On March 13th, 2004, Jennifer Lopez released a music video for her new single “I Luh Ya Papi,” a bouncy new hip-hop infused jam to twerk to in front of the bedroom mirror. It was immediately promoted on social media and reigned down on the blogosphere as a refreshing twist on the usual “Let’s Objectify Women!” mantra mainstream hip hop/pop music videos usually employ. J.Lo’s idea: Let’s Objectify Men!
In fact, that’s the whole premise of the video: A “record label executive” is sitting with Ms. Lopez and her gaggle of colorful girlfriends, presenting her with treatments for the video. All of his ideas are, of course, terrible (a water park? a carnival? a zoo?), so her friends clearly point out that, if she were a “dude,” this conversation wouldn’t happen; if she were a male singer, she would be in control, surrounded by a bunch of naked women, effectively selling objectification to the viewer.
It’s a well-touted fact in every aspect of popular culture and mass media that sex appeal, sexuality, and the actual act of sex is used to sell pretty much anything, from actual products to media exposure.
The problems are two-fold: 1.) female objectification is considered the “norm.” 2.) When it comes to male objectification, it’s shocking.
1.) As a culture, we’re easily offended when men are objectified. It’s commonplace for women to be seen as sexual objects, but not men. Men are strong, they are providers, alphas; the dominating, not the dominated. So for a man to be seen as a sexual object is degrading to the idea of manhood itself.
2.) When men are objectified, the media exposure of said objectification skyrockets because, again, it’s uncommon for it to be so high-profiled. Women are constantly shown caressing various parts of their anatomy and being “victims” to male stares and advances, but when men are treated as “victims” or the same treatment usually reserved for women, it’s shocking and garners attention.
3.) It often thought of as a “completely new idea” that men can be shown in music videos (which, let’s face facts, have become less about artistic expression and more about selling a song on iTunes) or advertisements as nothing more than sexual slaves to their female counterparts. In fact, it’s not new. Not at all.
Which brings me to my next point…
4.) It glorifies a unique ideal about the male physique that is unattainable for most of the male population. Nobody stops to think about how something like this is actually detrimental to male body image.
Sound familiar? That’s because most feminists fight to eradicate all of the above beliefs for women. Substitute the female gender pronouns above and you’ll see what women have been fighting against for years.
The thing is … men have body image issues just the same as women.
And more to the point, men fight against the same demons women do.
Any kind of objectification hurts men just as much as female objectification hurts women. The only difference is that women have been publicly battling this type of depiction of females for years; female objectification doesn’t get as much media coverage because it’s nothing new.
Well, neither is male objectification; it’s just that now it’s starting to pick up a little steam.
Some might pose this question: Why aren’t “we” (societal “we,” not inclusive of the feminist “we”) more outraged about women being objectified? After all, Robin Thicke can get away with creating an explicitly sexist video for “Blurred Lines” featuring almost completely nude women in a song that glorifies rape and promotes rape culture (which is a subject for a whole other blog post I plan on writing soon) …
… but when a parody video like this is created, it’s seen as taboo because in this case the men are the objects of sexual predation:
The real problem is that the objectification of men has been going for a long time and has created unhealthy images for young men, just as the constant objectification of women has done for young girls. The difference is that men are taught not to fight against these depictions because they’re heteronormative.
From the time we’re born, we’re told exactly how to behave and forced into gender roles designed by our parents and our parents’ parents, and their parents before them, which of course was predetermined by society. When we’re born, we can’t exactly make decisions about colors we chose to decorate our rooms with — if you’re a girl, you’re most likely thrown into a world of pinks and lavenders, if you’re a boy, you’re most likely surrounded by blues or reds (yellows and greens are considered “gender neutral”) — yet we’re already forced into identifying with a specific gender. Girls are given baby dolls and Fischer Price kitchenettes and plastic vacuum cleaners, they’re taught that Barbies and Bratz Dolls are gender appropriate toys and that shopping and fashion and make-up are of the utmost importance and defines femininity. Boys are given trucks and dinosaurs and G.I. Joe’s (or in my case, Batman) and taught to play in the mud and get dirty; being alpha, or at least displaying hyper-masculine qualities are favorable. Crying is definitely not acceptable. As men, we’re taught to be providers, business savvy, and handy around the house. We’re told never to be vulnerable because if anyone knew we were weak we wouldn’t be taken seriously or would be seen as “less than.” We’re taught that masculinity is about being strong[er than women].
