Curbing sexual objectification necessitates a collective rise in empathy

Studies have shown that viewing sexualized representations of women reduces empathic neurological responses. Could a collective rise in empathy curb sexism?

“Man is defined as a human being, and a woman as a female — whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male.”

— Simone de Beauvoir

Objectification is the dehumanizing culprit at the core of countless social issues, including (but not limited to) rape, violence, sex trafficking, pornography, child abuse, and workplace discrimination. It is also a major factor in the underrepresentation of women in politics, and a roadblock for the few who do pursue a political career.

Last week, a sticker of teenage activist Greta Thunberg apparently being sexually assaulted circulated. The image was credited to X-Site Energy Services, which has since apologized and committed to destroying the decals. But why do political enemies so often resort to sexual objectification in an attempt to destroy their enemies?

The objectification of women is not, as it’s commonly thought to be, a side effect of male sexuality. It is a form of subjugation — perpetrated by both males and females — designed to maintain society’s status quo via subconscious social conditioning. Sexual objectification is not always signalled by wolf-whistling, exploitative media, or ogling by strangers on trains. Objectification can include having your political passion obscured by your hairstyle. Being reduced from a person to a collection of body parts, dehumanized by derogatory comments, and treated like an object.

Studies have shown that viewing sexualized representations of women reduces empathic neurological responses. In her research on empathic brain responses published in the science journal, Cortex, Giorgia Silani found the act of objectification causes “reduced activation of the brain’s empathy network.” This data might be the stitch we need to patch this particular tear in our figurative social fabric, by process of reversal.

In her 2017 research article, “The Science of Empathy,” Harvard Medical School’s associate professor of psychiatry, Helen Reiss, describes empathy as:

“A complex capability enabling individuals to understand and feel the emotional states of others, resulting in compassionate behavior. Empathy requires cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and moral capacities to understand and respond to the suffering of others. Compassion is a tender response to the perception of another’s suffering. Compassion cannot exist without empathy, as they are part of the same perception and response continuum that moves human beings from observation to action.”

Empathy enhances our understanding of others’ subjectivity, enabling compassionate action. Objectification removes others’ subjectivity, effectively replacing “subject” with “object,” thereby limiting the potential for compassionate action.

The human brain struggles to objectify and empathize simultaneously, therefore, it is possible that a collective increase in empathy could catalyze a decrease in culturally condoned objectification. How might such a paradigm shift impact gender equality, violent crime, relationships, mass media, politics, and other significant aspects of modern life?

In our media-soaked culture, the subliminal messages we absorb reinforce the toxic paradigm of objectification so insidiously, we’re often oblivious to the effects of objectification on gender equality. As a result, we’ve become confused about what equality even means.

In the words of Australia’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard:

“Progress on gender equality is not just slow — in some places it’s reversing. This lack of movement, combined with the current public debate about how women are treated in workplaces and wider society, means there has never been a better time to tackle these issues head on.”

Gillard is chair of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, an organization that combines “rigorous research, practice, and advocacy to better understand and address the causes of women’s underrepresentation in leadership positions across sectors and countries and the way gender negatively impacts the evaluation of women leaders.”

Gillard also hosts the institute’s podcast series, “A Podcast of One’s Own,” in which she interviews prominent women, explores gender bias, and shares ideas on achieving gender equality in politics and in life. Few people are as personally acquainted with the issues faced by women in politics as Gillard herself.

Society has progressed (somewhat) since Gillard’s own prime ministership ended in 2013, but exactly how far have we come since then? What lessons can we learn from those whose actions have shaped our current social climate, and what can we do to protect the future from the political pitfalls of the past? And where does the empathy/objectification dichotomy fit into all of this?

From 2010 to 2013, Gillard — not just the first, but the only female prime minister of Australia — was routinely objectified, degraded, and disrespected by the opposition, the mainstream media, and the general public in her role as PM. Rather than focusing on Gillard’s policies, background, and political experience, the media focused on her hairstyle. Her shoes. The style of clothing she wore. Even her earlobes were considered a newsworthy subject — or, rather, object. She was minimized, trivialized, and objectified every step of the way. Gillard’s authority was undermined because of her sex on a daily basis.

Male politicians have been breaking election promises since the dawn of democracy, and are usually met with wry comments about the duplicitous nature of politics. Gillard, however, was castigated for changing her stance on a carbon tax, and was hounded for that one inconsistency for the rest of her political career.

