January 30, 2021
By: Christine Guirguis
He: What kind of doctor?
She: I’m a resident…internal medicine.
He: So, if I needed a doctor, you could be it?
She: I could be her. Yeah.
He: You could be …… her.
She: Uh-huh. Yeah, I could.
A casual coffee shop conversation between a flirtatious young man (Brad Pitt) and Susan Parrish (Claire Forlani), a young physician, in the romantic fantasy drama film “Meet Joe Black” (1998).
How a woman is being reduced from She/Her to It, reveals an established demeaning perception of women as objects of pleasure, which is sugar-coated, promoted, and romanticized in the name of love.
To lay the groundwork, this article presents the concept of dehumanization (stripping people of the traits of humanness, whether inherent or acquired) from a feminist perspective. One way dehumanization manifests itself is through what is commonly known as the objectification of women.
Although the concept of the Objectification of Women, can be traced back to Immanuel Kant’s Lectures on Ethics, Barbara Fredrickson and Tomi-Ann Roberts are recognized for developing the Objectification theory in a modern context in 1997. According to them, “Sexual Objectification” takes place when a woman’s person is made inferior to her body; in other words, reducing a woman’s whole being into her body. Cultural and social contexts pose challenges to the mental health of young girls who become aware at an early age, even before puberty, that their bodies are a “public domain” of evaluation and commentary. This leaves girls susceptible to risks of suffering depression in adolescence more than boys of the same age.
Failing to satisfy the generally adopted beauty standards, girls develop a sense of shame and seek to adapt by internalizing a third person’s view about themselves; a phenomenon called “self-objectification”. Self-objectification is an adaptive, most of the time unconscious, reaction where girls and women voluntarily adopt the externally objectifying approach as their own, having learned that beauty is culturally synonymous with social and economic power. Therefore, what is traditionally perceived as triviality and vanity of girls and women are in reality means of conformity to gain social acceptance.
Besides the wide array of mental health risks that women are left to struggle since an early age, self-objectification causes mental distraction from the intrinsic capabilities of women. In an interesting study by Fredrickson and Roberts in 1998, women wearing swimsuits performed poorer in an advanced math test than an equally good group of women at math wearing sweaters.
With all the damage sexual objectification may leave behind (eating disorders, thinking distractions, and depression), what makes normalizing it a serious violation against women is the sense of dehumanization it implies. In a foundational article, published by Nick Haslam in 2006, he introduced two ways in which a human being is dehumanized. The first way is when someone is degraded from the status of human beings to the level of machines (mechanistic dehumanization) as a result of being stripped of traits related to human nature such as emotional responsiveness, interpersonal warmth, cognitive openness, individuality, and depth. The second way of dehumanization takes place when someone is being stripped of traits that set the human beings apart from irrational creatures (animals) such as civility, refinement, moral sensibility, logic, and maturity.
In fact, women are subject to both types of dehumanization. In 2013, Kasey Morris argued that when the focus is on physical attraction and sexuality, women are more likely to be subject to animalistic dehumanization. When the focus is on the beauty of appearance, women are more likely to be objectified, i.e. treated as objects of eye pleasure.
From an animalistic dehumanization perspective, Nick Haslam sheds light on how women are culturally confined in a perception that depicts them as less developed/sophisticated versions of men. In this sense, women come second to men in terms of civility and emotional control, and their bodies are seen as brutish or even “profane” as dubbed by Psychiatrist Irvin Yalom.
From a mechanistic dehumanization approach, in the Lectures on Ethics, Immanuel Kant metaphorically expressed how women are used as tools of gratification:
“In loving from sexual inclination, they make the person into an object of their appetite. As soon as the person is possessed, and the appetite sated, they are thrown away, as one throws away a lemon after sucking the juice from it.” (p. 156)
Similarly, C.S. Lewis refers to the mechanistic dehumanization of women, in his book The Four Loves, saying:
“Strictly speaking, a woman is just what he does not want. He wants a pleasure for which a woman happens to be the necessary piece of apparatus […] one does not keep the carton after one has smoked the cigarettes.” (p.135)
In conclusion, the patriarchal system is preserved by ideas and practices that provide it with justifications that are made socially accepted and somewhat normalized. Thus, while no one with the least moral principles accepts other forms of dehumanization, for example, dehumanization of persons of color, seniors, or children, the dehumanization of women is commonly practiced by both genders on women. While we don’t know when the way(s) the societies think about women would change, women are encouraged to be mentally liberated from fallacies and actively stand up for their humanness.
Christine Guirguis is a Teaching Assistant at the Faculty of Mass Communication-Cairo University, studying Master of Arts in Journalism and Mass Communication at the American University in Cairo and a Sasakawa Young Leaders fellow. Before leading a career in Academia, Christine worked for several months post-graduation as a digital marketing executive. She is especially interested in Marketing Communication of social causes and innovative/entrepreneurial ideas. One of the causes Christine believes is part of her life mission is the empowerment of women.
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