Tuesday, February 17, 2009

"Scientifically" proving objectification?

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

The Daily Princetonian contacted me last night and asked me to comment on the new Princeton study which was the subject of today's article "Men view half-naked women as objects, study finds." Jordan Bubin has already discussed the article in his post today, but I just want to add my voice to the chorus saying, alternately, "thanks for that, Captain Obvious!" and "this is a scientific study?" The summary of the study (conducted by Princeton psychology professor Susan Fiske, Mina Cikara GS and Stanford psychology professor Jennifer Eberhardt) which was sent to me last night was even vaguer than the Prince article, which revealed that this study was conducted on just 21 Princeton undergraduates who identified as heterosexual.

I am not a psychologist. But I think I was taught in second grade that when conducting a scientific experiment, you need a representative sample of the population. And the last time I checked, even the randomest sample of Princeton males is not going to come close to representing the world's male population. And really, if we already know that these men are sexist (and I'd like to take this sexism questionnaire that they gave the subjects - how, exactly, does one test for sexism?), why are we even bothering to test to see which parts of their brain light up? I am very suspicious of any study which seeks to make broad generalizations about either of the genders - it's exactly on these grounds that I oppose the near-constant references to women and oxytocin in the discussions of the hook-up culture that have stormed campus in the past week. It doesn't just give people a free pass to make the same generalizations about women (and I found it hilarious that the researchers admitted that the same was probably true for women's objectification of men - they just didn't bother to test for it), but dangerously encourages our propensity to differentiate between the sexes, rather than within them. Objectification of women is a problem, yes, but we don't need science to tell us that. And really, if we establish that this is an inescapable "scientific" phenomenon (which I don't think it is), then we allow people to start making the arguments that "men can't help it" when they "happen" to objectify women, or that they have a "natural" propensity to rape or sexually abuse them.

I watched a short film called "The Pornography of the Everyday Life" for my gender and politics class today, and the images that it showed - mainstream advertising which depicted women as bound, half-dead, sexual objects - were incredibly disturbing. There is absolutely no denying that the researchers had good intentions, because objectification of women is a serious problem, and it's incredibly pervasive. But this study trivializes the problem, and could be seriously damaging to real efforts to stop objectification. Last night, I told the Prince that I didn't have enough information about the study to say anything concrete. But now - unless there is more information that they somehow left out - I think it's silly, and ultimately hurts the cause.


At February 17, 2009 at 10:28 PM , Anonymous Chloe Angyal said...

On totally unrelated note, dear god that woman is so airbrushed! Do people actually believe that there are women in the world who look like this naturally?!

At February 20, 2009 at 7:13 PM , Anonymous Lea said...

I read this article yesterday on www.cnn.com - a headline link that caught my eye.

While reading the article, there's the potential to interpret the whole thing as a staged, thinly-disguised morality play or an elaborate potshot. The tone of the article reporting the study pretty much invites reflexive dismissal as just another cheap excuse to bash men in the name of science.

But that's the article. It's not the study, it's not the report, it's not even the abstract. The reporter who wrote the article is not the researcher who directed the study. The article is a lay-person's synopsis of what they identify as the high points of a report about a study targeted at an audience comprised of other lay-people.

Reading between the lines and filtering the author's moralistic overtones out of the subject matter itself, it seems obvious that the question was never really "Do men objectify women." It was, "When a male views sexually evocative images of females, how does his brain respond?"

Criteria for particpants seemed to begin by targeting subjects presumed most likely to register any brain response and could be presumed generally similar - standardizing the test subjects as much as possible. The scientific method in action. Each subject answered a questionnaire, then viewed images for a matter of seconds as an MRI scanned their noggins.

An MRI doesn't have an opinion. It doesn't care about right or wrong, it has no preconceived ideas about the outcome and it is deaf to the implications. It just spits out pictures on a computer screen.

When the study refers to "the brain areas associated with handling tools and the intention to perform actions," it's making vague reference to some rather primative brain structures - relatively, anyway. The article fails to describe or emphasize a finding of much greater signficance than just what areas reacted: namely, the parts of the subjects' brains that did NOT respond. That would be the subject's frontal lobe - the signature evolutionary adaptation of the human species for the last four million years.

Which leads to the capstone conclusion: the emergence of a consistent, predictable pattern of brain activity among the subjects' results as measureable evidence that there exists a contect in which males appear to see women completely independantly of any human recognition whatsoever. It's not a matter of suppressed behavior: it's not among the natural responses. It's not that these males see women as objects - it's that their brains do not automatically default to "human being" even though they're looking at one. There exists a context in which their brains fail to react to the sight of a human by recognizing it's a human. As far as the brain function of the test subjects is concerned, "screwing screws" and "screwing women" are identical. Screwdrivers are not people; no one wonders if the screwdriver wants to do this, because a screwdriver doesn't have human characteristics like free will. The idea that the screwdriver feels anything at all just does not exist. And this happens on the involuntary / instinctive level - it's the default setting. Similarly, the idea that these women as possessing human traits is not an intuitive conclusion. A genuine attempt to project humanity onto women viewed in this context would represent an act of will, resulting from deliberation resulting in conscious choice.


The article barely glosses over the fact that the results were formally presented to one of the most expansive scientific communities in the world - a fact a lot of people seem to have missed. This isn't some coffee klatch; in investigating the study itself, I learned that the lead researcher (Dr. Susan Fiske) is at the forefront of the field of neuropsychology (specifically in relation to gender), has authored at least five textbooks and roughly two dozen papers, and her expert opinion has weighted Supreme Court rulings.

...And I picked this up from the article and a cursory Google of the topic. I still haven't actually found the study itself yet, or even the abstract. Meanwhile, everyone I've spoken to about this is a self-described feminist. As of this point I'm still the only person I've seen who hasn't just rolled the whole thing into a fat wad of habitual marginalization and dismissed it for one reason or another.

That's when I start to wonder whose side we're on.


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