May 2, 2008

Tom Ford comments on the lack of male nudity

Posted in gender roles, mass media, objectification, representation, sexual politics, Sexuality Blogs and Resources at 1:13 pm by LB

I stumbled on this New York Magazine article via Ms. Naughty’s blog (NSFW), and I am truly intrigued. Not because I think that one (or even 100) pictorials of nude men will change the way male and female bodies are/not produced as ‘sexual.’ As with many many gender and sexuality issues, the problem is not (only) with correcting misrepresentations by merely adding to the ones we have, just like more women as corporate CEO’s is not all that is needed to change the way business and economics are centered around the worker as male. It’s a start, but it’s not the whole story, not even close.

I’m more interested in what Ford said.

[…] the male nude is one of our last taboos. There’s a double standard at play here: magazines that are happy to fund ads featuring an artfully lit female nude will balk at an image of her male counterpart.

Bodies themselves may be, for the most part, natural raw material. But the value societies gives to bodies, what we see those bodies as useful for, what uses are appropriate for which bodies, how bodily qualities (i.e. beauty, strength) are defined, are all socio-cultural and ideological, thus also political.

To Ford’s point, women’s bodies have been constructed as inherently sexual, beautiful, and visually appealing. The sexualization of women’s bodies in advertising, “erotic art,” and a slew of forms of entertainment are symptoms of gender hierarchies that objectify women, and they also reproduce and reiterate their objectification in defining the ‘inherent’ sexuality of the female body. In our culture, women’s bodies are for being looked at; they are for someone other than themselves. While these representations are a symptom of inequality and don’t directly cause it, the system of representation is circular and feeds itself.

Men’s bodies presented as sexual is considered an anomaly, and often is scandalous. Men’s bodies are constructed as useful, instrumental things– men’s bodies do. They do work, (they ‘do’ women! or men!), they perform feats of strength, athleticism, agility; for most men they are means to an end– they are incidental. The only real eroticization of male bodies is in the sex act itself, only in front of lovers. Their bodies are typically not something to be looked at and criticized publicly, causing a self-policing among men about their own physical appearance. Ford asks,

Why, he asks, is it “gay” for another man to comment on another man’s figure, when women can freely tell other women their boobs look great?

The beauty of male bodies, in our culture, is supposed to be limited to sexual intimacy, whereas the beauty of female bodies is for public consumption and commentary. The femininity (sex appeal) of the female body is tied to women’s identities, and complementing a woman’s body (in the appropriate context) has the effect of reinforcing and praising her feminine identity. Further, when women’s bodies are posited as the inherently sexual ones, we are used to women’s bodies being desired by both sexes: they are the ones men desire to have and women desire to be. In our cultural context, for what purpose would a het man comment on a man’s body? Visually possessing women through the gaze is part of the production of masculinity and is a privilege of it; looking at bodies is tied to sexual desire. Under such a limiting construction of sexuality and “the look”, what other explanation can we provide to men looking at men’s bodies but an assumption of gayness?

Alanis Morisette said, ” I like to think of my body as an instrument, rather than an ornament.” I don’t think the idea of body-as-ornament is close to the top of the list of things men are concerned with regarding their masculinity.

Because these ideas are reinforced throughout various arenas (sport, film, art, fashion, ‘sexuality’ as represented in pornography, etc.), and are linked to ideological power structures (gender dominance, or patriarchy), this isn’t just a matter of representation. Sexual asymmetry is one of the last acceptable gendered power differentials in western society. And it’s also not a matter of prudishness. My critique sexualized images of women objects to the fact that the only valued social space available for women in the realm of sexuality is being the object on display. Thus simply adding some naked men here and there does not change the structure of how sexuality is produced through particularly gendered bodies and the resulting sexual assumptions and sexual possibilities. It’s lip service and a way to say, “see, they do it to men too.” But in the presence of social norms and expectations that define sexual gender roles in a way that reproduces patriarchal power hierarchies, images of nude men and women are not equivalent in meaning. This is oh so apparent in comments I’ve heard from guys saying:

“girls [sic] are so lucky they can get paid so much to take their clothes off,” or
“if I was a girl [sic] I’d love it that everyone would want to see me naked,” or my favorite,
“I don’t get the big deal about rape-I wish girls would force themselves on me.”

Sexualization of bodies does not mean the same thing for women as for men. And since what ‘sexy’ looks like is also something we learn, and since we are not taught how to see men’s bodies as sexual nor is it easy to find representations of eroticized male bodies (it’s no surprise that lots of het women watch gay porn!), for the most part, viewing men’s and women’s bodies is also a different process, signifying differently to different genders.

Representations of the body as sexual are not plopped into an otherwise neutral social context, and therefore are loaded with meaning from the get-go. This quote of Ford’s is rather indicative of contextual difference I have been trying to elaborate:

Imagine … if our suits were entirely designed to show off our penises. Imagine if contemporary fashion demanded that you left your cock hanging outside your trousers, with perhaps just the head trussed up in a tiny pouch like a dick bra. Everyone would see our cocks all the time, in the same way that fashion features women’s breasts.

