Helen Alvare, Objectification of Women Introduction: I have been asked to reflect upon the closely related phenomena of consumerism

and the objectification of women as they manifest themselves particularly in North America. In many ways, these phenomena are an “old story”: women reduced to flesh versus spirit or intellect. Many cultures around the globe and over time have internalized this view of women; North America by no means has a monopoly on what Pope Benedict XVI referred to just a month ago as the simultaneous “false glorification” and “defilement” of the female human body.1 And yet, North America does seem unique in the way that it combines rampant consumerism with the objectification of women. It is part of the “dark side” of our continent’s deserved reputation as a place of economic and social opportunity. This dark side is growing so large, that it is threatening to swallow much of what is good about our approach to freedom and opportunity. Perhaps one of the most important reasons for the size of our problems in this area concerns our highly developed technological and media industries and culture. Technological innovations drive a substantial portion of our economies. These innovations regularly arise in the area of media: our ability to broadcast to each other and to the world, constant, loud and dramatic images, including artificially perfected, sexually-charged images of women. The movement toward transforming women into consumer objects has corresponded with a period of exploding public and private opportunities for women. There is greater equality in education, in the workplace, and even in many personal relationships. Sadly, however, much of this progress has been built on shaky foundations, in particular upon aspirations that women behave as little differently from (often, caricatures of ) men as possible, including regarding sex, parenthood, and a general will to dominate persons with whom they come into contact. In my remarks today, I will describe the phenomena of objectification and consumerism. Second, I will suggest what’s “new” and really more ominous about the current situation for women and society, according to the following points: one, women’s increasing cooperation with their own subjugation, sometimes via particular types of feminist movements; and two, the legal and social institutionalization of these phenomena, under the rubric of an ill-conceived “freedom,” and with particularly disastrous effects upon the poor. Finally, I will suggest how the Catholic teaching, found in Mulieris Dignitatem, and other recent documents attending to women’s situation, provide ways of thinking and speaking about consumerism and objectification which might find a receptive audience. I. Phenomena of the Objectification of Women and Consumerism

It can be said that women are “objectified” when they are treated or portrayed as things, versus persons. Things are by their nature are valued variably according to features such as beauty or functionality. Things are also intuitively valued less than persons. How often does a parent say to a child who has just had an accident with, for

Agence France Press, “Benedict decries ‘faith deficit’”, Washington Times (USA), A9, Jan 1, 2008.

example, the family car: ” It’s only a “thing,” we’ll get over it. Thank God you’re alright.” Persons are also “objectified” when they are understood to lack the gifts God gives to persons alone. The gifts of being “willed for [her]own sake, 2 of being made in God’s image and likeness as a subject -- a free, willing, acting being possessed of rationality, creativity and free will. The gift of being made from love and for eternal coexistence, in love, with God. Another aspect of God’s image and likeness denied by objectification involves the intrinsically relational aspect of every human life. In Mulieris Dignitatem, John Paul II writes: “Being a person in the image and likeness of God thus also involves existing in …relation to the other “I’.”3 Relationships involve giving and receiving -- in John Paul II’s language, “mutual donation” -- which is regularly sacrificial.4 Once a woman is “objectified,” she is no longer understood as meriting, or capable of a true “relationship,” of sacrificial donation. Finally, women are “objectified” by being identified solely with their bodies. Our souls are either ignored or explicitly “disembodied.” This is done often with language and images purporting to value or admire our bodies. In truth, however, these artificially split our identities, and result inevitably in degrading us. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI in Deus Caritas Est: “This is hardly man’s great ‘yes’ to the body. On the contrary, he now considers his body and his sexuality as the purely material part of himself, to be used and exploited at will. … The apparent exaltation of the body can quickly turn into a hatred of bodiliness.”5 Regarding the phenomenon of consumerism, there are two aspects to consider in connection with the situation of women today. The first is closely connected with the phenomenon of objectification. John Paul II’s Solicitudo Rei Socialis describes this consumerism succinctly as: an excessive availability of every kind of material goods for the benefit of certain social groups” ; the desire for the “multiplication or continual replacement of the things already owned with others still better, which involves much "throwing-away" and "waste." “An object already owned but now superceded by something better is discarded, with no thought of its possible lasting value in itself, nor of some other human being who is poorer.” It is the triumph of "having" over "being," though having things cannot “in itself perfect the human subject, unless it contributes to …the realization of the human vocation as such.”6 This is a near-perfect description of North American situation; one might perhaps refine the description to add our dedication to owning the most recent technological innovations, and luxury forms of goods, as signals of status.

