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Undermined by a Thousand Cuts
What does it mean to a woman’s self-worth to live in a culture of sexual objectification? Or, to put it another way, what’s wrong with a few harmless catcalls, or with a man complimenting a woman’s dress at a business meeting?
Tomi-Ann Roberts ’85 has long been considering these questions as a psychology professor and researcher at Colorado College. She and co-author Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina argued in their widely cited 1997 paper, “Objectification Theory: Toward Understanding Women’s Lived Experience and Mental Health Risks,” that there are serious costs when women are treated not as fully human, but as objects. They are treated, as Roberts says, “as though their bodies are capable of representing them, and their sexuality is the most valuable thing about them.”
As a young woman, long before attaining her doctorate in psychology from Stanford University, Roberts intuitively understood the personal cost of being reduced to her body, her sexuality. When Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein tried to persuade Roberts, then a Smith student and aspiring actress, to remove her shirt to demonstrate her commitment to acting, she refused. She quit acting and instead became a feminist researcher who sought answers about women’s psychological development.
In the following conversation, moderated and condensed by the SAQ, she and Smith psychology professor Lauren Duncan discuss sexual objectification and how it undermines women. Duncan’s research focuses on the psychology of activism, including the development of feminist consciousness.
ROBERTS: Objectification theory is the idea that in this culture, girls and women are often reduced to their bodies, and that this reduction comes to do a number on girls and women. It becomes quite likely that they will internalize that perspective on the self. We called that phenomenon self-objectification. Women’s physical appearance makes a big difference in the outcome of their lives, but internalizing that perspective carries costs to girls and women: economic costs, psychic costs, even cognitive, brain-drain costs.
DUNCAN: One of the peak human experiences that people can have is something called flow. You reach flow when you’re doing something that’s pushing you just at the limits of what you can do, but the task is absorbing and it’s not out of your reach. One of the big issues with objectification is that women are interrupted in their flow. Say you’re a really good athlete and you’re running down the soccer field and you’ve just hit your stride. Then you hear someone catcalling you or making a comment about your shorts. [Suddenly] you have to pay attention to your body. That throws you out of flow. Because this happens to women all the time under all circumstances, it really interrupts their possibility to reach this peak human experience.
ROBERTS: Right, and if you think about it, part of the #MeToo phenomenon is saying, “I also had my potential disrupted.” The thing that disrupts it is typically the socially sanctioned right of men in a sexually objectifying culture to violate the boundaries of women’s bodies, and therefore to kick them out of a very absorbing experience that was really about their competence and capacity.
DUNCAN: It happens to women everywhere, and that’s why #Me Too is really resonating with women. It’s very similar to what happened in 1991 with Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, except we didn’t have Twitter and the internet at that time. Anita Hill said, “Yeah, this was my experience with Clarence Thomas,” and all these white men were saying, “Yeah, we don’t really care about that.” After that the percentage of women who could actually identify sexual harassment shot way up. It raised awareness. I think #MeToo is doing the same thing.
SAQ: People say that harassing behavior threatens a woman’s sense of herself. They report that such comments embarrass and belittle their stature. Could you talk about that?
What are the consequences of a man complimenting you when you’re in a setting that has nothing to do with how you look?
ROBERTS: Barb Fredrickson and I argued in our paper that sexual objectification occurs along a continuum, from the seemingly benign catcall to the abjectly dehumanizing forms: rape, trafficking, etc. I’ve always been interested in that more benign end. What are the consequences of a man complimenting you when you’re in a setting that has nothing to do with how you look? That’s what he’ll say he did: compliment you on your appearance. But when competence is what’s on the table, then even a positive comment about your appearance has a derailing quality. I think men know full well that those things aren’t really compliments.
DUNCAN: To think that someone is judging you on your appearance first and foremost just undermines your mission, and it could undermine your confidence.
ROBERTS: It kind of clicks you out of wherever you were. It’s a bunch of tiny disruptions that accumulate over a lifetime.
SAQ: Do you think being in a single-sex educational environment helps young women prepare themselves for a world that may include this kind of harassment, or does it overprotect them?
ROBERTS: I honestly feel like I was born at Smith. I had my friends, and I was able to talk with them in the most intimate of ways about my emerging sexuality without it being that we were all going to some frat party and competing with one another.
DUNCAN: I come to this question as a professor and also from my research on the psychology of activism. The ages of 18 to 22 are key for identity development, and there’s work [to be done] on politicizing your identity, politicizing your social identities, like becoming a feminist or becoming someone who’s an antiracist activist.
It is essential for any group that’s going to challenge the power hierarchies to have “safe spaces” where they can share their experiences and strategize away from the dominant group. Then they can go out into the dominant culture and challenge it. I think it’s essential. This stuff about Smith being a bubble is bogus. Women have the rest of their lives to be objectified.
SAQ: Is there a different way to characterize the harm done to a woman who is harassed but not physically harmed?
