Subjectify Me: 5 Ways to Tell if an Image is Objectifying.

Via on Aug 5, 2013

4448576625_9e2f538e30_z

“But… how can you say she was being objectified if she agreed to do the photo shoot?” my friend asked.

I’d just expressed my distaste with a nude yoga photo shoot I’d seen on the internet. It’s a good question.

The photo shoot is by prolific yoga photographer Robert Sturman, called “The Girl with the Ganesh Tattoo.” The Girl is naked on some desert rocks, interspersed with quotations about freedom—the photos didn’t make me feel free.

My friend wanted to know why it was so bad to look at erotic images. Does a feminist perspective on yoga mean we should all cover up? Isn’t that oppressive of women, too? pinupgg

Yes, it definitely is and my problem isn’t her nudity. There has been a lot of buzz on in the blogosphere lately about the objectification of women in yoga media, and this is not the first piece I’ve written about it.

Still, images like these tend to get either uncritical gushing responses about beauty or mean-spirited judgments of the person being pictured.

One of the most important lessons about yoga is ahimsa (non-violence) and personal attacks and objectification are both forms of violence. My feeling is that our community is not necessarily equipped with the kinds of tools we need for critical thinking about the images we are increasingly bombarded with.

I fear we are more concerned about what goes into our morning smoothies than the kinds of images we are swallowing. 5429259044_dd97a930b0 Conjecturing about the feelings, intentions, and personalities of the parties involved, though, is a dead end, and generally not very neighbourly.

To answer my friend’s question, whether or not The Girl agreed to be in the shoot has nothing to do with whether or not the work is sexual objectification: we don’t know, for example, what kind of relationship this woman had with the photographer, or how much she was getting paid, or whether she was gushy or outraged when she saw the final product.

Similarly, the photographer may have created something sexually objectifying without any intention to do so.

Perhaps he was simply working with techniques he knows work without considering why they work. Sexually objectifying images are a symptom of a culture that tells women they are wanted for the uses of their bodies, and that sex sells. We buy it on deep, subconscious internal levels, and we do it to ourselves.

Objectification is dangerous specifically because it is so deeply subconscious. sexist ads1024

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum has said that objectification “includes denial of autonomy, denial of subjectivity. Not taking people’s feelings into account, but also treating them as a mere instrument.”

The object has no agency or ability, can be owned, destroyed, or damaged with no moral concern. She adds, “The Internet opens that up in a big way because it is a relatively autonomous world in which someone who portrays a woman in a certain light, can create a whole story about her that is relatively immune to any kind of correction because it goes everywhere, it lasts forever, and then it can spill back and have real effects in the real world.”

The good news is that once we understand how to objectify someone, we can conversely learn how to subjectify them. We don’t need yogis to cover up, necessarily. What we need is to subjectify them.

So what’s a subject, anyway?

In the context of a book, movie, or image, the subject is the being that acts, the main character. It’s essentially you: the one you can relate to and align with. An object is the thing acted upon.

In a grammatical sentence, the subject is the doer: “Julie got so upset she threw her laptop out the window.” Who do you feel with here? Julie (subject), or the laptop (object)? The subject position, interestingly, can switch dramatically, depending on how something is framed and described, we can quickly change what/who we are relating to: “The laptop screamed as it fell to its death off the balcony.”

Do you feel now for the laptop or the balcony?

Spike Jonze directed a fantastic commercial for Ikea that shows how easily our feelings about who is the subject can be manipulated. After watching a lamp being thrown away in exchange for a new one, the Ikea guy tells us that we probably feel bad for this lamp (and we do!), which is crazy, because lamps don’t have feelings.

More problematically, it’s remarkably easy for us to turn the other way and objectify something that really does have feelings. It’s been a political tactic to dehumanize anything (or anyone) a group in power wants to use and abuse. In an image, we feel with the subject, and look at the object.

Learning these five techniques for either objectifying or subjectifying can help us identify them in other kinds of media so that we can become as mindful and critical of our yoga media as we are of our morning smoothies.

Vancouver Burlesque dancer Lola Frost shares on her blog a photo shoot (by Rick Legal) that is erotic, feminine, nude, but also subjectifying. Read along with me: Sturman’s photo set and Rick Legal’s on Lola Frost’s blog.

1. Faces

Faces are incredibly important to humans, and we have a whole separate brain region for facial recognition. We relate quickly to something that has a face. A quick way to give subjectivity to a pet rock is to paint two dots and a curved line on it.

6287020081_741168ecc9 Objectifying technique: In Sturman’s photo set, the first thing we see is not a face but the piece of The Girl’s body with the Ganesh tattoo. We don’t see her face much. ganeshtattoo

Subjectifying technique: In many of Legal’s photo set, we see Lola’s face, looking right at us.

2. Pieces

Cutting things into pieces is also something we do with meat. The less it looks like the whole animal, the easier it is to eat. A classic hallmark of objectification is showing just a butt or boob so you don’t have a sense of its belonging to a person/subject.

Objectifying technique: At best, we are being asked to view The Girl’s tattoo, and the woman, as a piece of art. Unfortunately, neither art nor cuts of meat have feelings.

Subjectifying technique: Lola has tattoos, too, but we see them in the context of her whole body, face included. We are never asked to look just at one piece of her body.

3. Visual distance

Seeing someone through a mirror or window (like the Ikea replacement lamp) reduces their subjectivity because we are put in the position of this side of the mirror or window, while the object is on the other side. We become the voyeur.