During her term, Julia Gillard was portrayed pornographically in political cartoons. She was criticized for being “barren,” and was referred to as “Ju-liar,” as well as a “bitch,” “witch,” “fat cow,” “rat,” and “traitor.” The latter two insults were typical of how Gillard was viewed as a “treacherous woman,” for having replaced Kevin Rudd as prime minister.

Had a male politician been appointed, instead of Julia, would he have been portrayed as “treacherous” for accepting the promotion? Or would he simply have been known as the new prime minister? Maybe we could ask Australia’s current prime minister, Scott Morrison, who (to my knowledge) has never been accused of treachery for replacing Malcolm Turnbull.

The Gillard government passed more legislation than any other in the history of Australian Parliament, yet Gillard herself was painted as incompetent. The Australian public was complicit in the normalization and perpetuation of her abuse and objectification.

Gillard was expected to roll with the punches, or risk being told she couldn’t hack it. Maybe she wasn’t man enough for the job? Or maybe she was too manly? Either way, she was a woman in power. What did she expect — the same respect a male prime minister might feel entitled to?

When Gillard didn’t react to the abuse, she was deemed cold, calculating, and heartless — unwomanly.

When she took a stand, she was considered desperate, emotional, or too weak to lead — unmanly.

Gillard stoically ignored her ill-treatment, on the whole, until her powerful misogyny speech of 2012, which was directed at the leader of the opposition, Tony Abbott. Thanks to her empathy-inspiring speech, the Macquarie Dictionary literally redefined “misogyny” to encompass not only a hatred of women, but also an entrenched prejudice against women, à la Tony Abbott.

Gillard’s misogyny speech went viral, and she was applauded worldwide for her integrity and strength. Except in the (overwhelmingly right wing) Australian mainstream media, where she was accused of playing the “gender card,” despite the fact it had been Abbott, not Gillard, who’d broached the subject of misogyny to begin with.

Tony Abbott was (and still is) a notoriously controversial public figure, having committed countless offensive faux pas throughout his political career, including (but not limited to) supporting a convicted pedophile, referring to Canada as “Canadia,” and telling people they should vote for him because his “not bad looking daughters” are his “best assets.”

Abbott was voted in during the next federal election. From 2013 to 2015, Tony Abbott served as both Australian prime minister and (if you can believe it) as the minister for women. There were no detailed news reports about Abbott’s hair/shoes/arse/earlobes. There were a few highly publicized photographs of Abbott in his budgie smugglers, but it was all in good fun, as they say. It would have been a very different story had Gillard shown up to a media appearance virtually naked. But that’s different: she’s a woman.

There was little public outcry over Abbott’s broken election promises, insensitive comments, overt sexism, rampant racism, that thoughtless holocaust comparison, or the fact that he viewed axing Gillard’s carbon tax as his biggest achievement as minister for women. Let that sink in.

Despite the numerous websites and articles dedicated to Abbott’s most idiotic moments, mainstream media never vilified him the way they did Gillard.

In 2014, Gillard said:

“The stereotypes that are still in our culture… men do and women appear, and men act and women feel. So, as a woman in a position of leadership who is called upon to act and do things, it is hard to get the combination and the posture right of feeling as well. If you look like you’re feeling too much it will look like you aren’t competent to do the acting… to get the things done they want a leader to do. If you look like you are not feeling enough there is a ‘coldness’ to that because they expect a woman to feel emotions.”

In 2019, (four years after Abbott’s term ended) two “vile” Tony Abbott posters on a wall in Sydney made national news. Typical headlines included, “Police investigate offensive Abbott poster,” and “Hunt for men in Sydney after offensive posters.” CCTV footage was released, in a bid to capture the culprits, who committed the crime of decorating a wall with a picture of Abbott’s head, and the contextually-heavy surname of convicted pedophile, George Pell.

Abbott responded with, “I think this is a new nastiness in Australian politics.”

Perhaps Abbott was too busy being offended to recall the time when, as leader of the opposition, he made a point of being interviewed and photographed with several highly offensive posters, intentionally ridiculing the (then) prime minister, Julia Gillard. One poster stated, “Ditch the witch,” another, “JULIAR… Bob Brown’s bitch.”

These anti-Gillard signs were not placed anonymously in a suburban Sydney street, like Abbott’s. They were paraded around the front lawn at Parliament House, and broadcast on national news. There was no police investigation. No complaint from mainstream media or the public. The “Ditch the witch” poster was later sold for several thousand dollars, as a piece of Australian history.

