming

* In case you are interested, lately I usually translate by putting the whole text in Google Translate, and then reviewing all the mistakes and tweaking for greater fluidity. But it takes away a lot of the core work and so I have not died in translating this XD
I've tried to keep it faithful, it's mostly translation rather than interpretation. :-) 
There were complains of using women in beer ads.  Strangely it seems to be a global standard to use blue liquid in sanitary pad ads.
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