May contain male nudity

"Before 2009, shirtlessness was pretty standard for men in romantic comedies."

"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.

 

CAPTION

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?

CAPTION

 

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.

 

32 comments

  • There is a protein supplement shop opposite our local primary school. The windows are covered in large scale imagery of bare chested highly buffed men. When driving past I see my 7 year old son studying these images and commenting on why they have such big muscles. I often explain to him that these are not real and quite extreme but I do wonder the impact of such imagery on all the young boys viewing this imagery as they pass it every day outside their school. To be honest, I wish it wasn't there.

    Commenter
    Lizzie
    Location
    St Kilda
    Date and time
    May 24, 2012, 9:11AM
    • Hey Chloe - interesting article and couldn't agree more. Also, I think if you look beyond movies to magazines and television etc, you will see the same trend. Buff, muscular bodies without a lock of hair on them and somehow always oiled and sheeny.

      As a gay man, I find that the pressure is two-fold, because, I'm not sure if you've ever seen a gay men's magazine (DNA is a good example), it is page after page of hot buff man in various stages of undress. Most of my girlfriends love a good gawk through these magazines as well.

      It makes being your averagely built guy who goes to the gym 5 days a week kinda difficult because you put in a lot of effort but still look 'normal'.

      Hugh Jackman, Ryan Reynolds, Chris Hemsworth etc all go through MASSIVE bodybuilding and diet plans in the lead up to superhero movies which is unrealistic for the every day 9-5 guy because we simply don't have the time to be in the gym that long.

      It takes quite a reality to check to realise, most of us (unless we are genetically blessed) will never look like that and the bad news for women is - they're even less likely to nab one for a husband!

      I do think at the end of the day people fall in love with personalities, not bodies. But hey, the body is often one of the first things that catches your attention!

      Commenter
      Adrian
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      May 24, 2012, 9:20AM
      • I was composing your exact comment in my head while reading this article. As a gay man who works incredibly long hours running my own business, it's physically impossible to present the "ideal" that these movies, magazines and celebrities have now made us think is normal.

        I eat healthy and I go to the gym most days and I'm lucky that I have what I think is a good body - think Ashton Kutcher at his best, not Chris Evans. Yet I still find it hard to be considered attractive by other guys because I'm not presenting this "ideal" that requires super strict eating plans, 3-4 hours a day (minimum) in the gym sculpting each individual muscle with a personal trainer who costs upwards of $80 an hour.
        Many people don't realise that for actors, models etc. their look is quite literally their full time job - their eating plans and multiple trainers are all paid for by the movie studios.
        When I was younger I went through a horrible phase of depression mainly based around my body image and the fact that no matter how hard I tried, I didn't get any closer to looking ready for the cover of DNA Magazine. It was absolutely horrible and nearly destroyed me, I almost lost my job, my relationship and in some ways my life.

        It's time to re-evaluate the "ideal" and all this lusting over a body which is a full time to job to create does not help.

        Commenter
        Matt
        Date and time
        May 24, 2012, 9:48AM
      • Hey Matt,

        I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one who has had these feelings of inadequacy as a result of hollywood's buff men!

        I think the key is maintaining a realistic attitude towards your own body and striving to look "the best you can" as opposed to "I want to look like him" which is an unhealthy comparison.

        cheers!

        Commenter
        Adrian
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        May 24, 2012, 10:46AM
      • @Adrian and @Matt
        What you say about DNA and the like did seem to have that effect on body image but I feel it has started to shift due to saturation. It's getting to a point where every page is just a different head and tan on the same body, making the "fashion" spreads (often the model just sitting naked in the garden with a branded pair of undies maybe under the pot plant at the back of the pic), monotonous and the magazine less appealing due to the number of fashion spreads they include increasing over time, taking up good article real estate. Plus DNA is one of the worst offenders for cloning their models. Readers were begging for less manscaped models, so DNA responded with a clippered model every 6 or 8 months. I found over time for me personally, the over-abundance of this 'ideal body' made it visually less appealing than it once was and I became more attracted to the 'boy next door that worked out but still had a pot belly' type.
        And don't get me started on the over-representation of straight models.

        Commenter
        Buffybot
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        May 24, 2012, 6:08PM
      • @Adrian

        Hugh Jackman stated in an interview that the only reason why he is so muscular is because of Wolverine. He finds it too hard and if it wasn't for the movie role he wouldn't bother as much.

        Commenter
        Ripley
        Location
        Hunting Aliens
        Date and time
        May 25, 2012, 8:00AM
    • Thanks, now I have the image of Jason Segal wiggling his junk back and forth saying "I've got a present for you" stuck in my head.

      Commenter
      adrian8020
      Date and time
      May 24, 2012, 9:23AM
      • "For years, we’ve been warned that those unattainable ideals are warping men’s expectations about what women’s bodies should look like"

        Unfortunately for your thesis, it's women who put the expectations on themselves and other women, not men.

        Commenter
        Erm
        Date and time
        May 24, 2012, 9:31AM
        • Marketing has more than a little to do with it. Mitchell and Webb cover this well, even if they've missed the shift toward men over the last decade:

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=85HT4Om6JT4

          Commenter
          Dan
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          May 24, 2012, 9:45AM
        • I wouldn't discount men, it's not women I have heard refer to a friend as a 'whale' when she is a size 12. And I have been part of many conversations - in my male dominated work - where a man, trying to describe how attractive a woman is, uses a mix of celebrity features to achieve it
          .
          Obviously women are competitive but I think a lot of that competition is also directed toward 'winning' a man's attention because she mirrors what she thinks he finds attractive - what is shown in media as being beautiful.
          Which also counts for (mainly) male-directed media such as pornography which teaches men what is considered beautiful and 'should' turn them on.

          I agree with the author, film media is a highly accessible, non-taboo way for young people to see what the body 'should' look like naked to be desirable. I expect it will continue to work away on men's self image too.

          Commenter
          murta703
          Date and time
          May 25, 2012, 5:20AM

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