This piece is part of an ongoing series about discrimination and how to prevent it.
Promoting diversity and equal opportunity are key values at the University of Utah. Sexism and objectification undermine and degrade these values. Recent Race and Bias Incident Reports (RBIRT) at the U include a group of women being cat-called in a residence hall, the display of a blow-up sex doll in a residence hall window and sexual drawings and biased language targeting women on common room whiteboards in the residence hall.
While some of these actions may have been intended as humor, all of this behavior is contrary to the U’s institutional values. Whether or not sexist or objectifying actions are targeted at a specific individual, these actions contribute to a larger power imbalance and create an unsafe environment for students of marginalized genders.
Ana C. Antunes, an assistant professor of gender studies, answered some questions about the origins of sexism and objectification, the larger issues they are a part of and how students can thoughtfully engage in humor and flirting without harming others.
To start, what is a basic definition of sexism in the context of the issues that have happened on campus?
Sexism is discrimination on the basis of sex or gender. When the use of the word sexism became popularized, sex and gender were understood to be the same thing. Today, our understanding has expanded and we know that body parts and gender identity aren’t necessarily connected. Because we live in a world where masculinity is considered to be the default way society operates, everybody who is not a man in the ways society traditionally understands manhood can be a victim of sexism.
How would you explain objectification?
The concept of objectification comes from the film theorist Laura Mulvey. She was one of the first people to use feminist psychoanalysis theory to think about film. She developed this concept of objectification when she was thinking about the way women were portrayed on the screen. Mulvey explained that in films, women are often broken into body parts as opposed to being seen as a whole human, and how that dehumanizes people. You can then feel lust or you can feel desire for a part of the body as opposed to the whole person.
When you only see parts of something, it’s a lot easier to not make the connection to the whole. If you only see legs or boobs it’s a lot easier to not recognize those parts as being part of an actual human person with feelings. So objectification is really about dehumanizing people, in particular women, and separating body parts so that they become devoid of humanity and feelings. It becomes just about those body parts and not the person who has them and who may not like the things you’re saying about them.
One thing Mulvey said is the process of objectification is really supported by the concept of voyeurism—the idea of people being watched without knowing they are being watched. I think that relates very well to how we consume media. When you’re watching something on TV or when you’re looking at a doll or a drawing, presumably the person who is being portrayed in the image is not watching you back. So there’s a power dynamic of who is doing the looking and has the power over the body who is being objectified.
You mentioned the power dynamic that objectification creates. With the recent incidents on campus, the objectifying jokes that were made appeared to be general and not directed at a specific person. Do objectifying jokes like this still create a power dynamic that has a negative effect on real people?
We often don’t think about why things are funny and why we’re laughing at them. One important thing to ask is why drawing boobs or a butt or a body funny? When we ask those questions, we realize all of the biases we learn from society that are implicit and buried in our brains. We don’t always think about the way these things drive our thoughts, but they do.
When we ask why women’s bodies are particularly funny, we realize it has a lot to do with the issue of power and who controls women’s bodies. In our society, there is a hierarchical understanding of genders where one gender or one sex is more important than the others. And so when you think about why those things are funny, the question that arises is, “Why do you feel like that body is yours to draw and display?” It doesn’t matter whose body is being drawn or displayed, or whether or not it belongs to a specific person or is a caricature, it still has to do with someone’s understanding of what womanhood is or the value they place on someone’s body and who has the right to make decisions about what gets shown.
Even if you are not doing it to a particular person, you are still demonstrating or implicitly showing the world what your understanding of gender hierarchies is. You think you have the right to draw those bodies because you see them as yours too and you feel you have the right to do that.
It’s important for students to understand that all the things we do have foundations in the way our society tells us to understand symbols and the way our society tells us to value individuals. If we are trying to disrupt systems of racism or sexism or heteronormativity and homophobia, we need to understand where these ideas are coming from so we can actively fight against them.
You can be the most feminist man out there and be supporting women’s rights in a lot of different ways or supporting LGBTQ causes everywhere, but if you are laughing at those jokes or if you are making those drawings, you’re helping perpetuate these ideas on a foundational level. You are communicating the idea that it is OK to make fun of someone’s sexuality or their body and that they don’t deserve as much respect as you do. You can donate or participate in marches all you want, but if we aren’t doing things that dismantle these foundations, these things are going to keep happening.
What would you say to people who feel frustrated by this information and who respond with questions like, “Does this mean we can’t have fun and make jokes and flirt with people anymore?”
I think this idea that jokes or comedy needs to be at someone’s expense is really antiquated. There are tons of comedians who are really funny people who aren’t making jokes at the expense of other people. The main way to assess if a joke is good or not is to ask who are you making fun of. Is it a group of people at whose expense this is funny? And I think that is a good way to know. There are lots of different ways to be funny that aren’t at people’s expense.
When you are making a joke, the problem isn’t that you are making a joke. The problem is that someone else is being hurt. I love to laugh. I think it is important to not take things too seriously. And while some people may say by being thoughtful you are just sucking the fun out of everything, that’s not true. There are many ways to be funny that aren’t making fun of other people.
With flirting, I think it really comes down to consent. When you are cat-calling somebody, you are crossing a boundary that the other person has not allowed you to cross. You are commenting on their body and their appearance without them having a say. Again, that is all about a power imbalance.
Consent in flirting requires asking permission to identify another person’s boundaries, even if your interaction with that person is brief. I think people would be more successful with flirting if they were concerned about other people’s boundaries and what that person was consenting to. It goes back to the issue of who has rights to a body. If you feel like other people’s bodies are yours to look at and comment on, that’s really problematic. It shows an issue of power and who has the autonomy to make decisions over that body.
A lot of our perspective on flirting is shaped by what we see in the media. I tell my students if you had a movie where somebody went into the bar and asked if they could buy someone a drink and the person said no and the other person walked away you wouldn’t have a movie. But in real life, people need to understand other people’s boundaries. If someone says no, that means no. If someone says, “I don’t want you to talk about my body that way,” you need to stop.