Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Objectification, Storytelling, and the Male Body

The sexualization of women is everywhere. Hot women sell cars and stretch slinkily across billboards. Attractive actresses are cast in roles without personality or agency. Leaked nudes make magazine sales skyrocket.

The female body is worth a lot in America.

The problem isn't that we attribute beauty to a woman. The problem is when that attribute becomes the sole piece of information we know or care about in regards to her. It's fine to be sexy, but when a woman's thoughts or dreams are subsumed beneath qualities like how she makes us feel or how she's exactly what we want--when who she is gets ignored for who she is to me--sexy becomes sexualized. Then we have a problem.

Objectification is turning the real, actual person into an idea which fits our need. But being attractive can be part of who the actual person is without becoming their all-consuming feature. Avengers' Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson, is an attractive character, but she also has an efficient personality, secretive past, sarcasm which gives way to some hilarious lines, and badass skills that make her a vital part of the team.

Attractive characters are something we're used to in stories, and sometimes a necessary part of a plot (especially if it involves high school drama). Some, like superheroes, warriors, and other asskickers, will be attractive simply by virtue of being extremely fit. But as a creator, we want to communicate that physique in a way that doesn't idolize it or separate it from the person who inhabits the body.

It's easier for me to avoid sexualizing women in my art because I am one. If something feels over-the-top to me, chances are I'm not alone. There's no hard-and-fast rule, of course. Everyone has different perceptions of the boundary between what's objectification and what's simply a sexy human being.

But I can generally tell when something about a female character is unnecessarily sexual. But things get a lot more difficult when I'm dealing with my male characters.

Because men's ideals are ranked higher in our patriarchal world, and because our world is heteronormative, it's usually women's bodies that bear the brunt of objectification. Objectification of women actually works in favor of patriarchy because it strips women of intellect, self-determination, and any potent desire. Moreover, our society has such high standards for women's appearance that attractive women end up being objectified by the many other women who wish they could look the same.

There's a simple erotic component to objectification culture as well: we like things that arouse us. On a purely basic level, heterosexual men are only turned on by pornographic material involving women. But women are turned on by pornographic material that has any gender involved, regardless of their sexual orientation. Women's sexuality is thus exciting to 95% of the population.

As a result of all these factors, female sexualization is what we see the most of. It's what we're used to. It's what we notice and make a stink about.

The objectification of men can often go unobserved.

As a woman, I don't always know what counts as sexualization for men. I'm used to talk about breasts and butts selling products. What's the male equivalent? If I'm describing an attractive male character, what body parts are best to avoid? Is describing a character's chiseled abs the equivalent of unnecessary boob illustration? Does it turn him into one more hunky romantic interest who follows the protagonist around like a puppy dog on a leash?

I mean, come on. Even the docs were in awe of those pectorals.

While these questions are important, there are larger issues at stake too. This isn't just about parts, but whether or not the character has a personality. Does he do anything, of his own accord? Does he say anything original, or does he merely react to others? Does he have traits beyond his physique that are worth commenting on? If the answer is no, it's time to reconsider the character's purpose in the story.

Even if your character checks out, objectification can still occur within individual scenes. If two characters are having a romantic encounter, don't make it all about their gestures and touches. Consider what they're each thinking and feeling in the moment, what they might say or fear, how they might justify the situation. And if one or both of them is the opposite gender from yourself, consider getting someone from that gender to give the scene a read-through to make sure you're not just titillating your readers.

Is the objectification of men as big an issue as when we sexualize women? I'm going to say no, simply because female objectification reinforces age-old gender roles and stereotypes that thousands of years have left deeply ingrained. Nevertheless, sexualizing male bodies has its own pitfalls. In a world where the old scripts and gender roles are being torn down, we have to be very careful what narratives we replace them with.

Word count: 814.