Yesterday, Amal Awad wrote an interesting piece for this site on GQ magazine's recent "Man of the Year" covers. Unlike past "honours", this year GQ chose to award the title to four men, also naming Lana Del Ray their Woman of the Year.
For some, the magazine's choice to photograph Del Ray nude while her male counterparts were snapped in suits caused some consternation. I don't disagree. You can make a fairly straightforward argument about the concerns of the male gaze here (and many already have), and the tendency to honour men for their actions and women for their looks. GQ isn't the first magazine to feature the kind of lazy creative directorship that thinks posing women nude alongside smartly dressed men results in some kind of cutting-edge cultural diorama. Comments defending the cover cite the fact that GQ is a magazine targeted at men as some kind of justification. Of course they want to see naked women! This is a men’s mag! Men like naked women! Naked! Women! Women naked!
Unfortunately, everyone in society — men and women alike — has been trained to see only women’s bodies as commodities to be visually judged, enjoyed and dissected. It has nothing to do with any kind of target market. Last I checked, Vanity Fair wasn’t a men’s magazine but I’m still fairly sure it’s illegal for them to offer clothes to the female subjects of their photography shoots. (Keen observers will notice that the few times famous men and women are posed together here, the men are always dressed while the women are naked. It’s as if his achievements in film/music/fashion have earned him the right to wear clothes — except instead of being chucked an old pair of socks, a creative director throws Scarlett Johansson’s boobs at his face.)
When you consider the limited spectrum of physical attractiveness lauded in Hollywood, the obsession with photographing the same gently curved frames encased in milky white skin, staring open lipped and empty eyed at a camera and pretending it’s the pinnacle of beauty produces a result that’s neither edgy nor particularly misogynist — just gapingly dull. They are almost too boring to talk about. Almost.
But I'm not hugely interested in arguing whether or not the covers are exploitative (they are) and a gross crime against women (not particularly, in the larger scheme of things). I’m more interested in why we keep projecting the idea that women’s bodies are just more pleasurable to look at than men’s; that our "curves" and "softness" are nectar for world-ravaged eyes, while being forced to gaze upon the hideous geometry of our menfolk is the quickest way to reintroduce the vomitorium to a 21st-century public.
You may have heard one of the following arguments. You may have even used it, in which case, shame on you.
“It’s because no one wants to see naked men!”
“It’s a men’s magazine; of course they want to see naked women and not other naked men!”
“It’s because men’s bits are unattractive!”
Let’s get one thing straight. One of the major problems facing the quest for equality today is entrenched homophobia. Fear of being seen to appreciate the male form is a symptom of homophobia — if your artistic sensibilities are capable of appreciating the fine lines of a woman’s body, you should be equally able to turn your eye to her male counterpart. So why do we keep insisting that men’s bodies are somehow inferior and less challenging to our sophisticated punters’ eyes? Could it really be that we feel uneasy placing men in positions of vulnerability, posed coquettishly and subjected to the scathing critique of the faceless voyeur? That for men to be powerful they must be posed powerfully; for women to be powerful, they must command a gaze?
I’m interested in what this does for male self esteem. The Real Woman industry has become so prevalent that you can barely swing a cliche around without hitting a "Danger! Curves ahead!" sign. Women are told constantly that we are all beautiful. That our bodies are beautiful in all their various glories (unless you’re naturally thin, in which case you’re told you’re not real and men hate you), and variety is the spice of life. We’re given Real Women campaigns, and told our penchant for chocolate makes us more interesting than women who diet. We are so obsessed with the idea of proclaiming our diverse beauty that we’re at risk of dismantling the patriarchy only to construct a sprawling cult of self worship in its place.
But where are the people reassuring the Average Joe that his body is beautiful? A man doesn't enjoy untold social power just because he likes seeing half-naked women in magazines. I enjoy seeing photos of The Gosling with his shirt off too — let’s not turn this into a fear of the naked form. Who's to say he might not like some reassurance that when HE takes his clothes off in the misty-eyed light of a new romance, his paramour is going to gaze on him with the same kind of wonder and lust she’s been told she deserves? Why do we assume that just because men aren’t routinely the object of voyeuristic critique that they don’t also need some kind of acknowledgement that their bodies are, from a purely aesthetic point of view, also desirable in all their various forms? Do we ever consider the self-esteem of men who don’t fit into the current mould of male beauty — chiselled, fit and sadly hairless?
Covers like the Del Ray shoot are exploitative not because the naked form is inherently passive, but because the intention is exploitative. Anyone who argues otherwise is kidding themselves. We can legitimately argue that men are protected from the exhausting self-loathing that comes from living in a culture that rewards women’s achievements by letting people gaze on them naked. We can even argue that their need for sensitive body image campaigns is rendered mute because men aren’t, on the whole, told that their overarching value comes from the way they look.
But that doesn’t mean that, repeated often enough, the phrase "no one wants to see naked men" isn’t going to be internalised by some of them — particularly those who feel they fall physically short of the ideals of aesthetic masculinity that do get praised in our society. I don’t think we gain anything by refusing to talk about what that means. It is no doubt damaging to objectify one sex for the apparent advantage of the other, and participating in your own objectification doesn’t make the action any more equal or empowering. But we also gain nothing by pretending that men are immune to the crushing self-doubt experienced by women simply because they get more pictures of boobs to look at.
This Thursday lunchtime, Clementine will be speaking at Melbourne's Wheeler Centre on the myth of equality and the resurgence of the sexist backlash against feminism. Entry is free! Find out more here: The Wheeler Centre.