Commentary

Why “But Men Are Objectified Too” Doesn’t Hold Up

The character Red Riot from My Hero Academia

Muscles literally as hard as a rock.

The hypersexualization and objectification of female characters is a major problem in storytelling.* Whether heroes or villains, female characters are often put in revealing or otherwise sexy costumes not because it makes sense for the story, but because it will presumably please straight cis men. This degrades women by treating them as sexual objects rather than individuals with agency. It’s also insulting to men, as it assumes we won’t watch or read a story without some titillation to help us along.

Unfortunately, whenever this topic comes up, someone will always try to claim it’s no big deal because men are objectified too. They’ll point to a shirtless Wolverine or to Superman with a painted-on costume and use it as evidence that everything is fine and there’s no need to change anything. This happens so often that we have no choice but to address it and explain why it’s not a good argument.

Male Characters Have More Variety

The sea monster crew of Davy Jones' ship. If Davy Jones had any women on his crew they’d probably be sexy dolphin-people.

The first thing to understand is that when it comes to a variety of looks and body types, male characters have it way better than their female counterparts. In novels and other written works, men can look like almost anything. Some literary male heroes are even, gasp, not conventionally attractive! Amazing. Meanwhile, even in the year 2020, it can be difficult to find novels where the women aren’t described in terms of how beautiful they are.

Even in less-diverse visual mediums, you’re far more likely to see men who are older, balding, chubby, asymmetric, or otherwise not the perfect picture of conventional attractiveness. In spec fic, we also get a lot of male characters who look like strange monsters, from Davy Jones and his squid face to Swamp Thing and his body made of moss.

Women, on the other hand, have to be all hotness, all the time. It’s everywhere. It’s so important for female characters to be attractive that actresses are often the same age as their characters’ sons. When we get female monsters, they’re almost always the sexy type of monster. You’ll notice that Poison Ivy is an attractive green woman, not a living pile of vines. Heck, they even turned Shelob, a giant spider, into a sexy humanoid woman for a recent video game adaptation. There are a handful of (mostly white) actresses with the starpower to get major roles despite being over 30, but that’s about it.

So when a male character is depicted as over-the-top sexy, we men have plenty of other characters to pick from. Women simply don’t have that luxury. It matters more when they see a female character getting objectified, and it’s false equivalency to bring up a male character or two who seem to be in a similar situation.

Power Dynamics Are Unequal

Toph holding up a collapsing cavern. The few characters like Avatar’s Toph bear all the burden of representing nontraditional heroines.

Speaking of false equivalencies, it’s our old friend, context. Stories don’t exist in a vacuum, and neither do the characters within them. Instead, these characters are part of the culture that created them, and that culture doesn’t treat women particularly well, to put it mildly.*

While being conventionally attractive has advantages no matter who you are, the pressure on women to look good is simply an order of magnitude higher than it is for men. Sometimes this manifests as official policies, like companies insisting in their dress code that women wear high heels to work. In other cases, it’s simply an unspoken assumption, where women who don’t spend hours on their appearance are described as “unkempt” or “unprofessional.”

Then of course, there’s the no-win scenario where women are expected to be sexually available but also never have sex because then they’d be sluts. Women are told they need to wear short skirts and low-cut tops in order to be appealing, then degraded for doing so. This rabbit hole never ends, if you were wondering. We can follow it to men feeling like they own their female relatives’ sexuality, or the epidemic of male bosses demanding sexual favors in the workplace.

The bottom line is that sexualized male characters don’t hurt men in real life. They don’t reinforce cultural tropes that devalue or degrade us for our appearance. Sexualized female characters, on the other hand, can cause real harm to real women. When female superheroes are displayed in sexy poses that are physically impossible, it reinforces the contradictory standards women are held to in real life. When scifi films find contrived reasons for the female crew to strip down, it furthers the idea that women exist to be sexy for men. The list goes on. There’s simply no equivalent for male characters.

Shirtless Hunks Are a Fantasy for Men

Captain America with absurdly developed chest muscles. So… sexy?

When someone brings up the idea of male characters also being objectified, they usually present it as a case of turnabout being fair play. Women get these gorgeous beefcakes to ogle, so why shouldn’t men get the same thing? This doesn’t address unequal power dynamics that result from a lack of character variety, but it still sounds reasonable at first.

Then you realize that many of these supposedly objectified male characters aren’t there for the women in the audience at all, but for the men. Some women do find them attractive, of course, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but as others have pointed out, there are a lot of traits that straight and bi women tend to find more attractive than hypermasculine pectoral muscles.