2 3

Gaudium et Spes 24; Mulieris Dignitatem 7. Mulieris Digniattem, 7. 4 Mulieris Dignitatem, 7. 5 Deus Caritas Est, 5. 6 Solicitudo Rei Socialis 28, citing Populorum Progressio, n. 19: loc. cit., pp. 266f.: "Increased possession is not the ultimate goal of nations or of individuals. All growth is ambivalent.... The exclusive pursuit of possessions thus becomes an obstacle to individual fulfillment and to man's true greatness...both for nations and for individual men, avarice is the most evident form of moral underdevelopment"; cf. also Paul VI, Apostolic Letter Octogesima Adveniens (May 14, 1971), n. 9: AAS 63 (1971), pp. 407f.

Again, it can be noted how North American consumerism is a kind of dark side to our national advantages. The continent was built up in large part by risk-taking immigrants, and has held itself out as a beacon of economic opportunity for centuries. Sadly, we have come to measure our progress and world status in monetary terms. We have also exported this way of thinking via constant and influential media portrayals of the claimed association between wealth, happiness and beauty. It was almost inevitable in this environment that human beings would become the “ultimate” consumer product. Everyone intuits that persons are more valuable than “things” even if their thinking is otherwise highly corrupted or illogical. Women’s physical beauty and sexual complementarity with men make them particularly desirable in a commercial economy dominated by male leadership. The money to be made on sexualized images of women is staggering. It is conservatively estimated in fact today that the U.S. pornography industry is worth between 10 and 20 billion dollars annually. The world figure is about 60 billion dollars.7 It is further estimated that pornography attracts 40% of all Internet users in the U.S. at least once a month, 70% of male Internet users between ages 18 and 34, and half of all hotel patrons.8 The treatment of women as consumer objects is not by any means limited to the pornography context. Advertising is replete with degrading images of women. Explicitly sexual images sell underwear, of course, but even couches, bathroom tiles and cars. John Paul II’s 1994 Letter to Women noted this when it singled out the “widespread hedonistic and commercial culture which encourages the systematic exploitation of sexuality and corrupts even very young girls into letting their bodies to be used for profit.”9 There is a second aspect of North American consumerism which affects the dignity of women. It is the explicit encouraging of women to acquire more “stuff,” especially objects and services that might make them more physically attractive. Indeed, the changing economic situations for women in North America – the move away from heavy manufacturing industry to service jobs, combined with women’s higher education and lower numbers of children -- has led to a massive increase in women’s individual wealth. In response, advertisers hype cosmetic surgery, expensive clothes, jewelry and makeup, directly to female consumers. In North America, a certain form of cosmetic surgery post-childbirth, going by the name of a “mommy job,” is performed upon perfectly healthy women thousands of times a year, to erase all of the side effects of pregnancy. This trend to tempt women to greater consumption is well captured in an advertising campaign sponsored by the diamond industry. Entitled “the right hand ring” campaign, it urges women to flaunt their status, power and money by buying a “right hand” diamond ring for themselves (as opposed to the wedding ring they would traditionally wear on their left hand). All in all, the move toward transforming women into consumer objects is quite far along in North America. As noted above, this tendency has always existed in some form. Yet it has particularly disturbing characteristics today which I will take up now. II.
7 8

Disturbing Signs of the Times

Jason Byassee, Not Your Father’s Pornography, First Things, January 2008, 15. Ibid. 9 Paragraph 5.

