Objectification (specifically, sexual objectification) "occurs when a person is seen as a sexual object when their sexual attributes and physical attractiveness are separated from the rest of their personality and existence as an individual, and reduced to instruments of pleasure for another person."
The Sexy Lie test
Caroline Heldman gives seven criteria to examine an image against. In case there is one or more "yes" answer, then that image features sexual objectification.
- Does the image show only part(s) of a sexualized person's body?
- Does the image present a sexualized person as a stand-in for an object?
- Does the image present a sexualized person as interchangeable [with other similarly sexualized persons or other objects represented as available]?
- Does the image affirm the idea of violating the bodily integrity of a sexualized person who can't consent? I.e. is that person acted upon as though they were a sexual object?
- Does the image suggest that sexual availability is the defining characteristic of the person?
- Does the image show a sexualized person as a commodity, something that can be bought and sold?
- Does the image use a sexualized person's body as a canvas?
In discussions of media and especially gaming, a common silencing tactic often used to counter accusations of sexually objectified female characters is to say the male characters are just as objectified. This argument misunderstands (deliberately or otherwise) the difference between a power fantasy and sexual fantasy and is a classic example of false equivalence.
A power fantasy is a character the audience is presumed to want to be. They are often sexy, but their main appeal isn't relegated to their sexuality. Male characters are often talented, respected, and otherwise powerful before their physical appeal is evaluated. They are shown in poses and environments exerting control over the world around them. They have total agency. Most male characters aren't made to be sexually attractive to a majority of players. Exaggerated musculature is intended to appeal to a male viewer's desire for power.
A sexual fantasy involves a character the audience is presumed to view as sexual in nature before anything else. Such characters are almost exclusively female. Regardless of context, their sexual attributes are given foremost attention. They wear outfits ill-suited for their roles (the classic example being skimpy armor and heels in battle), move and pose to the male gaze. Female characters have exaggerated characteristics popular culture deems sexually ideal, such as tiny waist with disproportionately large breasts and butts. Their portrayal is intended to begin and end only with the male viewers. They usually have no sexual agency.
None of this is to say examples of female power fantasies or male sexual fantasies don't exist, but on a systemic level across the majority of media, it's vice versa.
- see Further reading link to her talk The Sexy Lie
- Wikipedia on Sexual objectification
- Ways of Objectifying
- Designer / Writer Meg Stivison writes about a misogynistic promo Http://simpsonsparadox.com/2013/01/two-steps-back.html
- video: The Sexy Lie: Caroline Heldman at TEDxYouth@SanDiego: on what sexual objectification is, why "sexy" isn't empowering, self-objectification
- comic strip: Empowerment vs Objectification
- Peggy Orenstein on the difference between sexuality and sexualization: In short: sexualization is performance; it’s all about being desirable to others. Sexuality is understanding and connecting to your own desire. (...) This distinction between sexuality and sexualization is not made often enough. If you’re against the sexualization of girls, it’s often concluded that you’re somehow anti-sex (...)