This weekend, I saw a screening of Adrian Grenier’s new documentary, Teenage Paparazzo, at the BAM Cinema Festival. The film is great. In a nutshell, it’s the story of a thirteen-year-old paparazzo who helps Grenier explore how we, as a society, consume and feed ‘celebrity.’
The film explores how celebrities are commodified by the public and the paparazzi, who are rabid for stories of Angelina stealing Brad who secretly still loves Jen who is having a baby to get back at Brad who loves all his multicolored babies but wants nothing more than to get out from under the tyranny that is Angelina. Who even cares if it’s true anymore??? Some tabloid gossip may be in the name of fun and fiction, but clearly, celebrity commodification has a dark side as well. See: Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears. Celebrity broke them—tragically, gloriously, and completely.
Celebrity commodification struck me as an obvious parallel to objectification theory. The theory goes that men relate to women as objects that can be consumed, perpetuating an unequal power dynamic that subordinates and disempowers women. This theoretically causes shame, anxiety, difficulty feeling fully in the moment (what some people might call “flow”), dissociation from natural body states (a big factor in eating disorders), and depression. All in all, it’s not great.
But what if we could use objectification to our advantage? Some celebrities step into the spotlight by self-consciously offering themselves as objects to be consumed with a specific message that they intend to convey through that consumption. Case in point: Lady Gaga. She intentionally presents herself as an object that is androgynous, sexually aggressive, and unapologetic but somehow still totally and addictively consumable. She is asking you—daring you—to consume her. She obviously stands on the shoulders of Prince, Bowie, and Madonna, who all challenged our conception of sexuality in their own ways, but she offers a new, never-before-popular commodity: the androgynous female.
I certainly wouldn’t argue that Lady Gaga is single-handedly changing society’s perspective on women’s sexuality. But I would argue that by making female androgyny a desirable commodity, she challenges limited perspectives on how women’s sexuality can be expressed, making people more likely to accept alternative sexualities as they encounter them in their own lives. (In the age of body image ideals that make women look like underfed preteen boys, it’s questionable whether androgyny is a good thing, but let’s focus on the sexual freedom part for now). Lady Gaga’s genius is that she knows she is a commodity, she embraces that she will be consumed, and she manipulates that interaction to affect change in the consumer. Absolutely brilliant.
So that got me thinking: If women are objectified by men and if our bodies are seen as objects for consumption, is there a way that we could embrace that dynamic and use the interaction itself to affect change?
Perhaps we should start by looking at our role in objectification. Because let’s be real: we’re not innocent bystanders here.
Objectification theory holds that a woman who is regularly objectified by others will eventually begin to objectify herself. Rolnick, Engeln-Maddox, and Miller (2010) supported this in a study of sorority rush, which showed that women who participated in rush (basically a series of two-minute interviews with your BMI and your clothing labels) showed higher levels of self-objectification and eating disordered behavior. Shocking.
But do we really need studies to realize that women are well past the point of objectifying themselves? Have you seen the cover of any women’s magazines lately? It’s pretty obvious.
If we want to change the cycle, let’s start treating ourselves as we hope to be treated. To use the Gaga model, let’s create the commodity that we hope will be accepted. The challenge is to make it consumable.
If we are going to be consumed, let us be consumed as we aspire to be.