Objectifying Women to Save Them is Problematic (But Not New)

Objectifying Women to Save Them is Problematic (But Not New) August 3, 2016

Is the only way to “save” women to frame them as sexual objects?

Photo from Unsplash by Kate Zaidova.
Photo from Unsplash by Kate Zaidova.

A friend drew my attention to this Canadian ad about oil, which claims that lesbians are hot, and Saudi Arabia considers being a lesbian a death sentence, so why get oil from there?

Women are sexy, so let’s keep them safe! …except what does that say about women who don’t fit normative ideas of sexiness, women who don’t conform to the male gaze, women who choose not to be pleasing to men, women who don’t want men at all, women who aren’t pristinely white or middle-class or cisgender? Do we still need to justify protecting them by establishing their sex appeal?

We’ve seen this in breast cancer campaigns. Pop culture of the Victorian era objectified the female body in various ways (through the corset, hair, and other accoutrements and body parts) to simultaneously sexualize it and medicalize it. The objectification of black women as hypersexual Jezebels was used to justify their enslavement and rape. Melissa Gira Grant has written extensively about the objectifying discourses used to eradicate sex worker agency and frame female sex workers as needing to be saved.

All of these exemplify the traits of sexual objectification outlined in Ms. Magazine (written as a test for visual imagery, which has accompanied many of the movements described above). Attributing agency is tough, yes; the celebrated history of pin-ups girls suggests that a lot of folks like the idea of women with just enough spunk and personality, but who still appear safe and eager to please. Still, it’s worth talking about.

See also: What You Need to Know About Artists Consenting to Sexual Objectification

If you see images like these ones – that literally cut up women into objects, make their bodies seem interchangeable, and highlight their sexual availability above all else – then draw attention to them. Ask what purpose they might serve. And ask whether maybe, just maybe, we’re doing women a disservice by implying that their sexual appeal is the reason they deserve help and humanity.

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