Objectification in Film

Ann Kaplan suggested, in response to Laura Mulvey, that objectification is necessary for full intimacy between both parties, that sex, as a primitive act, does require objectification. After all, we are not defined by our bodies, but our bodies are defined by us and therefore are an extension of who we are. Looking at cinema we can find a certain intimacy between the film and spectator when exposed to the aesthetics that is the human body. There is, though, this assumption that spectators are passive and merely vessels to what they are exposed to, that cinema is lead by what has been socially and historically constructed in our world and we as inhabitants robotically consume it. There also seems to be this belief that to be selfish during a sexual experience, even with a film, is to degrade your partner. There should be an awareness that selfish is selfless. To find pleasure in something simultaneously gives pleasure to our partner. The audience should not be underestimated; their abilities should not be in consideration. The film should do its part and the audience does its part. We have this tendency to see situations negatively for a certain party because we only look at it from the dominant perspective. From that, sexuality is taken away. We do not realize the mutuality that is required in a relationship to have a fully intimate experience.

What this essay intends to do is examine how objectification can benefit a sexual experience rather than negatively impact it. By discussing how the audience is an active, critical audience and not a passive one, how sexual pleasure is a process of reciprocity, and how we must stray away from only limiting ourselves to looking through the dominant perspective, we will identify how objectification is sometimes a necessary aspect to an erotic experience.

Before discussing passivity, we must clarify what consent is in terms of a film experience. When we decide to watch a film, it is accepting a film’s initial effects on us. This is where the seed of intimacy is planted and has the potential to fully blossom depending on its degree of influence. It does not end there. We have the ability to stop when we feel the intimacy is lost or was not there to begin with. There are the options of getting up and leaving or just stopping the film depending on the circumstances. With that in mind, the concept of passivity becomes complex and the line between it and being engulfed by a film is blurred. Is the audience engulfed by the film based on relatability, connectivity, and, as a result, intimacy, or do they just lack any critical sense of analyzing what they are being exposed to? What this definition of consent shows is that the audience is not underestimated; the respect they have for themselves is not underestimated. They are capable of rejecting the film whenever they feel necessary.

It is incorrect to think like MacKinnon, as Nussbaum stated, “[that] objectification is bad because it cuts women off from full self-expression and self-determination – from, in effect, their humanity.” (2000, p. 250) This is an assumption that women are passive and are merely vessels to what they are exposed to, that the audience is just a portal to feed information to. To a certain degree we have power in choosing what we are exposed to, the rest is in the fault of the exposer. When watching a David Lynch film, for example, whether we are a part of the fantasy objectification of his female leads or feel immense discomfort for them, we have the option to choose what we do with that information because we are aware of who we are and what we stand for.

Patricia Arquette in David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997)

What seems to be unclear is the concept of intimacy. Marino uses an example of a man asking his wife, a skilled typist, to type his manuscript. She cannot say no because it would hurt his feelings but she does not want to say yes because she finds typing tedious. Marino concludes this with, “being in relationships puts complicated demands on the participants, demands that are sometimes welcome and sometimes not.” She continues, “Consent is even murkier and harder to understand than in contexts involving strangers.” (2008, p, 350) However, if there were a sense of obligation in this so-called relationship, then what they have between them would not be considered fully intimate. Full intimacy is a familiarity with one another that involves a constant give-and-take. Intimacy is when being attentive to our partner’s desires comes naturally to us even in a non-sexual context that there is no concern on becoming harmfully instinctive during a sexual experience. It should not feel like an obligation. An example of this is joining the army to fight in a war. A person would do this for the love of their country, but they certainly would not find pleasure in it. This is not a form of obligation; it is a form of patriotism, a different kind of intimacy. In terms of human intimacy though, the awareness that they are human beings and have lived a life like you have, respecting that provides intimacy, and understanding for both parties. Therefore there can be desire without narrative history, which explains prostitution and even pornography. Films follow that same procedure. Films are similar to prostitution. Film viewing is considered to be based on voyeuristic pleasures and being a film viewer means objectifying the film image, the aesthetics of its body. However respect is still part of this procedure. Audiences tend to develop empathetic relationships with the characters in the film and therefore become encapsulated by the film as a whole. This brings us back to the point that to find pleasure in something simultaneously give pleasure to the other partner. To quote Gasper Noe’s Irréversible (2002), when Alex tries to explain to her ex-boyfriend why he was not a satisfying partner sexually she says, “your problem is you focus on your partner’s pleasure. You have to let yourself go.” To some extent to be selfish in an intimate experience, like in a sexual one or when watching a film, is to be selfless. The film should focus on relaying its message and invoking responses out of the viewer and the viewer should let go of any tension with their senses, so they can fully experience the film.

What we should understand is that we must not only look from the dominant perspective but also the repressed perspective to fully comprehend where the power resides. From that, we will realize that objectification can bring power to the objectified as well as the objectifier. A film example of this is Basic Instinct (Paul Verhoeven, 1992) where we can argue that Tramell used her sexuality to get what she wants, in the form of power. As mentioned before a person is not defined by their body but their body is defined by them and Tramell’s physical appearance and how she treats this appearance is reflective of this. The body after all is a person’s temple and it represents whoever that person is. This can be understood through fashion. Whatever a person is wearing represents who they are. In short, desiring a body is like desiring a person and that is where the power comes from. The person whose body is being desired is being give something and not, as it is usually understood, having something taken away. In terms of an intimate relationship between two people, respect is required, respect of autonomy as Marino calls it. With that there should not be any question of who possesses more power because at that point power is subjective. To use what Nussbaum said, “the lover is intensely focused on the moods and wishes of that one person, whose states mean so much for his or her own.” In this example, there is no respect here, for oneself or for the other, there is only an unhealthy devotion to one person’s pleasure resulting in an imbalance of power.

Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct (1992)

In Basic Instinct, we might think that since she is being interrogated, the men are in power. They have the questions and they get to decide on whether she is a primary suspect or not. She only has herself and her alibi to depend on. Another possibility is that her queerness only exists for the male gaze. However, we should consider it from her perspective. She does not do it for the male gaze and does not do it to please others. She does it because she finds pleasure in it and there is consent amongst the other characters and with the viewers as well.

To conclude this, consent is present in a film experience because film as an art, a medium of creativity does not consider its viewers passive and uncritical of what they are taking in. There is choice. The viewer is aware of when the intimacy is lost, when the film’s influence is no longer there. However when there is intimacy with a film and there is a certain sense of relatability then that is when we are fully voyeurs because we have involved ourselves in that particular experience. That moment is where we let go. In connection to sex and how it can purely be physical and intimate at the same time and when it is treated that way, it is liberating. Of course, it can only be treated that way with a partner that you have mutual respect of autonomy for. To summarize, as voyeurs and as critical thinkers, objectification only aids us in our awakening for the unknown.


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