ROBERTS: We have to take a cue from health psychology research that says that daily hassles and trauma are two different pathways to health consequences. In this national conversation we also are trying to shine a light on the fact that daily hassles can accumulate to create a kind of chronic [condition]. You’re chronically out in the world with just a little bit of anxiety that something’s going to turn. “This guy’s going to close the door and ask if he can masturbate in front of me. I’ve got to be ready.” Just like we say that battery and murder aren’t the same, having someone masturbate in front of you is not the same as having them rape you. Those are not the same, and yet we need to attend to the chronic regularity of these seemingly more harmless encounters.
DUNCAN: The sexual objectification of women occurs on a continuum but has the same underlying societal effect, which is basically to keep women in their place, to treat their bodies as sexual.
ROBERTS: And that is a decision. What is this “men can’t help it” business? If you choose to harass a woman or sexualize a girl, you have made a choice. You could make a different one.
SAQ: Do you see this moment as a potential disruptor of that narrative? Different things have caused outrage—Anita Hill, for instance—but then it seems the lesson is forgotten.
DUNCAN: But Anita Hill also led to lots of lawsuits and companies putting policies into place about sexual harassment. That is a change in the culture now. You never have progress on a straight line. It’s always a couple steps forward, a step or two back.
SAQ: Has the progress of these past several decades allowed this unleashing of truth telling that we’re seeing with the #MeToo movement?
DUNCAN: The base level of egalitarianism has been raised. You won’t find too many young women today who will say that women are inferior to men or they don’t deserve equal pay. I think the cultural beliefs have reached a certain point. It doesn’t mean they’re feminist and want to challenge the social structures. But at least they can imagine—I was going to say vote for a woman president, and actually they did. Three million more people did.
ROBERTS: Right, but I think so many young women would say, “Yes, I want a woman president, but not her. I don’t like her.” I think the idea was something like, “I still can’t associate myself with a shrewish, aging woman.” That really disturbed me.
DUNCAN: I don’t blame them if they haven’t developed a feminist critique yet. They’re raised in a sexist culture. That’s going to happen. You know who I blame? The liberal men who couldn’t bring themselves to support Hillary Clinton. How many liberal men were her harshest critics? They’d say, “I just don’t like her,” or, “The Clintons have too much baggage.” No. It was sexism.
ROBERTS: I think part of this #MeToo movement and the women’s marches is to truly empower women to finally say, “It’s OK to be angry. And I’m not having it.” Anger might not look so good, but it turns out it’s appropriate. And part of what men are awakening to is the fact that they get away with this because they can. I’m sure Louis C.K. was thinking, “Well, they’re all letting me do this. Why won’t someone stop me?” Now he has to face the harsh reality that those women were terrified, that what he did was frightful. No one was in a position to stop him.
“Part of this #MeToo movement and the women’s marches is to truly empower women to finally say, ‘It’s OK to be angry.’”
SAQ: Is there a message that parents could be giving to their daughters and to their sons that might start a different process at home?
DUNCAN: My [teenage] son’s girlfriend gets comments and whistles every time she runs. She texts my son, who forwards them to me and says, “Mom, what are we going to do about this?” He is completely outraged. I’ve raised feminist sons as much as possible, but they don’t have the experience. They don’t know what it’s like to be objectified. They have no clue that people do this, and so he’s experiencing this through his girlfriend and he is just so upset.
ROBERTS: He’s got his work cut out for him to try to find a space to be masculine and to embody that masculinity and to not treat women like property.
DUNCAN: Right, and there’s not a lot of guidance out there in the culture.
ROBERTS: Where are we around the sexualization of girls? The way girls get “likes” on social media is with these self-sexualizing kinds of selfies. This way of presenting yourself is going to make you more popular. But what are the long-term consequences?
One of the first things I’ve always tried to help my daughters understand is that it is a preoccupation that you are better than.
In other words, let’s just stop and think: All of the time it took to curate that selfie you could’ve spent studying for your math test. I’ve also tried to help girls understand that when you’re safe, when there are others around you, you turn right around and you say to that boy, “Do not talk to me that way.”
SAQ: What are your most optimistic thoughts about how the culture may change because of what’s happening right now?
ROBERTS: The first voices that came out were people like Gwyneth Paltrow, and we are a culture that worships our Hollywood celebrities. We think of these actresses as being the pinnacle of feminine achievement. Their voices were the ones that broke the dam. Now, maybe we’ll finally start hearing from the Walmart worker who couldn’t get out of the supply closet without agreeing to do something with her boss.
DUNCAN: This raised awareness now gives millions of women and girls words for experiences that they felt vaguely uneasy about. Now, if they can link their experiences to Gwyneth Paltrow, then that kind of legitimizes their feeling of discomfort and maybe it’ll give them a little more courage. They’ll at least talk with their friends about it. This is how things will change.
ROBERTS: We need to hear from more women of color. We need to hear from queer women. We need to make sure that this cacophonous, resounding new way of being angry is available to all of us. Liberals and feminists, we can never get on one message the way the other side can. Maybe this is a moment when we can join together in a rallying cry that has been a long time coming. It feels like a moment to put aside our differences and nuances and say, “Let’s also imagine what we have in common.”
This story appears in the Spring 2018 issue of the Smith Alumnae Quarterly.