Papadaki, E. 2014. “Feminist Perspectives on Objectification.”

Papadaki, Evangelia. 2014. “Feminist Perspectives on Objectification.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University: Metaphysics Research Lab, Center for the Study of Language and Information.

Objectification as central to feminist theory. Defined as “seeing and/or treating a person, usually a woman, as an object” (online).

Nussbaum (1995)’s seven features of objectification (257):

  • Instrumentality: treating a person as a tool for the purposes of objectifier
  • Denial of autonomy: treating a person as if they lack autonomy or self-determination
  • Inertness: Objectifed lacks in agency and possibly also in activity
  • Fungibility: Objectified as interchangeable with other objects
  • Violability: Objectified lacks boundary integrity
  • Ownership: Objectifed is something that is own, and thus can be bought or sold
  • Denial of subjectivity: Objectified’s experiences and feelings are treated as if they need not be taken into account, if they even have or are attributed with any

Langton (2009: 228-229) adds three more qualifiers:

  • Reduction to body: Objectified is primarily identified with or through their body or body parts
  • Reduction to appearance: Objectified is treated primarily based on how they look or appeal to others’ senses or aesthetics
  • Silencing: treating a person as if they lack capacity to speak or are silent

Anti-pornography feminists such as Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin argue that men’s consumption of porn reduces women to a group and status of tools that are used for men’s purposes.  (This relies heavily on the mind-body dualism of Immanual Kant). Sandra Bartky and Susan Bordo note that women are objectified through the prompting to be excessively concerned with and thus preoccupied by appearance (and its maintenance). Martha Nussbaum challenges the relationship between objectivity and objectified, noting that objectification can take harmless or even positive forms – such as fragmenting a partner and focusing on a body part – can be a sexually pleasurable or unifying experience.

Kant and Objectification

  • Kant is incredibly conservative and wary of sexuality outside the contexts of monogamous marriage, as it leads to objectification. Sexual lust, to Kant, is an objectifying force; romantic affection is freed from its forces constituting deeper relationships. (However, is this really true – can romantic partners opt in to objectification and carnal sexual lust?) Objectification, according to Kant, lowers a person from humanity to the status of an object, diminishing and undervaluing others’ rationality, decision-making, and autonomous goals – the factors that differentiate humans from mere things. Kant recognizes that both men and women can be objectified, though women are much more likely to be victimized by it. Kant’s discussions of sex work labels it dehumanizing – as a sacrifice of the sex worker’s humanity and utility – permitting themselves to be treated as means for others’ ends. Monogamous marriage, because of its legal recourse, is the only ethical way, Kant argues, to give of selves sexually in an egalitarian way.

Pornography and Objectification

Within Dworkin and MacKinnon’s positioning, in pornography, there is a power imbalance – those agent perpetrator and a powerless victim of the exchange, who is thus objectified. Gender inequality, to these scholars, is central to how sexuality and objectification is guided.  “Within our patriarchal societies, men and women have clearly defined roles: women (all women, women as a group) are objectified, whereas men (all men, men as a group) are their objectifiers” (online, see also MacKinnon 1987; MacKinnon 1989a).  However, MacKinnon notes that females can objectify and males can be objectified,  the gender construction of these individuals would correspond to masculinity and femininity, as masculinity (through definition) objectifies, and femininity is objectified. Pornography, then, becomes a tool of learning and reinforcing women’s role and consumption as sexual objects. MacKinnon (1987: 173) writes: “Pornography defines women by how we look according to how we can be sexually used. […] Pornography participates in its audiences eroticism through creating an accessible sexual object, the possession and consumption of which is male sexuality, as socially constructed; to be consumed and possessed as which, is female sexuality, as socially constructed.” Pornography helps to teach both men and women to objectify women (and how to objectify selves, the importance of objectification, etc.) Women become cast as sex objects. MacKinnon writes: “[…] A sex object is defined on the basis of its looks, in terms of its usability for sexual pleasure, such that both the looking – the quality of the gaze, including its points of view – and the definition according to use become eroticised as a part of the sex itself” (1987: 173). Women, within pornography, have but instrumental value – a use, but not a goal herself ; women exist to serve men’s pleasure in porn – not their own. (kx^ debate!) Despite women receiving financial compensation for their “work,” this is coercive.  Further, due to existing gender inequalities, women cannot offer true consent as the sociocultural conditions do not provide egalitarian grounds in which women can consent.  Women are not truly implicit in their participation; more so, men hold fault as their desire and need to objectify women, creating conditions and standards where objectification is the norm (Dworkin 1997).

Dworkin writes: “Objectification occurs when a human being, through social means, is made less than human, turned into a thing or commodity, bought and sold. When objectification occurs, a person is depersonalised, so that no individuality or integrity is available socially or in what is an extremely circumscribed privacy. Objectification is an injury right at the heart of discrimination: those who can be used as if they are not fully human are no longer fully human in social terms; their humanity is hurt by being diminished” (2000: 30-31).

