Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Is it wrong to admire good-looking men?

And by "wrong" I mean sexist, belittling, demeaning, or in poor taste?

In one of my classes, the students and I discussed the notion of how the patriarchal structure of American culture informs film, theatre, and other media with ideas about gender: masculinity and femininity. We read and discussed Mulvey's key article, "Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema," and the notion of how things have changed since 1975 emerged.

Like women now go to the movies to look at men as objects. Or, as one of my students put it, in the new Batman films, Batman has a six-pack. That's for me, right? If he's an action hero, why does his rubber suit need a six-pack?

I had to concede. Yes, in the time since 1975, women have gained increased economic power, and one sign of that in cinema is the increased importance of the looks/appearance of the hero, especially in terms of body fitness. Making him an object of desire... like heroines-actresses still are. We spend our money to see Hugh Jackman, Daniel Craig, and other hunks parade their abs, delts, pecs, and backsides.

Is this progress?

Yes, and no.

Yes: film studios, producers, directors, screenwriters, and audiences have conceded that a hero doesn't need simply to be smart, funny, confident, powerful, in control, and in control -- he also needs ripply muscles. Or women won't pay to play. Maybe.

No: the flow doesn't go the other way. Just because Hugh Jackman has to take off his shirt, doesn't mean that Halle Berry gets to keep hers on and become an unattractive but incredibly smart computer whiz who saves his poor little -- uh -- gorgeously shaped butt. She's still the girlfriend or wife or best friend or second banana. Men take off their shirts and still win/lead because they're smarter, stronger, quicker, gutsier, techier, feistier, and see the Big Picture better than the little lady.

For example. The recent H&M underwear commercial featuring David Beckham, world-class soccer player, husband to Victoria, dad, and benefactor to many soccer-playing kids. Shown for the first time during the Super Bowl... because media folks knew that the mainstream audience for the Super Bowl (imagined as predominantly straight men) would want to ogle and objectify Beckham?

Uh, no.

The ad was, rather obviously, eye candy for the female viewers and gay male viewers (that teeny-tiny %age of the imagined audience) who needed something pretty to look at... a reward, if you will, for participating in this ultimate celebration of straight masculinity (Grunt!).

Gorgeous man as object, right? Get your DVRs a-going, ladies!

But (and here's the catch) in the second shot, Beckham's eyes look directly at the camera. He acknowledges us -- the spectators -- and poses for us, showing off, flexing like an athlete. The soundtrack, rather stridently, is The Animals' "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood." His wedding ring is prominantly featured, as are his tattoos. What is Beckham worried we might "misunderstand"?

Like a good burlesque dancer, he shows a lot without revealing anything significant. He teases, he hides, the camera swirls away from "dangerous" ground. The tattoos, ring, and facial expressions are like a mask -- we focus on those and not the naked skin, the primary and secondary sex characteristics hidden or revaled by pristine white cotton underwear... which seems ridiculously puritanical, by contrast.

Really? David Beckham wears tightie-whities?

And behind the H&M trademark he smiles at us, not sexually, not kindly, but as if we're sharing a joke. The joke of his display, I guess. How differently would we read this video if "The Stripper" or "Whatever Lola Wants" played in the background? If Beckham never looked at us, if we were able to be voyeurs, instead of participants dictated to by the editing of Beckham and the camera? If he lay still on a sofa, let's say, like Manet's Olympia or Titian's Venus and we could look our fill... with or without his permission.

Okay, but this strikes me as... uh... somewhat aggressive. Am I wrong? I don't see the "reclining" part.

1 comment:

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