Instead, the Hugh Jackmans and Henry Cavills of the worlds are largely wish fulfillment for male viewers. We men are supposed to imagine being these overmuscled bodybuilders as they go on cool adventures. When storytellers want a guy to be attractive to women, they focus more on his emotional state than his jacked muscles. You can see this in action by watching or reading just about any story aimed primarily at a female audience, be it a YA romance or a romantic comedy.

If you want an even more obvious giveaway about who these muscly boys are for, take a look at the works they appear in. Superhero stories are the most obvious culprit, as they are full of lovingly detailed six-packs and have been marketed exclusively at men and boys until very recently. Shounen anime also has more than its fair share of shirtless dudes and is even more blatant about the audience it wants.

So let’s bury the idea bodybuilding male heroes are somehow a service for women. At best, it’s a naive misunderstanding of how stories are created, and at worst, it’s just a bad faith argument.

The Argument Is Whataboutism

Two cartoon Spider-Mans pointing at each other. No, it’s YOU who doesn’t care about objectification.

I’ve talked about whataboutism before, but in brief, it’s the practice of trying to excuse something by pointing out something else that’s completely unrelated. During the Cold War, the USSR would deflect criticisms of its human rights abuses by saying “But what about what America is doing?” America would then promptly return the favor, and both sides would build up their nuclear stockpile. It was an exciting time to be alive.

How does Cold War propaganda apply to arguments about fictional characters? Simple: even if male characters were being objectified in the same way that female characters are, that wouldn’t mean anything. The fact that there are also shirtless dudes in fiction has no bearing on the discussion of female characters being objectified. Better representation for women won’t affect how male characters dress.

If you’re someone who uses this argument and thinks that oversexualized male characters are bad, then we’re actually on the same side. Even though the abundance of ripped dudes isn’t equivalent to how female characters are treated, it can still get annoying. Never in my life have I looked anything like Ben Affleck’s Batman does after his grimdark crossfit workout, and I would love to see more male heroes with bodies closer to my own.

So if you’re actually upset by the way male characters are portrayed, there’s no reason to get into fights about female portrayals. Feminists aren’t out to create a never-ending parade of shredded Adonises. On the contrary, most of us would love to see fewer stories saying that men have to be violent and domineering to be truly masculine. That would be better for everyone, no matter their gender.

On the other hand, if you don’t actually care about the way male characters are portrayed or sexualized, then this argument simply means nothing. It’s a distraction technique, and a clumsy one at that. I recommend you stop using it, or you’ll find yourself looking more than a little silly.

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    Thanks for the article, Oren, I think it really was needed.

    I’d also like to add that, opposite to Shonen anime/manga, the Shojo variety (aimed at girls/women) feartures relatively few bare-chested guys. If guys are taking off their shirt there, it’s usually for storytelling reasons (such as getting injuries treated or being at the pool where few people wear a complete set of clothes). Women also are not show naked or mostly naked in those without good reason. Most of the time, the male characters also are much less extreme in build in a Shojo story.

    When it comes to those bare-chested guys, I think women enjoying the view is mostly an added bonus. It’s not why those guys are shirtless or the whole way the scenes are filmed or framed (in a comic/manga) would be different.

  2. Jeppsson

    I think in lots of cases, muscular shirtless dudes are meant to be BOTH power fantasies and sex objects. The latter isn’t completely accidental on part of movie studios etc.; rather, they consciously plan to appeal to as many people as possible in order to make the most money possible. These kind of Aquaman jokes for instance, https://newsthump.com/2019/01/14/kids-left-wondering-why-mum-is-so-determined-to-take-them-to-see-aquaman/ that came both in the form of articles and loads of memes – they really were all over the internet during the premiere, and I’m pretty sure the studio had a hand in it.

    Also, isn’t it super common for books aimed at a female audience to have a shirtless muscular dude on the cover? Like, there are these joke memes where someone put a sign saying “men who lost their shirts” in a book store over the original one saying “romance” or “paranormal romance”, because all the covers feature precisely that.

    This isn’t meant to be some big criticism of the article. All the main points about objectification in media still hold.

    • Cay Reet

      Yes, romance novels, especially historical or supernatural romance, often have a shirtless dude on the cover – here, it’s clearly pandering to women, so the women on the cover are better dressed (not much in some cases, though) and the men look sexually attractive. It’s clearly meant to be an eye-catcher. Still, the men are not in poses which would be painful to impossible in real life, unlike many female superheroes on covers.

      Funnily enough, Erotica, although also a genre for women at least as much if not more than men, usually feature the women in less clothes than the men again.

      • Sam Victors

        “Funnily enough, Erotica, although also a genre for women at least as much if not more than men, usually feature the women in less clothes than the men again”

        I wonder if some female erotica writers have internalized the male gaze.

