Objectification is something that usually causes outrage. Time to look at the mechanisms behind one of the main outrages of the journalism world. Because objectification is a choice, not something you can’t avoid.
Objectification is something that comes up every now and then in conversation or in random online scandals that shock nations or the world. Usually, the outrage is big when a woman is being objectified and women fighting against it are heralded as heroines.
While that’s all fine and good and the people fighting this crappy behaviour, I would like to look at objectification from the standpoint of writing. Writing, be it scripts for movies, novels or journalistic articles. The reason I am getting to this is because I once, many many moons ago, I had a course on objectification at the MAZ in Luzern, where I was taught the formal part of my journalism skills. It came up in conversation again today when I was talking to the person who I consider to be the best video producer in the world and all-around kickass person.
The idea was that, for a change, we’ll objectify a man. So far, we’re not sure whether or not we’re going to do it and if so, how we’ll pull it off, but the discussion forced us to look at the mechanisms of objectification.
What is Objectification?
According to the Oxford Dictionary, objectification has two meanings.
- The action of degrading someone to the status of a mere object.
- The expression of something abstract in a concrete form.
The latter is pretty self-explanatory, but we’ll focus on the former for now.
How do you Objectify?
So we’re talking about the reduction or degradation of a human person to the status of an object. For that, you need to strip away everything else apart from the objectifying aspect. This sounds pretty simple, but is actually quite hard to do. Because human beings are inherently complex. They come with all kinds of baggage, aspects, angles, views and other assorted things that humans come with.
To achieve successful objectification, you need to do something that German journalism has dubbed Thesenjournalismus. The word translates to Thesis Journalism and it goes like so:
- Make up your journalistic mind before you do any research
- Suspend your curiosity
- Conduct interviews and research with biases
- Sit down and write
Thesis Journalists are provocative and they do this really well. It gets you clicks and readers, comments and reader letters. But ultimately, it’s not good journalism, seeing as our main responsibility is to the story and the reader and not our own opinions and biases. Sure, there’s a bit of bias in everything we write or do, but we need to reduce them and be able to suppress them as much as possible. Reviews are explicitly exempt from the whole “Don’t convey an opinion”-thing. Despite all this, Thesis Journalism has no place in a review either.
Once you’ve got your thesis, you go do your interview, asking pointed questions that provoke a statement in the direction of where you’re trying to provoke.
This behaviour of these journalist agents provocateurs is best shown when the questions are asked the opposite sex.
Let’s have a look at a practical example. Simone Biles is a US gymnast who pretty much owns any woman in competitions. Her main accomplishments include nearly breaking physics and doing things that require a lot of said physics to be almost broken at the same time.
All in all, Simone Biles kicks ass. I don’t know the first thing about gymnastics, but after watching Quartz’s video, I am impressed. I can’t break physics, she can’t either, but she’s a lot closer than I am.
On the other hand, there’s «The Golden Girl!» Simone Biles, as seen on ABC News.
- Would you take the medals or a kiss by Zac Efron?
- Are you enjoying your time in Rio?
- Where will you be going on vacation?
- What do you say to little boys and girls who want to go for the Olympics?
- Give our birthday boy here a little hug!
You have an almost-physics-breaking athlete and these are the questions you go with?
So what went wrong here?
What Went Wrong
The anchorpeople of ABC News approached this with their usual jovial manner and completely stripped away any and all athletic achievements that Simone Biles made and had her be the Golden Girl. You know, the girl who likes boys. Teehee.
In that context, they did not do critical research into the extraordinary feats that are those of Simone Biles whose most legendary and defiantly feminist quote will probably end up being.
I’m not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps. I’m the first Simone Biles – Simone Biles, SportingNews.com
The Unfortunate Effect
Now that the interview starts with a flawed premise and critical research not done, it all goes to shambles within seconds. Because every story, whether it’s fictional or journalistic, needs a hero. Not someone who saves the world, but someone to look up to, but someone to carry the story. In fiction, this is the protagonist of a story. They’re your Jack Reachers, your Katniss Everdeens, your Sham ap Sooraps and your Robert Langdons. They carry the story, they give it weight and they give you someone to admire.
In the interview with ABC, the angle seems to have been «but she’s just a girl», which isn’t entirely true. Not many girls manage to scratch on the boundaries of physics. Very few girls manage to compete and win at the Olympics.
However, many girls exist. They do all sorts of random things and only have very few things in common. Some like Barbie, others like Marvel movies. Some like Plush Toys and Death Metal, others like BDSM and Céline Dion. But instead of going for what makes Simone Biles extraordinary, ABC went for what makes her ordinary. They stripped everything away that made her extraordinary and what was left is the ordinary things about a person.
The issue ABC faced now was that there’s no reason to make a story or have an interview with someone ordinary. So someone extraordinary needs to be introduced as our protagonist has suddenly not done anything extraordinary as per Thesis Journalism on the part of ABC News.
Enter Zac Efron.
In order to appeal to the lowest common denominator – girls like boys – one of the most amazing people currently in sports is being reduced to the state of a teenager. Don’t get me wrong, Simone Biles was a the point of the interview a teenager, but that’s not why she was global news and why she was being interviewed on ABC News in the first place.
While the angle of asking mundane questions in an interview serves to humanize and at least in theory level the playing field. However, it’s a slippery slope and ABC slipped too far.
Because now we’re talking about Zac Efron, actor and attractive man who hasn’t had any major scandals in his life that I’m aware of. Basically, he’s the sort of boyfriend every mother and every father hope their daughter brings home. Sure, he’s “like, a total dreamboat” and everything, but this is The First Simone Biles we’re talking to.
Now we’re talking to one of the world’s greatest athletes at that time in history and we’re using her to strengthen the public image and desirability of another person. The fact that it’s a man is just icing on the cake of this disaster of an interview.
Objectification is a Choice
Time to do some summarizing before we go too deep down the journalistic rabbit hole of storytelling and interviewing. Because as a journalist, there’s one thing that will always be true:
Objectification is a choice.
It’s not something that happens. It’s not an accident and it’s not necessarily something sinister, engineered to put women down. Very often, it’s a lack of research, not having a clue and then screwing it up. I don’t think ABC News had ill will, but they buggered up the basic idea of where they want to go and then they were in too deep to salvage it. Ultimately, you end up with an insulting mess of an interview.
When you interview a celebrity, I would advise the following:
- Don’t try to make them «just like everyone else», because if you ask the right questions, that aspect will shine through anyways
- Let them shine. When you’re talking to them, it’s highly likely that it’s not a random encounter but because they’ve just achieved something special. Do not patronize them.
- Treat them like regular people during the interview. If you’re in awe of them, tell them. But keep it real. «Hey, you’ve done a fantastic job, but I have a job to do, so I have a few questions»
- Ask questions that are unexpected and sometimes hard and/or invasive. If you piss off a celebrity, it’s no different than pissing off a regular person
That goes something like this:
Actress Saoirse Ronan is being used as someone who gets to explain life as a person with a difficult-to-spell name. Nevermind her numerous accolades for a second. Her name is what matters.
Objectification is a choice.
It is something you deliberately choose to do by putting someone into a corner where they don’t belong. During the interview, you’ll have to push and fight to keep the people interviewed in their corner. So, please, just don’t. Your story will thank you for it.