Thursday, January 14, 2010

Objectification Silences Women

I read an interesting article on how "the male gaze" can silence some women. I know the whole idea of objectification and how exactly the male gaze affects us is a murky issue (though check out the link above if you want a jumping off point), but studies like this give me hope that our consciousness is slowly coming around to the sexism that's still so prevalent in our society.

Saguy's study is one of the first to provide evidence of the social harms of sexual objectification - the act of treating people as "de-personalised objects of desire instead of as individuals with complex personalities". It targets women more often than men. It's apparent in magazine covers showing a woman in a sexually enticing pose, in inappropriate comments about a colleague's appearance, and in unsolicited looks at body parts. These looks were what Saguy focused on.

She recruited 207 students, 114 of whom were women, on the pretence of studying how people communicate using expressions, gestures and vocal cues. Each one sat alone in a room with a recorder and video camera. They had two minutes to introduce themselves to a male or female partner, using a list of topics such as "plans for the future" or "four things you like doing the most". The partner was supposedly sat in the next room and either watching the speaker from the neck up, watching from the neck down, or just listening on audio. The camera was tilted or blocked accordingly.

Saguy found that women talked about themselves for less time than men, but only if they thought they were being visually inspected by a man, and particularly if they thought their bodies were being checked out. They used the full two minutes if they were describing themselves to another woman (no matter where the camera was pointing) or if they were speaking to a man who could hear but not see them. But if their partner was a man watching their bodies, they spoke for just under one-and-a-half minutes. You can see these differences in the graph below (although note that the y-axis starts at 60, a practice I don't particularly like).

Men had no such qualms. They used the full two minutes regardless of whether they were being watched or listened to, and no matter the gender of their partner. The fact that men didn't react in the same way is important. For a start, it shows that it's a man's gaze and not just any downward glance that affects a woman's behaviour. It also puts paid to the false equivalence arguments that are often put forward when discussing gender issues (i.e. "women look at male bodies too").

When the students answered a questionnaire after the experiment, both men and women "felt more like a body than as a real person" if the camera focused on them from the neck down. But only the women were really put off by it. Around 61% of them disliked the body-pointed camera, compared to just 32% who disliked the face-pointing one or 7% who disliked the audio. For the men, 36% disliked the body camera, 42% disliked the face one and 22% disliked the audio.
Obviously this study doesn't come as a shock to most women, but it is interesting to think about.

-You can read the full article here.

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