A. Women conniving in their own subjection In his Theology of the Body series of talks, and in Mulieris Dignitatem, John Paul II discusses original sin’s effect upon women. He repeats the words that God “addressed to the woman” after the commission of the first sin: "Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you" (Gen 3:16). He interprets this as indicating that the woman develops an “insatiable desire for a different union.” It is not for a relationship of communion, but a “relationship of possession of the other as the object of one’s own desire.” 10 Even a secular observer would have to conclude that women’s cooperation, even encouragement in the objectification of their bodies today, seems a modern manifestation of this inclination which Catholics call “original sin.” Women debasing themselves in pursuit of the belief that it will lead to union with a man. Again, this is not confined to the pornography industry, or even to commercial advertising or films or television. Rather, ordinary women across the continent buy clothing designed to emphasize or expose the parts of their bodies associated with sex. I have often joked with my husband that I might have to institute a “no cleavage before 9am” rule with my female students, so much do their low cut shirts distract the male students in my morning classes. Many women often also debase themselves with their speech, or by exposing themselves to media which gradually desensitizes them to the proposal that women are beautiful, sexualized objects for consumption. The push for women’s to become such objects starts early in their lives. With sleazy dolls and clothes offered to small girls, and movies aimed at children essentially conveying the message that beauty is the ticket to wealth and happiness. A particularly heavy dose of such messages is served at a particularly formative time of a woman’s life: her adolescence, when a girl’s beauty is emerging in its adult form. A plethora of magazines, movies, and even sexual education courses, invites adolescent girls to see themselves as bodies only. Mothers regularly cooperate with these trends, as any Catholic school principal will tell you after confronting mothers who have sent their daughters to school functions wearing completely unacceptable clothing purchased by the mother. A final and disturbing aspect of women’s conniving in their own objectification is the involvement of prominent strains of feminism who insist that they are striking a blow for women’s freedom by identifying freedom with undisciplined sexuality. This is a particularly true of the Western feminism of the late 20th century, which is still influential today. On the one hand, one can see how strong was the temptation to break women out of the limited roles assigned to them in earlier times, and to give them the “upper hand” over men; marriage and motherhood were constantly portrayed as lesser vocations suited to lesser intelligences. But this feminism’s response was and remains fundamentally flawed for three reasons. First, the notion of freedom it promotes is at odds with human nature and aspirations, a conclusion which might be reached by common sense, and which is also confirmed by Catholic teaching, as discussed at greater length in the final section of these remarks. Freedom characterized by individualism, and the rejection of


John Paul II, General Audience of June 25, 1980, in The Theology of the body: Human Love in the Divine Plan (John S. Grabowski, foreword), 1997, 123.