Why did society accept this derogatory behaviour towards a woman, when the equivalent treatment of her male counterpart was considered a criminal offence?

In her misogyny speech, Gillard said:

“The Leader of the Opposition says that people who hold sexist views and who are misogynists are not appropriate for high office. Well, I hope the Leader of the Opposition has got a piece of paper and he is writing out his resignation, because if he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia he does not need a motion in the House of Representatives, he needs a mirror.”

Perhaps we all need a mirror. Perhaps the problem isn’t the patriarchy, or the Tony Abbotts of the world, or offensive posters, or mainstream media.

Maybe the real problem is our inability to look at our own reflections, question what we are told, and feel empathy for those outside our culturally appointed boxes. We absorb distorted views and reflect them back upon the world in a toxic feedback loop of obfuscation. People might agree on an opinion, but majority rule is not truth. The values we absorb unquestioningly are not necessarily truth. The belief that we have achieved gender equality is not truth.

Objectification is a major issue in our society, and is more deeply embedded than most would care to admit. There will never be true gender equality — in politics or in life — until this issue is addressed. We can’t keep turning a blind eye and hoping society will fix itself. If we want to live in a world where politicians are judged solely by their actions (as opposed to their sex, or the shape of their earlobes), changes must be made.

If a country’s own prime minister could be reduced to a collection of body parts and pornographic scribbles, at the expense of actual politics, with virtually no public outcry, can any person honestly believe they are unaffected by the insidiousness of objectification?

A woman whose power comes from intellectual prowess (as opposed to physical desirability) challenges an objectifier’s categorization of her as being object, rather than subject. In order to redress this, an objectifier may attempt to objectify the subject in a crueller, more dehumanizing way, in order to recentre their world view, in which the objectifier is “subject,” and the objectified is “object.”

A study by Tamar Saguy and her team of Israeli and US psychologists showed that that when women know men are focusing on their bodies, they are less likely to speak, because being treated as objects causes women to behave more like objects. There is nothing inherently wrong with aesthetic self-expression through attention to physical appearance. But when you present yourself to the world as a mere collection of body parts, altered to be seen as desirable (or even just acceptable) to the gaze of others, you are buying into the objectification paradigm. You have internalized the view that this is who you are, and that your worth as a person is equal to the majority opinion of your hair/earlobes/arse/jacket.

In an interview with Gitika Bhardwaj in November of 2019, Gillard said:

“In terms of politics past and politics present, I think a lot has changed for the positive. There are more women in politics now which means more role models for other women…

…but I do think that there’s a new toxicity for women that’s been introduced through social media — through the fact that it’s anonymous and people can say anything and the kinds of revolting material many women politicians receive. I think that there’s a new coarseness in our traditional media too which means things will be said about people in politics today, especially women, which would not have been put in the pages of respectable newspapers 10 or 20 years ago.”

Clearly, we still have a long way to go before we can sit back and relax in an idyllic world of equal opportunity and ethical media representation. But we are making progress. Finland’s female prime minister, Sanna Marin, and her all-female coalition are testament to this fact — for Finland, at least. According to UN Women, a mere 24.3 per cent of the world’s national parliamentarians were female as of February 2019. Low as that figure may seem, it is still an improvement on the 11.3 per cent recorded in 1995.

The current prime minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, has encountered her share of sexist commentary and gendered treatment, but not to the same extent Gillard faced ten years ago. Interviews with (and articles about) Arden prior to March 2019 tended more towards Ardern’s objectification. Considerable emphasis was placed on Ardern’s perceived level of attractiveness, her thoughts on motherhood and marriage, her teeth (yes, really), and her youth. News coverage of Ardern post-March 2019, on the other hand, centres more around Ardern’s “extraordinary leadership,” plans to combat homelessness, New Zealand’s well-being budget, and Ardern’s unwavering support throughout the Australian bushfire crisis. In other words, actual politics.

In 2019, many Australians expressed a desire for Jacinda Ardern to become their prime minister. So why has New Zealand’s third female prime minister been treated with more respect than Australia’s first and only, despite both women being capable leaders and passionate politicians?

Media bias is one reason, but two connected contributing factors stand out to me. The first is that the New Zealand public have not been so complicit in the ill treatment of Ardern.

