'Bring on the shirtless men': Why it's acceptable to objectify the male body but not the female's
It’s not easy being a hot piece of beautiful man these days.
While you may rather be known for your business prowess, theatrical artistry or philanthropic spirit, women – being the animalistic, sex-crazed creatures they are – just can’t help but stare at your abs and swoon over your lush mane of pretty boy hair.
Take poor Ryan Gosling, for instance. The actor will forever be haunted by viral photos of his chiseled six-pack. And then there’s Channing Tatum. The Magic Mike star may never recover from the degradation he experienced playing a drool-worthy stripper in not just one, but two films.
Game of Thrones heartthrob Kit Harington knows the pain. In a recent interview with Page Six he declared that enough was enough: “To always be put on a pedestal as a hunk is slightly demeaning,” he complained. “It’s not just men that can be inappropriate sexually; women can as well. I’m in a successful TV show in a kind of leading-man way, and it can sometimes feel like your art is being put to one side for your sex appeal. And I don’t like that.”
We feel your pain, Kit. We feel your pain.
Actors are increasingly expected to pose topless, get ripped in the gym to secure much-coveted superhero roles and stand idly by while women ruthlessly compile Tumblr accounts documenting the bulge in their pants.
After photos of Jon Hamm walking around Manhattan in tight slacks was gawked at online, the renowned keeper of the bulge responded to the attention his package garnered by saying, “I’m wearing pants, for f—k’s sake. Lay off.”
All the while, female objectification has become increasingly taboo. Don’t you dare comment on Jennifer Lawrence’s appearance or her wardrobe or even her posture unless you want to face the wrath of social media. This, of course, has enraged large portions of the privileged white dude population, who ask why it is that they can’t freely catcall women or loudly appreciate the curves of whomever they please, while women are seemingly allowed to indulge in the same behaviour as much as they want. The objectification of male stars is so severe that TIME Magazine used all of its creative energy to coin a term for it: Man-jectification (well done, TIME).
For many, it seems like a terribly sexist double standard. Yet, objectification is a time-honoured Hollywood tradition that has affected both men and women over the years. Film is a visual medium, after all. The emphasis on strikingly good-looking stars dates back to the 1920s, when matinée idols like Harold Lockwood and Wallace Reid were adored for their handsome looks. Matinée idols were almost exclusively male, and usually played romantic leading roles.
Picture-Play Magazine once wrote of Reid: “The only reason why they don’t let Wally play in dress-suit roles all the time is that the casualties among the ladies would soon empty the picture houses. In fact, we feel that we’re toying with the fan hearts even to print this picture.”
Today, the difference is the history. Male actors have traditionally never been confined to just playing silly romantic leads. Their good looks have never stopped them from making boatloads of money, dominating the dialogue or being the first boldface name on a promotional poster. They haven’t lived in fear of sexual harassment or, worse, rape.
Since the days of matinée idols, the entertainment industry has largely been held hostage by the male gaze. The term, coined by feminist film critic Laura Mulvey in 1975, refers to how women in film and television are often depicted from a masculine point of view. Ever notice a camera pan slowly over a woman’s body? Or a female suddenly naked on screen for no apparent reason in relation to the plot? You’ve witnessed an example of the male gaze, in which men hold the power and privilege of looking while women are powerless objects who should consider themselves fortunate for being appreciated.
This phenomenon doesn’t just exist on screen; it translates into everyday life. A Princeton study found that showing men pictures of sexualized, scantily-clad women evokes less activity in areas of the brain responsible for recognizing and analyzing another person’s thoughts, feeling and emotions. Instead, the area of men’s brains responsible for handling tools lights up. Showing subjects photos of fully clothed women doesn’t elicit the same reaction.
Other studies found that men see women as less likeable and intelligent when presented with photos of only their bodies rather than faces. Training men to focus on women’s sexual characteristics via the male gaze trains them to focus less on women’s human traits. The result: when women become valued only for their looks, they’re perceived as pieces of property that men can own and define on their own terms.
The reason why there’s no equivalent to the “male gaze” – even while women sexualize men – is that men haven’t been subjected to the sexual harassment, pay disparity and mental anguish over coerced sexualization followed by cold rejection after a certain age that women have over the years. Tweeting a meme of shirtless Ryan Gosling doesn’t affect his pay grade, ability to take on serious roles or define him solely by how much women would like to sleep with him. He’ll still work after his hair turns grey – excuse me, silver – and his skin sags.
Meanwhile, actors like Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams and Gillian Anderson are offered less money than their male co-stars, regardless of screen-time or “star power,” because they’re women in a gender-biased system. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Management Inquiry concluded that pay for female movie stars increases until they reach 34, then rapidly decreases (as does the number of roles for women of a certain age). The top-earning year for men is 51, and there is no noticeable decline in wages after that.
