Power and Prejudice

Scientific perspectives on power, subtle prejudice, and discrimination

Daring to Fight Sexual Objectification

Stealing a joke from a comedian’s script on resisting sexual objectification.

Fighting sexual objectification
Fighting sexual objectification
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The treatment of female celebrities on the red carpet is anything but funny. Last year, Comedian Sarah Millican was bashed—called and ugly—on social and mainstream media following her red carpet showing at the BAFTA Awards (the equivalent of the Academy Awards, in Britain).  

When women hit the red carpet why do they go from being people with thoughts, feelings, and ahem, accomplishments (the very reason they are appearing on the red carpet in the first place) to being sex objects for our viewing pleasure?

Unfortunately, psychological research shows that encouraging people to focus on a woman’s appearance fundamentally changes the way she is perceived. For example, Drs. Nathan Heflick and Jamie Goldenberg, have shown that a simple prompt, asking people to look at a celebrity and focus on either her appearance or personhood, causes people to view the same woman as less intelligent, less friendly, and yes, less human.

In many ways, it’s no surprise that people focused almost exclusively on Millican’s appearance at the cost of her comedy. When commentators come “live to you from the red carpet,” their cameras literally give women the “once over” as they make their way to the awards ceremony. Cate Blanchett actually confronted the camera who was checking her out – scanning her up and down – at the Screen Actors Guild awards this past year, asking “Do you do that to the guys?”

Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. The fashion police then literally reduce celebrities to their respective parts – their dress, their breasts, their waistline, their make-up, their hair, their shoes – during the fashion commentaries following the ceremony. Not to leave men completely out of this, but the proportion of air time spent evaluating men’s looks is vastly outnumbered by the minutes allotted to women’s looks.

If you’re like me, you try to avoid these disgusting shows of objectification. Which, by the way, almost exclusively come from other women mind you, not men. Yes, ladies, although men are often fingered as the culprits of objectification, other women are just as much (if not more) to blame.

Although Drs. Heflick and Goldenberg initially focused their investigation on celebrities, they have shown that these same effects emerge for ordinary women who are not famous as well.

We are rarely explicitly told to focus on women’s appearances in our everyday interactions with them (thank goodness we can change the channels on the Joan Rivers of the world), but I wonder how often we unknowingly look at women in this way. When a woman is giving a presentation at work, do you find yourself dissecting her hair, clothes, and shoes, under the guise of seeing whether she looks professional or not? Heading to a girl’s night out, do you find yourself comparing your outfit to your peeps?

How do you respond when other people do this to you?

Well, Millican has provided a fantastic retort in Radio Times to her critics, showing both her humanness and her resilience. We could all steal a line from her script on resisting sexual objectification.

She reminded people of the unfairness of sexual objectification.

“I’m sorry. I thought I had been invited to such an illustrious event because I am good at my job. Putting clothes on is such a small part of my day. They may as well have been criticising me for brushing my teeth differently to them.”

She also humanizes the experience.

After checking twitter, she found “Literally thousands of messages from people criticising my appearance. I was fat and ugly as per usual. My dress (the one that caused ooohs in a department store fitting room?) was destroyed by the masses. I looked like a nana, my dress was disgusting, was it made out of curtains, why was I wearing black shoes with it. I cried. I cried in the car.”

In some ways, Millican’s response represents how women normally react to objectification. Dr. Holly Kozee and her colleagues have found in research published in Psychology of Women Quarterly, for example, that objectifying experiences are associated with negative emotions such as body shame. Furthermore, in an experiment published in Psychological Science last year, Dr. Rachel Calogero found that when women were asked to recall such objectifying experiences, they subsequently reported less willingness to participate in social action, such as signing a petition for or talking with friends or colleagues about gender equality.

Yet, unlike the average responses reported by the women in these studies, Millican did not just get upset, she got pissed.

“Why does it matter so much what I was wearing? Why did no one ask my husband where he got his suit from? I felt wonderful in that dress. And surely that’s all that counts. I made a decision the following day that should I ever be invited to attend the Baftas again, I will wear the same dress.”

We can focus on the Joan Rivers of the world—all of the disgusting ways that people perpetrate sexual objectification and its negative consequences (and, yes, there are a lot).

But we can also focus on the Sarah Millicans of the world—how people can confront sexual objectification.

In your life, has a sexual objectification experience angered you? How have you actively fought or resisted sexual objectification?

Share your successes and challenges here. I’m hoping to keep this conversation going with another blog post that focuses on both women's and men's experiences with sexual objectification and on how they are working to fixing the problem.

You can follow my posts through twitter

Copyright 2014 by Sarah J. Gervais. All rights reserved.

Sarah J. Gervais, Ph.D., is a social-law psychologist at the University of Nebraska.

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