My favorite buzz word of the porn flap is objectification. It is used to describe everything: the 62 cents females earn to the male dollar, catcalls and whistles on the street, pictures of Degas ballerinas and Miss January. It is what the Meese commission says is wrong with representations of sex, why libraries are taking books off shelves and paintings with sexual themes have been removed from art galleries.
When feminists in the early Seventies attacked objectification, they protested against women's real lack of self-determination—low pay, paltry political representation, limited educational opportunities and disproportionate burdens in the home. Those feminists were effective because they correctly identified a problem and fought for its remedy. They won abortion rights, some affirmative-action decisions and a slight increase in the availability of good day care. A few women even got into politics or won access to better jobs and pay.
The fundamentalists who later adopted the word objectification have been using it in a very different way. Eager to roll back the feminist advances of the Seventies, they tell women that their problems begin not with poverty or powerlessness but with disrespect. Men aren't treating them right. Men are treating them like sexual objects. Wouldn't they like to be treated like ladies again?
Some feminists have also succumbed to the idea that sexual objectification is evil. After years of a daunting battle against a sexist economy and sexist politics, many women have tired. Desperate for a speedier victory, they have picked a weaker enemy. Sex and depictions of sex, convenient scapegoats in America, have proved perfect patsies.
I think it's time to ask precisely when objectification is degrading and when it's a lark. If we, especially women, fail to make that distinction, we'll end up outlawing all art—and all fleeting glances—in an effort to rid ourselves of the demeaning works. We'll end up denying ourselves the ego boost and thrill of admiration, hoping—mistakenly—to ensure our independence and well-being. That would be not only throwing out the baby with the bath water but one-stop shopping for a chador.
As a political condition, objectification is frightful. It's a humiliating state in which women are ridiculed as baubles, "protected" as figurines, raped in and out of marriage and denied equal wages. But in the playful realm of art, games and sex, objectification is one of life's charms. All of us love attention. No one, to my knowledge, gets dressed up to be ignored. We want admiration, pure and simple. Every performer needs it on stage. Every player needs it on the field. Everyone needs it in bed.
The distinction between the workaday world of money and power and the playful world of art, games and sex is crucial. Economics and politics are serious in a way that play isn't, even when it absorbs your attention completely—as any good drama or round of golf will do. Economics and politics determine your ability to make a living. Playful activities, such as games and flirtations, are designed to display the body or its skills. They are calculated to arouse admiration, emotion and fantasy—often the very feelings we don't dare act out in the grave arenas of real life. Most important, we play for free. Our livelihood or survival doesn't depend upon the game.
A performance of Swan Lake and the romance that it makes both dancers and audience feel are part of play. Ticket prices and the salaries of the performers are not. The effort and excitement of the world series are play; player trades are not. Falling in love is play; paying the mortgage is not. Sex is play; birth control is not. Looking at porn is play; the models' fees are not. Bondage between lovers is play; a beating in an alley is not. Rape fantasies are play; rape is not.
Not only can we recognize these distinctions, we are highly sensitive to them. Our defenses go up and our tactics change the minute things get serious. Just try overdoing it with a friend's wife. If you break the rules of the game, you'll find yourself at war.
When we are seen, objectified, across the footlights, in a crowded room or on a bed, we are playing. And we are flattered. Anyone who has ever been looked up and down knows the feeling.
If a man looks at a woman's breasts and hips and is aroused, it's play. If she sleeps with him for a night's wages or stays married to him because she can't support their children alone, it's not.
It's outside the context of play that objectification becomes humiliating and brutal. And it's outside play, in the real world of cash and clout, that women must fight against it. There are plenty of opportunities to test our mettle. But let's not confuse the dangers of objectification with its delights. Let's fight discrimination and contempt—not "dirty" pictures. Let's go after anti-abortionists—not "sinful" sex. Let's not waste our time fighting paper tigers.
Women can demand jobs and money and still play. Women can exercise authority and still play around. To those who are struggling hard to be taken seriously at work and at home, this may sound Utopian. But why not go for broke? It would be a shame to settle for less. It's certainly in women's interest to keep objectification in the realm of play. But to keep it.
"It's time to ask precisely when objectification is degrading and when it's a lark."