You know what’s weird? Now that superhero movies are so popular, I keep hearing people say things like this: “Objectification is equal now! Guys have to be just as attractive as ladies on film, and have to go shirtless!”
And then I tilt my head sideways like a confused puppy because… that’s not how objectification works. We all know that, right?
I get where this sentiment is coming from, of course. It’s not just that we see more objectifying of men for the female gaze (hey there, Magic Mike XXL!); our definition of the “ideal male body” has altered in recent years to play more into female desire. You know, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sly Stalone were tough-looking dudes when they were leading action men of the 80s, but it’s safe to say that most women weren’t weak at the knees over those guys. They were huge and unapproachable, much like the names of the characters they played—Rocky, the Terminator. They were male power fantasies meant to appeal to male fans.
The advantage of guys like Chris Evans and Tom Hiddleston is that they are less intimidating in their physiques and seemingly sweet, no matter how much damage they can do on a fictitious battlefield. They have an element of charm that action movie guys, from cowboys to bodybuilders, didn’t worry much over in the past. Even the bigger buff guys today seem super cuddly personality-wise; practically everyone loves The Rock and Vin Diesel.
It’s not difficult to figure out why this new brand of leading man is popular—having a mixed appeal to both male and female viewers is going to grant you a bigger audience. But throwing in a scene of a shirtless guy (or allowing the camera to linger on his bum)… does that really mean that we’re getting equal opportunities for objectification? Are men and women the same now in the eyes of Hollywood?
Here’s the thing: Objectification is not just a question of who has to look prettiest on film. It’s also a question of how these pretty people are presented to us. Is this person a fleshy equivalent of wallpaper or the coveted Main Character? What are they doing when their shirt rips and we glimpse skin? Because being objectified is primarily about being an object to the viewer. And if you’re a multi-faceted character, it’s going to be harder for people to ignore your personhood and think of you as a piece of sexy scenery.
As it appears right now? Sure, male actors have more rigorous standards in the looks department than before. But this new brand of objectification never makes them out to be cardboard cutouts for staring at. In fact, the current realm of male objectification is primarily concerned with making sure that the audience engages with their actions and humanity, even while we’re staring at their abs.
Sound improbable? Here are a few current examples—
Everybody loved Guardians of the Galaxy, and Chris Pratt got a heavy round of applause from fans for getting fighting fit to play Peter Quill. He looked handsome, to be sure, but does anyone remember his single shirtless scene in the film?
Wait. Wait, he’s getting hosed off in prison. And he doesn’t look happy about it either. Kinks are a thing, and this might be a specific fantasy for some, sure—but it doesn’t change the fact that something awful is happening to Quill, and we’re meant to engage with that as much as his lack of shirt. He can’t simply be eye candy because we have to consider his surroundings and their affect on him at the same time that we’re appreciating his love of sit-ups.
What about our poor woobie Bucky? The Winter Soldier had everyone crying buckets as he tried to remember his long-lost childhood friend. Bucky had an even harder time of it than Captain America, forced to kill for Hydra (and get thrust back into cryo-freeze) over the course of decades, brainwashed and alone. When do we get to see more of fandom’s favorite Almay eyeliner-loving fella?
Oh. Oh, good god. It’s right before they put him through another round of shock therapy to erase his reemerging personality. So while you’re busy considering how well that metal arm goes with his pecs, you’re also reminded of the regular torture this man has endured at the hands of his captors. His personhood is reenforced to the audience as it’s obliterated by Hydra once again.
Hey there, Daredevil. Charlie Cox is a gorgeous man, okay? He really is. And we get more than one shirtless scene for Hell Kitchen’s vigilante in the lauded Netflix series.
But practically every time we view Matt Murdock sans clothing, he has been beat to hell. He’s recovering from massive injuries, he’s getting stitched up, he’s swollen and bloody and near-to-tears, or plain exhausted. And it’s a common trope, of course (hurt/comfort is a whole subset of fan fiction for a reason), but it’s also preventing us from simply staring and enjoying. When Matt Murdock isn’t wearing his shirt, it’s because he’s in unbelievable pain—and the audience has to think about that. They have to acknowledge what he’s putting his body through every times he dresses up as Daredevil. When Matt Murdock is shirtless, we’re meant to think about what makes him a hero.
What about Deadpool! Deadpool will fix everything, right? The film was Rated R, which means we actually get to see something more than a six-pack. Wade Wilson is gonna fix this up for us:
We see his naked butt! It’s out there! (I’ll get you more relevant screencaps once the Blu-Ray is out, but for now we’ll have to settle for the above butt GIF.) Wait, but we see his bare posterior in the very scene where he passes out, thereby learning that he has cancer. So our one “fun” moment of dude-butt is waylaid by a horrible, deeply sad revelation.
