13th October 2022

Person or object? Objectification in the media

Why is it we still see some women as just too beautiful to be cheated on?
Person or object? Objectification in the media
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Celebrity cheating scandals have been gaining more traction than ever in 2022. TikTok content creators join the tabloids in creating a frenzy of opinions and hypotheses; hours of clicking and scrolling, sucked into a black hole of 15-second videos about how these men are undeserving.

We like to think that we have matured from the body-focused, looks-obsessed mentality of the 2000s, but our response to infidelity is an embarrassing throwback. Emily Ratajkowski and Behati Prinsloo, both talented women and models, have been victim to unfaithful men in recent months. What has created this mass obsession is not simply that it is wrong or hurtful but that these women are “too beautiful” to be cheated on.

I too found myself on social media with my jaw dropped. How had they been so lucky to marry these goddesses masquerading as women? Even more bafflingly, how did they lack the brain cells to remain faithful to them? Scientists now believe it is a ‘scary and life-threatening ‘disease’ called ‘male self-aggrandising syndrome’ and we can only hope for their speedy recovery.

At what point do they transition from person to object?

Whilst this response was unthinkingly common, it is deeply sexist. When we say that someone is “too beautiful” to be cheated on, we reduce them to a trophy. They are spoken about as objects, not people; something to be held onto, an image, a symbol, a lesson but never a person. I couldn’t help but be frustrated about the discourse on Emily Ratajkowski’s marriage breakdown. The primary defence of the eloquent author and feminist was that she was too pretty for him.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t understand where it was coming from – it’s funny, it’s shocking and it gets views. Still, it touched a memory that any child of the 2000s will be painfully aware of, something we have seen played out tirelessly just with different names and faces. Are we doomed to a ground-hog day where women and non-binary people are only valued for their looks?

Too often when a woman or feminine-presenting person is beautiful, we put them in a box in the corner of the room and refuse to let them leave no matter how much they protest. They can be smart and funny and kind but the emphasis is on their appearance. Appearance gives value, social status, and, in the cases of these models, their careers. Behati Prinsloo has been a Victoria’s Secret Angel since 2009 and walked for the company countless times. Emily Ratajkowski is not shy of the catwalk either, with the supermodel regularly representing big brands such as Dolce and Gabanna. To label someone as beautiful is one of the highest compliments, but is it also restrictive and inescapable? At what point do they transition from person to object?

The darker side of this message is in what is left unsaid. If, like the other 99.9% of us, you are not runway ready, are you less deserving of love and respect? The message from social media has overwhelmingly been “yes”. Whilst some argue we have become more accepting of individual expression and body positivity, the obsession with surface-level appearance is as persistent as ever.

From a young age, I became used to seeing broken bodies strewn across the silver screen. A body for fantasies to be projected onto. To be watched, but never to talk back.

The continued emphasis on appearance is a double-edged sword that either objectifies or devalues. In their 2016 Girls’ Attitude Survey, Girlguiding UK revealed that 80% of 11-21 year-old girls and women felt their appearance was the most important thing about them. This is obviously problematic. It is deeply depressing that beauty standards are not simply creating body image issues but sending a message to girls that this is their main source of value. In her Ted Talk, Dr. Lindsay Kite – co-author of More Than a Body: Your Body Is an Instrument, Not an Ornament articulated that women “aren’t only suffering because of the unattainable ways beauty is being defined. They are suffering because they are being defined by beauty”.

So, whilst on the surface celebrity cheating scandals may sound trivial, and not exactly high-brow journalism, they are indicative of the way we still talk about women and other genders as objects defined by beauty. Now you might wonder why I am rushing to the defence of these people. Being a Victoria’s Secret model doesn’t sound like the life sentence I am making it out to be. I could happily pass my days on a yacht and make millions from my face as I sip on martinis in the St. Tropez sun. Pretty privilege definitely has, well, its privileges. Higher grades, higher earnings, and lesser sentences in a court of law are all studied side effects of physical attraction.

However, the societal rewarding of physical attraction is a powerful force which suggests your value is derived solely from your looks. This is not only an issue for feminine-presenting people. Men are also battling unattainable beauty standards and body image issues, which still need to be reported on more. However, patriarchal norms mean that often beauty is made to be a woman or non-binary person’s primary value, something inescapable. Whereas men have historically been able to receive praise from their work and talents, avoiding the beauty trap.

This is because pretty privilege goes hand in hand with the male gaze. You only need to own a Netflix account or read a magazine to see the alarming rate that women and non-binary people are objectified at. Lingerie, headless bodies, legs, waist, breasts. From a young age, I became used to seeing broken bodies strewn across the silver screen. A body for fantasies to be projected onto. To be watched, but never to talk back.

So, when we defend a woman or a feminine-presenting person based on their physical appearance, and nothing more, we play into centuries of misogynistic discourse. We become the objectifier. We reinforce a tired, worn out voice – your appearance is your worth. As media is democratising away from the hands of elites, it is important we put feminism and nuance at its heart. To create a place where women and non-binary people can be made whole; body reconciled with personality. To see a person, not an object.

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