Tuesday, August 14, 2012


Halle Berry at the 2002 Academy Awards - Photo by Steve Granitz / WireImage

Occasionally you might hear a woman complain that she is simply “an object of sexual desire.”  She feels stripped of her humanity and made nothing more than an abstraction.

That’s objectification.

Our culture is well-versed in the concept.  Feminist theory plays up the idea as a demonstration of men exerting power over women.

Most people find objectification to be, well, objectionable.  We like to think of ourselves as complex beings, with free will, moral and ethical constructs, and ideological passions.  Being reduced to a simple object is demeaning.

While objectification is a part of our human nature, there is one particular type of objectification that often goes unrecognized.  It is political objectification.

It showed itself recently at the Summer Olympics in London.  Gabrielle Douglas was celebrated as “the first black woman to win gold in the gymnastics individual all-around.”

Was this really necessary?  Must there be a racial context to every American accomplishment?

The racial context is actually a political context.  Our culture elevates the accomplishments of non-Republicans, and Gabby is a Possible Lifelong Democrat (PLD).

(I know, I can hear you saying, “What’s the matter with this guy?  Does he see politics in everything?”)

Well, maybe.  Our culture has a political agenda, and we need to be aware of it.

In the case of Gabby, she is being classified into an identity group.  She has dark skin tone, and our culture knows this feature is closely associated with people who support the Democratic Party.

Gabby ends up being objectified.  She is singled out.  She is a PLD and she must be exploited.

It would be fun if she fought back against the objectification.  What if an exchange with a reporter went something like this:

Reporter: Gabby, what’s it like being the first African-American gymnastic all-around champion?

Gabby: First, I’m an American, not a hyphenated-American, and I’m part of a team with four other accomplished women.

Reporter: Well, you must be pleased that you’ve come this far in the struggle for equality in our country.

Gabby: I don’t feel any connection to the issue of slavery or to the segregationist policies of the Democratic South.

Reporter: But certainly you have made your people proud.  What do you want to tell other blacks?

Gabby: People are able to compete and get ahead in America because this is the best nation on earth.  Thanks for your time.

That conversation didn’t happen.  Instead, Bob Costas noted the “historic nature” of Gabby’s accomplishments and celebrated her as a PLD.

Yes, in America, we are conditioned to believe we have an obsession with ethnicity and race.  It is our American shame!

But if that were true, what about the treatment of leadership figures like Clarence Thomas, Herman Cain, and Allen West?  And who can forget Condoleezza Rice before the Senate Armed Services Committee?

The abuse of these people may not be particularly uplifting or fair, but this is America in the 21st century.  Political objectification is a fact of life, and people like Gabby Douglas endure it.

So what is to be done?  Can our culture be changed?

I think we are taking “baby steps” in that direction, and awareness is a good first step.  When Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, his accomplishment was considered “historic.”

That’s fine, but where does it end?  When an American becomes the first black dogcatcher, is that historic?

Awarding people recognition in a given field because of their physical appearance is patently strange.  Yet when our culture does it, it is seen as “right and natural.”   The news is delivered in a serious and reverent tone.  Attention must be paid!

However, from the perspective of the individual, it frequently seems inappropriate.  Gabby is a person with a family and all of the accompanying baggage.  She comes from a broken home and was raised by her mother.  Her journey has not been easy.  To complete her quest and find all that matters in our culture is the color of her skin, has to be an immense letdown.

But, at least she is being celebrated.  A similar story could have been told about Olympian Lolo Jones.  Instead, Lolo found herself the subject of a New York Times story that was less than complementary.

Why the difference in treatment between Gabby and Lolo?  Lolo is a young woman who, to put it gently, is not pro-choice.  (Yes, political objectification is alive and well at the New York Times.)

Again, what can be done?

In the case of the treatment of Lolo, she is perceived as a fundamentalist Christian.  She, like Tim Tebow, is abstaining from sex before marriage.  Clearly, that is a hallmark of the Religious Right!

And so we have two groups of Americans, one identified by physical appearance and the other identified by religious beliefs.  One is celebrated by our culture; the other is subject to demagoguery.  Both are instances of objectification.

We can’t do much about the hatred that is shown toward the Religious Right.  That is promoted by our culture and is largely outside the control of those Christians who are under attack.

However, the objectification of Americans with dark skin tone is wholly reversible.  All that has to be done is to relinquish the proxy association of the Democratic Party.

How to do that?  Simply change voting patterns.

Currently, the Democratic Party assumes that more than 90% of voters with dark skin tone will vote for Democratic Party candidates.  What if that changes to less than 70%?

That would be a shattering wake-up call to the Democratic Party, and a chance for a large group of people who are objectified because of their physical appearance to say, “We’re not going to take it anymore!”

While being taken for granted is not a positive feeling, sending a strong message to those who objectify you is.

I also think it would be pretty darn good for America.

UPDATE 10/3/2012:
All your lady parts are belong to us!  The Democratic Party shows that it "owns" American women.

UPDATE 10/31/2012
 Emily Esfahani Smith has some comments on the Lena Dunham ad for Barack Obama. She accurately refers to it as "re-objectification."

UPDATE 12/18/2012:
Amos Brown, host of an AM radio program in Indianapolis, demonstrates the downside of objectification.  His Twitter comment on the appointment of Tim Scott by Nikki Haley:
"Gee, courtesy of S Carolina GOP, the nation gets Tim Scott an ultra-rightwing, Tea Party devotee US Senator who's Black only in skin color."
Mr. Brown sees allegiance to the Democratic Party a requirement for people with dark skin tone.

UPDATE 1/10/2013:
Melissa Harris Perry makes the point in a backhanded way, saying that even though Justice Clarence Thomas has dark skin tone, he is not "representing necessarily the positions, the issues, even the Constitutional interpretation that is shared by the vast majority of civil rights organizations, by the vast majority of African-Americans."  She warns us not to "assume that any given physical body carries with it a set of political ideas."

Huh? In the United States, 90% of people with dark skin tone are aligned with the Democratic Party, and because Clarence Thomas is conservative, he is deemed un-representative.  Clarence Thomas is not "black enough" because he is not a Democrat.

That's objectification.

UPDATE 10/2/2014:
Elbert Guillory in Louisiana is a profile in courage.  Watch this video:


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