Do Naked Images Always Lead to Objectification?

The stars and director of Blue Is the Warmest Color; photo via IMDB.com

A lot of the commentary about the new film Blue Is the Warmest Color — in particular, its steamy lesbian sex scenes — has focused on the issue of objectification. The director of the movie is male, and many reviewers — both male and female, it should be noted — have questioned his male gaze. Some people question whether it’s even possible for a man to film two women making love without objectifying them.

Well, what does it actually mean to objectify women? Literally, the objectifier (usually a man) sees the object of his desire (usually a woman) as a thing rather than a person — a thing without feelings, experience, thoughts, or autonomy. But do naked images, whether still or moving, automatically lead to objectification? Some scientists decided to take to the lab and find out.

As reported in the New York Times, some studies have found that when we view people’s bodies, as opposed to their faces, we judge them as “less intelligent, less ambitious, less competent and less likable.” One neuroimaging experiment found that, “for men, viewing pictures of sexualized women induced lowered activity in brain regions associated with thinking about other people’s minds.” (That said, we’re always a little wary of findings based purely on neuroimaging — the results are often more complicated and ambiguous than the resulting headlines would have you think.)

Anyway, scientists across multiple fields have confirmed this finding: Many psychologists, for example, agree that viewing someone as a body strips away their personhood. “Even if you are a staunch science-minded atheist,” writes psychologist Paul Bloom in the Times article, “in everyday life you still think of people as immaterial conscious beings — we inhabit fleshy bodies, but we are not ourselves physical.”

But. But. There’s another side to the story, according to Bloom. Objectification implies that the objects in question lose their uniquely human traits, but recent research by Bloom found that this doesn’t necessarily happen with naked images. For his study, Bloom used a book by the photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders (we remember his work well from our Nerve.com days) called XXX: 30 Porn-Star Portraits. The book features two side-by-side photographs of each pornstar, identical in all aspects (posture, expression, lighting, etc.) except that in one photograph the person is fully dressed, and in the other, naked. In other words, perfect for studying how we judge people with and without their clothes.

As expected, when participants in the study were shown the pictures, the naked people were seen as having less agency. But, writes Bloom, “they were also thought of as being enhanced experiencers, capable of stronger feelings and greater emotional responses.” In other words, kind of, er, human. Even more human, in certain aspects, than their clothed counterparts.

In a related study that Bloom organized, participants who were asked to give people electric shocks gave milder shocks to subjects who were partially clad vs full dressed. “Presumably,” Bloom writers, “because the flash of skin makes us more sensitive to others as experiencing beings.”

It’s not like anyone is saying (not yet, at least!) that viewing porn or naked images can make empaths out of men, but it does seem fair to say that the topic of objectification is a lot more nuanced and complicated than some of the “male gaze” theorists allow. (Of course, if there were an equally represented “female gaze” in pop culture, then we might not even feel the need for the debate to begin with.)

So if you’re looking for an excuse to see Blue Is the Warmest Color without beating yourself up about all of the alleged objectification going on, this may just be it. And just maybe you’ll find yourself musing, as you reach for another handful of popcorn, “How do these women really feel?”


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Tom Jones

I think this is the wrong question. There are two: (1) Is objectification necessarily bad (2) when we are served by a waiter, do we see a person or a servant?