He gets totally naked, too, though! Whoa, but it’s not for the purpose of titillation at all, it happens when Wade is fighting to break free from the installation that has tortured and transformed his entire body in order to make him into a slave. It is a painful formation sequence, where Wade is forced to endure even more suffering as a building burns down around his ravaged body. When we see full frontal male nudity in a superhero film, it isn’t about giving the audience a thrill—it’s meant to highlight everything that the (anti)hero has to endure.
And that very same movie proves my point in the other direction as well. Because when we see female nudity in Deadpool? They are strippers.
Yup. These women are not meant to be thought of as people—they are set dressing. There’s not even a good reason for us to see them plot-wise; though this is meant to be where Wade’s girlfriend Vanessa works, the film never needed to show the entirely of the club, or any of these women naked. (Tellingly, Vanessa herself is clothed in this scene. She is mostly naked earlier in the movie when she and Wade are having sex, which doesn’t much contribute to her character at all, though it is a funny montage.)
Oh hey, and here are some set photos for April O’Neil in the upcoming Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sequel:
She’s in disguise as a blond! Aaaaaand then she takes off the wig, undoes some buttons and ties up her shirt to be certain that she’s showing maximum cleavage and midriff, and she’s wearing… thigh-highs and a plaid schoolgirl skirt. Because this is how very professional reporters change undercover costumes? (And don’t say “it’s Michael Bay, what do you expect?” That doesn’t mean it gets a pass. In fact, it gets less of a pass because of how many people go to see his films.) This does not contribute to April’s personhood. It’s there to remind you that she’s not a character you have to take seriously. She is there to dress like a very boring sex fantasy. That is the whole reason she’s in the movie.
What about Bryce Dallas Howard’s character Claire in Jurassic World? Sure, objectification isn’t going to go too far in the family film, but the ways in which she gets “dressed down” are particularly telling. For those who don’t remember, she starts the film like this:
Super professional if not at all practical for working at a tropical amusement park with live animals. (I’m not saying she should have been dressed like safari guide, but the stilettos, the long unworkable skirt, and the white button-down blouse? Does she never sweat or walk anywhere? In 500% humidity?) As the movie continues, we get something more like this:
So her hair gets all “naturally” wavy and tousled (though her bangs stay magically perfect), she forgoes her extra accouterments for her underlayer tank top, and though the above pic doesn’t show it, her skirt rips all the way up above her knee. More functional, for sure. It’s not super-sexy, but meant to be appealing in a “sweaty action heroine” sort of way. It’s still a far cry from Dr. Ellie Satler’s completely functional, no-nonsense garb in the first Jurassic film.
But the part that really stings is what this slow undressing means in regard to Claire’s character; after all, she is not heroic in the standard sense up until the very end of the film when she calls on the T. Rex to save her family. And this gradual peel-back of her clothing layers just serves to highlight out how ill-conceived her wardrobe is, how disconnected she is from the living creatures in the park that she holds no respect for, how cold and business-minded she is, how distant. The point is that as Claire gets “sexier” looking, she also becomes less of a stereotyped “frigid bitch.” Which is plain insulting.
And that’s without even considering this horrible deleted scene from the film, where she is told by Chris Pratt to rub dinosaur shit all over herself to “get rid of the smell of her vanilla lotion.” Yeah, that was actually in the script and filmed, and I can’t even touch that, it’s too gross on multiple levels:
So, you know, there’s a marked difference here.
There are very few examples of men in these stories being objectified just for the sake of it—or in a way that directly undermines their power and authority as a heroic figure. Thor: The Dark World is a notable exception. (Sponge bath. No reason. Just ’cause.) In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Thor: The Dark World as an entire film caters beautifully to female gaze and female fandom at large. Jessica Jones is another good example, and notably also caters to the female experience and gaze. So we’re meant to look at Luke Cage and find him attractive, but when Jessica takes her pants off, it’s usually because she has to pee—not exactly the sexiest of actions. (Pointedly, the one time we’re meant to wiggle our eyebrows over Jessica going pants-less, it’s because she’s flirting… with Claire.)
But more to the point, these are merely recent examples. When you look back over the past decade or more, this particular mode of male objectification is all over the place. It’s our new normal. Let him take off his shirt—but only if something deeply important or painful is happening, something that reminds you of why this guy is a hero. We’re starting to see it for female characters in more recent years, but it hasn’t caught up yet. It’s still thought of as a subversion of the trope.
So let’s maybe take a step back on the “equal objectification” front. Though we’re seeing a lot more in the realm of biceps and cut hip muscles, it’s still a far cry from how women are depicted.
Emily Asher-Perrin is completely fascinated by how many superhero films use this male objectification trope (nearly ALL of them), to the point where she’d like to deliver a class on it complete with a Powerpoint presentation or something. You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.