        • Cay Reet

          The may have. Alternately, they may simply show the women less inhibited, more ready to own their own sexuality.

          • Dernhelm

            I’m not so sure about that, just look at the fact that men don’t need to take off their clothes to be considered sexual or sexy. It all boils down to the idea that women’s sexuality revolves around making themselves sexy for men (and women “shouldn’t” want to gaze at naked men), which many women end up internalizing, because that imagery is everywhere.

            Meanwhile, fully naked men are considered so taboo (because they make insecure straight male viewers uncomfortable) that they’re virtually non existent outside straight-up porn and people lose their mind over an adult TV-show showing one example of male frontal nudity for a few seconds in the background while there’s dozens of naked women and bare breasts are practically mandatory.

          • Cay Reet

            Well, I’m also reading Male/Male erotica and there, men usually are at least partially dressed on the covers as well.

            Our society, as you point out, doesn’t allow for frontal nudity for men, but frontal nudity for women is allowed. One could argue that a man’s primary sexual organ is just that much clearer to see (because it’s external, unlike a woman’s). It’s down to the laws, though, which evolve a lot slower than society. Full frontal nudity of a man is considered pornographic (unless you can prove that it’s art, which is hard for covers), full frontal nudity of a woman is not quite considered the same way (but there are countries even in the so-called ‘western world’ where it’s not legal and a woman’s crotch has to be at least shadowed).

            Erotica usually don’t show women naked, either, by the way, but they might be dressed in lingerie while men wear a suit (which is sexy to women, though).

          • Dernhelm

            (couldn’t find the reply bottom on the comment below) I think the argument that the male parts are more visible is pretty silly, considering that in many societies such as ancient Greece and Rome, male nudity was accepted in public gyms and the like, and for most of western history male nudity was more accepted than female nudity, so the double standard clearly has nothing to do with physical differences but is entirely down to cultural norms.

            I also wanted to point out how normalized female objectification and partial or implied nudity has become that many don’t even think about it. Just looking at how you casually compared a man in a suit to a woman in lingerie, which I don’t think are equivalent at all, since a suit may look sexy, but you can still do things in public wearing a suit, but it’d be practically impossible for a woman in lingerie to hold a business meeting and be taken seriously. To me, the feminine equivalent to a suit would be a tight black dress or similar (which many men find sexy too), and the masculine equivalent to lingerie would be a guy in his underpants, but sexual objectification has been so normalized that many people don’t even think about how weird it is to see a fully clothed man and a woman in her underwear in the same situation, which only reinforces the notion that a man is sexy as a person first and foremost, but all that matters in a woman is how her body looks and her willingness to show it off.

          • Cay Reet

            A guy in briefs, providing the woman finds his body type sexy, is surely more sexy than a guy in a suit, yes.

            However, since women are less used to seeing men with little to no clothing, the sexiness of a suit is higher than the sexiness of a dress the other way around – just as for someone in a society where women wear long dresses, the sight of an ankle can be very sexy, despite the ankle not really being a sexual body part under normal circumstances. If there were as many female-gaze-y pictures of naked men around, then it would certainly be different. As it is, a man in a suit is sexy to women.

          • Dernhelm

            I’m not sure about a revealing dress being less attractive to straight men than a man in a suit to women, considering that there are a lot of characters like pre-reboot Lara Croft, Bond-girls and Jessica Rabbit that have been portrayed in revealing yet publicly acceptable dresses and had a large number of male fans considering them sexy.

            My point still stands that they’re not social or cultural equivalents, since you can work and be taken seriously in public in a suit but not in lingerie. Furthermore, a suit itself isn’t designed to be sexy to women first and foremost, it’s designed to be a flattering yet utilitarian attire for white-collar work that only became considered sexy due to being associated with handsome rich men after it’s conception, whereas most lingerie of the kind shown on erotica covers aren’t even useful for sleepwear and has no real purpose outside of being sexy to men first and foremost.

            Personally, I just feel that your comparing of a man in a suit to a woman in lingerie is starting to feel a bit too similar to the whole argument about male characters designed to look powerful being a fair equivalent to female characters designed to look sexy than I’m comfortable with.

          • Cay Reet

            We’re talking on cross-purposes there.

            You have yourself agreed that women in revealing clothing are more common in public settings (usually not in person, but on posters and advertising) than men. So seeing a woman wearing little is not uncommon for people, we see that from early on whenever we’re outside or watching TV or the ads before a movie in the theatre. So more revealing clothing on a woman is much more common to people than the same level of revealing clothing on men.