Objectifying technique: In Sturman’s set, there’s a distinct impression that the camera is attempting to “capture” this woman without her knowing. She is looking away, she doesn’t appear to be choosing what to show us. Our subject positions are separated: She is over there, we are over here, behind the camera, which separates us.

Subjectifying technique: In Legal’s set, there is a window, too: but we are always on the same side of it as Lola. We are in the room with her.

4. Personality and Context

A telltale sign of subjectivity is if we can learn anything about the being’s subjective self. Who is this woman? What does she like or dislike? Can she speak? Make a joke? Does she think deeply about the universe?

Objectifying technique: The Girl has a name (Michelle May), but you don’t find it out until the very end of the piece. Her nakedness and the desert atmosphere lends little sense of who she is as a person. We don’t see much of her face, so it’s very hard to project any kind of personality onto her. She is a mystery.

Subjectifying technique: Legal’s photos have a dark, boudoir style to them. Lola wrote the attached blog, so we know she likes this style, but we also see her laughing, showing emotion. She appears to be in her own home, a context of her choosing, with her fridge photos, antique chairs, and a unique hairstyle that give us lots of information about what kind of person she might be.

5. Agency and ability: 

One of the telltale signs of objectification according to Nussbaum, is that the object has no agency or ability. She appears powerless.

6246120493_2ddf04b000Objectifying technique: In the one shot where The Girl is looking at us, she is not in a yoga pose, but something closer to that of a playful, harmless pinup model. (For an alternative view of pinups, check out the totally incapable-looking Menups!)

dsc6358nwSubjectifying technique: Lola looks into the camera often, and we get the feeling we have been invited into her home, a space she has agency over, and we at one point see her holding herself up by her formidable triceps. She is choosing to show us what she wants to show us. She has agency and ability.

These five telltale signs can take subjectification and objectification out of subconscious arena and into the mindful, conscious brain. Understanding how they work and how powerful they can be helps us name objectification and celebrate subjectification.

Interestingly, we see Sturman using these same subjectifying techniques in a photo set he did with the prisoners in San Quentin, a group that is often objectified and dehumanized in society. Again, it’s difficult to speak to intention.

Sex and nudity themselves are not the problem. Sex can bring us closer together, too, when it’s subjectifying. Knowing how these techniques work means we can empower ourselves to choose more often to represent women less as objects and more…well, like Ikea lamps.

Like elephant enlightened society on Facebook.

 

Ed: Bryonie Wise

About Julie JC Peters

Julie (JC) Peters has been practicing yoga on and off from the tender age of 12, and it has gotten her through everything from the horrors of teenagedom to a Master’s degree in Canadian Poetry. She is a yoga teacher, spoken word poet, and writer, and teaches workshops on yoga and writing called Creative Flow. Julie also owns East Side Yoga in Vancouver with her mom, Jane.

55,270 views

Appreciate this article? Support indie media!

(We use super-secure PayPal - but don't worry - you don't need an account with PayPal.)

86 Responses to “Subjectify Me: 5 Ways to Tell if an Image is Objectifying.”

  1. TJF588 says:

    The existence of objectified depictions of bodies is not wholly detrimental, but the dominant presence of such is.

    Admittedly, much of my sexually-oriented viewing is illustrated (or otherwise rendered), but that's a greater ability for the objectification of a broader range of subjects. I hope to be more mindful of how I'm perceiving and receiving persons, especially outside of sexual contexts, but I worry that breaking myself of such undesirable habits regarding not-real subjects ("subjects"?) would be more involved, and hope that advancements "IRL" will positively affect my impersonal reactions rather than lingering habits holding me back from where I'd rather be.

  2. Melanie says:

    YES! THIS! Blaming artistically taken photographs for the real world objectification of women is like blaming video games for violence. If someone can't separate fantasy (as in a posed photograph) from real world (as in an attractive woman walking down the street), that is a shortcoming of the consumer of said media, not the producer of such. If that person catcalls the woman walking down the street because they look at porn all day and think that's okay, you don't blame the porn producers. You blame the asshole who doesn't realize that a woman walking down the street isn't a porn star. I don't think the answer is to censor artists just because their art might be taken the wrong way.

    Objectification in the context of art is totally fine, even when that artistic object is a human body. I personally model nude and when I see a piece of art that's been made from the image of my body, I glow a little bit brighter when I think, "wow, that piece of art is the body I get to roam this earth with! That's pretty fantastic!" Nude modeling is what helped me to conquer my body image issues once and for all. Seeing my body as a work of art, even if it's chopped up by a camera lens, helped me to see myself in a different light. And I don't share my face because nude modeling is not the only thing I do and I don't particularly want it bleeding over into the rest of my life. I'm not ashamed of what I do, but there are people out there who think I should be and I insulate myself from such judgements by not including my face on the images.

    Does it objectify me? Absolutely. Am I okay with that? Absolutely. Are there people who take it the wrong way and choose to send me messages assuming my autonomy doesn't matter? Absolutely. Is that my fault for posing nude in objectifying ways? No. That's their fault for not remembering that it's a human body with a personality attached to it in the photos. They're the ones who need a reality check. I'm not the one who needs to adjust the way I create art. That stinks of victim blaming. "Oh, but if she just wasn't wearing that short skirt, she wouldn't have been raped. If no one took objectifying photos of women, women wouldn't be objectified." Please.

Leave a Reply