When analyzing the objectification of individuals, the role of print media is immeasurable. A study conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) Task Force on the sexualization of women and girls discovered that magazines are among the most influential in portraying objectification. For example, when analyzing Time and Vogue advertisements from 1955 to 2002, approximately 40% of ads depicted women as decorative objects (APA Task Force 10). These women were sexualized to enhance the appeal of products and were treated as enhancers rather than potential consumers. Women were also “three times more likely than men to be dressed in a sexually provocative manner in ads” (APA Task Force 10). Other data concerning fashion and fitness magazines yielded that half of the ads featuring women had obscured body parts, whereas this only occurred in about 17% of male-focused ads (APA Task Force 11). In these instances, women were reduced to mere body parts, quite literally becoming objects. The studies conducted by APA only serve to highlight the disparity between modes of objectification. This is not to say that the objectification of men is non-existent, but rather that it transpires differently than that of women.
Besides magazines, other forms of advertisements dehumanize women to capitalize off their sex appeal. Kilbourne’s documentary “Killing Us Softly 4” focuses on the exploitation and sexualization of women in ads as a means to sell products. Her findings dictate that the objectification of women sometimes borders on dismemberment, where specific body parts are used to garner attention from the audience (Kilbourne 6). For example, ads focusing purely on sexualized assets such as legs, breasts, and mouths dehumanize women by denigrating their entire existence to singular limbs. Additionally, women are held to the following beauty standards: “young, thin, white, or at least light-skinned, perfectly groomed and polished, plucked and shaved” (Kilbourne 9). Unattainable body standards have prompted many women to look towards plastic surgery. Kilbourne argues that surgical procedures, such as breast augmentation, objectify women as the enhancements can sometimes numb sensations, thus rendering them an object of somebody else’s desire (7). Objectification of women in ads can also correlate with violence. Ads and media that feature female bondage and trivialize the torture of women (horror movies and video games) can culminate in a culture where violence against women is seemingly normalized (Kilbourne 24). Ultimately, objectification can be detrimental to the physical and mental wellbeing of women.
Peggy Orenstein’s “The Miseducation of the American Boy” documents the internal strife of young men attempting to consolidate their masculinity. When asked to describe characteristics of an ideal man, the most common attributes were “Dominance. Aggression. Sexual Prowess. Stoicism. Athleticism. Wealth.” (Orenstein). In another poll, 40% of male participants expressed that when they felt angry they felt as though there was a societal expectation to be combative (Orenstein). Through these two questions, it becomes apparent that young men internalize notions of dominance and assertiveness. Noticeably these attitudes are often exacerbated in “jock culture” or “bro culture,” which are male-dominated environments that establish masculinity through misogyny (Orenstein). In fact, misogynistic remarks are weaponized in these circles for group solidarity to create a competitive sexual hierarchy at the expense of dehumanizing women (Orenstein). These findings demonstrate that misogyny and aggressiveness are seen as methods to assert masculinity.
Objectification of men follows a patriarchal model as it perpetuates male dominance and female submissiveness. “When men are objectified, they generally are bigger, stronger, and more powerful,” which contrasts with female depictions of being “fragile, more vulnerable, less powerful” (Kilbourne 32). Even at a young age, boys are often referred to or hailed as being “pimps” or studs, thus perpetuating the idea that they should view women as objects (Kilbourne 16). The definitions of desirability for men are also more liberal than that of women. A man can fit archetypes such as “handsome young man, the rugged man, [or] the mature distinguished older man,” whereas beauty standards for women revolve around youth and overall appearance (Kilbourne 9). Additionally, representations of masculinity in advertisements are often associated with violence. “Boys grow up in a world where men are constantly shown as the perpetrators of violence, as brutal,” which encourages them to become insensitive and rugged (Kilbourne 22). These double standards and approaches to depictions of masculinity help delineate differences between the objectification of men and the objectification of women.
Literature presents a unique opportunity to delve further into the world of gender inequality and objectification. Specifically, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale provides a perfect portrayal of the detrimental effects of living within the patriarchy. Taking place within a dystopian world, the novel follows the journey of the protagonist Offred through a patriarchal and totalitarian regime known as Gilead. Women within the society are forced to serve households in the form of house chores and are not allowed to read, write, or engage in other activities. Noticeably, women lack control over their reproductive functions and their bodies in general. Interestingly, women lose all semblance of their identities and are defined by their subserviency to men. Throughout the novel, Atwood describes raw and realistic instances of the subjugation of women in a male-oriented society. One of the most noticeable anecdotes is the “Ceremony” (Atwood; Chapter 16). Essentially, it is an elaborate ritual concerning fornication between Offred and the Commander, a male superior, to conceive a child. During the ritual, she raises her skirt and takes off only her undergarments to minimize nudity and allow easy access to her genitals. Offred comments that “it has nothing to do with sexual desire, at least for me,” which hints at the imbalance between her agency and that of the Commander (Atwood 82). In another instance, Offred remembers advice she received: “To be seen is…. to be penetrated. What you must be, girls, is impenetrable,” which hints at the notion that women are always under the watchful guise of the patriarchy (Atwood 27). These instances paint a portrait of a society where women are denied any agency or ownership over their bodies but are instead under the glare of the male gaze. As a result, The Handmaid’s Tale provides comprehensive examples of the objectification of women.