Objectification, here is an outcome of gender inequality, sustained by pornographic consumption – this may infer and communicate norms of violence and abuse, as women are consumable, disposable, and used.  More so, the violent themes and normalization of pornography  creates grounds that normalize inequality, as well as “justify” women’s positions – “enjoying” their abuse. “The object status of women, then, is the cause of men seeing nothing problematic with violent behaviour towards women” (online). Thus, Kant’s recommendation of eliminating objectification is not practical to these authors, as objectification is present within the interactions and construction of heterosexual marriages, the scripts of which are often learned through the consumption of pornography. Porn becomes a tool of socialization for men and boys, learning about sex, women, and the construction and ‘how-to’s’ of masculinity.  Thus, pornography socializes people to understand that women are objects to be consumed, most frequently by men (Langton 1993).

However, this viewpoint takes a rather essentialist edge on the nature of masculinity – that men and boys cannot critically analyze or resist the messages sent through pornography, or that they merely imitate what it performed in pornography (Cameron and Frazer 2000). Green (2000) argues that other modes of socialization source the construction of women as sex objects – media, parents, fashion, etc. Instead of focusing solely on pornography,  we should change how we “do” society – acknowledging women’s subjectivity.  Nussbaum (1995) agrees, noting that porn is not the central cause of inequality; though objectification is certainly an outcome of social inequality.

Women are more frequently associated and identified with bodies than men, are more so valued for external beauty (Bordo 1993; Bartky 1990). To fit into standards of normative femininity, women are under pressure to modify/correct appearance to fit in with “norms of feminine appearance” (Saul 2003, 144). Additionally, women often treat selves as things to be decorated/consumed.

Bartky (1990): by being identified with bodies, women are dehumanized as less than – where mind and personality are not appropriately acknowledged. Objectification sources from fragmentation of mind and body, so that bodies are thought to represent the woman as a whole. Objectification processes involve objectifier and objectified (similar to Kant, MacKinnon, and Dworkin). Women in patriarchal societies are consistently surveilled by men, and act upon the socialized assumption that they are there to be sensually pleasing/consumable – women, thus, objectify themselves, resulting in narcissism (131-132) – a preoccupation with one’s bodily form — taking the attitude/position of men, gaining erotic satisfaction with self, body, being adorned, and exhibition/voyeurism (being gazed at). In this infatuation, women see themselves from the outside. Women derive pleasure from pandering to pleasuring men/patriarchy – Bauer (2011) notes that this pleasure is objectifying – for valuation, men must not only stop objectifying women, but women must not  objectify themselves.

Bartky – to fit in with feminine ideals, women participate in disciplinary practices that construct/conform feminine bodies, and thus, objectify themselves – this takes the form of dieting, infantilization of the body (through depilatories and obsession with youth), the garments, and physical posturing of women. Women learn and are corrected by all and none – a diffuse system of power that makes all complicit in this process – making it seem natural and voluntary; however, it is culturally and personally internalized.

“… whatever else she [a woman] may become, she is importantly a body designed to please or to excite” (Bartky 1990, 80).

“Developing a sense of our bodies as beautiful objects to be gazed at and decorated requires suppressing a sense of our bodies as strong, active subjects…” (Young, 1979).

Backlash – men, too, self-decorate for the pursuit to be admired by women (Walter 1998). However, Bordo (1999) notes that consumer capitalism promotes men’s concern with appearance, playing to flaws and insecurities. However, this is not a sign of equality – “The increasing pressure on men to conform to unattainable standards of beauty is far from a sign of progress: it is, instead, a sign that the problem has grown” (Saul 2003, 168).

“if [we] look neutrally on the reality of gender so produced, the harm that has been done will not be perceptible as harm. It becomes just the way things are” (MacKinnon 1987, 59) — despite the social construction of gender, inundation within patriarchal societies normalizes viewpoints of feminine submission and gender inequality. Thus, neutrality serves to sustain the status quo.


Bartky, Sandra-Lee, 1990, Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression, New York: Routledge.

Bauer, Nancy. 2011, “Beauvoir on the Allure of Self-Objectification”, in Feminist Metaphysics, Feminist Philosophy Collection, Charlotte Witt (ed.), Springer Science+Business Media B.V., 117- 129.

Bordo, Susan, 1993. Unbearable Weight, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Bordo, Susan, 1999. The Male Body, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Cameron, D., and E. Frazer, 2000, “On the Question of Pornography and Sexual Violence: Moving Beyond Cause and Effect”, in Feminism and Pornography, D. Cornell (ed.), Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 240–253.

Dworkin, Andrea.1997. Intercourse, New York: Free Press Paperbacks.

Dworkin, Andrea. 2000. “Against the Male Flood: Censorship, Pornography, and Equality”, in Oxford Readings in Feminism: Feminism and Pornography, Drucilla Cornell (ed.), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 19–44.Green (2000)

Langton, Rae, 1993, “Beyond a Pragmatic Critique of Reason”, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 71(4): 364–384.

Langton, Rae. 2009, Sexual Solipsism: Philosophical Essays on Pornography and Objectification, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

MacKinnon, Catharine, 1987, Feminism Unmodified, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: Harvard University Press.  MacKinnon, Catharine, 1989a, Towards a Feminist Theory of the State, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Nussbaum, Martha, 1995, “Objectification”, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 24(4): 249–291.

Saul, Jennifer, 2003, Feminism: Issues and Arguments, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Walter 1998 – missing cite

Young, Iris Marion, 1979, “Is There a Woman’s World?—Some Reflections on the Struggle for Our Bodies”, Proceedings of The Second Sex—Thirty Years Later: A Commemorative Conference on Feminist Theory, New York: The New York Institute for the Humanities


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