truth, solidarity and transcendence is no real freedom. The histories of individuals and of nations confirm this. Second, this feminism drew upon the worst features of male behavior for its prescriptions. Thus was the feminist woman urged to be a sexually adventurous, marriage- and children-spurning, money-and-career-driven, creature. Another way of putting this, as will be discussed later, is to say that feminism urged women to imitate the male “version” of original sin – domination -- to attain equality and happiness. Third, this feminist response constituted a tremendous opportunity cost for women. During the late 20th century, feminists had a golden opportunity – not easily recreated – to address women’s needs in the world. As the decades passed, and it became clear that feminists were too easily derailed by the “dream of power,” too disdainful of God to reach ordinary folk, too fearful of acknowledging common sense, and too willing even to harm the vulnerable (e.g. via abortion), their organized influence waned tremendously. The longing for women’s equality and dignity lives on, but more in the hearts of individual women than in a larger group likely more capable of demanding some of the structural changes women need. In sum, the degree to which women, individually and via organized groups, have embraced their own objectification as consumer items is a particularly disturbing feature of our current situation. B. Institutionalization in family law of the notion of women as consumer objects. The view of women as consumer objects has, oddly, come to be institutionalized not only in U.S. media and commerce, but also more and more in the law concerning, sex, marriage and the family. I say “oddly,” because this development has coincided with the strengthening of laws protecting women against rape, include rape within marriage and in the context of “date rape.” There has also occurred the strengthening of laws protecting women against “sexual harassment,” and “stalking,” and “domestic violence.” Apparently, however, and due likely to deep misunderstandings about the nature of “freedom,” advocates for women do not understand that there is such a thing as good versus bad choices in the context of “consensual” sexual relationships too, not just nonconsensual ones. Thus have certain influential feminists, and others, helped enact laws about sex, marriage and families, affirming the objectification of women as consumer objects. Some of the following family law trends are among the most important in this regard: First, was the move to “no-fault” divorce. This was urged on the claim that marriage is inherently subjugating of women, who ought to be able to escape it quickly and easily. Not surprisingly, this was followed by a massive increase in the divorce rate, as men traded older women for younger, and also as women decided that the union they craved was not sufficiently satisfying, and began to file for divorce more often than men. A second example is the call for legal recognition of any type of grouping that wishes to call itself a family. Even groups like cohabitants, characterized by their explicit rejection of definitive commitment to one another. Many female scholars lead this effort. At the same time, though, sociologists and economists are amply documenting how such relationships are characterized by men’s and women’s lower levels of practical care for one another and even for their own children. This is associated with the fact that persons

in uncommitted sexual relationships are “testing” and measuring one another for suitability, versus seeking long-term communion per se. A third area of the law in which the objectivization of women has become institutionalized concerns assisted reproductive technologies. U.S. law in particular has left it nearly completely to the market to sort out the purchase and sale of women’s eggs and wombs. (It defers similarly to the market regarding male sperm.) This is not because the risks and harms to women are unknown. Risky hormonal injections over several weeks, coaxing a woman’s ovaries to produce 10 or more eggs in a single month’s cycle are common features of egg donation. Surrogate motherhood, under certain conditions, is also legal in Canada and the U.S. While “paid surrogacy” is legally forbidden in Canada and some U.S. states, this does not stop those involved from treating the mother in the manner of a consumer object. For one thing, individuals regularly find ways around the law to actually pay the surrogate for her egg or womb or both. Second, women’s appearances, accomplishments, and past gestational successes are touted to make them attractive “products” for buyers. Finally, participants often insist that love and generosity are the primary motivations, but it is impossible to discount the role played by large sums of money, or to discount the regular stories about poor women from second or third world countries, offering their eggs and wombs to rich westerners in exchange for money badly needed by their families. It should be noted that the objectification of women as a feature of North American law has particularly harmful effects upon poor women. Wealthier women, feminists and cultural icons assure the public that the “good life” and “female empowerment” includes adorning and exposing your body for the benefit of the male populace. Poor women -- often with few other options given their lesser education and their dysfunctional family situations – grasp more often at this proffered shortcut to acceptance, admiration and “love,” however brief. In an important and deeply troubling article by a leading American sociologist (Andrew Cherlin), he described the phenomenon of the “deinstitutionalization of marriage” among poor women. That is, such women see marriage not as an institution with its own realities and rules to aspire to, but rather as a “thing” to be achieved which includes: obtaining a more or less enforceable trust from a man, alongside access to a certain level of wedding celebration, house, furniture and car. Results of this sort of “marriage-as–consumer-item” thinking are devastating. The women who adopt this view are far more likely to rear a child out of wedlock, remain on welfare, cohabit, suffer abuse at the hands of a boyfriend, have an abortion, never marry, or if they marry, divorce. Respecting every law discussed above, there are female as well as male “experts” who argue that the law empowers women – to leave unsatisfying marriages, undertake a sexual relationship with the person of their choice, or earn money from reproductive materials and capacities. In every case, however, the “experts” have misunderstood or ignored the nature of persons, particularly female persons, and the overarching purposes of human life. A Christian anthropology, particularly as developed by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, does not fail to grasp these matters. It does so, too, in a way that may be persuasive beyond the bounds of the Catholic faith.


