I’ve found myself split before on the topic of male objectification, for the simple reason that men and women don’t occupy equivalent positions of power. When advertisers and filmmakers present women as sexual objects, those representations exist in a world where women are disadvantaged socially, professionally, and politically. Sexualized images of women contribute to an overall pattern of oppression. Sexualized images of men don’t have that same context.
Marketers often assume that women aren’t interested in sexual images of men, because they supposedly don’t have sexual appetites as voracious as men’s. So when men are presented as sexual objects, it is in some way empowering for women—they get to play the role of the consumer for once, rather than the consumed.
A great example of this is the movie Magic Mike, which was aggressively marketed towards women in the hopes that they would turn out in droves to see Channing Tatum and other studs writhe naked on a stage. And guess what? They did.
I went to see the movie with some friends, and I don’t think any of us knew anything about the actual story premise beforehand. (I could pretend I went to do serious, academic analysis, but let’s be real here, the cast included Matt Bomer, a man so attractive he’s been banned from prisons because you could use his cheekbones to file through the bars. Probably. I’m assuming.) “I guess you and I are the only men in here, then,” said one guy in the theater to another, to whoops and cheers from the rest of the audience. On its opening weekend, the movie was second in box office sales, and has made over $90 million to date.
This is a marketing strategy often done with the genders flipped. It is generally assumed that men will turn out to see a movie that has hot women in it, but it’s new and different to have women’s most basic tastes and desires catered to shamelessly. The fact that it worked sends a message that it is a worthwhile strategy to cater specifically to heterosexual women, which is a great message for Hollywood to hear.
And honestly, while watching this movie, it felt so fun to get to enjoy those moments of gratuitous sexualization—scanty clothing, self-groping, etc.—that I would have rolled my eyes at in disgust if they had involved female characters. (To be clear, I’m also attracted to women—I would even say primarily attracted to women—but perpetuating the patriarchy just doesn’t do it for me.)
Unfortunately, it’s just not that simple. For one thing, Magic Mike suffers from the problem that plagues all those sexualized movies marketed to men—it presents the viewer with an extremely limited choice. There is only one body type allowed to be hot and sexual in that movie, and it’s tanned and muscular. Not all straight women are attracted to that look, and it’s not fair to people of any gender to suggest that they are. Women who aren’t interested in Channing Tatum’s body type don’t get their tastes catered to, and men who don’t look like Channing Tatum are made to feel inferior.
And yes, men’s feelings are important here. Male body-insecurity is on the rise, and with it, men with eating disorders. It’s still much more acceptable for men to have a variety of different body types than for women, but the pressure is rising. It’s rare these days to see a man in a leading role without a rippling six-pack and bicep bulges the size of watermelons. It’s troubling for anyone to be told there is only one acceptable way for their body to be considered attractive.
Unless you’re a marketing rep, of course. The beauty and cosmetic surgery industries have blossomed in the wake of female insecurity, and with men feeling more insecure these days, they’re adding to the market. Jezebel reports that beauty for men is already a multi-billion dollar industry, and is only expected to grow. We’re seeing men’s muscles Photoshopped to be bigger on magazine covers. Sociological Images once called the lack of makeup for men “a triumph of gender ideology over capitalism”—that is, the stigma against men acting feminine is greater than companies’ ability to convince men to buy cosmetics. (Although that link also has some scary/hilarious examples of companies trying.) With more images out there of men as purely sexual objects, that balance may start to shift.
While I’m all in favor of the market recognizing that women are sexual beings (maybe we can put this gross “seeing men cleaning is porn for women” nonsense to rest), it’s just slotting male bodies into the culture of objectification and body obsession that women have been dealing with for a long time. And that’s not a win for anyone.
Magdalena Newhouse is a a senior at Oberlin College, where she teaches a class on body positivity and fat acceptance.