The second reason (which also serves to explain the first) is the presence of increased public empathy, amplified by Arden’s skilful handling of the Christchurch massacre of March 15, 2019, when Ardern showed the world that leading with empathy, compassion, and vulnerability embodies true strength, especially in times of crisis. Respect for Ardern rose drastically as New Zealand’s gaze became one of empathy, as opposed to objectification.

When tragedy hit Christchurch, Ardern shared in her people’s pain, both physically and emotionally. She took concrete action, and emphasized the importance of empathy and love. Her country responded in kind, following Ardern’s lead in showing respect and compassion for the victims and their families, whilst refusing to partake in any form of retaliation or vengeance.

In contrast, when tragedy hit Australia in 2019, prime minister Scott Morrison distanced himself from his people’s pain, physically and emotionally. He took no concrete action, and emphasized his lack of empathy through a controversial disappearance and other acts of dismissive entitlement. Australians responded with little sympathy for their disconnected prime minister. Compassion for the victims of the 2019 Australian bushfires became the focus of public engagement, crushing Morrison’s previous political popularity, for his refusal to empathize with his people.

Political power (from a patriarchal perspective) often devalues traditionally feminine leadership strengths — like empathy — in favour of traditionally masculine leadership strengths, such as decisive retaliation. However, a balance of all strengths is necessary in nurturing a healthy society. Collectively, we are beginning to understand the value of compassion over competition, tolerance over tyranny, and empathy over objectification. Society is beginning to understand that the patriarchal idea of what leadership looks like is not the be-all-and-end-all of politics.

Just as Australia’s reactions to those “vile” Tony Abbott posters served as a stark contrast to Julia Gillard’s past equivalent experience, two new Australian murals paint a telling picture of present political attitudes.

This mural, painted in 2019 by Australian artist Scott Marsh raised over $50,000 for Australian firefighters, thanks to support from the Australian public after the 2019 bushfire crisis. It depicts Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, kicking back in a Hawaiian shirt, whilst his country burns to the ground around him.

This mural, painted in 2019 by street artist Loretta Lizzio, was crowdfunded by the public, and is situated on a silo in Brunswick, Australia. Lizzio’s large-scale artwork depicts New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, hugging a Muslim woman after the Christchurch terrorist attacks.

Both works showcase responses of leaders to countries in crisis, but more than this, their existence illustrates a shift in public perception. These murals, and the circumstances surrounding them, are proof that actions speak louder than words, that “strength” is not a synonym for “masculinity,” and that empathy can triumph over objectification.

It is easy to fall into complacency and allow the media to dictate our opinions. We can allow ourselves to subconsciously objectify others, even as we fight against our own objectification. But when tragedy strikes, we question concepts we’ve previously taken for granted. We unveil uncomfortable truths we’d rather ignore. Tragedy has a habit of unifying people in a complacency-shaken quest for a better world.

The next step for society is not to need tragedy (such as the Christchurch shootings, or the Australian bushfire crisis) to occur before we extend ourselves to others. We need to feel empathy for those outside our insular circles, and to question our own assumptions, all the time.

When we create unity, through genuine empathy, we combat objectification, and catalyze large scale social change.

The 2019 Ardern/Morrison murals visually demonstrate how political attitudes have changed over time, and how attitudes will (hopefully) continue to shift away from patriarchal default settings as we enter the 2020s — not only in Australia, but all around the globe. As individuals, we have a responsibility to question tradition, behave with integrity, and extend authentic empathy (not virtue-signals or empty words) to those with whom we share this world.

The Guardian’s Judith Mackrell wrote that “women’s great achievement in the 20s was learning to value their individuality.” Of course, she was referring to the 1920s, not the 2020s. Nonetheless, Mackrell’s words ring true, because every society is comprised of the individuals who belong to it, and every individual plays their part in shaping the wider world. We all have the ability to value our individual strengths, and (by extension) value the individuality of others. We are not objects — we all have the ability to change, open our minds, and grow beyond the limitations of who we once were.

Objectification cannot reside where empathy lives. When the majority of individuals are brave enough to form their own opinions, refuse to confuse subject with object, and extend true empathy towards others, the virus of objectification will begin to lose its hold on our culture.

In the words of Jacinda Ardern:

“And so to each of us as we go from here, we have work to do, but do not leave the job of combatting hate to the government alone. We each hold the power, in our words and in our actions, in our daily acts of kindness. Let that be the legacy of the 15th of March. To be the nation we believe ourselves to be.”

Nanci Nott is an Australian author who believes in dismantling traditional pedagogy in parenting and education, for the purpose of raising freethinking, compassionate, world-changers.

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