There’s an argument that I’ve frequently seen lampooned in SJ circles. It’s defending Disney-style movies, based on old fairy tales, when they are criticised for having an almost entirely white cast.
“But there weren’t any people of colour in medieval Scotland!”
Immediately, SJers will jump in with “oh, so there were magic lamps and giants, were there?”. It’s a decent argument. You can’t argue for being realistic if the whole story is fantasy.
These same SJers, though, will commit the fallacy themselves where it suits them. The impractical poses and costumes of super-heroines are always branded “unrealistic”. “What, and magical powers are?” is the response that they conveniently forget.
The costumes aren’t even that impractical. Super-heroines are unlikely to match their male rivals when it comes to brute strength, due to sexual dimorphism, and so often they instead specialise in being flexible - in recent blockbusters Mystique, Catwoman and Black Widow all do this. Now, what outfit is practical for this? Clue: it’s not baggy clothes which completely cover the body. In fact, it’s more practical to have minimal coverage, and skintight clothing where it is necessary. The 2012 Olympics are going on as I type, and they allow me to test this theory. What do the best gymnasts in the world - who, we can be assured, have researched this into some depth to get an edge on their competitors - think is the most practical outfit?
Ah. But super-heroines also need to be fast. I’m sure that the fastest sprinters in the world realise that these outfits aren’t practic-
Ah. Well, there goes that argument. Tight clothing, and little of it, are actually practical. Go figure.
We’ve demonstrated two points already: that super-heroine costumes are actually often practical, and that whether they are realistically practical or not is irrelevant (by SJ’s own logic). Now to demonstrate some more.
Are women objectified in this sort of film? Yes. A lot. But not everything is related to that - as we’ve just shown, there are very sensible reasons for Black Widow or Catwoman to wear tight and revealing clothing. Their success relies on being fast and flexible, but also on being able to manipulate men who find them desirable. Such costumes help with both. It is not all male gaze.
Supporting this is the fact that male super-heroes who also need to be flexible also wear tight clothing. Spiderman’s suit, for instance, leaves very little to the imagination.
…and yes, a quick Google reveals plenty of sites obsessing over the ‘spider-bulge’. Either both are objectification, or both are practical. Either way, it’s not male gaze, because it’s almost entirely women drooling over Andrew Garfield. SJers can’t have it both ways. Personally, I think that both are both.
In fact, when I went to see the film, there were a lot more women talking about how attractive Garfield was than men doing the same for Emma Stone. It was the same for Avengers: RDJ and Hiddlestone had the looks, Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth had the bodies. Even Scarlett Johansson, famous sex symbol, couldn’t compete. A large proportion of theatre-goers are female, and they objectify just as much as the men do. Film-makers know this.
Evans wore a skintight costume, Hemsworth and Jeremy Renner had their biceps on full display. You can’t deny that this doesn’t happen to men, just as it happens to women. When it comes to unrealistic bodies, of course, I’ll just point you in the direction of the Hulk.
All of the actors were physically attractive, of course. We can’t even have a realistic nerd to play Peter Parker - instead we are given the handsome and charismatic Garfield. Why? If a man isn’t attractive, we won’t want to watch him. It’s objectification all of the way.
Costumes don’t have to be tight or revealing, anyway. As this excellent post on the subject puts it:
If you threw Batman into a belly shirt and short-shorts, that wouldn’t make his character more sexually appealing by virtue of the fact that you get a better look at the skin of his rippling abs and toned legs.
Of course, Christian Bale also has plenty of chance to flash his muscles to us out of costume. The Dark Knight Rises, then, is another superhero film where the heroes are objectified. Bane’s costume is another obvious one, showing off Tom Hardy’s body as much as possible.
Anne Hathaway shows as much under tight clothing, and there’s no doubt that this is objectification, but as we showed earlier this is practical both for her physical and psychological fighting styles. It’s baffling that SJers would focus entirely on her, and ignore the clear objectification of other characters. Finally on the “super-heroines are objectified super-heroes aren’t” front, I’ll link a couple of pictures from the X-men films.
Go and count how many times Hugh Jackman gets naked or at least topless in those films.
Anyway, moving on. Comic books are usually concerned with physically perfect super-people anyway,
and usually targeted towards sexually frustrated young men, so we can expect a lot of objectification there. What about in other popular films? Twilight and the Hunger Games are both about a sullen, angsty teenage girl who gets frustrated that two of the best looking guys around are in love with her (the difference being that THG actually has a very decent plot to go with it). If we look at the films, we see very little objectification of the female character, but men showing off their muscles left right and centre. That this is blatant objectification can be seen in the fact that women and girls watching these films will speak at some length about how attractive the male characters are, and completely ignore their worth as characters.
