Current Events
The Objectification of Women with Martha Nussbaum

The Objectification of Women with Martha Nussbaum

La cosificación de la mujer. Una conversación con Martha Nussbaum

Patricia Gras & Rose Mary Salum

Martha Nussbaum is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago. The founder and coordinator of the Center for Comparative Constitutionalism, Nussbaum has received honorary degrees from 40 colleges and universities and has written more than 15 books, including the recently released The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age. She recently won the Prince of Asturias Prize for Social Sciences in Spain. The Rice University Program in Poverty, Justice and Human Capabilities in the Center for the Study of Women Gender and Sexuality and the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy invited her to speak and Literal had the opportunity to talk to her.

                                                            * * * 

The first question is a prelude of what is morally and perhaps legally problematic about some common forms of expression on the Internet. We are talking specifically about the assault on women’s capability, can you elaborate on that?

Martha Nussbaum: Well, the concept of objectification has been used by feminists for many years, to talk about how women are treated as not full people with full human dignity, but as things to be manipulated and controlled by men. What I have written before about this says that it is really a complicated concept that includes denial of autonomy, denial of subjectivity. Not taking people’s feelings into account, but also treating them as a mere instrument. That is, a woman is not shown respect as an end in herself, but is treated as a mere instrument of male fantasy and male desire. The Internet opens that up in a big way because it is a relatively autonomous world in which someone who portrays a woman in a certain light, can create a whole story about her that is relatively immune to any kind of correction because it goes everywhere, it lasts forever, and then it can spill back and have real effect in the real world. When the woman is a well-known person it might not have such a big effect because so many different things are said about her as a person. But in the case of some women who have been harassed deliberately as law students or other kinds of just normal young people, that is not that case, because they are not well known. Therefore, the story about them that is concocted, the fantasy in which they are doing something that is like in a pornographic novel, but attached to their name and physical details about them, can define their reality in the eyes of the world and has a major impact on job opportunities. Even if their employers do not believe that they really did these things, it just taints the women. People are already afraid of women’s sexuality anyway, let’s face it, and so if they see this sexualized story, she will not be hired. We have had lawsuits where women have shown that indeed they were defamed in this way and as a result lost job opportunities but the anonymity of the Internet protects the abuser because now, who is the defendant? You do not know who you are going to sue. You can bring a lawsuit, but it is not going to do you much good if you cannot find out who the defendant is.

You mention that some people validate themselves by destroying, in this case, women. You also mention how powerless people gain power by using the Internet. This reminds us of one of the stories Plato mentions in The Republic. Does invisibility, in this case the Internet, always make people act unjustly?

MN: That is a good parallel. Of course Plato was saying that the invisibility would be a test of whether you value your moral principles. People under invisibility behave badly. I am afraid the Internet does prove that, because under the cover of anonymity, they certainly do not show themselves in the best light. I do not often write for blogs but even one time, when I wrote for the New York Times opinion blog, which is a very high quality blog, I got 700 comments.  I would say that in that group, there were two that had an interesting argument. Otherwise it was just fulminating, sounding off.

You said something during your conference something that caught our attention. You mentioned that real intimacy requires sensitivity, but that culture stigmatizes qualities that are feminine. Please elaborate.

MN: I think many cultures teach young men that to be a real man, you have to be without deep needs for others and deep connections with others. You have to be the Lone Ranger out there on the frontier, just showing your strength by showing that you do not need other people. Now, that is an old story in feminism. Nancy Chodorow’s great book, The Reproduction of Mothering, was all about that. However, I think the Internet now shows us new ways that men can act out that fantasy because they really can be impervious to others and they do not need connections with others. So if we are going to change this behavior, then I think we need to change the culture of maleness in our own society and probably, no doubt, in other societies too.

How do we change the culture of maleness?