            Yes, a man can go out in a suit whereas a woman going out in lingerie is probably going to run into problems with the law (unless it’s in a very defined situation such as a photo shooting in a public place), but that is not why men find women in lingerie sexy or are turned on by them. There are people who are turned on by women in pantyhose or women in high heels – both is certainly not forbidden in a public setting. Depending on the setting, both might be expected.

            What is considered ‘sexy’ and what is not, is to a degree due to social norms. A woman wearing hardly more than underwear (such as a tight, black dress which leaves little about her body-shape to fantasy) is far more common than a man wearing something equally-revealing. There are cultures where breasts are highly sexualized and need to be covered, wheras in other cultures, a breast is nothing special and is not covered. What we conceive as sexy is a cultural and social norm much more than a biological one.

            A suit, even if not cut to make a man look ‘sexy’, is nevertheless cut to make a man look manly. It emphasizes shoulders (usually padded, always squared), narrower waist (even when it’s cheated by making the shoulders wider), and the length of the legs. It puts emphasis on what makes a man biologically desirable for a woman – strength (shoulder) and endurance (waist, bottom, and, especially, long legs), the abilities to survive and provide. The same way the classic ‘hourglass’ figure, which many cuts for women over time have emphasized, makes a woman desirable for a man: a certain size of breasts for feeding offspring, wide hips to make birth easier, and narrow waist, which means she’s not pregnant at the moment.

            Those are actually biological markers which have nothing to do with society – you can ask a man or woman from a completely different cultures and their ‘preferred body type’ will be similar. Individually, the extent of the type may vary – muscle tonus, size of breasts or hips, height. All of that is not 100% the same, but the overall shape is, nevertheless, sometimes a little heavier, sometimes a little lighter, but the proportions will be similar.

            To summarize: what we consider sexy is very dependent on what we see regularly. If we saw oodles of men in briefs and spandex in public, whether really or on pictures, we’d consider that the sexy look. But advertising very often shows men in suits and women in lingerie and that is how we perceive lingerie as sexy on women and suits as sexy on men.
            Visually pleasing or ‘sexy to look at’ is, however, not the same as desirable on a biological level. That isn’t even tied to seeing primary or secondary sexual organs, but a body shape which suggests that mating can be successful (since both are healthy) and the offspring will be strong (again, healthy plays a role here).

          • Dernhelm

            Good that we can both agree that the amount of covered/uncovered skin that’s acceptable for men and women in public is due to societal norms, however, I find your way of bringing biology into this to be massively problematic.

            I’ve seen the exact same evopsych arguments on what makes a man or woman attractive on a “biological” level before, by regressive dudebros in the YouTube comment section, and I’m disappointed to see them made here in a progressive space. Not only do I find talk of men being “naturally” attracted to big breasts and women “naturally” attracted to strong and dominant men to be rather dehumanizing (and it has been used as an excuse to oppress women and gender-nonconforming people and paint anyone not following gendered stereotypes as defective), but it has no more scientific basis than phrenology.

            As a history buff literally raised by archaeologists I can tell you that beauty ideals across the world only started to look identical after the birth of global mass media, and before then beauty ideals have varied immensely. Just to name a few examples, the Venus of Willendorf figurine and the great number of similar neolithic figures depict obese women without a hint of an hourglass shape, in feudal Japan women would flatten their breasts to look more attractive and achieve a spool-shaped body, and for much of European history women’s dresses had poofy sleeves in order to make their shoulders look as broad as possible. Likewise, the male ideal have been just as varied and just looking at Europe, a great deal of men’s fashion included wide coattails and tight waistlines that would empathize their hips in a way deemed feminine today. Even such a basic idea as being biologically attracted to “health” would turn out to be bunk if you look at all the massively unhealthy trends throughout history and fashion that would make the wearer’s body look straight-up disfigured, and I could easily come up with a dozen more examples. During the Victorian times there was even a period where tuberculosis was considered beautiful!

            Also, the idea of larger breasts giving more milk is a complete load of BS made up by creepy dudes who wanted an excuse to objectify women’s breasts and I’m surprised people still believe it. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/272458326_The_Relationship_between_Breast_Size_and_Breast_Milk_Volume_of_Nursing_Primipara

            If you want to debate social norms that’s fine, but I do hope you’ll pause and think about the implications before bringing biology into it.

          • Cay Reet

            As the child of two archaeologists, you should be aware that the old ‘venus’ figures show pregnant women. Whether they were made by others to protect pregnant women or, as some scientists suspect today, by pregnant women doesn’t change that fact.

