‘Objectification’: a feeble excuse for campus censorship
Banning unsuitable images or music is far worse than seeing the odd photo of a topless model.
What do a students’ ‘pole fitness’ society, the song ‘Blurred Lines’, the Sun newspaper, a poster advertising a summer ball, and lads’ mags have in common? They’ve all been banned from UK universities on the grounds that they promote the sexual objectification of women. Suggesting that something objectifies women seems to be the No.1 justification for moral outrage among a vocal minority of student activists, and it nearly always results in campus censorship.
There’s a long history to arguments that women suffer from objectification – that is, that they are portrayed as reducible to just their bodies and presented as sexual objects solely for the pleasure of men. From the early 1970s, feminists challenged advertising that simply draped half-naked women over any product. Such arguments are now taken ever-more seriously: late last year, the UK Advertising Standards Authority banned an advert for Renault cars that featured Parisian cabaret dancers because it ‘considered that the ad objectified the dancers by portraying them as sexual objects and that it was therefore likely to cause serious or widespread offence’. This was on the basis of just one complaint. Today’s student campaigners are increasingly alarmist about the consequences of objectification, rushing to draw direct links between images and psychological damage to women on the one hand, and changes in male behaviour on the other. Sexually objectifying images have been variously linked to ‘lad culture’, ‘raunch culture’ and ‘rape culture’.
At the same time, today’s feminists have massively expanded the definition of objectification. The word ‘sexual’ is often dropped, so even images of fully clothed women in non-sexual poses have been castigated as objectifying women. One such image, used on a poster to advertise an end-of-year student ball, was removed after the university’s women’s officer argued: ‘A lot of students, both male and female, find it quite disturbing. The picture was also used without the consent of the girl featured. It only shows her body, which objectifies her.’ To be clear, the image shows a regular-looking woman who is fully clothed. It is not sexualised and does not feature just a part of her body. The image shows only the woman’s body in the same way photos reduce everyone to their physical appearance; unless we all start carrying around cardboard speech-bubbles, photographs will always be just a picture of our external selves. If showing any image of a woman stands open to accusations of objectification, and therefore grounds for censorship, then fashion magazines will fold tomorrow and art galleries will lose many of their most famous works.
Some feminists go further and argue that the objectification of women isn’t simply a question of images, but is inherent in the language people use. It is suggested that, grammatically, women are often the passive objects of sentences rather than the active subjects and that this rhetorical style of speech and writing enculturates girls into accepting a lesser role in society. By the same thinking, children’s stories that portray either fewer female characters, or girls acting in a more passive way than boys, are also accused of objectifying women. How women of my generation, raised on Anne from Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’ books – with her fondness for washing-up – and Susan from Swallows and Amazons – with her propensity to make cups of tea and scrambled eggs – ever made it out of the kitchen is anyone’s guess.
With the argument that the objectification of women takes place with almost every image and use of language, the assumption that such words and pictures cause real psychological harm becomes more prevalent. According to one magazine article, science now proves that showing men pictures of sexualised women ‘evokes less activity in areas of the brain responsible for mental-state attribution’ and makes them ‘judge women to be less intelligent, likeable, ambitious and competent’. The irony that men are here objectified through being reduced to a collection of neurons over which they have no control was obviously lost on Scientific American.
Similarly, Psychology Today suggests that one impact of exposure to objectification among women is that they internalise such messages about themselves and seek to self-objectify or portray themselves as sexual objects specifically aimed at the male gaze. Presumably, this was the fate that befell the members of Swansea University’s pole-fitness society. How fortunate, then, that campaigners within their students’ union had been able to resist the tyranny of objectification and show these women the error of their ways by banning their society.
The arrogance of a small group of unrepresentative union bureaucrats in determining what other women can do in their free time, what music all students can hear and which newspapers they can read is reflected in the assumption underpinning the very concept of objectification: that an image of one woman is somehow representative of half the population. The premise of objectification is that when people see a picture of a woman, especially one in a sexually provocative pose, instead of seeing an individual, they see a generic image which is typical of the entire category-type. This assumption is more damaging to both women and men than any picture or sentence structure.
Only when it is accepted that one image represents all women can it become the case that a small group of unelected feminists feel able to speak out and make decisions on what is to be considered offensive, objectifying and harmful. Far from being empowering, this robs women of individuality and agency. This is particularly apparent when, like the Swansea pole dancers or Page 3 girls, women are accused of not having made such choices freely. Instead, such women are seen as having merely succumbed to pressures from a male-dominated society to self-objectify and present themselves as sexual objects. This goes much further in degrading female autonomy and eroding women’s agency than yesteryear’s adverts showing scantily-clad women posing next to flash cars.
To challenge the arrogance of those calling for censorship under the flag of objectification, students need to toughen up collectively and reject the notion that words and images can cause psychological harm. Perhaps universities should reinforce the old playground adage that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’. A picture of a topless woman won’t harm students half as much as taking away their liberty to decide for themselves which society to join and which magazine to buy.
Joanna Williams is education editor at spiked. She is also a lecturer in higher education at the University of Kent and the author of Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t Be Bought. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)