One of the things that I like to show friends is the Tumblr page Wtf Bad Romance Covers which is filled with tacky and camp covers of Candlelight Novels. Every Thursday is “Objectified Scotsmen Thursday” and on this wonderful day the blog delights its followers with cheap covers with entertainingly awkwardly posing “Scottish” hunks, because, apparently, Scotsmen are THE most valuable player when it comes to romance novels. Naturally, the page – as well as my interest – is completely ironic, just like the Hunky Gladiator Calendar which me and my friend bought in Rome with great hilarity and low key disapproval from the Pakistani shopkeeper (we bought five). Yet, as a feminist and someone who always cringes and rolls her eyes whenever women are objectified on TV, in advertisements, or in movies, I cannot help but sense a certain level of hypocrisy in condemning the sexual objectification of women on the one hand, and, to some extent, celebrating/ enjoying the objectification of men on the other hand (as ironic as it may be). So what is the issue here?
The term objectification refers to the act of treating a person as an object ready to fulfil your own (sexual) desires. In our western capitalist and consumerist society this practice of objectification is repeatedly employed in the media because, as we all know, sex sells. Hence the massive popularity of the naked dancing girls in Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines. Hence the immense female (and male) craze over the Magic Mike movies. The thing they both have in common is that these incredibly attractive bodies are offered to the public as if they are merely there to be consumed. That is, I bought the Hunky Gladiator Calendar not because it was useful or because I needed it, but because I liked the half-naked dude on the cover with the sword and the (not so historically correct) Native-American girl tattoo.
So I objectified a man (twelve actually) and to be honest I did not feel bad about it. “Just one instance against hundreds of years of the structural objectification of women,” I thought. “I could objectify an entire phalanx of hunky gladiators and it still wouldn’t be the same.” As shallow and crude as this may sound it is true in a way; a man’s physical appearance does not define him as much and in the same way as a women’s appearance defines her. Whereas television and movies are filled with both average and good-looking, both young and old, men, women generally have to be attractive and seem to magically disappear when they hit their forties; “[men] could be a hundred with, like, nothing but white spiders coming out, but they’re fuckable,” Amy Schumer comments in her sketch The Last Fuckable Day. So my Hunky Gladiator Calendar is just one instance against an entire system of sexism. It’s just not the same. It is similar to the reverse racism fallacy; it just doesn’t exist because white people have not experienced the same systematic social oppression and discrimination as black people (continue to) have.
But, hold your feminist horses, because I believe that a shift is happening. It is true that men are not objectified in the same way and to the same extent as women, but there is a more frequently occurring role reversal whereby men more often become the object rather than the subject of sexual objectification leading to an increasing focus on men’s bodies. From Magic Mike to Calvin Klein ads, the male nude is undergoing a cultural renaissance.
So where does this shift come from? Feminist authors Christina Hoff Sommers1 and Naomi Wolf2 argue that women’s sexual liberation turned the tables, especially during the girl power era in the 1990s and early 2000s. I remember an episode from Sex and the City (created in the midst of the girl power era) where Samantha shamelessly declares “I’ve never been friends with men. Women are for friendships, men are for fucking.” At the same time, Sunny Bergman writes in Sletvrees3 that among the gay community men experience an increasing pressure to fulfil the (gay) beauty standards. So with the emancipation of both women and homosexual men came a role reversal where men began to become more and more objectified and started to find themselves on calendars dressed as gladiators, or on book covers, half naked, pretending to be Scottish, under embarrassingly wrong titles such as Seduced by the Laird.
So the results of the increasing objectification of men are starting to show; men are starting to become more and more conscious about their appearance. A few weeks ago, I spoke an old classmate who explained me his, in my eyes, ridiculous diet. He called it “bulking” which basically comes down to eating MacDonald’s for three months straight and then spending the last five months up to summer in the gym turning all the gained fat into muscles, eating a litre of Icelandic yoghurt per day. This bizarre lifestyle reminded me of the ridiculous diet tips and tricks women’s magazines often promote. I used to think that going to extreme lengths for the sake of beauty was a women’s thing but the pressure of looking thin and fit has apparently also reached the mind of several men.
Poor men. How I feel for you. I feel you are just a few steps removed from street ads where two nicely dressed women in fancy suits slide down your tight naked butt cheeks. But let’s put the shenanigans aside and acknowledge that the objectification of both women and men is a real thing that is immensely complex. Social power dynamics and the fact that men and women do not have the same social position adds many dimensions and angles from which we can approach this topic. So I will not be telling you what you should do. I myself tried to google the objectified Scotsman hoping that I could give their bodies an identity but I couldn’t find anything. I was hoping to find out that after his book cover adventure he started working at a bookshop and now lives in a nice flat in Edinburgh with his girlfriend or boyfriend and a Yorkshire terrier. Because I figured that unveiling the mystery behind the body could be a way to de-objectify the Scotsmen; realising that behind the bland and naked body there is a face, an identity, a voice that may not be sensual as I fantasised about. I know that Channing Tatum does this too. Apart from showing off his abs in Magic Mike, he is a master at ridiculing his ‘ultimate hunk’ status. By his performances as Suzie in the Ew sketch with Jimmy Fallon and his fabulous version of Let it Go in Lip Synch Battle, he demystifies his hunkiness, using his body to create satire and ridicule rather than just sex. By this he de-objectifies himself showing the world that he is not just a body, only human.
1Sommers, Christina. Who stole feminism? How women have betrayed women. New York: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1995.
2Wolf, Naomi. Fire with fire: the new female power and how to use it. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1994.
3Bergman, Sunny. Sletvrees. Amsterdam: Nijgh en van Ditmar, 2013.