This piece is a companion to the Dean-O-Files podcast #36, published 4/17. It can be found on Alternative Internet Radio.
Simone de Beauvoir is widely recognized as the single most influential philosopher in the history of feminist thought and one of the greatest figures in all of existentialism. Her views, though, have been read in an increasingly selective way as time and feminism have moved on, and this has resulted in misunderstandings of the ideas that Beauvoir developed. Not the least of which is the concept of the subject-object relationship, including the resulting notion of “objectification.”
In “The Second Sex,” Beauvoir makes statements that would not be well received by some feminists today. She recognizes and legitimizes the differences between men and women while maintaining that those differences should not be a basis for the cultural or social subordination of women. In modern neo-feminist thought (for these purposes, the word I’ll use to describe the people addressed here), such a view is near blasphemous. Simply to mention the fact that there are differences between men and women deserves derision, as a statement of difference implies an admittance of resulting differences in aptitudes. Regardless of what those aptitudes are or how little they actually matter, such a statement is absolutely unacceptable.
Beauvoir also revolutionized the idea that gender expectations for women are socially enforced and that “One is not born but becomes a woman.” That expectations of womanhood are applied to women, tied inexorably to the biological realities of female adulthood. The legitimacy of this cultural critique, as well as the previous one, cannot be overstated. Simone de Beauvoir's work is full of equally relevant and important observations and insights, including her breakdown of otherization and its effects and her understanding, and definition, of ambiguity. Simply, the state of being both a subject and an object in the world. What logically follows from that is the definition Beauvoir puts forth for what constitutes objectification. Simply put: the removal of a person’s subjectivity.
Subjectivity and objectivity are conditions of being human. Beauvoir is clear that the ambiguity she refers to is that of being subject and object concurrently, the two pushing and pulling against one another. Objectification, then, logically follows as the active removal of the subjectivity of a person. They are seen, and treated, as beings incapable of making decisions, thinking for themselves, or even existing through any means other than that of the objectifier. This constitutes a removal of the internal life of the objectified, and their capacity to have an effect on the world around them. Beauvoir and other feminists are right to observe that this very thing has been done to women throughout history, and many modern thinkers are right to point out that it still happens today. The problem, though, is that the feminist cause of female liberation has been subverted by the neo-feminist cause of female dominance and general misandry. In this context, objectification has taken on a whole new meaning.
The Male Gaze is a concept which accurately posits that images of attractive (read: sexy) women in advertisements, on billboards, and in popular media are designed to appeal to what mainstream operators think is the male ideal of attractiveness. In practice, there are a number of fatal disconnects between men, the idea of what men want, and the images that are portrayed. In short, not all males think the same things are attractive. However, this does not necessarily undercut the accuracy of the theory. Because of this, the neo-feminist line du-jour has been to dismiss such things as out-and-out objectification and sexism. Everything from porn to beer ads serves to further train men to see women as nothing more than slabs of meat (never mind the image below).
Pictured: A slab of meat, probably.
Neo-feminist thought posits that, not only are the women in the works victims of the patriarchy, but such works further victimize all women everywhere. This view, while legitimate on the surface, contains one fatal logical oversight: The subject in the image.
You probably already see where this is going. I’m claiming that the sex-negativity of neo-feminism is simply another form of objectification.
The thing that neo-feminists overlook with regard to everything from porn to beer ads is the simple fact that the person in the image chose to be there. No one held a gun to her head, no one threatened her or her family. She may well have chosen to sack groceries at Walmart, but she chose, instead, to look sexy or have sex in front of a camera for money. She has commoditized her looks in a bid to monetize what she and her employers see as male desire. And she has done so successfully, or she wouldn’t be on the poster or in the porno for neo-feminists to complain about.
Pictured: More meat. An attractive woman, too.
The problem that neo-feminists have with this line of work (as well as the sex trade generally) is that they see the body of the woman involved as the commodity. At the very least, this view is backward and puritanical. Logically, all labor is commoditized. There is very little difference between the laborer and the prostitute, outside of the job itself. The body is always the commodity in a situation where a person is selling their labor (read: all employment ever). The neo-feminist forgets that the body is property, owned solely by the person who inhabits it. What they choose to do with it is their decision, and no one else’s.
Thus, when a neo-feminist looks at a poster, a porno, or anything else, and chooses to see a victim, I submit that they have engaged in that most heinous of sins. They have objectified the woman in the image. They have removed her decision making, her personhood, from the equation. They have stripped her of her subjectivity, they have de-legitimized her, and they have disregarded her ownership of her body. They have done the very thing Simone de Beauvoir described, and thus made it clear that they see this woman not as a person, but as a slave, and they wish to further enslave her to their own puritanical ends.
I’ve said before that a rejection of puritanism is the only way for society to heal its wounded sexuality. If the puritans and the neo-feminists alike are allowed to dictate the terms of propriety for human sexuality, we will find ourselves in a darker place than where we began. Indeed, it is this kind of puritanism that has led to many of the problems we have today. Such restrictive philosophies used to be the product of male-dominated societies which placed their own conception of the purity of femininity above the wills and desires of women themselves. I am sad to report, the neo-feminists have picked up where the male chauvinists left off.
So let us give their ideas all the attention they deserve. That is to say, none at all.