A Negative, But Not Invariably Disabling, Objectification

In both “Bad Romance” and “Yoü and I,” écriture féminine is used to defy and subvert the objectification practiced by Gaga’s lovers.  Before observing this interplay, though, an understanding of objectification must be attempted.  Even though this word is a rather common theme in feminist theory and is frequently heard with discussions of pornography and advertising, “objectification” is rather difficult to define.  This essay will work primarily under the definition proposed by Lina Papadaki, but it will also draw on several of Martha Nussbaum’s observations concerning objectification.

Papadaki argues that a deceptively simple definition of objectification is “the treatment of a person (usually a woman) as an object” (16).  When understood through a Kantian perspective, this kind of treatment reduces an individual to “a mere instrument” (17), resulting in the diminishment of that individual’s humanity, which, for Kant, is an individual’s “rational nature and capacity for rational choice” (17).[1]  Papadaki explains that Kant views humanity as the quality that allows humans to assign value to ideas or things and to pursue that which is designated valuable.  Kant, thus, observes that when a human is treated like an object, his or her rational nature is injured.

Furthermore, some feminists have argued that “objectification is bad because it cuts women off from full self-expression and self-determination—from, in effect, their humanity” (Nussbaum 250).  Objectified individuals are, therefore, unable to realize their full potential as value-recognizing and pursuing beings; they become entrenched in their object-hood, unable to pursue meaningful goals or projects.  Objectification, then, is destructive and terribly negative.  However, for Papadaki as well as for Nussbaum, this view of objectification is too extreme, for it contends that objectification results in “serious harm to the objectified individual’s humanity […] a person’s humanity is impaired, diminished, or even, to use Kant’s strong language, ‘sacrificed’” (Papadaki 26).  Instead, both Papadaki and Nussbaum agree that objectification is not necessarily devastating.

In her critique of the Kantian view of objectification, Nussbaum offers seven different facets, which may function alone or in conjunction with each other, that help to illuminate that objectification “is not only a slippery, but also a multiple, concept” (251):

1. Instrumentality: The objectifier treats the object as a tool of his or her purposes.

2. Denial of autonomy: The objectifier treats the object as lacking in autonomy and self-determination.

3. Inertness: The objectifier treats the object as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity.

4. Fungibility: The objectifier treats the object as interchangeable (a) with other objects of the same type, and/or (b) with objects of other types.

5. Violability: The objectifier treats the object as lacking in boundary-integrity, as something that it is permissible to break up, smash, break into.

6. Ownership: the objectifier treats the object as something that is owned by another, can be bought or sold, etc.

7. Denial of subjectivity: The objectifier treats the object as something whose experience and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account.  (257)

By analyzing several literary passages as well as by positing potential situations, Nussbaum argues that, in the proper contexts, not all objectification is bad.  For example, she observes that instrumentality, perhaps the most morally problematic form of objectification, can be considered benign in the context in which someone uses her lover’s stomach as a pillow (provided, of course, that the lover does not mind).  As another example, Nussbaum points out that “[t]he treatment of young children by their parents almost always involves a denial of autonomy; it involves some aspects of ownership, though not all” (262).

Papadaki acknowledges that Nussbaum helps to flesh out the idea of objectification and to realize its complexity; however, she also observes that Nussbaum’s view is too broad.  Papadaki argues that Nussbaum’s view “would seem to include nearly all of the ways we ordinarily see and treat each other and ourselves in our daily lives.  Since it is reasonable not to want to call ‘everything’ objectification, it seems that we are better off favouring a less inclusive conception than Nussbaum’s” (28-29).  Offering a sort of middle ground between the Kantian and Nussbaumian views, Papadaki maintains that objectification is always negative but also acknowledges that it can take multiple forms and is not always injurious to the objectified’s humanity.  She agrees with the Kantian notion that “objectification should be understood as a negative phenomenon” (32), but uses “Nussbaum’s own view of what makes objectification negative” (32), offering this rather hybrid definition:

Objectification is seeing and/or treating a person as an object (seeing and/or treating them in one or more of these seven ways: as an instrument, inert, fungible, violable, owned, denied autonomy, denied subjectivity), in such a way that denies this person’s humanity.  A person’s humanity is denied when it is ignored/not properly acknowledged and/or when it is in some way harmed.  (32)

Thus, objectification occurs when a person’s ability to recognize and pursue that which is considered valuable is denied, either by being damaged or by being unacknowledged.

Along with this definition, Papadaki observes that objectification can either be intentional or unintentional and that objectification can be ultimately reductive or non-reductive, that is, it can ultimately disable or it can ignore an individual’s humanity.  There are four forms, then, that objectification can take:

1. Intentional, reductive objectification occurs when someone intentionally damages another’s humanity.

2. Unintentional, reductive objectification occurs when someone unintentionally damages another’s humanity.

3. Intentional, non-reductive objectification occurs when someone intentionally ignores another’s humanity.

4. Unintentional, non-reductive objectification occurs when someone unintentionally ignores another’s humanity.  (32-33)

Coupled with Nussbaum’s seven ways of objectifying someone, these categories help to understand the objectification in “Bad Romance” and “Yoü and I.”

Many, perhaps all, of Nussbaum’s seven ways of objectifying an individual can be observed in “Bad Romance” and “Yoü and I.”  This objectification is also malicious; the objectifiers often intentionally objectify Lady Gaga.  However, by way of “writing the body,” by way of “wreck[ing] partitions, classes, and rhetorics, regulations and codes,” Lady Gaga escapes the phallocentric system that attempts to control her by reducing her humanity; through écriture féminine, Gaga ultimately thwarts the intentions of her objectifiers and transforms any objectification from reductive to non-reductive.

[1] It could be argued that Kant’s view of humanity is masculine, and, therefore, is incompatible with écriture féminine; however, this issue is beyond the scope of this paper.


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