"Before 2009, shirtlessness was pretty standard for men in romantic comedies."
Some people spend their postgrad years locked away in a lab, or alone in a library delving into dusty manuscripts. I’m spending my postgrad years thinking about Jason Segel’s penis.
Well, not all the time. I’m getting my PhD in media studies, and my doctoral dissertation is about contemporary Hollywood romantic comedies. Which means that while I have clocked a considerable number of hours in the library, when I do research, it’s often at the movies or sitting in front of a DVD, remote control in hand, hitting “play” and “pause” a lot and taking copious notes. As far as data collection goes, it sure beats poking at a petri dish.
To be fair, I don’t spend that much time thinking about Mr. Segel’s member. And when I do, it’s because one of the things I have found as I’ve been examining trends in the genre we all love to hate or hate to love is that since 2009, there’s been a notable increase in the amount of male nudity on offer.
Before 2009, shirtlessness was pretty standard for men in romantic comedies (why do you think chronic shirtophobe Matthew McConaughey makes so many rom coms?) But in the last two years, we’ve seen the barely-clad bodies of Justin Long (Going the Distance), Jake Gyllenhaal (Love and Other Drugs), Ryan Reynolds (The Proposal), Ashton Kutcher (No Strings Attached), and Justin Timberlake (Friends With Benefits). In What’s Your Number?, producers appear to have forgotten to make room in the budget for a wardrobe for Chris Evans, who spends most of the movie stripped down to his birthday suit.
Before you press “Print” and run to your nearest video shop with the above list in hand, let’s take a moment to ask ourselves: what’s going on here?
Romantic comedies are largely made for women. While there certainly are men out there who watch and enjoy rom coms – more than will own to it, I suspect – they’re not the majority or the target audience. According to Nielson Ratings, women account for about 77% of the audience for romantic comedies.
Producers know this. They know who their audience is, and they spend a great deal of time and energy thinking about exactly what their audience wants to see, because movies are expensive to make, and if no one watches them, that money goes to waste. And right now, it seems, what women want is Chris Evans with very little clothing on.
It comes as news to absolutely no one that the straight women viewers at whom rom coms are aimed enjoy looking at men in a state of undress. That’s not a headline, and hasn’t been since the good Dr. Kinsey wrote it decades ago. What the recent uptick in male nudity suggests, however, is that now, we’re allowed to enjoy looking at men in a state of undress. We’re allowed to enjoy it in public, at the movies. There’s a big difference between acknowledging that of course, women have these desires – and actually catering to them. It signals a shift from acknowledging to allowing, and even encouraging, those desires, that I think demands further discussion.
What’s fascinating is that there doesn’t seem to be an accompanying uptick in female nudity in the genre. With the exception of The Proposal, in which Reynolds’s co-star Sandra Bullock also appears nearly nude, there is a nudity imbalance in all of these movies. So it’s not simply hat the genre is becoming more raunchy across the board: this is just about men.
Now that you’ve been granted permission to do so, think for a moment about what all those nearly-naked male bodies – Kutcher, Timberlake, Long, Reynolds, Gyllenhaal, and Evans – have in common. They’re all white. They’re all lean and broad-shouldered. They’re all rather muscular. Some of them are toned and sculpted in accordance with superhero standards: Evans was fresh off filming Captain America when he made What’s Your Number?, and Reynolds made The Proposal right after he wrapped Wolverine. And, uh, it shows.
For years, we’ve been warned about the impact that the unattainably thin and perfect images of female beauty can have on women and girls. Studies have made correlative connections between reading women’s magazines and lower self-esteem. Experts and activists have called for more diverse and realistic media imagery, and urged parents to teach medialiteracy to innoculate their daughters from the message that there’s only one way to be beautiful.
And, for years, we’ve been warned that those unattainable ideals are warping men’s expectations about what women’s bodies should look like.
So, what are these mostly-naked, marvelously buff dudes doing to the expectations and ideals of the mostly female audiences who are watching them? It may be too early to tell; after all, this is a relatively new trend. But if it continues, how might it shape women’s ideas about what regular men should look like?
Because we live in a culture in which women far more than men are told that their looks are paramount, media imagery is far more likely to affect women’s self-esteem than it is men’s. But that doesn’t mean that men are immune. Men account for an increasingly large proportion of the cosmetic surgeries performed in Australia, and, alarmingly, for an ever-increasing share of eating disorders. If we keep telling rom com viewers – straight women who sleep with men – that there’s only one way for a man to be sexually desirable, there will be real-world consequences.
Which brings us back to Jason Segel’s penis.
In Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Segel appears completely naked, twice. The first scene happens barely a few minutes in to the movie: Segel's character Peter greets his girlfriend wearing only a towel, and when she announces that she’s leaving him, he drops the towel in surprise. Instead of picking it up, he stands there, literally and figuratively stripped bare. Then, in a scene that is shocking for its nudity but that also elicits groans of pity, he turns around and bends over, trying to absorb the news. He’s trying to take a moment to compose himself, but in doing so, he spends a full moment exposing himself.
It’s important to note that in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, male nudity is a sign of vulnerability, not of sexual availability There’s nothing intentionally sexy about that towel-dropping scene. But Forgetting Sarah Marshall stands apart, both in how extreme its male nudity is, and in how it uses that nudity.
In all the other movies, we’re supposed to be turned on by all these nude dudes. We’re supposed to ogle them and objectify them in the same way that men have been encouraged to ogle and objectify women on screen for decades.
To some, this might look like women getting their own back; finally, men will know how it feels to be measured, in movie after movie, against the almost impossibly toned body of a celebrity, and, inevitably, they will know how it feels to fall short. And while I’ll admit that I don’t mind seeing Jake Gyllenhall sans clothes, that’s not how I see this trend.
We’ve seen the disastrous consequences of holding women and girls up to impossibly high standards, and we shouldn’t be subjecting men to the same treatment. To be fair, this is just one movie genre, and we don’t know if the trend will continue. But if it does, we know what kind of consequences it could have, and for that reason, we need to be wary. We already live in a culture that constrains our ideas about what a beautiful woman is. We mustn’t start treating men the same way. That is not the kind of gender equality we were hoping for.