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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