A Modern Catholic Response:

Catholic tradition has a great deal to offer in response to the intertwined phenomena of the objectification of women and consumerism. This has been particularly true over the last 30 years, beginning with John Paul II’s Theology of the Body series, and continuing with Mulieris Dignitatem and other important documents. John Paul II’s and Benedict XVI’s thoughts appeared at a time when the weaknesses and even corruption of earlier feminist proposals were becoming more evident. Through their work, the Church offers a way of hope and a way of life bound to appeal to our human nature, even if it not yet sufficiently known. This way is also a way of dignity, not only for women, but for men as well. It has its foundations in a full-throated anthropology of the human person, combined with uncanny and persuasive readings of the signs the times. In the balance of this reflection, I will highlight the elements of this way of life which opposes both consumerism and the objectification of women. The first aspect of this way of dignity for women and men is the affirmation of the place of human beings in the world; they are above all other creation, and all man-made things in the world. As John Paul II is fond of repeating, man is the “only being which God has willed for his own sake.”11 All else in the world is subject to the human person, who in turn is charged with responsible stewardship. Consumerism, which values things as much as or more than people, stands against this fundamental truth. A second aspect is this: the human being striving toward self-realization will not find it by amassing riches for herself, but only through a “sincere gift of self,’” through existing “for others,” as a “gift.”12 The person who makes this freely willed gift is a “subject,” who decides for herself. 13 Both males and females are to exist “mutually, ‘one for the other.’”14 This entire description of the meaning and the path of life stands in stark opposition to the way of objectification, which insists that you exist to gratify me – not mutually, not even voluntarily on your part, and often only at the most base physical level. Third, this way affirms that there is meaning in God’s having created the human race both male and female. One aspect of this is that women have a particular “genius” an “eternal originality,” gifts for living that they demonstrate especially well or easily.15 Objectifying women obscures or completely hides this truth. It can make it impossible to see the gifts women hold in common with men -- their equal creation in God’s image and likeness, with reason and free will. It can further render impossible an appreciation for women’s particular gifts for attention to and care for other persons, especially the most vulnerable. It is predictable, then, that if a woman is understood merely as an “object” to “own” (even if beautiful and desirable), it can lead to the crushing of her instincts to care for another person. When she fails to receive love, her own capacity to give love can be deformed, and replace with selfishness, pride, vanity and greed.16 A fourth and final aspect of the “way” offered by modern Christianity, is its frank reading of the presence of original sin in the women’s modern situation. John Paul II tells us in Mulieris Dignitatem that as a result of original sin, each sex can fail to see God’s
11 12

Gaudium et Spes 24; Mulieris Dignitatem 18 Mulieris Dignitatem 7 13 Mulieris Dignitatem 18 14 Mulieris Dignitatem 7. 15 Mulieris Dignitatem 11 16 Mulieris Dignitatem 29

