Objectification as Negotiation: Re-Examining the Agency of Targets

Scott Weiner, Adjunct Professor, George Washington University, sweiner@gwu.edu

Women’s bodies are sites of politics. Whether it’s harassment of women breastfeeding in public or a teenage chess player kicked off Iran’s national team for refusing to cover her hair, the female form is evidently a topic of great concern to politicians. Scholars often talk about these cases, which objectify women’s bodies, as examples of patriarchy. However, the relationship between objectification and patriarchy may be less clear than it appears at first glance.

In January 2017, topless protesters from the activist group FEMEN disrupted the unveiling of a wax statue of US President Donald Trump in Spain. FEMEN explicitly uses the self-objectification of its women to make political points. How, then, should we understand its actions? Are FEMEN’s actions feminist because these women choose to express themselves as they please? Or are they anti-feminist because they capitulate to social and political forms of objectification in order to make these points? Why do women choose to self-objectify in certain cases?

One of the most commonly-accepted answers to this question comes from work by Professor Deniz Kandiyoti. Kandiyoti argues that women who choose to objectify are “bargaining with patriarchy.” In other words, they are playing a losing hand as best they can in order to advance at best and survive at worst. Kandiyoti’s argument is persuasive for many cases of objectification, but not all. It’s unconvincing, for example, to argue that FEMEN activists are forced to engage in topless protest. In fact, many feminists oppose FEMEN’s tactics outright.

Less extreme examples of self-objectification also show us that objectification isn’t always patriarchal. Many women who cover their hair do so out of a sense of social or political obligation. Others, however, do so willingly and freely as a way of expressing their identity. One example is Linda Sarsour a leader of the Women’s March in Washington on January 21, 2017. Sarsour is a feminist activist, but she is also a Palestinian-American who covers her hair as a personal choice.

Our inability to account for women who self-objectify is problematic. Assuming every woman who self-objectifies is oppressed risks denying these women a sense of agency. It also makes a sweeping generalization about billions of women and the choices they make. We can overcome these problems, however, by analyzing objectification as a negotiation between women, objectifiers, and the social context at hand. Sometimes women are forced into objectification by social expectations or the expectations of those around them. Other times, however, they may use objectification strategically to achieve some other goal. Whether a given case constitutes a choice to objectify depends on the woman. Some people, for example, may understand wearing a heeled shoe to a job interview as an objectifying expectation imposed from the outside against their will. Others may choose to accept this objectification freely on the grounds that it can be strategic to appear taller. Differentiating between the two is difficult, but it acknowledges that women can be the arbiters of their own experiences.

As of late, many discussions of self-objectification focus on hijab or the covering of the head by Muslim women. There are those who argue women are forced to cover, or that their so-called decision to cover is the result of what Superson terms “deformed-desires.” In other words, women who say they want to cover have internalized patriarchy rather than deciding freely. Other scholars argue that wearing hijab is a matter of free will. Abu Lughod points out that covering can be a way of showing membership in a global Muslim community. In reality, both interpretations can be true. Acknowledging the social, religious, and political pressures Muslim women sometimes face to cover is important for advancing feminism in the communities in which they live. At the same time, acknowledging that some women cover by choice avoids, as Abu Lughod puts it, the concept that “Muslim women need saving.” Ultimately the experience of the woman herself determines whether objectification is a choice.

We can also see self-objectification at play on the opposite end of the clothing coverage spectrum. In 2014 during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, women posted pictures on Facebook with pro-military slogans written across their bare bodies. These pictures were clearly objectifying, but the women chose to do so as a way of drawing attention to their support of the IDF. Were these women capitulating to patriarchy or using their bodies in an empowered way? Ultimately it is the experience of the woman herself that makes the difference.

In giving voice to otherwise voiceless women, feminism must take care not to speak on behalf of those who can speak for themselves. Broadening our understanding of objectification gives feminist scholars and activists a broader set of tools to capture the diverse individual experiences of women.