Feminist aesthetics: Self-objectification

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In this series, I will explore how the messages of cinema, literature and fine art engrain themselves in a woman’s subjectivity in ways which lead her to objectify herself, integrating the male gaze into her consciousness. I will begin by examining ideas from feminist metaphysics surrounding how women internalise patriarchal values and norms. They are integrated in the cognitive, emotional and conative structure of the self, thereby contributing to woman’s own oppression without her realising this.

Once embedded in a woman’s psychic economy, internalised oppression conditions her to desire her own passivity and male domination. Paradoxically, she contributes to her own subjugation by internalising an aesthetic sexualisation of her passivity and appropriating the male gaze, which her sense of self is driven by. Her actions will replicate the stereotypes which some art forms encourage her to adopt because she develops an externalised view of her body and seeks to sexualise it by exaggerating its passivity.

I will move on to feminist aesthetics and examine case studies of different types of art as evidence for the ways in which a portrayal of the feminine is demeaned, intentionally or inadvertently, through the eroticisation of sexual violence towards passive female bodies. The case studies I examine will show how the denial of epistemic justice increases an aesthetic objectification of women and how this silencing makes some artworks more problematic than others.

I will consider cases in which feminist artists have rebelled against patriarchal art in order to philosophically explain the importance of aesthetics on woman’s subjectivity. While art can contribute to one’s internalisation of sexism by othering their consciousness, it can also help woman form an emancipatory conception of the self by allowing a cognitive reflection on how her metaphysical world view can be affected by aesthetics.

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De Beauvoir and Bartky’s feminist theories can be used to explain how objectification of subjects (autonomous women) sets their ego up as a double stranger, encouraging a narcissistic satisfaction that stems from their passivity.  A woman may see herself as if being viewed by an anonymous, patriarchal ‘other’ embodied by both society and her own consciousness. Objectification and the sexualisation of masculine dominance/feminine weakness influences the way women view themselves in a metaphysical sense, almost adopting a split identity where the notion of ‘the other’ occupies their consciousness as objects to be looked at.

According to Althusser, ideologies are a collection of normative beliefs and values which exist irrespective of purely epistemic reasoning; they rest on concrete subjects, therefore a non-historical entity can become an instance of ideology (Ioizidou 2008:30). The formation of ideologies can revolve around the perceptions of gendered subjects or groups of subjects whose formed beliefs can impact our lived experience, affecting one’s sense of self both in a physical as well as mental aspect.

As concrete individuals, we are object constructions which are socially constructed according to gender and impacted by the normative attributes prescribed to the masculine, feminine and androgynous. Beauvoir’s Hegelian notions of the interdependent and dialogical character of human existence suggests that an embodied experience of the world as a concrete, ethical self (an object construction) is preferable to a purely conscious state alienated from the body (Vintges 2017:26).

However, when one moves from traditional philosophy to feminist metaphysical thinking, the lived reality of embodied object constructions is subject to oppressive gender ideologies that may affect one’s conscious state. This could literally and psychologically alienate individuals, particularly those who identify as feminine.

Societally, there are different metaphysical constructions for the two genders that construct human objects into subjective beings. Although Beauvoir may differ from other theorists such as Lucy Irigaray, a fundamental principle of their feminism lies in the conviction that the social arrangement, and historical ideology, of the patriarchy is grounded on the construction of males as the only group enabled to experience full subjectivity (Frye 1983:992). The positive construction of the feminine subject is grounded on its distinction from the masculine, whereas the masculine subject does not require a distinction, being neutral and normative.

Therefore, the woman’s self is established socially through a man and not-man dichotomy in which she falls into the latter category (Frye 1983:1000), thus being cast into a lower form of subjectivity to her male counterpart. The full subjectivity afforded to the masculine allows man the privilege of being seen as an entire person, rather than an assemblage of body parts. He is the immediate ‘default’ human being: “He is the Subject, he is the Absolute- she is the Other” (Beauvoir 2010:26). 

By casting woman as not-man, this creates an internal distinction which encourages women to define themselves according to their gender, a concept which most men do not consult. Man, as a subject, represents both the positive and neuter whereas woman’s subjective position renders her inferior. According to de Beauvoir, the Other is posited as an object in the subject’s eyes (2010:195). Therefore, woman is alienated because her attempts to gain power by adopting masculine traits is ideologically designed to be inferior, while men are likewise discouraged from incorporating femininity because they risk losing full subjectivity (2010:84). Femininity and all of it signifiers, such as women’s body and sexuality, are alienated from a fully subjective object construction.

A primary source of alienation is the limits and sanctions imposed on the female’s corporeality. The suppression of feminine sexuality aligns with the eroticisation of passivity, which in turn leads to bodily objectification.

The feminine body has been stereotypically categorised as softer, passive and more intrinsically sexual compared to the male body, which does not need to be protected or regarded as gentle (Bartky 1990:123). Young has suggested that these restrictions also literally restrict women by creating sense of positioning within invisible spatial barriers caused by the strong association of her self-hood with her body. The focus on the feminine body as an object that lies outside of her subjectivity presents it as an aesthetic ‘thing’ predisposed to any gaze. This objectification encourages women to adorn it ornamentally with beautiful accessories and to seek to modify it for the pleasure of both the external other and her narcissistic self.