image in the other.17 The male/female relationship will be quite prone to disturbance, with the male seeking to “dominate” and the woman to abase herself to obtain union with the man.18 The woman might even react by “appropriating to [herself] male characteristics” in order to resist or even turn the table. Here is a reading of the human heart that resonates with the facts on the ground in North America, and is bound to strike men and women of today as all too true! In response to centuries of oppression, individual women and prominent movements opted to attempt to dominate men. Witness women perpetrating pornography themselves, selling themselves to the highest-bidding photographer, moviemaker, magazine, advertiser or boyfriend. Witness women’s increased willingness to hold men to standards and judgments nearly impossible to satisfy, leading to serial cohabitation, the high percentage of wife-initiated divorces, and deliberate decisions to bear children with no father in the picture, save as a source of child support. Original sin, as described by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, seems unmistakably present in such a series of choices. Identifying this doesn’t absolve bad choices, but gives us a much more precise idea of what we must struggle against. Conclusion: North Americans seem particularly easily beguiled by the “myth of progress.” By the idea that with the passage of history and the amassing of ideas about women’s freedom, we must necessarily be better off than before. Thus is this part of the world resistant to disparaging ideas put forward in the name of “feminism,” particularly when the critique comes from the Catholic church, which is still perceived to be retrograde regarding women. In Spe Salvi Pope Benedict XVI disputes the notion that humans progress toward virtue merely by means of the passage of time or even technology. He reminds us that “freedom always remains also freedom for evil.”19 “[I]n the field of ethical awareness and moral decision-making, there is no similar possibility of accumulation for the simple reason that man’s freedom is always new and he must always make his decisions anew.”20 He further denies that “once the economy had been put right, everything would automatically be put right.”21 Progress, to be progress, needs moral growth on the part of humanity.”22 Late 20th century feminists and others, however, often accepted the notion that material progress for women was the whole sum of progress. The North American move to make consumerism synonymous with happiness and progress, including consumerism regarding women, is quite entrenched. At the same time, women and men are not blind to the ill effects of this approach. Many, including groups of women who identify themselves as “Christian feminists,” have spoken up both against rampant consumerism and the objectification of women. Sociologists, economists, and psychologists are more often reporting on the damage to women, men and families from these closely related phenomena. Many women who once aspired to “win the game” by becoming the ultimate consumer objects have lived to tell of the
17 18

Mulieris Dignitatem 9 Mulieris Dignitatem 10. 19 Spe Salvi 21. 20 Spe Salvi 24. 21 Spe Salvi 21. 22 Spe Salvi 23.

disappointments, frustrations or even brutalities that accompany such a choice. Increasingly, women with a wide field of opportunity, by virtue of excellent educations and favorable families, are speaking out in favor of simplifying their lives as against consumerism. They are also celebrating a life lived developing women’s obvious gifts for “paying attention to the other person.” Without ceasing to nurture and promote these favorable signs, however, a few doses of hard reality must be swallowed. First, nothing less than radical changes will be required to alter the situation for women’s dignity in the coming decades. In the recent words of the director of Australia’s Women’s Forum: “The decision not to submit to hyper-sexualized messages and to live above the dictates of the culture, needs to be seen for what it is – a radical and defiant alternative lifestyle.”23 It must be perceived that the distance between current cultural and legal notions about women, and what our two most recent popes have offered, is as vast as it seems. Second, long term change will not come about via surface-level changes. A thorough understanding of the sources of women’s dignity, the implications of a twosexed humanity, the purpose of sexual relationships, and the value of people over things, among other topics, must be pursued. Otherwise, we will continue to exist in a society in which a woman feels that her “freedom” is promoted both via zealous legal protection from sexual harassment at work, alongside her protected right to sell her pornographic image online. We won’t really be moving beyond the notion of freedom as the equivalent of “what Lola wants.” Third, the task of women’s freedom is inherently social and with a large back debt to the poor. Yes, it’s a personal and spiritual task. And it’s most certainly a task for the family. But it is poor women in particular today who have suffered the worst effects of women’s objectification and consequent loss of freedom. They are abused more often, bear children alone more often, never marry, divorce, cohabit, and seek abortions more often. The churches owe them more conversations about the dignity of women, and of male/female relationships. Leading female voices -- writers, academics, politicians, celebrities – owe honest public conversation about what really leads to happiness and freedom. It is not by means of becoming a consumer object. Other real options and models have to be provided and institutionalized in society. Again, the size of this debt, particularly to the poor, is enormous at this time in history. The Catholic Church has taken the intellectual lead, and via its churches and laity, needs to move even further into the practical sphere. Indeed, what is called for on the ground is nothing less than the “new feminism” that John Paul II called for in Evangelium Vitae,24 as led by women themselves. Helen Alvare Associate Professor Catholic University of America Washington, DC 20064


Zenit.org., Dealing Girls a Raw and Racy Deal: Interview with Director of Women’s Forum, March 21, 2007. 24 Evangelium Vitae, 99.

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