            Let’s stay with society, then. What is considered sexy is down to social norms, I’m sure we can agree on that part. Since most men in advertising (which shapes our ideas of desirable people, whether we want it to or not) are wearing suits and a lot of women wear not a lot at all (though the nipples and the groin are usually covered), to women a man can look very desirable in a suit. He can look sexy without revealing that much skin. Just as in a society where women cover most of their body the whole time, a bare ankle or a bare arm can be considered sexy or scandalous. That’s what the Can-Can did: the women were showing their underwear to men at a time at which most women did hardly show their ankles, let alone knees or panties. (And, yes, the Can-Can is far more than just flashing your undies, it was a very athletic dance to do, but that is what people were watching it for, too.)

            If you look at the depiction of men with less skin, such as historical romance novel covers (also others, but it’s very common there), you will find that while the man is often bare-chested and sometimes also bare-legged, the position of him and the woman has him standing with her, more often than not, in his arms. He might flash more skin (depending on the period setting and the regular dress for women then), but he’s in control of the situation while the woman is suspended in his arms. Saying that in that case he’s more objectified than her, is dubitable.

            A bare-chested, muscular man is attractive, no question about that (how much you’re drawn to which mass of muscles in another question). The way he’s shown, though, is not to make him merely an object for the viewer. He still has control of the situation he’s in.

            And to come back to why women are dressed in less on Erotica covers: Maybe it’s just to sell more books. Maybe it’s because Erotica is often considered porn by the publishers (and what would porn be without mostly naked women on the cover?). Maybe it’s because those women are comfortable in their skin. Chances are it’s not the last ‘maybe,’ yes, but I’d like to see more sex positivity when it comes to women in general, and that includes being comfortable in their own skin.

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            Hey folks, just putting my editor’s hat on for a moment. While deep discussions of attraction and gender are more than welcome here, I wanted to remind you that from reading your comments, it’s not clear to me that you actually disagree about anything important. Just keep that in mind going forward.

          • Dernhelm

            Hi Oren!
            Reading your comment, I get what you mean and looking back I admit that I don’t feel this discussion has given me much in the latest comments.

            Cay Reet, I am indeed aware that the Venus figures do show signs of pregnancy, but they also have traits of obesity and the most common interpretation is of pregnant women who are also heavyset, just clarifying that part. But I don’t feel I have anything else meaningful to add and don’t feel this conversation is going anywhere, but if you feel differently let me know.

          • Cay Reet

            Hi Dernhelm!

            I could have laid out that beauty ideals have more to do with fashion than with actual sexual attraction, but I also doubt that it would add anything to the discussion, so let’s end this here.

          • Dernhelm

            Very well, and thank you for ending the conversation nicely!

  3. Jeppsson

    Also, really good point about “whataboutism”.

    I have a friend who’s a personal trainer, and talks about how weird body image issues seem to be getting more common among men. He’s a little older and has been in the fitness world for many decades now, and he says the following is a pretty recent problem: Man hires him to get big and muscular. Man starts on a work-out regime, but nothing happens. Muscles don’t grow. Turns out, eventually, that the man in question isn’t eating enough for this kind of work-out schedule, because although he wants to have big muscles, he’s really scared of gaining FAT. Often, these guys don’t realize that male actors playing superheroes in movies first bulk up, THEN diet their body fat away, THEN often become consciously dehydrated etc in order to “shrink the skin” and accentuate the muscles even further before shooting shirtless scenes – and it’s just an unrealistic goal for a regular person to look like that.

    This is absolutely worth discussing about men, personal trainers etc, but that does not in any way diminish the issues with female beauty ideals. Plus, EVEN IF (this isn’t the case, but EVEN IF) men and women were under equal pressure to look hot all the time, the right conclusion to draw is that we must ease the pressure on everyone, not that a situation where everyone suffers is fine because it’s equal.

    • Innocent Bystander

      This.

      It’s like when “Moana” came out and people were saying that Maui was fat because he didn’t look muscular. The truth was that his build was designed with functional musculature in mind. In fact, Dwayne Johnson has once remarked that Maui looked a lot like his grandfather, who had been a wrestler (actual sport wrestler, not WWE wrestler).

      • Cay Reet

        Yep. For me, it was clear from the beginning that Maui was an extremely strong guy. His whole build was designed to show that he wasn’t just showing off muscles, but really strong and used to using his strength.

        We have a totally wrong picture of what a muscular, strong man really looks like.

      • Pearl

        people think Maui looks fat?

  4. Laura Ess

    Never seen the original AVATAR but I have seen THE LEGEND OF KORRA. In that most of the protagonists are women, and men try hard to be better, or are silly (if clever) fops. But it’s probably too little too late.

  5. LazerRobot

    Thanks for this. You put into words some of the things that I feel but struggle to explain myself.

    Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is one of my favorite movies, but last time I watched it I noticed something that bugged me. Why are all the Ravagers men? Then I realized it’s probably because they’re “ugly” and god forbid they have unsexy women on screen.

