Men, Objectified: From Michelangelo to J.Lo, a Study of the Effect of Mainstream Masculinity on Male Identity

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.

Sex sells.

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.

Why?

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.

michelangelo-the-fall-and-expulsion-of-adam-and-eve-sistine-chapel1

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”:

michelangelo-david12

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:

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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.

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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.”

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Nothing says “I’m a man” like dirt and muscles and a cologne called “Sport.”

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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.

old-spice-man-your-man-could-smell-like-video

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:

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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.

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This next ad makes Scrabble, an intellectual board game, synonymous with the penis:

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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.

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The tagline reads: “Never having skinny dipped in cold water before, Chad was worried about a certain body part.” #SHRINKAGE

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:

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And of course, the Zesty Guy, much like the Old Spice Man, is the ultimate idea of what a man should be:

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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.

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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.

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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

22 Comments

  1. Steven, I know that you are a big fan of Adam Lambert. And you’ve probably have read many tweets on his site that are directly appreciative of Adam’s anatomy. Glamberts love Adam for many reasons but most pay special attention to his sexiness. I am one of those and I am not embarrassed to say that photos of him in tight leather pants or open shirts give me a special thrill. Sex is a driving force in all societies. Keeps the world turning. Your opinion is well taken. But I will still enjoy one of the great pleasures in my life and that would be Adam Lambert and his manly/feminine beauty.

    1. Sandy, I’m ALL for visually appreciating the male anatomy, especially Lambert’s, but this was really more about how tired I am of the double-standard that exists (and not the double standard we’re all familiar with.) Men are and have been objectified just as much as women, but it’s just not taken seriously. Or if it is, it’s done so for the wrong reasons. My point was that male objectification is JUST as harmful for a young boy/man as female objectification is for young girls/women. And promoting objectification of any kind is harmful for both sexes because it leads to unhealthy body image and body dysmorphia.

  2. There was this music video for a song by Toni Braxton when I was a teenager (I can’t remember the title of it now) where she and a bunch of her girlfriends were hanging out in her apartment and rating the physiques of various men as they arrived to her apartment and flexed and posed for them. (Maybe they were FedEx guys or something? I probably should YouTube it…) It weirded me out and disturbed me then and it still does for the exact same reasons that you detailed here. Serving up a portion of objectification for men does not suddenly make it go away for women who have been historically objectified.

    1. “You’re Making Me High”! — SUCH a classic 90s gem! And I can’t believe I forgot about that!

      Like I said, two wrongs don’t make a right, and honestly, men have been objectified for a long time too, or rather, glorified, which is a problem in and of itself.

  3. OMG, such a well-written argument and, like… I clearly co-sign on ALL of it. I love that you took the topic of male objectification and went all Sistine Chapel on its ass.

    It’s so true… male body dysmorphia. Such a thing. ESPECIALLY in the gay world, but that’s a whole other sack of potatoes.

    (Is that a phrase? “Whole other sack of potatoes”? Or am I yet to have enough coffee? You know what? If it’s not, it SHOULD be a phrase.)

    1. Thanks! This is a lecture that I usually give in my writing and research course that I parlayed through the timely use of J.Lo. Worked out wonderfully. I studied art history in undergrad, so it’s a part of me in whatever I do.

      ALSO, the gay world: SUCH A NEW SACK. OF POTATOES. (Yes, it’s totally a phrase!) Maybe I’ll write another post about that…

  4. Hello new writer friend! Everything you’ve said here is everything I feel about everything! I’ve always been irked by the assumption that male body image isn’t a problem societally. This reminds me a bit of an article I saw on the AV Club at some point about songs where the woman takes on the male role (think “Like A Boy” by Ciara), and essentially the thought is that’s never okay for anyone. Why can’t we just push past the idea that both genders should “own” sexual promiscuity?

    Basically all of the writing I’m doing right now is about fat, gay dating websites like Chasabl and Grommr too. It’s objectification on the other end of the spectrum and, as a fat gay dude, it weirds me out. One time a guy asked me to masturbate for him while eating a glazed donut. I, uh, did not comply.

