The idea that advertising, entertainment and news media are guilty of objectifying women is familiar enough to most of us. But recently the balance seems to have shifted, with concerns being expressed about the potential objectification of male actors in drama series such as Bodyguard and Poldark. So are liberated and independent women who decry the objectification of women, but are thrilled by shots of male bodies on TV, guilty of double standards?
Compared to the acres of taut flesh on display in coverage of, say, Olympic swimming, the odd glimpse of a firm set of abs or a muscled thigh in a BBC drama seems almost trivial. Yet context is everything. Most of us are comfortable with displays of nudity on the beach or around the hotel pool that would not be acceptable in the office, so acceptability cannot be measured by square inches of naked flesh.
If nudity is dramatically integral to a scene in some way – in a scene of tender, non-sexual intimacy as much as in a sex scene – then it can’t be condemned as simply “gratuitous”. Nor is a sexualised audience response necessarily inappropriate. Comedy, horror and sentiment all have a legitimate place in drama, and all of them provoke emotional and bodily responses. Why not eroticism also? If a dramatic presentation of a sexual relationship fails to ring true because the performances lack “chemistry” the drama will fail as drama. Where chemistry is present, it will naturally provoke an audience response and, in this case, blanket puritanical condemnation is misplaced.
But, of course, feminist concerns about objectification were never really a matter of blanket puritanical condemnation. So what are the concerns really all about?
Sexual objectification typically takes one of two forms. In the first, eroticised depictions of female bodies present women as mere resources – nothing more than “eye candy” for male sexual gratification. Such portrayals encourage more general exploitative attitudes towards women. By implicitly denying women’s agency, they appear to legitimise coercive behaviour and in extreme cases sexual violence.
In the second, women’s agency is not ignored but actively recruited for oppressive purposes. In this case, rather than reducing women to the status of mere resources, the objectifying content has the effect of scripting their behaviour – tacitly promoting norms and stereotypes of conduct geared to the sexual gratification of men. Women are invited to play along with the roles allotted to them, consenting to, and even enthusiastically embracing, treatment that is in reality exploitative. Objectification in this sense works by colonising women’s identities. It is subtly ideological rather than brutally coercive.
Flipping the male gaze
So, what of the objectification of men, and the existence of an apparent double standard?
If we only think in terms of the first form of objectification, and the consumption of “eye candy”, we are likely to conclude that the sexual objectification of men is a relatively trivial matter. Prevailing physical, political and economic power inequalities are such that in practice a man’s agency is much less likely than a woman’s to be overridden. Consequently, the objectification of men is much less likely to result in sexual violence. To this extent, a double standard might be thought tolerable.
However, in relation to the second form of objectification – where damaging norms and stereotypes are promoted and internalised – it’s difficult to defend the double standard. There seems to be no good reason to think that men are any less suggestible and compliant than women are when it comes to “normalising” media representations. Young and impressionable men in particular may be as biddable and eager to play along as their female counterparts.
Consider the way men are presented on programmes such as ITV’s Love Island. The producers of the programme stress that it does not pretend to hold a mirror up to life, but provides an idealised and in their own words “aspirational” portrayal. But when narcissism, individualism, materialism and manipulation are presented as aspirational, audiences are likely to find themselves emulating behaviour that is incompatible with healthy relationships and a fulfilling life.
Objectifying media content is sometimes defended on the basis that it doesn’t play an ideological role but only caters to the preexisting appetites of its audience. However, even in much more neutral contexts, such as fashion and car magazines, such arguments don’t stand up. It is no doubt true that magazines are usually read by people who have a preexisting interest in their content. But most people will be familiar with the experience of picking up a magazine and finding they have suddenly developed a keen interest in which £200,000 supercar is really most desirable. If it didn’t work that way, no one would loan £200,000 supercars to journalists.
Clearly, media representations do far more than cater to preexisting appetites. They actively shape what we aspire to, what we are prepared to consent to, and the ways we spend our time and money in pursuit of what we (consequently) want. Advertising, entertainment and news media play a significant ideological role in our lives. Power, as Foucault observed, is insidious and productive. It typically operates not by overt interdiction or coercion, but by creatively and “consensually” shaping our self-conceptions and (thereby) our views of what is normal and desirable.
So, we should be concerned about the sexual objectification of men. The real issue though is not women’s responses to eroticised drama, nor the feelings of the male actors involved, nor (realistically) the possibility that such scenes might lead to a significant rise in sexual violence against men. The issue is that the ideological scripting of men’s behaviour is coming to be as all-pervasive as the ideological scripting of women’s behaviour.
At the same time as young men are being encouraged to be increasingly narcissistic and materialistic, they are experiencing unprecedented levels of perfectionism-driven social anxiety and mental illness. This is perhaps understandable, given that they are being bombarded with a vastly greater quantity and intensity of objectifying media content than previous generations ever had to contend with.