Television programmes which shouldn’t even be about romance, such as Doctor Who and Sherlock, nevertheless are swamped by female fans obsessing over the attractiveness of their male characters. I, along with all of the men I know, appreciate such programmes for their plots. We don’t even mention how good the female characters look, because we appreciate them first and foremost as characters. Many of the women I know, though, never stop going on about the men - especially here on Tumblr, where erotic fanfiction, and spamposting of people’s faces with “unffffggg” commentary attached, and even a blog devoted the sound of Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice, are the norm. Recently I’ve watched films starring Clooney, Craig, Fassbender and Gosling, and the women around me have spent the whole time talking about how good looking they are, and the men haven’t objectified the female stars at all. Films such as Magic Mike and it’s ilk don’t require any commentary: the objectification is there for all to see. People who say that it only happens the other way are asleep and dreaming.
Romantic comedies are possibly even worse when it comes to making these same women objectify and drool, even though Hugh Grant usually keeps his clothes on. To explain this, we need to go back to gender roles. The gender binary expects men to be powerful, to protect women and children from other men, and women to be attractive, to mate with the most powerful men, and thus have successful children and ensure the long-term survival of their genes. We don’t then, objectify men on looks the same was as we do women. We like our men to be strong, influential, wealthy or famous, whilst these aren’t generally things we look for in our women. That’s why we objectify the wealthy, well-dressed male lead in these films, even though he doesn’t throw his body around. It’s just a different type of objectification.
In it’s simplest form: women like powerful men, men like beautiful women. Obviously this is a massive generalisation, and you can fill in the disclaimers concerning sexual minorities, non-binaries, and people who just have different tastes. But, if we go back to the bare essentials - how nature intended it - the simplification would work fine. It’s how we evolved to be. I’m talking about what the patriarchy wants us to find attractive, and the patriarchy intended for there to be two rigid genders in rigid gender roles and for us all to be cis and hetero and so on - that’s the context I’m speaking in, and so that’s the language I’m using. That does not mean that other genders and other sexualities, aren’t equally valid, and I can’t stress that enough. The patriarchy, natural as it may have been, does not function well in modern society. If I speak in such black and white terms in this post, then, that is not be condoning that world view. I’m just speaking in the context of that world view, because it is this system of patriarchal gender roles that have shaped our world today, and so we need to explore the past if we are going to understand the present. That’s the only reason I am using those terms. Please don’t try to call me out on it, because you’ll be attacking a strawman, and will subsequently look more than a bit silly.
Moving on. An important point is that these impossibly sexy women aren’t just shown to those interested, and neither are these impossibly strong men. In fact, most superheroes are by men, for men. Young boys are encouraged to look up to athletes, whilst young girls are encouraged to look up to models. Boys are taught that they must be powerful, and should be ridiculously ambitious, should exercise lots, should aim to accumulate wealth above all else, and generally destroy themselves chasing these impossible standards. We don’t, or didn’t use to, teach our girls these things, instead telling them that they must be beautiful, and should be self-conscious and diet and generally destroy themselves chasing these impossible standards.
Super-heroes are terrible for this: could there be a more impossible standard? Sure, girls are taught that they should be able to display both their chest and their rump at the same time on the sexy standards, but boys are taught that they should be able to throw cars about and fly. Even if we ignore the fact that men are now objectified on the way they look in these films, and are also forced to wear revealing clothing, we have to accept that superpowers are themselves a form of objectification for men. Men are historically supposed to be society’s leaders, fighters, protectors, to bear almost the entirety of society’s burdens, to own property and buy food and work twice as hard to provide financially not just for ourselves but for women who aren’t expected to work at all, to fight twice as hard to protect just not ourselves but women who aren’t expected to have to defend themselves, and so on. We are disposable objects for this function, just as women are objects for the function of sex and childcare. A superhero saving the world, then, is objectification as much as any number of revealing costumes is.
Complaining that superheroes are being unrealistically objectified, then, is futile. They were unrealistic objects from the start.
Complaining that super-heroines alone are being unrealistically objectified is, as we have shown here in several ways, wilfully ignorant.
Everyone is objectified. It’s less to do with misogyny from men, as the ‘male gaze’ commentary would like us to believe, and more to do with the gender binary forcing unrealistic standards on all of us - unrealistic standards for who we should be, and unrealistic standards for who we should be mating with. That this is so prominent is not a commentary on any gender in particular, but more an indicator of a general cultural shallowness. It is healthy and natural to enjoy looking at somebody attractive; SJers need to remember this before condemning all sexualisation. This shallowness, though, is something more. We only want to see films if the characters are attractive, and regard the overall film as somehow worse if they aren’t. Sometimes we rate this so highly that we’d rather have good-looking stars than a better plot. As gender roles are breaking down in our modern society, men are being objectified in the same way as women. In this case, however, the equality is not good. We have become equally bad.