The word “objectification” dates back to the 19th century, where it originally connoted "the act of representing an abstraction as a physical thing." In modern times, it has become all but synonymous with the concept of "sexual objectification." Within the sphere of this essay all of my references to objectification will follow this colloquial definiton.
Objectification of this kind is thoroughly implicated with the rise of feminist politics and ethics in the early 1960s. I confess that I do not know which authors are most responsible for the circulation of the term. I will note that one of the earliest landmark examples of a feminist protest against objectification in a defined social setting occured in 1963, when journalist Gloria Steinem assumed the job of a "bunny" in a Playboy Club in order to write about the less than glamorous aspects of that particular form of feminine employment. Though I did not find the word "objectification" in the Steinem essay, the job of being a Playboy bunny would seem to satisfy the philosophical ramifications of objectification as later codified by Martha Nussbaum.
I will not print all of Nussbaum’s seven factors of objectification here, as I feel that all seven can be boiled down to two. In my essay objectification is defined as an attempt to make a living being into an object by denying that being’s subjectivity and freedom, or agency, to act upon that subjective will.
I specified above that the Steinem essay successfully protested against objectification in “a defined social setting” because, although I think the essay demonstrates political objectification in that setting, I don’t deem that it, or any other writing, has as yet demonstrated that objectification transpires in fictional narratives in the same manner as in real-life sociopolitical situations.
The erroneous parallel usually precedes thusly:
In real life, comely women are exploited to be “objects of lust” for horny Playboy club-members. And even if no sexual favors are demanded of the employees, one can reasonably imagine real processes of objectification here, in that the employees must act as if they were objects of pleasure to club-members. At no time in the relationship of the female employees and the customers whom they entertain must the customers be aware of either subjectivity or agency on the part of the female employees.
From this situation of genuine inequity, however, many have chosen to read that fictional narratives which depict (or are said to depict) any perceived gender-inequity must be just as guilty of objectification. And this is not true.
In one analysis of the process of narrative identification, I specified the following in this ARCHIVE essay:
Identification need not always connote one's sense of participation in a given character's bodily reality, although when speaking of erotica, that would be the natural assumption. It's equally possible to identify with a nonhuman creature, or even an inanimate phenomenon, by identifying it as an expression of a particular will to do something within the sphere of a narrative.
Slightly later I specify that identification by its very nature can be “fleeting.” However, this does not in any way nullify its greater implication in potential subjectivity: to place the reader in a position where he can comprehend any character’s subjectivity, if the narrative allows for that possibility.
All too often, comics-critics cry “objectification” in any circumstance that would seem to put a female character in a position like that of one of the aforementioned Playboy Bunnies. However, of the many ways narrative fiction that narrative fiction is not like life, it is not a given that sexual display connotes objectification in the sense of denial of subjectivity and agency.
In Kelly Thompson’s essay “No, It’s Not Equal”, the sexual display of “drop dead gorgeous women” always connotes “the sexism of comics by way of the objectification and hyper-sexualization of female characters.” Thompson provides numerous contemporary examples of hyper-sexualization, but I argue here that objectification does not follow from the presence of hyper-sexualization. Since Thompson does not define her concept of objectification, I’ll examine one of the characters she cites by the standards of the shortened Nussbaum definition.
One of Thompson’s more questionable citations was the Marvel character “the Black Widow,” whom Thompson described as “regularly unzipped, sometimes heels,” while providing one image of the Widow showing off her cleavage. In one of my responses, I objected to using this character as a fair example of one given a “porn star” body. I did not deny that some artists may have drawn the character in this fashion, but Thompson failed to note that many versions of the character had not been “hyper-sexualized” in her sense. I cited a 1970s Gene Colan rendering of the Widow as an example where the body was not pictured with a “porn star” physique. One respondent to my essay asserted that it was immaterial to counter with an example from the days of “all ages” comic books. Therefore, these next two examples are drawn from periods when the American direct market system had been fully established.
As this sequence comes from a Ralph Macchio-George Perez “Black Widow” story from 1983, I predict that this still won’t be contemporary enough for some readers. Nevertheless, the four-part story, appearing in the quality-paper Marvel anthology Marvel Fanfare, seems aimed at the older fans in that it provides—albeit within the context of a standard Marvel ass-kicking action-plot—a fair degree of T & A. In the sequence shown, the imprisoned Widow strips off her leotard to get at concealed weapons. It’s not the least bit clear as to why this procedure destroys the costume so that she has only enough left to cover what the Comics Code would want covered. In any event, she spends ten pages of the story’s last sequence fighting in a halter-top and briefs.
Is this sexual display? Of course.
But is it also objectification? No.
There surely are stories in which T & A characters are deprived of any meaningful subjectivity, and I might cite early Image heroines like “Ballistic” and “Riptide” as examples of this. But the Macchio-Perez Widow retains at all times a believable subjective center for the character, in terms of what one can expect for an action-adventure hero of either sex. The plot is fast-paced pulp, in which the Black Widow goes on a spy-mission to find a kidnapped father-figure and expose a mammoth conspiracy within her native Russian homeland. Nevertheless, the T &A elements (as well as some possible catfight aspects) don’t nullify the character’s subjectivity: her affection for her father-figure Ivan and her guilt over seducing one of the villain’s henchmen in order to gain information:
Widow (thinking): “…he had fallen in love with a lie—one which I was as much responsible for creating as the KGB agents who murdered him.”
As for agency, the Widow largely foils the conspiracy with only minimal (and sometimes counter-productive) assistance from male SHIELD agents. A female reader might not like the T & A aspect of the story, but it contravenes neither subjectivity nor the heroine’s ability to kick ass.
I don’t know if Thompson meant to exclude the 3-part Black Widow series from 2001 (recent enough?) from her accusation. In any case, this cover illustration is fully in line with the interior Scott Hampton art, who depicts both the real Black Widow and her blonde doppelganger with bodies that are toned but not hyper-sexualized. One wonders if Hampton received any plaudits back in the day for so doing.
In keeping with the more restrained art, the story by Greg Rucka and Devin Grayson eschews the pulpier flavor of mainstream Marvel comics for something closer to the world of John Le Carre. In order to ferret out a plot involving hidden nuclear missiles, the Widow uses advanced technology to switch identities with Yelena, a fellow female Russian spy-- but without the latter’s prior knowledge. Yelena endures torments over her loss of identity as well as being put in harm’s way before she finds out what the real Widow has done. At the close Yelena speaks to her tormentor:
“I do not understand the kind of monster who would rape me in this way.”
The Widow’s response boils down to a lesson in the hard knocks of espionage:
“…I wanted you to understand, finally, what it meant to be a spy… We are not heroes. We are tools. And tools get used.”
Some critics might find the Grayson-Rucka-Hampton work better-characterized or “more mature” than the Macchio-Perez work. I personally deem them both good though not outstanding works of their respective types. But the salient point is that the presence or absence of sexual display does not limit either work in terms of making readers—whether male or female themselves—restrict their knowledge of the Widow’s subjectivity or agency. The Widow commits in both stories acts of which she’s not overly proud, but guilt doesn’t keep her from completing a necessary mission.
As I don’t claim to have read every Black Widow story, it’s possible that some exist in which the character is reduced to the level of a Playboy Bunny, perhaps in whatever source Thompson uses for her cleavage-example.
But even then, I would not grant that hyper-sexualization is the inevitable bedmate of objectification.
After all, real bunnies, as much as black widow spiders, are not without defenses. Both can bite back.