It is becoming slightly more popular, of late, to talk about the idea of the objectification of men. In Out Magazine, Kit Harrington, of Games of Thrones fame, spoke on this, saying, “I found it unfair, really, some of the stuff I read [in response to being labeled a sex symbol],” he says. “I was making a point, which was that I think young men do get objectified, do get sexualized unnecessarily. As a person who is definitely in that category, as a young leading man in this world, I feel I have a unique voice to talk about that. I was making a point to sort of say, ‘It just needs to be highlighted.’ With every photo shoot I ever go to, I’m told to take off my shirt, and I don’t.” Conversely, Chris Pratt, whose transformation from the oafish dude on Parks and Recreation to the charismatic leading man of Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World, argued that, in the name of equality, “it’s important to even things out. Not objectify women less, but objectify men just as often as we objectify women.” But, here’s the thing; I don’t think men can be objectified. By heterosexual audiences at least.
What both actors may not understand is that there are power dynamics in place, socially constructed ones at that, which make it very difficult to objectify men. Spectatorship theory suggests that objectification consists of several stages, including the robbing of agency of the subject at hand. Deeply embedded into the language of film and in society in general is an inherent subjugation of women: as everyone from Laura Mulvey to Molly Haskell has been known to point out, female bodies are literally cut up on the screen, abstracted, and dehumanized. To no longer be considered human, or a living thing in general, embodies this idea of objectification. There are far too many examples of this to point out, from the music video for Fountains of Wayne’s “Stacy’s Mom” to Megan Fox in Transformers.
The former clip is multilayered in its objectification, in fulfilling adolescent male fantasies and even slipping in some sexualization of youth in a creepy Lolita-esque way. The latter is sinister in a more annoying way; the clip is called “Eyes on Mikaela”, and while the camera purposefully inhabits the point of view of Shia Labeouf’s character, that he, and the audience, are supposed to disregard her words is indicative of how the film values, or doesn’t value, its female character. It’s mildly interesting though because in this scene, she’s exhibiting traditionally masculine knowledge. It’s coded that way, at least, since being a gear head is by no means the limited province of men. But that juxtaposition that Michael Bay creates isn’t so much ironic as proof that even when a female body attempts to emulate any kind of masculine trait, they’re still not worthy of respect.
And while much of female sexualization is to create an ideal, the sexualization of men takes on a slightly different trajectory because of that different power dynamic. It’s hard to rob men of a kind of coded power that is, as aforementioned, embedded into our society. Thus, even when Kit Harirngton’s body is on display, whether he feels it or not, the larger context is that he still has power. When Chris Pratt is shirtless in Galaxy, we aspire to be as masculine as he, or to be under his reign. The masculine ideal and the feminine ideal, as it were, again seem to operate on different planes because of the development of heterosexual dynamics within a patriarchal culture.
This is on the eve of the release of Magic Mike XXL. The previous film, Magic Mike, was directed by Steven Soderbergh, an auteur most apt at examining how bodies can become a kind of currency. He also directed The Girlfriend Experience, starring former adult film star Sasha Grey. What is unusual about these two films is that Soderbergh views his subjects of the films with similar discern: often filmed at a distance, bodies kept primarily intact. While that is perhaps unintentionally progressive, so to speak, for The Girlfriend Experience, it’s the status quo for Magic Mike. Men and their bodies seem to never be touched in the same ways that women’s bodies are; every stripper scene in Magic Mike has limited editing, careful to keep these bodies intact.
As far as queer audiences go, queering dynamics allows a certain amount of fluidity, but it’s contingent on the context of the scene. The obligatory shirtless scene in every Marvel film doesn’t qualify; we may lust after those characters or actors, yet they still retain a kind of influence over us and over our desires. However, a scene like that in Heartbeats treats is male body in the same way that female bodies are often treated: At a birthday party for Nic (Niels Schneider), Francis (Writer/director/wunderkind Xavier Dolan) and Maria (Monia Chakri) stare off and watch him as he dances. The Knife’s “Pass This On” blares, and over the strobe lights, Nic’s body is segmented, with inserts of Michelangelo’s David and illustrations by Jean Cocteau fitting into their respective fantasies. We get both of their gazes. In addition to this, The Way He Looks features a scene in which Leonardo (Ghilherme Lobo) showers with the object of his desire Fabio (Pablo Caravalho); only, Leonardo is blind. Fabio peers at Leonardo’s body, unbeknownst to him, and the power relationship between them shifts.
There’s also something to be said in terms of same gender sex scenes. Because either party has the possibility or potential to penetrate or be penetrated, theirs is a fluidity that exists with regards to autonomy, control, and power there that is harder to discern in other non-queer dynamics.
It’s only in these moments, and ones similar to them, that male bodies are divorced from the codes and traditions which patriarchal society often try to ingrain into them, and into us. When this isn’t true, it is nary impossible for heterosexual audiences to objectify male bodies, queer baiting notwithstanding. Sexualization and objectification are two different things: the latter indicates a loss of autonomy. And while the former, applied to any gender or sex, often represents the search for an ideal, those ideals are, more often than not, different in terms of the power structures set by the culture surrounding those scenarios.
However, there is to be considered the female gaze, where it challenges this heteronormative ideal where men are the primary purveyors of power. In this concept, the traditional male gaze is subverted, almost looking back at itself. This can work in two ways: female filmmakers can intentionally upend this paradigm by pointing the camera directly at a male body (as in Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey, or Jane Campion’s The Piano) and segmenting it in similar ways, or by pointing the camera at the men doing the looking. Mad Men cleverly did this in a scene where Joan (christina Hendricks) tells Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) that she’ll always be looked at in such a male dominated environment. She goes back to her desk and a flurry of men walk by in slow motion, looking at her like meat.But we only see the men gazing, the camera calling them out.
There is a counterpoint to my argument, though, that disingenuously ignores the fluid dynamics between heterosexual relationships that are possible. Power it itself an elusive concept not limited to the restrictions I may have accidentally set. Though I’m still inclined to argue that it’s harder for male bodies to be objectified in the same way, there certainly an approach where one can subvert the supposed power that is often given to men and male bodies.
In seems, though, more often that not, when it comes to the gaze, women are looked at and men are looked to.