    In the same vein, when they go to Contraxia, all the weird sexy robot prostitutes are female. I mean, surely some of the male crew members would prefer same-sex robot prostitutes, but aside from that, it also doesn’t account for any (straight) women living the Ravager lifestyle who might want a sexy male robot to kill some time with.

    Basically, is robot prostitute feminism really too much to ask for?!

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      You’re very welcome, I’m glad you enjoyed it!

    • Alverant

      Not just Ravagers. Stormtroopers (with one exception) and in general lackeys, cannon-fodder, and henchMEN tend to be male. Perhaps the first henchWOMAN was Harly Quinn from Batman TAS and we know what happened with her.

      The only time I’ve seen female minions are in the MMO City of Heroes near the end of its initial life. Some of the groups like Circle of Thorns opened up their Guide ranks to women. I think the Skulls did too.

      • Cay Reet

        There’s a story in Arthurian legends about Lancelot being caught and imprisoned and guarded by henchwomen. Which, considering we’re talking about Lancelot here, is of course very much like handing him the key and a map of the stronghold.

  6. Gwen

    I agree with your article as a whole but think you may miss something else. Because of how beauty is a core cultural pressure for women, women want to be beautiful and are drawn to “sexy” women in stories for a similar reason guys like buff men in their media.

    I am a very masculine woman who has never cared about my appearance and it is the women in my life who have been most bothered by it. Sisters, mother, aunts worry about my future, while male relatives have little to say or care. My female relatives aren’t malicious, but feel genuine concern, because to them, beauty is a major standard for happiness.

    Women are taught their worth is their appearance and they are far more critical on media portrayals on unsexy women because it often stretches their credulity on whether such a person could succeed.

    This isn’t to say women are at fault for our own objectification. We aren’t. But most women don’t want to see themselves in an “ugly” women anymore than most men want to see themselves in a cowardly man, especially if they fear it is true.

    If you spend hours making yourself beautiful to fit in, you might resent and find unbelievable a woman who does not and still succeeds. It makes it feel like the hours are pointless, and even a mocking of their own hard work and values. So while “sexiness” is for men, “beauty” is for women.

    I think we are just getting to a point where women can be not pretty but its tentative. I need these characters to be more accepted, and hope women can see them as a viable option.

    • Jeppsson

      Related to what you say, I remember Patty Jenkins explaining in an interview why all of the Amazons at Paradise Island strut around in high heels. She said it’s because it’s a female fantasy to have long beautiful legs, and explicitly compared it to the male fantasy of being big and strong.

      Also, loads of books aimed at girls/women make a point of telling us that the heroine is so curvy, has got big boobs, even as she’s super slim, etc. She’s not SLUTTY, not like those mean sluts the hero will dismiss in favour of the heroine, but the narrative will still make a point of how she conforms to society’s beauty standards and how all men drool over her.

    • Cay Reet

      One big problem with ‘beauty’ for women is that over the course of the last twenty or thirty years, the definition of ‘beauty’ has shrunk down considerably. A beautiful woman from the 1980s would probably called be fat today and laughed at for her hairstyle and clothing (okay, that part is understandable, I look at pictures of myself from the eighties and think ‘how could you?’ too). There were a lot more body types considered attractive around in the past, by now we’re basically down to ‘size zero, but with boobs’ which isn’t easily attainable for most women.

      Yes, most women have internalized that a woman needs to be beautiful to be successful, but a way to break up that idea is to show a wider range of women, not to narrow down the looks for men as well. I’ve never fit with that idea of beauty myself, so I know what it is like when others (in my case especially my mum) try to make you conform to an idea you’re not sold on or care for yourself.

      In addition, a lot of female characters in media have little actual character, an agency spun around the male lead, and can sometimes not even pass the ‘sexy lamp’ test successfully (would the story change if character X was replaced by a sexy lamp? in case you’re not familiar with that test). It would already help with not objectifying them if they had more depth, but depth is often abandoned in favour of sexiness – which only leads to more objectivication.

  7. bees

    “female characters are often put in revealing or otherwise sexy costumes not because it makes sense for the story, but because it will presumably please straight cis men.”

    Pardon if I missed something, but I don’t understand why it’s clarified that this is for straight /cis/ men. Is there need for exclusion here? I’m sure straight trans men can be as pleased by these scantly clad women as cis men. They are, after all, straight men.

    • Silverware

      I think it’s because straight trans men are also a marginalized group and while they may like what they see, the decisions are made by and for more privileged group of cis men.

