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The Real Issues Uncovered by #WomenNotObjects

By Stephania Varalli, Co-CEO, Women of Influence

If you haven’t seen the #WomenNotObjects video, which takes a critical look at the ads that show up when you Google “objectification of women,” take two minutes now.

Produced by New York advertising agency Badger & Winters, it has received over 1.5 million views so far, and plenty of media attention. Many articles praise it as a needed reminder to the advertising world that objectifying women is not okay.

It’s a position I personally agree with, so it’s no surprise that the video elicited from me a strong blend of anger and sadness. What I didn’t expect? How much the feelings would intensify after reading the accompanying YouTube comments.

The #WomenNotObjects video has received more likes than dislikes, and the roughly 1,500 people that have typed out their review represent the standard mix of supporters, detractors, and trolls. I found it easy to ignore misspelled rants about “Feminazis.” I found it difficult to read opinions that shed light on the cultural state that enables these ads to be seen as okay.

“If consenting adults signed up for this work, what is there to complain about exactly? You’re beautiful, and you get paid to be beautiful.”

“What a bland world you people want to live in. Men and women have fought for sexual freedom and expression. Now here you are wanting it all to be locked back up in your little box of things you don’t like.”

“I don’t think it promotes anything harmful, like it’s not showing an ad that promotes rape or anything. Am I missing something?”

All of these comments were posted by women, so ignore any inclination to consider this a male issue. Our culture needs change. Here’s what I think these commenters—and certainly many other men and women in our society—are missing:

There is a difference between being paid to be beautiful and being paid to be degraded. And there is a difference between sexy and objectified. I can see how a woman posing in lingerie for a lingerie ad makes sense, but for a truck? A burger? A men’s clothing line? Add in the suggestive copy and pose that portrays her as submissive, as property, as entertainment for men, as “open for business”—what message does that send? It’s not “women are beautiful,” it’s “our beauty is for you.” Even if the women in the ads are consenting adults getting paid for the work, the message doesn’t change. The problem isn’t their explicit consent, it’s the quiet consent of a society that enables this work to be produced.

No, this is not about sexual freedom. We’re not clutching our pearls because women should be portrayed as chaste. I’m not going to digress into the topic of how women’s sexuality is judged, but suffice it to say, these ads are not about championing their (or anyone’s) right to be sexual.

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Yes, this is harmful, including to women’s career advancement efforts. Every individual that sees these ads, regardless of age, gender, education, or socioeconomic background, takes in the message that it’s okay to objectify women. What does all this have to do with career advancement? As the ending of the video points out: I am your co-worker, your manager, your CEO. When advertising supports an unconscious bias that women are submissive creatures designed for men’s pleasure, does it create difficulties for female leaders? Does it make it harder for women to image themselves in positions of leadership? Does it shape men’s views towards how a woman should behave?

Maybe not all women and all men, hopefully not all boys, girls, and adolescents, but is any number acceptable? No. We are #WomenNotObjects, and that’s the message we should be sending.