Men are infallible.
This attitude dates back a very long time.
Take, for example, Michelangelo’s “The Temptation and Expulsion of Adam and Eve” from the Sistine Chapel.
If you read the image from left to right, Eve, the female in the image is seen sitting on the ground in what could be interpreted as a casual pose that covers her genitals. She’s actively taking the fruit from the serpent, who, by the way, is depicted as female (notice the visibly breasts.) Meanwhile, Adam is not engaging in the interaction between Eve and the serpent. He’s standing with a strong pose looking past the serpent, not engaging in the temptation. On the right, Adam and Eve are expelled by an angel; Adam has a shamed look on his face, and it’s notable that his genitals are bathed in light. Eve, on the other hand, is seen as sinister, with an evil look on her face. Her body, including her genitals, are cloaked in darkness.
Men = strong, incorruptible, free from sin.
Women = weaker, easily corrupted, the root of all sin.
Men are strong, silent heroes. In fact, most images of notable men are shown as strong as physically perfect. Again, take Michelangelo’s “David”:
David is the physical embodiment of perfection. His body is quite literally sculpted from marble — a description often used to describe a Godly physique (I’ve used it myself). His proportions are symmetrical, especially in regards to his facial structure; symmetry is a sign of perfection (even though no man or woman has symmetrical proportions.) He is the utmost “beautiful” man.
Kind of impossible standards to live up to, wouldn’t you say?
These ideals, believe it or not, have survived centuries and still exist today, especially in the realm of celebrity and Hollywood and mass media.
Here are some images from mainstream advertisements:
Abercrombie & Fitch is a company known for the “perfect body image” of it’s models. And for the fact that its ads barely feature the clothing it sells. This ad is selling the All-American Boy.
With a product called “MAN,” this ad is essentially telling its viewer that this is what an ideal man looks like, so a “man” must also wear “MAN.” This ad is reminiscent of “David,” with his almost-symmetrical face and sculpted physique. Everything about him screams “Perfection.”
Nothing says “I’m a man” like dirt and muscles and a cologne called “Sport.”
Most people are familiar with the Brawny brand; flannel-wearing, manly men use Brawny. I’d be remiss if I said I never purchased a roll based on the image of myself buying such a product.
Smell like a man? What exactly is a man supposed to smell like, Old Spice? Again, impossible standards. This is saying that you may not look like the Old Spice Man, but you can at least smell like him. But ultimately, this white horse-riding knight-with-shiny-abs is who all men should aspire to be. It’s images like these that make up our perception of what a “man” is.
It’s a common misconception that men can get away with “letting their bodies go,” as many women like to claim when confronted with the insane one-sided media bias against women who gain weight or are less than standard when it comes to the ideal female body image.
In fact, I would say that coupled with the above collection of images that make up the qualities of the ideal man with the constant steady stream of images of male celebrities without a shred of fat — and shredded abs and solid pecs — and advertisements of shirtless men advertising products like the ones above, with identity-defining slogans and product names like “MAN” and “Sport” and “Smell Like a Man,” men and young guys have it JUST AS HARD as women when it comes to body image issues.
The only difference is that men rarely speak up about their body issues. Why? Because it’s decidedly un-masculine to do so. Men aren’t supposed to be fallible and vulnerable, remember? This in and of itself is incredibly damaging.
Men are every bit as vulnerable as women. Just as men have the same issues with their bodies that women do.
Take a look at the trailer for a new documentary to be released this year by the woman behind Miss Representation, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, called “The Mask You Live In,” that will seemingly address the issues I’m about to talk about:
In addition to being bombarded from a young age with not only gender-defining characteristics and roles men need to play, boys also shown that they need to maintain the perfect body. Especially now, in The Age of Social Networking, it’s easy to be bombarded with images of what it means to be a “man,” most of which are fixated on the penis.
Size Matters. Everyone knows this adage. Men often measure themselves by the literal and figurative size of their penis. Penis size is often a source of contention for most men, seeing as how the porn industry decided a long time ago that “bigger was better.” This ideology has become a part of our belief system. I routinely hear my female friends saying, “he was too small” (and being everyone’s GBF, I’m privy to the numbers — and sometimes even pictures) at six inches or so. And locker room talk for boys growing consists largely of public, and private comparisons to other guy’s members.