      • bees

        That’s what I presumed was the intention, but if that’s the case one would also specify, say, white, abled, neurotypical, thin people. Decisions like women in revealing costumes are made by them and with them as much in mind. The male gaze is all about how /straight men/ view women, per definition. We don’t often list every privilege when it’s not directly relevant because that’s impractical.

        All straight men are in position to gain from heterosexism and sexism, even when race/disability/etc. interferes with that. There are much better ways to express the intersectionality of these issues, and using cis here in the absence of anything else makes me uncomfortable. It’s not just a buzzword.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        To clarify, I included the “cis” qualifier because the male gaze is specifically tailored with straight cis men in mind. Trans men, whatever their orientation, often have a very different experience that I am not qualified to speak on. While there maybe be other differences across various marked states like race or ability, they are typically similar enough to be discussed at the same time.

        • Jeppsson

          This one is a little tricky, I think.

          I think these depictions are taylored with “men” in mind. Like, creators think “wow, this is gonna look hot to the dudes in the audience” – they don’t add, in their head, “and by ‘dude’, I obviously include trans men as well”, but neither do they think “and by ‘dude’, I think of cis men only”. They just think “men”.

          I see a lot of “cis” qualifiers in feminist spaces where people take pains to stress that cis men are the oppressors, cis men are patriarchy’s bad guys, we’re creating this separatist space where cis men aren’t allowed but everyone else is, etc etc. And how trans men feel about that really varies, in my experience. On the one hand, they get to belong to “the good guys”. On the other hand, it’s sort of implied they’re all a bunch of quasi-women.

          Of course, you might feel differently about female objectification when you’ve personally experienced being seen as a girl/woman by others. On the other hand, if nowadays you “pass” as a man and are treated as such, this is gonna affect you too; we keep developing our whole lives.

          IDK, I think I agree with Bee, “cis” was a little unnecessary here, but I understand where you were coming from.

        • bees

          “Trans men, whatever their orientation, often have a very different experience that I am not qualified to speak on.”

          Then please, please don’t. As you don’t have experience with being trans, you cannot say that this is a “marked state” so different as to warrant a disclaimer. That sounds iffy to me, and contradicts what you just said. Again, it looks like you’re implying straight men are only straight men, and share experience with other straight men, when they’re cis.

          Re. the male gaze being tailored for straight /cis/ men: Trans people are no more on the minds of filmmakers than e.g. disabled people are (another group that commonly gets objectified and is grossly underrepresented). But “straight /abled/ men” would sound just as unnecessary. Whatever experiences both groups might have from their own objectification is extremely individual, and doesn’t mean they’re any less straight men, with the privilege that comes with it. It’s only tricky if we let it be.

          The assumption that trans people’s attractions and sexual orientation somehow differ from cis people’s is transphobic. We can’t be intersectional and inclusive if we let our assumptions affect our activism, and I don’t want to get into my own identities but the way you’ve worded this really doesn’t sit right with me. I ask you to please consider this before excluding a whole group of people from these discussions, the implications come with a lot of baggage.

          • Cay Reet

            I think it’s more of a point that the makers don’t go ahead and consider trans men when they create objectified women. Thus the regular male gaze is tailored to what the average male (the white, straight standard dude) is most likely to find sexy. That might vary between cis men as well, since not all cis men have the same preferences in that direction, either.

          • bees

            As I already wrote, there’s no reason why this should be more important than the fact that they don’t consider disabled men, or men of colour, etc. Words mean things, and you say something with what you choose not to say.

            If you (the general you) think it’s more important to exclude trans people than other relevant groups, then you should consider why. Announcing “but not /trans/ people” here at the failure of everything else just keeps up a tradition of othering and invalidation. I really don’t like how this has become a norm in so many feminist/progressive spaces, and it’s really exhausting for me to engage in discussions like these with people I expect to be allies. I’m not just being pedantic.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Editor’s Note: Okay folks, Bees has explained their issue with this post, and I have explained my reasoning. I don’t plan to change the post, but we don’t need any more attempts to change Bees’ mind. Further comments along those lines will be deleted.

      • bees

        Apologies if you don’t want me replying more in regards to this. This is my last comment. I didn’t want to pull any trans cards (I don’t use that word for myself), but I’m not cis. I’ve been trying to argue from my lived perspective. When I try explaining to people the discussion is shut down. I found this a strange conclusion.

        I am grateful you don’t want me debated into oblivion, but that wasn’t the problem. My frustration comes from progressive sites that use “cis” to inadvertently exclude and invalidate trans people, and more so having my experiences explained to me by cis people. Trans people just want to be viewed and treated as who they are, and /only they/ can speak for how being trans affects them and their lives, and how different this is from being poc/disabled/queer/etc.

