The Traits Of Objects

You may have heard about the idea of ‘objectification.’ When I wrote about Daredevil, I trotted out a list – Instrumentality, Agency, Ownership, Fungibility, Violability, and Subjectivity. Where’d that list come from? Is it a tool you can use for your own writing?

One of the things I like with critical tools is that you can turn them on work that exists, and illuminate traits of the work you wouldn’t otherwise notice, but also, like an inverted puzzle piece, you can turn the tool on a work you’re developing yourself, and in the process, see spaces you can use to fill things out to achieve what you want. In this case, the tool is useful for avoiding the objectification of a character, which is to say, you can use this checklist to imbue a character with character.

As for the list’s origin, it’s from the work of Martha Nussbaum, and her writing was about people, not about media. It was also expanded by Rae Langton – whose work primarily focuses on sex and pornography. I don’t have a strong grounding in either of these creators, and I have the nagging feeling that digging into the views of a pair of 50+ year old Feminist Philosophers will find something nasty and TERFy. So don’t take my appreciation of this tool as an endorsement of them.

The full list, including both Nussbaum and Langton’s categories, and the questions they ask, is as follows:

  • Instrumentality: Does this character exist to only enact the purpose of another? Are they a tool? Could you replace them with a vending machine?
  • Agency: Is the character ever demonstrated as having their own purpose, their own ability to make decisions for themselves?
  • Ownership: Is the character ever depicted as being literally the property of another? And if they are, is that depiction ever showing that as being reasonable? Parents, for example, are often depicted as owning their children. How do you think of that relationship?
  • Fungibility: Can the character be swapped for another character of a similar type? Is the character replaceable? How would the actions of the character differ if another character was called upon to do the same thing?
  • Violability: Can people act on the character without consequence? Can you punch them with no followup?
  • Subjectivity: Does the character’s individual experience and personal opinion ever matter? When they disagree with someone is it because of a personal interpretation of events? What fuels that thought?
  • Reduction To Body: Can the character be thought of as just a particular component of their body? Are they a fist to attack someone with, a foot to step on someone? This is very common in pornography – is a character, for lack of a less crude term ‘Tits The Girl?’
  • Reduction To Appearance: Does a character matter primarily in terms of how appealing they are to the senses? A good test of this again, is to check how these characters could be organised in terms of being ‘the hottest’ or ranked for appearance.
  • Silencing: Is the character voiceless? Are they treated as if they are voiceless? Does it ever matter if they say anything? Do other people react to what they have to say?

Sometimes there are some really weird things you can get by applying this toolset. For example, lots of the characters in Joss Whedon’s work are fungible – they almost all can say the same lines of dialogue. Zack Snyder’s Perry White in Batman V Superman hasn’t really got Subjectivity – he exists to oppose Lois Lane’s efforts, without a justifiable rationale for doing so. But you wouldn’t necessarily assume that Perry White is objectified as much, in this case, as he is just an object.

Not every character in a story needs to be a non-object. There will always be room for goons and audiences and randoms. Stories thrive on having objects in them. The thing to look out for in your own work is if all the objects you’re using have common traits – if all the black people in your story, for example, are fungible, you probably have a problem. If when you need a random character to dismiss as being meaningless, you reach to make it a woman, you’ve got to wonder why you keep doing that.

And also knock that off.

This list also makes a valuable way to examine your characters and see if there are new ways you can add dimensions to them. Make them more real. Just recognise that sometimes, a messenger can just be a messenger, they don’t need a backstory and a family and seven layers of motivation if they’re going to turn up and tell you that Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are dead.

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