subjectified

7days

Not gonna brag (jk I’m totally gonna brag), but my letter to the editor got into the Seven Days today! Let the flame war commence. (To clear up the name confusion once and for all: Sierra is my first name. Skye is my middle name. I respond equally to either, but I find that Skye rolls easier off the tongue, so I use it more often on the internet.)

Now, before I pick up my mic, let me acknowledge that I do understand why people are sick of certain kinds of images. It does grate on me, artistically speaking, to see the same concepts over and over. We do need more variety, both in types of women and in the ways they are depicted. THAT SAID. The way we as a culture talk about making those changes throws many, many women under the proverbial bus.

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Here I am being hot – and totally subjectified – at the beach!

~

We typically designate as “objectifying” those images in which a woman displays a particular, though inexact, amount of skin. That, far too often, goes unquestioned. Are we not responsible for this assumption? Are we not beholden to examine where it comes from? I can’t say for sure, but I’ve got a damn good guess. We’ve grown up in a culture that shames and vilifies overt sexuality. We speak of “pleasures of the flesh” as though they were divorced from, lesser than, pleasures of the whole self. And I see this rhetoric creeping into even the most progressive statements. It’s rare to witness discussion on objectification, particularly women’s objectification, go more than skin deep. Forget that there are many ways to be objectified, umpteen ways to have one’s agency diminished: the end-all of whether a woman is subject or object lies in the amount of skin she’s showing and how sexualized that skin happens to be.

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What makes a nude shoot inherently more objectifying than a clothed one? You could argue the opposite: the clothed woman is but an object to display the artistry of the garments or the photographer’s technique. Instead, our collective minds jump right to “exposed flesh = object”. Maybe the thread of puritanical thought runs deeper than we’d like to admit.

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And therein lies what chafes me. Why do we assume that the solution to objectification is to stop depicting sexualized women? How is that anything but victim-blaming? “If you don’t want to be seen as an object, you should stop dressing like one.” Fuck that and fuck you. It’s not my problem that American culture heaps such baggage on my body. It’s not my responsibility to tiptoe around people who can’t affirm my humanity. I will wear what I please and photograph myself in whatever lecherous poses I desire. If you think that makes me an object, if it prohibits you from treating me with respect, then god help you. That is one hundred percent your problem. Respectability politics in a nutshell.

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It’s not about whether the woman is naked or clothed, sexualized or not. It’s not even about whether she’s submissive or dominant. It’s about whether she’s treated well, compensated fairly, and given the choice to opt out of the job. This focus on nudity and sexuality frustrated me partially because it’s a red herring: there are so many ways for a model to actually be objectified. Is she 14 years old and coerced into shoots too mature for her? Is she forced to lose weight? Do people refer to her as a “walking clothes hanger” rather than a full participant in the celebration of sartorial artistry? There are so many aspects to devaluation of agency. Boiling it down to clothed vs. not, chaste vs. sexy, demeans a woman’s choices about her body and detracts from the actual issues at hand.

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I realize what a broken record I can be about this. But it’s so important to me. Sex-positivity and the end of shaming will never get anywhere as long as we cling to old definitions – any definitions, really – of what personhood and agency can mean. What it really comes down to, for me anyway, is that I will never know what someone else experiences as empowering. It’s not my place to tell anyone what their self-expression should look like. All I can do is wield my words and try to make the world a more accepting place – of sexuality, of controversy, of nudity.

*drops mic*

XIV VII

a little pedagogy with your nightcap

Last week, the Cynic, one of UVM’s student papers, released a Valentine’s Day issue. Its cover featured a girl unbuttoning her flannel shirt (as though there were any doubt that we’re Vermonters to the syrup-dripping core) to reveal a lacy camisole. This week, the following letter to the editor was printed. I’ve redacted it for brevity and boldfaced parts most relevant to my subsequent critique.