The fear for every guy is that they’re not big enough. And if they’re not big enough, they’re not “MAN” enough. Even in J.Lo’s music video for “I Luh Ya Papi,” there is a major focus on many of the male models’ crotches; the camera either zooms in on a precarious bulge or captures one of the men highlighting that general region.
Images like this do nothing to eradicate that fear, either:
The SUPER SEVEN INCHER will blow your mind. Then there’s Carls Jr telling you (the male viewer, because the target audience of this ad is most definitely young males judging by Paris Hilton’s scantily clad bikini body and the truck in the background) that size actually DOES matter, and even if your female partner tells you it doesn’t, she’s lying.
This next ad makes Scrabble, an intellectual board game, synonymous with the penis:
Look at the size of that travel board! We live in a world dictated primarily by the porn industry, where the above image, of a tanned, oiled, muscled hunk with a (presumably) large penis is desired and considered alpha.
Again, all of this adds up to what it means to be a man, and from a very young age, boys soak up these images and ideas and subconsciously process this information in ways that ultimately create their definition of “Man.”
A man is only as good as his strength. Or his penis. Or his body.
Then, of course, we have men depicted as objects of the viewer’s desires. The Zesty Guy from the Kraft salad dressing commercials is seen below as an actual object on a picnic blanket, an appetizer for the viewer, part of the spread:
And of course, the Zesty Guy, much like the Old Spice Man, is the ultimate idea of what a man should be:
In this faux ad from Sex and the City (which was then parlayed into an actual ad by Absolut without the actor’s or the show’s consent), we see how the model in the image is hairless and sculpted, but he’s vulnerable and his body language mimics that of the Absolut bottle. He’s an object, part of the bed, something “pretty” to look at. His penis is literally the bottle. And a big one at that.
With the same sentiments as the image above, Gabriel Aubry is selling bed sheets here. As if he comes with the sheets, he is just as soft, just as gentle, yet still ruggedly handsome.
Also, let’s take a look at 2012’s song of the summer “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen. The music video for that song was essentially a stalker anthem for the social media whore of the 21st Century. The object of Jepsen’s affection was, of course, a guy with an incredibly sculpted body:
He was a fixture for the entire length of the video, no more than an nice-looking object that, if Jepsen actually took the time to talk to him like a person and not an object, she would have found out that he was gay (#TwistEnding).
The greater mainstream interwebs have also fed into male objectification in a way that most wouldn’t do for females, namely BuzzFeed, whose obsession with a shirtless Zac Efron has sprung up various times over the last few years. There are countless articles about him being shirtless for no other reason than to post GIFs like this:
And this (with the attached dialogue propelling the idea that men who look like Zac Efron are the ultimate in attractiveness):
My real question is this: why hasn’t the media taken a more proactive role in spotlighting the very real issue of male objectification, the problems that spring from it for me (body dysmorphia, eating disorders, unhealthy body image, extreme exercise fads, and even obesity), and the inherent problem behind using female objectification to justify the use of male objectification?
J.Lo’s music video for “I Luh Ya Papi” points out something that is ignored by most media: That, unless it’s pointed out and blatantly referred to, as it is in J.Lo’s video, male objectification just doesn’t get enough attention, nor is it taken seriously. Even J.Lo and her friends treat the video like it’s joke, which devalues the impact of objectification in the first place. One friend even says, “Why can’t we, for once, objectify the men?” and yes, it’s not too often seen in music videos, especially hip hop-oriented videos, but men are quite often objectified, and have been for years. And it’s just as destructive.
The music video also points out the problem with our attitudes: You cannot fight female objectification by objectifying men.
Two wrongs don’t make a right. You can’t fight fire with fire. Not to mention the fact that in J.Lo’s music video, both of her female back-up dancers are gyrating up against the featured rapper, French Montana, writhing on the floor underneath him in animal print spandex, effectively objectifying themselves.
The rise in the objectification of men is NOT a form of gender equality, nor should it be considered as such. In fact, attitudes need to change so that a dialogue can start about the long-lasting damaging effects of this mentality on the male psyche. Just as we’ve been fighting for equality between the sexes so that women won’t feel the pressures to conform to impossible standards, we must do the same for men.
Men, after all, are people too.
Originally Published: March 17th, 2014; Updated: June 25th, 2014