MN: Well I think that, of course the family is at the root of it. The way boys are brought up, and the way they are talked to about empathy can do quite a lot. However, the peer culture also has great power. We know from psychological research that people are very, very responsive to peer pressure. That they are willing to do things that they otherwise would not.  So, in addition, we have to do what we can to shape that peer culture. Now how do we do that? That is much harder. Sometimes, of course, a good family can produce a young man who resists the peer culture. But it is hard, when you are young. I think institutions could do quite a lot by making rules that describe certain behavior as inappropriate, by talking a lot about equality and dignity, and by empowering women to speak up themselves and to protest themselves. In law school women told me that if they felt pornographic signs were put up in a student lounge that kind of subordinated and assailed women, they would feel empowered to go up there and repeat to these men what the dean had said, and namely that in a community, we have to respect one another and we have to cultivate civility. Now I thought that what this dean of students had said was very important, because then from the very first day that they are there, they hear a strong message that certain behavior is not appropriate.

The objectification of women usually comes down to the female body. What is so powerful about the female body that draws so much energy from both men and women? Does it go back to religion or is it purely biological, since we are child-bearers?

MN: Well, I think it is part of the group of phenomena. I have studied the emotion of disgust a lot. Research on disgust shows that all of us are uncomfortable with the signs that mirror animals, that show we are mortal. And so the bodily fluids, the corpse, all of those things that psychologists call “animal reminders,” are heavily avoided. They are viewed as contaminating and they are stigmatized. In a second step, people who somehow come to represent those stigmatized things, fluids, decay and so on, are subordinated as a result. Now, in many cultures it seems pretty arbitrary how those groups get constructed in that role, maybe it is because of fear or anxiety, sometimes it is Jews, sometimes it is lower castes in Indian society, sometimes Muslims in India today, but women, in more or less all cultures, come in for that kind of projected disgust, as I put it. That is to say they are associated with the things about the body that are feared and viewed as contaminating because they give birth but also because they are seen as sights of fluid, the menstrual period, they are also seen as the receptacles of male semen, which is something that males feel anxious about. For all these reasons, the researchers who work on disgust think that misogyny is connected ultimately with people’s own anxiety about their own bodies. Rather than say, “Oh I emit these fluids myself, and that is one sign that I am an animal body, and I will die,” well, people do not want to say that, they would rather say, “Oh I’m above all this. But there is this woman over there, and she is the animal one, and the hyper bodily one.” A lot of the whole story of high European culture is about transcendence of the mere physical, the idea that we really as humans ought to be thinking of ourselves as above the body and its desires.

When the majority of the world’s population is made up of women, why have we allowed this to happen? What is in it for us?

MN: Well, that is a very good question. I think of course that unequal physical strength is back in pre-history, but that is a big factor. Maybe it still is, because after all, upper body strength is a factor in rape, it is big factor. A woman could work out as much as she can to improve her upper body strength, but it is not going to be equal to that of most men. So there is that. I think that it has translated into a long-term situation of subordination and control in which women themselves get used to it, and they habituate themselves to it, and they often collaborate with it. Unfortunately, women are part of the problem too.

Can women objectify women?

MN: Oh yes. Women participate in all the objectifying practices that feminists find objectionable and feminists themselves may do so: plastic surgery, the wearing certain kinds of revealing clothing. Any high school dance will show you teenage girls who will have every opportunity and every invitation to consider themselves as full human beings objectifying themselves in little micro skirts. Now, I love fashionable clothing, and I love high-heeled shoes and all these things. So I do not think there is anything wrong in all these women participating in practices that are playful, that are fun, that are sexy. The only problem comes when that blurs into defining yourself as unequal, and of unequal dignity and worth.

Can you elaborate on the reevaluation of values? What sort of education should be encouraged? We talked a little about the boys, but what about the girls?