I appreciate the [Cynic‘s] efforts to balance itself as a viable news source while remaining edgy to retain the attention of its target population – college students.

The Cynic has taken this a step too far, however, with the nonsensical objectification on the cover of its Valentine’s Day issue. Because, while this “Sexy Issue” is meant to be the Cynic “unbuttoned”, the only thing truly unbuttoned in this issue is the cover model’s shirt.

Besides the cleavage gracing the cover, the photo posted online the night before with an alternative cover titled “Something big is coming” with a suggestively half-naked male, is equally concerning.

Within this issue, there is no explanation for the displays of skin, no caption or follow-up article. The somewhat forced theme of romance and sex is present, but the cover is only implicitly connected to these stories, which simply leaves room for a shady interpretation.

There are interpretations that could accuse the Cynic of objectifying women … and men. Or maybe the newspaper has decided to just throw some skin on its cover for more student readers. Perhaps the Cynic has decided to embrace its naked culture and become a porn magazine – it’s all up for interpretation.

This sleazy marketing strategy is definitely an attention grabber, and a totally unwarranted one. The choice is ultimately not risque – only tacky.

Anonymous, Class of 2014

Objectification. Something tells me Anon here doesn’t do too many photo shoots. A photo shoot is a collaboration between model and photographer. It’s a lot more nuanced than the subject/object dichotomy to which many critics are fond of reducing it. To use a graphic but (I hope) illuminating metaphor: the dom in BDSM, or even the top in more vanilla sex, is not necessarily in control. It’s a partnership.

I find the word “objectification” itself more than a little insulting. The word itself, and the attendant concept, reduces me to an object far more than anything a photographer could do behind a camera. When you say that a person (usually a woman, and I’ll get to that soon) has been objectified, your implications are themselves objectifying her. You are saying that being photographed is something done to a woman rather than something in which she actively engages. When you tell a model she has been objectified, you are telling her she is an object without choice in the matter of her portrayal. I’ve always hated hearing media critics talk about how women “are portrayed” – passive voice, as though women themselves are never the primary actors. Give them a little agency, for chrissakes. Rarely do I hear anyone raise the possibility that women collude in their own portrayals.

I don’t know anything about the girl on last week’s Cynic cover. I have no idea what the terms of her shoot were. For all I know, the use of her image wasn’t consensual. But it’s patronizing to assume the negative. When I see a woman posing provocatively, I owe her (and all women) the dignity of assuming her choices are her own unless stated otherwise. For me, in that instance, to call her objectified (or sexualized, or any other passive-voice adjective) would be tantamount to shitting on her personal agency.

And it’s always women. I’m using the feminine pronoun not by accident or whim but because these conversations, 95% of the time, are about women. At least Anon threw in a little nod to men’s potential objectification. Other than that, I can count on one hand, maybe two, the number of times I’ve seen similar “concern” applied to male models or actors or athletes. Men, for better or for worse, are generally granted the assumption of autonomy. A man takes his clothes off, and people don’t look twice. Maybe a few of them swoon a little. A woman takes her clothes off, and everyone and their sister’s chihuahua has to have an opinion: why did she do it? who is she doing it for? is her decision “good for women” or “bad for women”? I’ve always hated the buzzphrase “good for women”. We rarely ask whether something is good for men. Men are afforded the assumption of independent agency, while women are still regarded (often by nominal feminists!) as not only fundamentally reactive but as interchangeable. Monolithic – what’s good for one woman must be good for all, because god forbid I be a human before a female.

You can disagree with what I do. By all means disagree: I enjoy and encourage debate. But I draw the line at being told I’m not actually running my own life. You’re perfectly entitled to think my sexy photos are disgusting and ought to be shipped on a flaming raft to the sluttiest circle of hell. But don’t you dare try to tell me that these photos were something done to me. When you “accuse the Cynic of objectifying women”, you’re forgetting that there’s a living, breathing human behind that photo. That, not the close-up of her cleavage, is what I call objectification.