        It’s one single word in the article, that in my opinion and experience lacks factual basis (esp. per definition the male gaze), and that doesn’t make sense in an intersectional context because of the lack mention of other equally disregarded and oppressed identities. It wasn’t my intention to blow this out of proportion, but I want you to understand where I’m coming from and why this and the response made me uncomfortable.

        I can’t make you change your mind, nor your preconceptions about trans people, but I really hope you see where I’m coming from.

  8. Quirhel

    I also noticed from myself that I assume female characters to be young and female by default, and wonder whether this is common and if it is, how to show in the novel that female character doesn’t look as she is expected to look?

    Also wonder about “elven immortality”/”angelic beauty” tropes, basically, elves always looking young, and angels and goddesses being supposed to look beautiful. Can this be problematic?

    • Cay Reet

      We mostly assume that immortal people are young, because growing older means physical weaknesses. Since immortality is wish fulfilment to a degree, we want the immortals to be in the prime of their lives for eternity, which means ‘young and healthy’ – and not just for female elves.

      Angels are supposed to be beautiful (but usually male), because they’re heavenly beings. Just as demons/devils are supposed to be ugly, angels are supposed to be beautiful.

      Not only goddesses are normally supposed to be beautiful/attractive, gods are also supposed to be attractive. Here again, we have the principle that god=perfection=attractiveness. There are exceptions (like Hephaestus with his crippled legs) and there are pantheons where gods are not necessarily attractive, although not in the European pantheons.

  9. Alverant

    It’s a good article. One additional reason is that female sexuality is often culturally seen as weak while male sexuality is often seen as strong. Literally strong in some cases like big muscles on men. Being strong means you can do things like keep a helicopter from leaving (MCU Captian America 2). It enables a person to be proactive against a perceived threat. Meanwhile, female sexuality often revolves around domestic life or being the object of lust. Physically strong female characters (Wonder Woman and She Hulk) aren’t portrayed with the muscles their male counterparts have because it wouldn’t be considered “sexy”.

  10. Dernhelm

    Thank you for writing this article!
    If I had a penny for every time dudes have told me that men who can best be described as steroid monsters are sexy to women, I’d be the next Bill Gates. Seriously, why is it so hard for men to get that most women don’t want men who’d accidentally pulverize their spine if they tried to embrace them?

    Regarding the Men have more variety point, another double standard that has irked me greatly and that I wish you’d cover is the Sameface-syndrome, where all the men in a cartoon get to have different facial features that distinguish them from one another and reflect their character, but all women have the same heartshaped-face-with-giant-eyes-and-tiny-nose-and-mouth formula and would be indistinguishable from one another if they didn’t have different haircuts. This is most notable in Disney films, where the male heroes have visibly evolved from the generic Disney princes, but all Disney princesses have exactly the same face with only minor tweaks to them.

    It just irks me that most would agree that giving different faces to all white characters, but identical stereotypical faces to black characters, would be kind of racist, but so many are completely oblivious to the sexist double standard of giving all female characters the same Disney-princess face.
    This post explains it pretty well: https://turbomun.tumblr.com/post/80012362197/sameface-syndrome-and-other-stories

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      You’re very welcome, I’m glad you liked the post! The issue with face variety is certainly frustrating as well, especially with how many video game developers claim that female characters are too hard to animate.

    • Cay Reet

      And there’s me thinking for years it was just me getting older thinking all those animated girls looked the same…

      The beauty standard for women has become so narrow – you just need to look at TV series (or movies) from the 80s or 90s to see that. The women there had a lot more body diversity and diversity in styles and looks than the women today. Go back even further and you will find even more diverse types (at least as long as they’re white – yep, there’s that when you go towards 60s, 50s, and earlier).

      • Dernhelm

        Indeed, and personally I find lack of facial diversity in female characters even worse than lack of bodily diversity, because so much of human communication is done with the face, to the point humans are automatically evolved to see faces in random shapes and patterns because reading faces is just that important to our species, so when all male characters faces look individual and reflect their age and personality but all the faces of the female characters looks nigh identical and are designed solely to look pretty, what does that say about the creators view on women?

  11. Dernhelm

    I just want to say that this is a great article, I’m really sick of hearing dudes claiming that shirtless muscle men are meant to be sexy to women, because to most, they’re not (and for me at least many of those characters look more like something out of a PSA on the dangers of steroid abuse than anything else), and even if a few women do find some of the examples attractive, the muscle guys aren’t objectified to the point they lose all dignity or believability as characters.

    I can think of dozens of female characters dressed in ridiculous lingerie for serious situations, but I can’t think of a single male character running into combat in sexy underwear unless it’s supposed to be a joke.

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