by Simon Cropp
In her novel Swastika Night, Katharine Burdekin explores the thoughts of a Knight serving in an alternate world where Hitler’s armies have won and continued to reign far into the future. The Knight thinks to himself, “Women’s only reason for existence, to bear boys and nurse them to eighteen months. But if women cease to exist themselves? The world will be rid of an intolerable ugliness” (11). When considering Knight Von Hess’ thoughts about the role women play in this futuristic world, a conclusion can be drawn: women are rendered mere objects. Women function only as wombs to continue the Hitlerian Empire of men, though these objects must exist or the entire empire would collapse.
When we think of objectification in modern society, Von Hess’ thoughts are perhaps a reflection of the most extreme scenario. From breast exploitation to the segmented body, American culture seems aware of the fact that women are sexually objectified, yet despite this awareness, progress seems sickeningly slow.
Browsing through headlines about sexual objectification of women, the focus seems to be laid at the feet of the media. Advertising, television, and movies all have a role to play in the fetishizing of women as things instead of people, pieces instead of whole entities. But then, women were certainly objectified before the onslaught of mass media to the degree these articles discuss. In fact, Burdekin’s vision of a world where women were reduced to a single function occurs in a time and space without all the terrible vices modern media warns is the cause of sexual objectification.
Consider the recently discovered words of presidential candidate Donald Trump. “When you’re a star they let you do it.” This sentence was uttered nearly a decade ago when Trump explained to another man how much sexual leeway he has with women. In his view: he has all of the leeways because he is a star. A star created through the massive media machine of television. His claims that he can do most of what he wants to a woman because he is rich, he is a star, obviously, this behavior reduces a woman to an object that can only be acted upon. But because women are not objects, this video has given rise to another discussion surrounding the presidential candidate–one of sexual assault. In Burdekin’s world, recourse does not exist for women, but in America, the citizenry want to believe there is justice for this kind of behavior–whether or not Trump’s actions were real or locker room talk.
Leaders found themselves at odds with their party’s representative after this video surfaced, but I am not cynical about their motives in defending the count noun “women” from Trump’s statements. I am cynical about the objectification that continues to occur in their defense of “count noun women.”
House speaker Paul Ryan said, “I am sickened by what I heard today.” As were many of us, I hope. He also said, “Women are to be championed and revered, not objectified.” And here is the ugly other side of objectification. The collecting of objects. The protecting of objects. Championing that which cannot protect itself because it lacks agency. To revere, to show deep respect for someone or something, to show profound regard for this thing or person. Because the count noun women all must be revered, because they are things worthy of being collected. They are not individuals, they are mothers, daughters, sisters, etc. We must revere that, I think, because we revere that collectible mass thing with not a single unique quality among its individual parts. It is strange that scientific studies show how men see a woman as a collection of parts instead of her whole self, but then so quickly, to fix this, a woman cannot be rendered into a single person, but only a mass collection of things easily categorized into two or three roles. Mother, sister, daughter, caretaker, etc.
Burdekin shows the complex, dark depths to which sexual objectification can take us, but our modern reality shows us the other side–the equally problematic issue of objectifying with the eyes of a collector protecting his prize.