    1. Hey there new writer friend!!

      Honestly, I don’t think we CAN push the idea of not objectifying either gender BECAUSE sex is such a huge part of our culture. WE eat (sometimes quite literally), breathe, and sleep (again, literally) sex. It’s a basic human need, above food, shelter, and clothing in many cases. This is not the problem, though. The problem is that each gender owns the others sexual promiscuity in their hands, instead of, like you said, each gender holding it for themselves. I think there are much deeper questions to ask in regards to each gender holding their own sexual representations, particularly for men, because mainstream media and the men behind it, hold heteronormative ideals, and to truly get past it, men have to be vulnerable and more aware of the male form and its inherent beauty, much like women have done to take sexuality back for themselves.

      HOLY SHIT RE: THAT REQUEST! I’m dying. In so many ways. I can’t even…

  5. The representations of male bodies that have the most negative impact on me are those shown by magazines, websites and porn targeted at gay men. Every single advert (no matter if it is for a gay bar, clothing, legal advice, restaurants, holidays or even safer sex information) uses extremely narrow examples of the male physique and explicitly tie it in with being a more realised person. It is very demoralising and I feel othered by organisations that are designed to support me as a gay man. I went into Top Man (clothing store) in London recently and was shocked to see a size of clothing the store calls ‘super skinny’. When I asked where the larger sizes were, the assistant straight up told me that they have nothing in my size. Not one item in a 4 level store in central London. I was so annoyed that I went straight to a pub for a drink and all the gay street press magazines and guides were packed full of images of men that the ‘super skinny’ clothes would be perfect for. It’s all horribly depressing.

    1. It really is disgusting! I too have felt othered for the majority of my life, being bigger than your “average” gay man (I quote “average” because in the gay community, gay man are “supposed to be” just as you described, not what anyone would normally consider “average”.) This is part of the reason I don’t really go out to gay bars and such — I just can’t be around such a negative space. That’s what all of this is: negativity. These types of standards breed unhealthy body images and make people feel not only like “others,” but like they’re unworthy. And it’s not even gay men. Straight men feel this way too. Men have become so incredibly pressured to appear a certain way, despite the false adage that “men can let themselves go and nobody cares.” It’s just not true. Everyone cares.

  6. I just need you to know that I read this entry while eating a piece of cake the color of cookie monster and drinking a root beer. Feel free to enjoy the symbolism.

  7. Yep, you’re spot on.

    I know most of the time it’s “fat” people who feel this the most, but for what it’s worth, it sucks sometimes being a man and not being able to gain weight, even when you try. Now, I’m definitely grateful to be on this end of the spectrum since I can get abs pretty easily, and since working out, I’ve been able to attain a modicum of success at bulking up just a bit, but building that David-like muscle is still elusive even for us with Ferrari-like metabolisms.

    While being thin is overall considered “better” in our admittedly overweight society, as a man who is supposed to embody strength, sometimes I think being a skinny guy can be similar to being a “fat” girl. Happily, my own body issues have become much less since leaving adolescence behind and growing into my 20-something physique, but there are still many days when I struggle to recognise my own masculinity since I often feel weaker than these “alpha” men in the clothes and colognes adverts.

    Additionally, I grew up hearing my female classmates go on and on about actors like Zac Efron or Ryan Gosling or whomever the hunk-du-jour was, and it irked me that they could so blithely sit there and rate the physical attractiveness of these famous men, but if I were to do the same thing with my buddies over female actors, we’d all be rightly called out as a bunch of lecherous MEN. Even at work now, I’ve had to listen to my mostly women coworkers “ooh” and “aah” over the World Cup players’ physiques (which is still slightly annoying even when you already receive that appreciation from others yourself).

    Thanks for bringing this into the public discussion. Maybe we can tear ourselves away from our loins long enough to have some rational discourse about this subject, though at the risk of sounding like a pessimist, I think the ship has sailed in our hyper-visual, hyper-sexualised culture. :/

    1. What an incredibly insightful comment, Ed! Thank you for adding to this important discussion.

      I don’t think that the ship has sailed. Or, at least, I hope it hasn’t. The key is to start talking about this more. Men of all body types encounter body image issues. My boyfriend is often told that he is “too skinny” (when in actuality, he’s toned, healthy, and perfectly proportionate to his height), but it really bothers him, more than anything else that people view him that way.

      I’m going to be starting a campaign soon to raise more awareness about male objectification. If you’d like, I’d love to have you participate.

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