Monday, February 4, 2008

Objectification

One problem with language is that so many words have more than one meaning that it’s easy to get confused. Of course confusion about one’s assumptions and intuitive models, and the degree to which such things don’t correspond to others’ thinking can occur even when the words supposedly have only the one meaning. The weasel word here is “supposedly.”

When you get down to the nitty gritty, a common word like “object” can be a real poser (or should that be poseur?). Thus do I charge headlong into the sexual politics of the phrase “objectification of women.”

One very common interpretation of this phrase can be encapsulated in a similar utterance: “treating her as a piece of meat.” That, of course, also alludes to the phrase “piece of ass,” or just abbreviated to “piece.” Carried further, a woman becomes a collection of piece parts, breasts, legs, ass, abs, or sternocleidomastoids (to use an anatomical part that I find particularly pleasing).

The attachment of sexual desire to inanimate or impersonal objects is actually a fetish, though I’ll agree that “objectification” is easier to pronounce than “fetishization.” Both Freudian and Behavioral psychology have a lot to say about the role of the fetish in sex, with Freudians holding it as an example of the projection of sexual desire, while behaviorists suggest that operant conditioning is the key to understanding. I have no quarrel with either mechanism and I’m willing to believe that both apply.

The psychologist Nathaniel Branden, Ayn Rand’s lover/collaborator (before their nasty breakup) told a story of one of his patients, a full-fledged Lothario complex, who would speak of his conquests as “mere receptacles.” Branden suggested that he conduct a thought experiment. Suppose that one could construct a perfect female replica; this was pre-Stepford Wives, but that was the clear intent. Make a simulacrum of a woman out of plastic and rubber, totally lifelike, down to the genitalia, animated by motors and actuators. Would the Lothario find such a construct a desirable partner for sex?

“God, no!” was the reply.

Despite novelty “blowup dolls” (sold more often as gag gifts than as real sexual objects, I suspect), and other mechanisms, I believe that Branden’s patient’s response is typical. What is called “objectification” isn’t about reducing women to mere material objects; it is about using women as objects of fantasy, which is not the same thing at all.

In Peter O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise books, Modesty’s response to rape (and her history includes a number of such incidents) was to separate her consciousness from the event, thereby depriving the rapist of anything other than her physical presence. She refuses emotional connection, depriving the rapist of real domination. Within the context of the Blaise books, it is yet another indication of the primacy of the heroine’s will, her power over self. It also illustrates a thwarting of rape, and what that implies. Fetishization and the preference for a fantasy object is certainly depersonalizing insofar as it ignores the reality of the Other. In a sense, it denies the objective reality of someone else’s subjective experience. It is another pathological adherence to an internal model, a fixed idea about the external world.

Recognizing that we are dealing with the elevation of fantasy over reality in such cases also allows the realization that this is not a problem confined to men alone. Women crave the fantasy ideal as surely as do men; their fantasies tend to differ, however. It’s an open question as to what degree these differences are learned or innate. What is indisputable is that 1) they vary from individual to individual and 2) they are malleable.

The late comedian Richard Jeni had a bit where he suggested that the standard porn film is most men’s idea of a romantic film with all the boring parts left out. Compare and contrast that with the notion of the “chick flick,” which supposedly is nothing but the (for men) boring bits.

The clear implication is that romance is collaboration, and collaboration is hard, no matter what the circumstances. It’s hard to tell whether the fantasies of men and women are converging or diverging at this time; that’s a project that’s well beyond my own capabilities, and, for that matter, my interests. But simple observation and personal experience suggests that success is possible at the level of individuals, and that’s where my sympathies lie, in this as in so many other things.

1 comment:

black dog barking said...

Fantasy is that which, when you start believing in it, makes the world go away.