My thoughts on the objectification of the male body…
I recently read The Greek Body, an interesting and beautiful book-come-catalogue of some of the British Museum’s collection of Greek statues from the Archaic through Hellenistic periods (read my review here). I was mostly stuck by the athletic male statues, where the elicited reaction from their contemporary viewers was to be one of adoration and aspiration.
These statues were the embodiment of arete – the qualities that add up to physical and moral perfection, such as virtue, grace, temperance and modesty. Qualities that were idolised, sought and expected in the pursuit of both physical and moral excellence in the general male population.
This makes sense to the citizens and culture of City-States of Greece. After all, war with neighbours both near and far was common and with generally no standing army, it fell to the citizens to protect their polis when required. A need to be fighting fit both physically and mentally was expected as a citizen’s duty and source of honour. These characteristics could further be employed in other walks of life, be it athleticism, public oratory or political office.
This is but an overview, and the subject of Grecian art is interesting and complex. But what fascinates me is that how some of those ideas on the male form can be translated into modern day mentality.
We talk a lot about the objectification of women, and deservedly so as there needs to be a dialogue around this and encourage progression and change. However, quite recently, I have read a lot of comments about the objectification of men – mostly in response to posts on the objectification of women – “Men are objectified too!”, which even if true is not a justification of the continued objectification of women.
I don’t doubt that some men feel self-conscious due to portrayals of physically perfect specimens of their gender, and right or wrong, there are images that objectify men. However, it is undeniable that female portrayals are more prolific and elicit emotions of inadequacy much more from women, and more over portray them as a passive objects (sometimes quite literally), with no agency.
This argument comes into play a lot in regards to the portrayal of men and women as superheroes in various media. Interestingly this is where the Greek idea of arete is most obvious.
The portrayal of female characters in comics is largely sexualised and objectifying, even if those characters are portrayed as strong and powerful independent women, they are visually still a consumable. Male characters, on the other hand, are portrayed largely as powerful and inspirational (physically and sometimes emotionally, mentally and/or morally). In fact it could be argued that superheroes for the most part embody arete and seek to engender the same feelings of aspiration to moral and physical excellence as the Greeks of yesteryear – they are, in short, role models.
Superheroes are an extreme, and fictional, example of this, but it clearly happens in our modern Western culture. It is something that occurs in all media portrays of men and women, and specifically the way in which they are portrayed either as passive or active agents.
Rantasmo over at Needs More Gay, has pointed out that although we see sexualised men in the media made by and for straight women and gay men, they are also made by and for straight men as well. Like the statues full of arete these are intended to empower men rather than objectify them. And as he points out, this is easily done through the framing of images (both photo and film). Shots of women often pan over the body and/or zoom in on specific body parts in a way that is meant to mimic the gaze of the straight male viewer. Sometimes only a body part is seen in substitution for the whole, or even as part of or in place of objects – even more so rendering the woman a passive object with no agency. In contrast, those featuring men are static and often from farther away, rendering the image safely non-sexualised and focusing instead on the image as one of strength and power to be idolised rather than objectified by the consumer (presumed to be male).
This is moreover evident when we look at the men to whom these portrayals fall – often our sports stars, actors, musicians and models, specifically chosen because of arete. They seemingly embody physical and moral ideals that should be pursued, with a given variation for current trends, fashions and styles. It is for this reason that such men are used in product marketing – where the aim is to make the male viewer want to aspire to be like the hero selling the product and thusly make the purchase.
Although I don’t doubt that there is imagery out there that seeks to objectify and hypersexualise men in a way similar to that experienced by women, in the main the portrayals are instead those of arete rather than objectification – meant instead to elicit feelings of adoration and aspiration in a completely different way than the images of women. Much of which comes down to the fact that the presumed viewer/consumer, as in Classical Greece, is presumed to be male. Arguably, the portrayal of the male form has changed very little in concept and intent within mainstream culture in the last 2000 or 3000 years, the female form is a whole other story.