Saturday, April 23, 2011

I am Spartacus! (Not really, but I'm going to the gym.)

About 1:47 into "Ice Cream Truck"
My wife and I watched a music video recently for a song called "Ice Cream Truck" by Cazwell, a DJ from New York City.  At one point in the video, when I saw the image to the right, I remarked, "That guy has a PERFECT body."

I forwarded the link to several friends with this message: "This video is likely to turn you on (if you're a gay guy or a straight woman) or make you feel inadequate (if you're a straight guy)."

And that is where Laura Mulvey comes in.  I have mentioned her before, in "Snark-Infested Waters."  She wrote a very famous essay called "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," and in it she suggests Hollywood films were shot from a male perspective.  The camera is like a man looking at women and sizing up their physical appearance.  The women in many films were "erotic objects" for the male characters and for the audience -- it was assumed that the men in the theater wanted to have the women on the screen and the women wanted to be them.  The women on the screen embodied a phrase Mulvey invents: "to-be-looked-at-ness." 

Mulvey does not say Hollywood invented this idea; Hollywood just perfected it.  "To-be-looked-at-ness" is an extension of dynamics that already existed in a patriarchal society.  We can assume the female audience members were conditioned (even further) by Hollywood to appeal to that "male gaze" even though they were not in films.  Women became hyper-aware of how they appeared to others. 

She describes this as a sort of reverse scopophilia (the pleasure of looking at people, especially for erotic pleasure).  Being looked at can be pleasurable, she writes, but it also can cause anxiety.  It can undermine a woman's confidence, as she is possibly aware of being judged by others and being judged against other women -- especially against idealized images of women.

Hollywood and popular culture in general eroticized women's bodies in ways they did not eroticize men's. But I think that is changing.  I think we are seeing men's bodies become the "erotic object" on the screen (big and small), in music videos (such as "Ice Cream Truck"), and in advertising -- such as this ad for Marc Jacobs's Bang cologne that I have seen in Esquire.

One could protest my list because Cazwell's video is clearly homoerotic; it uses men's bodies as erotic objects because that is what its audience wants.  But gay culture went mainstream several years ago, and now gay music videos circulate as freely as straight music videos.  More than ever, straight men are seeing men's bodies presented as erotic objects.  And these images are not always in productions intended specifically for gay audiences.

Spartacus, for example.

Andy Whitfield as Spartacus
The gladiators in the Starz television series are more naked than clothed in every episode.  Sometimes we see them completely naked, despite there being no narrative need for them to be so.  (That is one way to reduce a costume budget.)  And when we see a man and a woman in a sex scene, the man's body is featured just as much as the woman's -- if not more so.

I challenge any man, straight or gay, to tell me that Andy Whitfield, who plays Spartacus, is not lust-worthy.  In Mulvey's description, he is an "erotic object" because it is likely the audience either wants to have him or be him.

One legacy of "to-be-looked-at-ness" among women is eating disorders based upon poor body image.  Research indicates that "body image dissatisfaction" is growing among men.  There are more eroticized male bodies visible in popular culture, and this increased attention has led to changes in those ideal bodies.  They are more muscular then ever.  One study suggests that a 1976 Playgirl centerfold model would need 12 fewer pounds of fat and 27 more pounds of muscle to be a centerfold in 2001.  

Finally, if you are skeptical that male "to-be-looked-at-ness" is spreading, then please explain Spanx for men to me.

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