MN:  Well let me say a little more about the boys. I think we have to start by talking to children about people’s feelings. Research shows that mothers spend less time talking to little boys about feelings that children have when something happens, that they have, that their friends have, than they do talking to girls. Cultivating the emotional sophistication, the emotional awareness would be an answer. And that is done partly by talking about what just happened. Why did Johnny cry when you took his ball away? But it also happens through the arts, music, dance, through stories in which people make their own emotional geography more rich and complex. I think both boys and girls need that. And then, of course, in the case of girls, it is important to cultivate as well the sense of equal worth and dignity and provide them with the right to get angry and speak up. I think justified anger is something women have trouble with. Men often are much more up front about their anger when someone insults them, and recognize it right away. Whereas women often are inhibited about anger and so they do not even realize that they are angry. It becomes a kind of corrosive force. I think recognizing and giving voice to anger in a way that is appropriate, that demands social justice.

Why is it so hard for women, are we socialized not to get angry? Or is it just not acceptable for women to get angry?

MN: It certainly is not. I mean boys are affirmed when they are angry. This goes back into infancy. There is research among infants where the same infant is first described as he and then described as she. Then they look at how the experimental subjects treat the child. Now one thing they find is that when they think it is a boy, it will be bounced in the air and a little girl will be sheltered and held close. But the other thing they find is that when this baby, the same baby, mind you, is crying, the ones who think it is a boy will say, “Oh, he is really angry isn’t he? He wants to get what he wants!” And if they think it is a girl, they say, “Oh poor thing, she is so frightened.” So, you know, that translates into different ways of interacting with the child, different ways of treating the child. By the time you get a 4 or 5-year-old child, then you get a different personality type. I think we do not know anything about the extent to which these differences have a biological basis because we know that the social conditioning begins so early.

Now, back to solutions for this problem. We talked about teaching young men and young women about this. How early should we start doing this?

MN: Well I think that last story shows that we have to start teaching ourselves even while we are holding babies. We have to remember that the way you shelter a child, the way you project your own fantasies of emotion onto a child has an impact, and you do not want to do it unequally. You have to recognize, of course, individual differences among children, but you also do not want to project stereotype-gendered differences in the way you characterize the child. And then I think just talking about life should go on all through. I mean we now know that children are very, very cognitively mature. Even when they are one year old they cannot speak, but they take in quite a lot. And we know that they are capable of seeing the world from another person’s point of view. So, then, singing little songs, telling little stories, all of this, even representing stories about little animals in some ways, this is a big thing. I think by now we do pay attention to children’s literature and how it represents the genders. Even my own daughter, who is now in her late 30’s, had a book, I remember, I got it for her of course, it was called Trudy Teacher, and it was about the different professions. But they were very careful to represent how women could be telephone line repair people up on the pole, or a man could be something that is more typically feminine, a beautician or whatever. And so I think that kind of teaching, and that is for 3-year-olds, 4-year-olds. They just learn that different professions are open to both.

Is there any way we can change the cultural patterns about how we talk about masculinity and femininity? In the media, in public culture…

MN: We just had a conference at our law school on men who were in American law and literature about how the culture of masculinity influences American law, and we were looking at different literary ways of talking about masculinity. One thing that emerged was that the dominant culture can learn a lot from other minority cultures. For example, we had people work on gay fiction, and the gay norms of masculinity of course sometimes partake in the dominant norm of masculinity, but they also offer outsider possibilities. And so Michael Warner, the very interesting gay theorist, had a paper that was called Manning Up, about how constraining it is for men in the dominant culture to always feel they have to come up to some mark, and what a straightjacket it is for the person’s emotional life. But then he had this idea of sideways movement. Are there possibilities of escape, and sort of just moving slightly to the side from that dominant norm. And yes, I think we felt that. I mean, my paper was about Jewish norms of masculinity, which offer a different set of norms that are quite interesting and can offer different possibilities of sideways movement too. So I think it is good to investigate the varieties of masculinity and the process of thinking about ways in which someone could be a real man yet be unmanly in the traditional sense.