Part of the problem is that women want to look…and have little to look at. Meanwhile, women’s bodies are exponentially increasing in availability at the click of a mouse. And the cultural policing of women’s bodies as properly sexual is undeniably inescapable. This isn’t an issue of adding more naked men to the mix. I’m not sure even having an equal number of visually sexually available men and women on the internet and in film and advertising would necessarily “fix” things is the values and meanings attached to sexed bodies remains static.

Lastly, how unfortunate that this is in Britain’s GQ, and not the U.S.’s.

**also, I understand that I am speaking of these issues in terms of heterosexuality, as sexuality is constructed through heteronormative culture.

8 Comments »

  1. Arkhilokhus said,

    Visually possessing women through the gaze is part of the production of masculinity and is a privilege of it; looking at bodies is tied to sexual desire.

    Well, where does that leave us, though? I understand you’re being primarily descriptive here, but it’s hard to see how men or women can avoid reinforcing this particular construct. I also think homophobia plays a large role in the lack of eroticization of the male body; it’s not all about “possessing women”.

    But in the absence of social norms and expectations that define sexual gender roles in a way that reproduces patriarchal power hierarchies, images of nude men and women are not equivalent in meaning.

    I’m a bit confused by this. Is it possible you meant, “But in the presence of social norms and expectations…”?

  2. lindabeth said,

    For the first thing you mention, I was indeed being descriptive, and was trying to indicate that adding representations is good but not enough–that other things need to change too to change how representations are read. How? I honestly don’t know…for one, our conversations around sexuality and representation have to be more productive and less sensationalized. We think we are more sexually free simply because sex is “everywhere” and we don’t realize that our sexuality becomes policed by the “everywhereness” of it. And I do believe that if sexuality is constructed it can be constructed otherwise. Not in a utopian sense but in a “more just” sense.

    But I thought the things Ford had to say were a good start…more of this needs to happen in the context of men’s magazines and culture.

    And yes homophobia is quite an issue too, as I indicated when I suggested that the male body as erotic is limited to the actual bedroom, and therefore tied to actual desire, and subsequently homophobia. I suppose I was more trying to here to propose why men looking at men might be constructed as homophobic where women looking at women is not.

    and thanks for the typo correction!

  3. Arkhilokhus said,

    I suppose part of what bothers me is statements like this one:

    In our culture, women’s bodies are for being looked at; they are for someone other than themselves.

    You almost seem to be saying here that the act of looking at women in a non-accidental context is inherently objectifying. I hope I’m misrepresenting your view here, because that position puts, I think, immense obstacles to moving from descriptive analyses to presecriptive approaches.

  4. Ms Naughty said,

    Great post Lindabeth :)

  5. Arkhilokhus said,

    Reading my last comment, I think I owe you an apology.

    I’m learning that, at least at this point in my Feminist studies, I do gradually become more and more defensive over time as I study Feminist ideas. Eventually I reach a point where I start to overreact to every little thing, and have to take a couple days off to destress a bit. Obviously, this is one of those times.

    I do have frustrations relating to the lack of positive alternatives for expressing male sexuality, but your post isn’t the proper target for those frustrations.

    Again, my apologies.

  6. lindabeth said,

    arkhilokhus, don’t apologize…I am writing out frustration as well. Part of where I’m coming from is when people suggest that all that is required is new representations, and that’s what I’m trying to complicate. New representations only go so far when the same sexist structures and values are still in place. And that was my primary motivation for looking at what Ford was saying rather than just say “woohoo, representations of male nudity” because I think what he said spoke a lot more to the structural problems.

  7. Renee said,

    While male bodies are not eroticized in the same fashion that female bodies are, they are still subject to social discipline. While still women still greatly outnumber men in terms of enhancement surgery there can be no doubt that more and more men are turning to this as a legitimate option to make sure that their bodies conform to ideas regarding male appearance. I would also submit that certain bodies are subject to more stigmatization than others. For instance an obese male will face just as much social discipline as an obese female. I think it really comes down to what context the body is being viewed in.

  8. lindabeth said,

    Renee-Thanks for your comment! And I completely agree that the social discipline around bodies is not limited by gender identity issues…and I do think that male bodies are being represented as eroticized more than 10 years ago, for sure.

    What I am interested in-and what I am trying to address here-is how women’s bodies are produced as inherently sexually appealing (rather than being that way as a result of socialization and hierarchical constructions of gender), and how anything “sexy” is by default referring to women’s bodies. Male bodies seem to be useful bodies first, then subject to sexualization in very restricted contexts, whereas women’s bodies are useful only (or at least first) in terms of their sexual appeal.

    For example, athletic female bodies must be produced as sexual in order to be seen as female (ie the apparent need of female athletes to pose in Maxim). And politically and economically powerful women (for example, see my post on Chancellor Merkel) must be seen as ‘men,’ devoid of sexed bodies at all.

    I’m working out this idea that men have bodies while women are their bodies.


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