It’s easy to roll our eyes at the gripes of “underpaid” Hollywood stars who still rake in millions and live luxury-filled lives, but these film industry stats closely resemble ‘real-life’ stats when it comes to women receiving equal pay, promotions to management roles and prime job opportunities after a certain age.
A study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film reported that women in movies from last year were three times more likely than men to be shown in sexually revealing clothing or nude. Depressingly, only 32 per cent of speaking roles in film are given to women.
Can male objectification be annoying? Certainly. Can it be unwanted? Yes. However, a comment on a male’s good looks remains just that: a comment. Objectifying women results in an entire binder full of consequences: unequal pay, unequal screen time (it’s still rare to find a singular female lead or female-dominated cast), sexual harassment and rape culture, the much-referenced glass ceiling and females being valued more for what they wear on the red carpet than why they’re there.
The state of affairs in Hollywood has certainly improved since the mid-20th century when women all but signed their careers and bodies away to film studios that demanded they never leave the house without makeup and plied them with amphetamines to keep them smiling, singing and dancing for hours on end. But there’s still a long way to go. Young starlets are still expected to maintain a facade of virginity, yet simultaneously strip down on screen to “make it.” It’s no less common to watch young female celebrities – Lindsay Lohan, Amanda Bynes, Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato – check in and out of rehab than it was to watch stars like Debbie Reynolds, Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe struggle with addiction and mental illness.
The fact that women can even be accused of objectifying men is actually a huge progressive step forward. Until recently, the female sex drive was forcibly kept in the closet. Women couldn’t openly express desire or attraction without being shamed. They, ironically, were expected to be sexual objects without any inkling of sexuality (unless given permission by men).
Many men still feel the need to control women’s sexuality because it frightens them. This isn’t a statement about the character of individual men as much as it is about centuries of fear-mongering that dates as far back as depictions of Eve and Jezebel in the Bible. It’s been taught over and over again that female sexuality is manipulative and dangerous. As it becomes less OK to objectify women and more normalized to sexualize men, males often feel an impending sense of doom. A Buzzfeed compilation of “39 guys who’ll make you pregnant without even touching you” becomes a symbol of a feminist conspiracy to take over the world.
The development of females being able to openly talk about sex without judgment, not only in the public sphere, but even among close friends, is only a recent one. It was encouraged by the resurgence of feminism and the rise of media geared towards women. Candid female-oriented media outlets like Jezebel and Broadly discuss formerly taboo topics, while series like Girls exhibit realistic depictions of female sexuality. A new wave of outspoken comedians such as Amy Schumer, Chelsea Handler and Sarah Silverman have also brought female wants, needs and desires into the public sphere via comedic sets that seem less threatening when paired with a laugh track.
It’s telling that female sexuality is still so often obscured by comedy. Sitcoms and films deemed palatable for mass consumption that address the subject are rarely art house pieces or dramas. Rather, films like Trainwreck and Bridesmaids prevail. Even so-called objectification online takes the form of cutesy memes, like the Ryan Gosling “Hey Girl” meme, and tongue-in-cheek Tumblr posts like “the six stages of becoming a Cumberbitch” and “hot guys holding BB-8”. It’s indicative of a woman’s current status in the entertainment industry. It’s one in which they are still nervously testing the waters of expressing sexuality, shrouding their lust in the plausible deniability of humour. If they’re criticized or shamed, they can always say they were “just joking.”
Even the sudden rise of male objectification in advertising – commercials featuring shirtless studs in everything from cologne ads to national campaigns for Kraft’s Zesty Italian salad dressing – are presented in a kitschy manner that mocks itself with a tongue firmly planted in its cheek. These portrayals don’t validate women’s sexual desire, as much as turn it into a joke. In the public sphere, a woman lusting over a man still seems like an odd, fish-out-of-water scenario. Despite all the navel-gazing of male celebrities, women’s sexuality isn’t taken seriously, and that’s why male objectification isn’t as much of a threat. Men simply don’t share the same historical struggles or risks that women do when it comes to being objectified.
Male objectification isn’t threatening because men don’t suffer from a severe power imbalance that puts them at risk economically, socially and physically. Appreciating a man’s “smokin’ bod” doesn’t harm him in any way. In fact, it can actually serve the purpose of liberating women and their libidos.
The long history of the male gaze and men’s freedom to sexualize women without repercussions makes “doing the right thing” more complicated than simply applying the same rules to everyone. Men and women have such vastly different historical experiences with objectification that equality can’t be achieved by treating everyone equally. While men catcalling women on the street further distorts the gender imbalance, women sexualizing men actually evens the gender playing field.
And so until gender politics change radically, I say bring on the shirtless men!