The attention of the Other makes it difficult for woman to separate her embodied experience with her mental life because the emphasis on her physical characteristics detracts focus away from her mind and personality (Bartky 1990:123). Therefore, the sexual objectification of a subject creates a patriarchal ideology by alienating the body and strongly associating it with its sexual functions.

By confining the feminine ideal to normative gendered constructions, woman adopts society’s classification and treatment of the feminine as an easily objectified Other. She becomes a double stranger to herself (Bartky 1990:134) because the narcissism and vanity she is encouraged to embrace is filtered through the masculine perspectives of the feminine ideal. Society has restricted the ideal erotic requirements through the sexualisation of a certain type of female body (passive, graceful, beautiful). Woman is encouraged to objectify herself through a dual gaze and loses a fully subjective sense of self in the process.

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She is taught to mirror the appraisal received from the heterosexual male gaze, implicit in art and society, to both herself and other women. The result of sexual objectification is this internalisation of the Other’s gaze which creates a duality in the feminine consciousness. It simultaneously inhabits the role of the gazed, the gazer and the object of appraisal itself (Bartky 1990:134). The narcissism a young girl begins to form is therefore based on the identification with the male gaze which sets up her ego as a ‘stranger’. She learns to position part of her consciousness outside itself, looking at her own body as an object (Bartky 1990:134).

The Other encourages woman to narcissistically appraise herself, as she externally judges and objectifies her body. Imagery works alongside the male gaze and the patriarchal Other in her consciousness to encourage a beauty complex; an obsession of aligning with this passive, heteronormative feminine ideal.

Beauvoir portrays this phenomenon of feminine narcissism as the allure of self-objectification. The subject’s obsession with beauty makes her more passive. As an Other to the masculine self, she becomes an erotic object and sexual partner through which man can find himself (Beauvoir 2010:92) and, by possessing her, man is told he can have power over the beautiful, natural and youthful. The classical feminine tropes of the virgin, whore, spinster and mother show how man is socially conditioned to control female sexuality; prepubescent virgins are innocent and lack objectification, whereas older virgins are seen as objects that have not been desired or predisposed to possession by a masculine subject (Beauvoir 2010:201-9).

This highlights how it is the younger, sexually available female bodies who are more erotically objectified and, regardless of cultural beauty standards, the constant requirements of perfection ensure their body maintains the passive qualities that can be easily subjugated. Beauvoir argues that artworks such as the Venus de Milo highlight the curvatures of the feminine body, such as the buttocks, with the fewest nerve endings- flesh appears without a purpose in a way that hides both the body’s strength and subjectivity (2010:211).

The ideal feminine beauty standard in many civilisations, as reflected in the artworks they produced, utilised customs and fashions to subdue the female body: the binding of Chinese women’s feet, crinolines meant to accentuate curves, jewellery, and modern footwear such as heels are uncomfortable and increase the body’s powerlessness (Beauvoir 2011:211).

This narcissistic quest is paradoxical in its futility as it is not possible to reach subjectivity through self-objectification. Relying on validation is a fragile concept as any contradictions to one’s subjectivity threaten the basis of the ego and the ‘double stranger’ in woman’s consciousness (Beauvoir 2010:660). Sexual objectification teaches women to derive pleasure through their passivity (Beauvoir 2010:824). Of course, there are cases of women who embody the feminine ideal without this form of feminine narcissism. However, this pressure to eroticise oneself is usually driven by the sexual objectification of women.

Women begin to mirror their objectifier by objectifying themselves, thus treating their bodies as both a subject and an alienated object simultaneously. This self-objectification leads the woman to take erotic satisfaction in her physical self, particularly from the Other’s perspective, and her narcissistic satisfaction is fulfilled by metaphorically treating her body as a potential sexual object to be gazed at. Her feminine narcissism relies on this image of passivity, which subconsciously associates pleasure with powerlessness.

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Her efforts to maintain this image add to her state of passivity as she restricts her natural body processes through beauty regimes (Bartky 2010:136). By continuously seeking to improve her body, she is alienated and estranged from it as she views it from a distance to her embodied self in order to fit the ever-changing and unattainable feminine ideal- one that belongs to both herself and others. Feminine subjectivity is made inferior to that of a man an she comes to associates herself with an erotic object that can gain narcissistic pleasure through objectification.

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Frye, Marilyn, 1983, “The Necessity of Differences: Constructing a Positive Category of Women”, Signs, 21(4): 991–1010. doi:10.1086/495128, p1000

Vintage e books translated by constance borde and Sheila malovany-chevallier , New York 2010

Vintges, K. (2017) A New Dawn for the Second Sex: Women’s Freedom Practices in World Perspective, Amsterdam University Press:25-6.

Nussbaum, Martha, 1995, “Objectification”, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 24(4): 249–291.

Bartky, S.L. (1982) “Narcissism, Feminism and Alienation” Social Theory and Practice, The Florida State University  8(2):127-143

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loizidou, E. (2008) ‘The Body Figural and Material In the Work of Judith Butler’, Australian Feminist Law Journal, 28, 1

Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, (Series: Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy), Mary Gregor (ed.), Cambridge University Press, 1998.



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