Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Objectification vs Mutuality: From Bristol Palin to Harry Potter

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In my writing about sexualized media and its focus on representing females as objects rather than agents, I have often referred to the need for a more complex depiction of females. I’ve also discussed the need for a more authentic representation of female sexuality. The brilliant Sharon Lamb discusses this issue (2010 a, 2010b) of objectification in an interesting way. Instead of stating that females are depicted as objects of desire and need to be depicted as subjects, she presents the idea that this may be a false dichotomy.  She calls for the promotion of mutuality. I like to think that this concept is closely aligned with that of agency. Rather than viewing oneself as always either being the object of desire or the one desiring, isn’t it more realistic to promote the view of males and females involved in mutual relationships? And yet, many media depictions show females as primarily the object of desire, or even as body parts that are separated from the person herself. I find this a disturbing way of thinking of a female’s sexuality. Consider these magazine advertisements that use parts of the female body as enticements to buy particular products or depict women as objects. When boys and girls consistently see the female body comodified in such a way, with the complete absence of any kind of link to the person, then the female body becomes simply an object for the pleasure of others.

This is why the concept of mutuality is so important. We have talked before about how sexualized media effects both boys and girls, and one of the ways that it impacts them is by promoting the primary importance of physical appearance and romantic relationships. What are missing are the ideas of mutual respect, liking, and pleasure in another’s company. I have had boys tell me that even when they like a girl, enjoy her company, and are attracted to her, they may choose not to be romantically involved if they don’t believe that all their friends will think that she’s physically attractive enough.  And girls may seek to increase their chances to be romantically involved with boys by dieting, presenting themselves as different from who they really are (not as smart or athletic, for example) or by engaging in risky sexual behaviors. Promoting the idea of mutuality is important in providing both boys and girls with guidance about how to make choices involving sexual behaviors. After all, sexuality does not exist in a vacuum. Most of the time it involves another person.

One of the saddest stories that’s been circulating lately is discussed in this article referencing Bristol Palin’s new book, in which she talks about how her boyfriend “stole” her virginity while she was unconscious. Both boys and girls need to learn to see relationships as mutual, both emotionally and physically. Neither person has the right to push the other person to do something that they don’t want to do.

Bristol Palin Memoir on How She Lost Her Virginity: Was It Date Rape? – The Daily Beast.

I showed you some visual advertisements that present females as objects. There are also some good media resources that promote a more mutual kind of relationship. One of my favorites comes from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books and the movie series. As the main characters get older, they become involved in romantic relationships in a natural way. In both the films and the books when characters choose a shallow relationship that’s based on physicality or popularity, they inevitably become unhappy. When Ron dates Lavender, they are always kissing but don’t have much else in common. Without explicitly stating it, Rowling shows how this kind of relationship has nowhere good to go and Ron becomes miserable in it. When Hermione dates Victor because he’s a famous sports figure, she ends up liking him as a friend, but realizes that there’s nothing deeper there.  On the other hand, many of the main characters end up developing long-term relationships built on mutual respect, liking, and common interests and values. If you have a teen or tween who likes Harry Potter, you can use these incidents to talk with them about choosing to be in relationships that are mutual, rather than one-sided. Look for examples of both kinds of media depictions to jump-start conversations with your teens and tweens about relationships. Mutuality is a very important concept for them to be learning as they begin to navigate more mature relationships with their peers.

Lamb, S. (2010a). Feminist Ideals for a Healthy Female Adolescent Sexuality: A Critique. Sex Roles, 62, 294-306.

Lamb, S. (2010b). Porn as a Pathway to Empowerment? A Response to Peterson’s Commentary. Sex Roles, 62, 314-317.

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