As a long-time strident feminist and also a believer in the power of stories to shape the world, I'm inclined toward certain opinions. One of those has to do with sexual objectification of women in media, more or less summed up as, "Objectification is bad, mmkay?"
Let's do a quick recap of what objectification is, and why exactly it's bad, though. If you're up on your feminist theory and can't be bothered to read it again, feel free to skip to the next subhead.
So here's the thing: women in films, games, TV, advertising, comics, and literature are very often super-duper sexy. They are sometimes super-duper sexy in a way that isn't in keeping with the role they're supposed to be playing in the story world. In imagery, they are placed in poses and framed in ways that emphasize sexiness above all, for the enjoyment of an imagined straight male viewer. And sometimes, that sex appeal is basically their only notable trait as a character -- they're not portrayed as real actual people so much as sex dolls who happen to talk or move around from time to time.
Think about women in an RPG with skimpy chainmail bikinis for armor. Megan Fox bending over an engine in Transformers. The loving ass shots of Miranda in Mass Effect 2. The fantasy cover of your choice, as demonstrated by Jim Hines. So many comics that I can't name just one. Hell, even ads for a hamburger chain.
Meanwhile men in media can be fat, thin, bald, graying, muscled, wrinkled. Women can be hot, or they can be gone. (This is, by the way, how you wind up with ludicrous situations where we're supposed to believe that an actress like Kate Winslet or Janeane Garofalo are actually ugly.)
Why is this a problem? Because what we see in media shapes how we behave and what we expect back in the real world. And showing women as being sexy above all ties into a cultural norm where a woman's consensus hotness and sexual availability are the most important things about her. A woman can be clever, funny, generous, hard-working, powerful... but none of that matters unless she can pass a basic minimum bar for attractiveness first. Don't believe me? Ask Hillary Clinton about her hair sometime.
This situation is not OK. Women are people. Women are not sexual objects that exist solely for the gratification of men (or to be fair, for the gratification of everyone who happens to enjoy seeing a particular flavor of sexy woman.) Women deserve to be -- NEED to be -- represented in media as doing all kinds of things that are not just swanning about pouty-lipped with their tits and ass mysteriously both stuck out for the titillation of an imagined male heterosexual viewer.
I could happily go the rest of my life without seeing another camera licking some nineteen-year-old actress's cleavage. Metaphorically speaking.
So yeah. Objectification. I've been thinking about that a lot lately.
The Female Gaze
A funny thing's happened in Hollywood. There's this:
Oh and let's not forget this.
These, my friends, are examples of the female gaze, as it's called in film theory, where an actor is posed and framed in a sexualized manner for the gratification of an imagined female viewer. I have three observations about this.
One: It seems to be happening a whole lot more often lately.
Two: Scenes like this make a lot of guys really uncomfortable. Really, really uncomfortable. Not unlike the way that I feel really uncomfortable watching something like, say, this:
Three: You guys, I... I like this. I like seeing hot guys with their shirts off.
But objectification is bad, right? So surely objectification of men is bad, too? I mean... if it makes men uncomfortable, then arguing that this is OK makes me a hypocrite, right? Or have I been wrong this whole time?!
Well. It's... it's complicated. For one thing, despite the increasing volume of shirtless dudes flexing and/or smoldering vulnerably in front of the camera, it's important to note that most of those guys up there are the leading man. (...Team Jacob!) Hotness is an element of what's going on there, to be sure, but these characters are active. They make decisions, they have an internal life, and in general they're going about their business with an incidental helping of sexy on the side. Sexy is not the whole meal.
But Transformers isn't about Megan Fox. The James Bond films aren't about any of the Bond Girls (and note that there's no male equivalent of a Bond girl.) You play Halo as Master Chief, not as Cortana. The problem isn't with sexy women. The problem is when sexy = women, and that's the whole equation so far as female characters go. Let's see some more women who aren't sexy. Not even a little bit!
Now, Jamie Lee Curtis up there is the leading lady, too. But you'll notice that Ahnold kept his clothes on in that scene. That's another key difference -- sheer volume. it's a lot easier to find a sexualized woman in media than a sexualized man, it turns out. For every Old Spice Guy, there are a hundred, even a thousand Heidi Klums. And that just underlines that message that the role of women is to be hot, not to do important stuff.
Jeez, though! Why does this have to be so complicated and fraught when all we want is fun? Isn't there some way where everybody can just enjoy looking at the hot people of the genders they're attracted to and not get hassled about it?!
Another Way: Look to Bollywood
Now, India is no shining beacon of gender equality. But I've been watching a lot of Hindi film over the last eighteen months or so, and I've noticed a startling and wonderful trend. Call it equal-opportunity objectification.
You guys, this is the closing credits of a sports film. About cricket. No, for real. Look at the camera licking the sweat off those sexy, sexy bodies. Look at them get splashed with sexy, sexy water. Look at them move! I think most people can find something to be pretty happy about in watching that, right?
And this is a common thing in Bollywood, to the extent of my experience. Men and women both tend to be well-represented as sexual beings -- Mumbai has no qualms about portraying a dude as smokin' hot. (I'll let someone else write the thesis on whether this is the result of differing attitudes toward sex in India vs. the U.S.) I mean. Can you imagine this happening in a mainstream American film?
Yeah, me neither.
And women in general tend to be well-represented in Hindi film, so far as I've seen. You commonly see characters of a variety of ages and body types, not just the hot girls. (Plots often revolve around hot girls and boys, and their eventual marriage, but I'm admittedly mostly a fan of the Bollywood romantic comedy musical, so that goes with the territory. Forgive me.)
So look, when I think about the objectification of women, lately my perspective has slowly changed from "Hey! Stop showing us women's bodies all the time!" to something more like "Hey! Let's even things out around here so everyone gets a turn."
I get it. Looking at people you find visually attractive standing around and being hot for your benefit is fun. I can see why you'd want to keep that around. So I'm cool with women being objects... as long as men can be objects, too, right? And in the same degree. Give me my candy, too.
But here's the thing. Candy for the eye rots the same way candy for the teeth does. Objectification is still pretty bad in the sense that we shouldn't be setting "reduced to a passive object for desire" as a standard way of viewing other human beings. The way to solve sexism isn't to dehumanize everybody forever. Oh boy is it not.
But that's by far not the only way for superhot people to exist on the page and on the stage! The thing about those sexy, sexy people in Bollywood film is that all of them, men and women both, still have agency and inner lives. All of them are characters who dynamically move through the story and affect how events unfold. They are whole people, who have thoughts and opinions and not just secondary sexual characteristics. It's amazing. It's inspiring. It's a whole lot of fun to watch!
So my solution is this -- fine, let's have tons of scantily-clad, oiled-up, wind-tunneled, vaseline-lensed people in all kinds of media! Great! Fun! Men and women alike, and the more the merrier. But let's make sure that all of those sexy people, above all, remain human beings.
Because that's the whole point of feminism, right? Not to shut down sexytimes, not to kill all the funs, not to remove joy from the world. Just, everyone should be treated like a person. And as goes our media, so goeth our world.