– By Marielle Cuccinelli –
I saw Alita: Battle Angel with a couple of male friends when it came out in February. As someone who’s hyper-aware of the objectification of women on-screen, I was much more satisfied with this film than I expected – I definitely went in prepared for anime action heroine Alita to be a fetish girl, but was pleasantly surprised to find that that wasn’t the case. Somewhere in the middle of the film, there was one scene which love interest Hugo spent mostly shirtless for no apparent reason. That scene came back up in our discussion after the movie, and I was surprised when the two guys agreed that a) there’s definitely been a trend of male objectification in cinema and b) they’re “weirdly here for it.”
After six months of mental incubation and dissection of that conversation, I’ve arrived at a number of interrelated conclusions about the big picture subtext. The central conclusion: male objectification, while it’s always been present, has shifted from an appeal by male filmmakers to male fantasy, to an attempt by male filmmakers to appeal to female fantasy.
Before we get too far into this, let’s talk about cinema’s history with male objectification. I think we can all agree that women have taken the brunt of on-screen objectification and sexualization (women are partially or fully nude on screen three times as often as men). However, just because it happens to women more doesn’t invalidate the fact that it also happens to men. Your standard action flick will feature at least one look at a shirtless male body: think Adam Driver in Star Wars: the Last Jedi – Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible – Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Chris Pratt, Robert Downey Jr, Mark Ruffalo, Sebastian Stann, and all the other Marvel darlings in their various superhero films. The list could go on.
It’s easy to identify the cause of longstanding on-screen female objectification: decades of male-dominated filmmaking, before our society began to become self-aware and the male gaze was no longer PC. These days, if filmmakers want to objectify women, they have to disguise it as female empowerment to keep all the frothing proponents of equality off their backs – but that’s an issue for a different article. The question is, if women have been objectified all along because men were in control, then why have men also, albeit less frequently, been objectified?
My male high school classmates who didn’t believe I liked action movies for the action would answer that men have been objectified over the decades to appeal to the female portion of the audience. I postulate, though, that it’s actually to appeal to men.
Allow me to elaborate. Interestingly enough, it’s the same reason that stunning female love interests reliably end up with loser male heroes whose league they’re miles out of – and, often, whose less than model behavior toward said female is rewarded with the trophy girl’s affection (a la The Breakfast Club, Kickass, etc). The fictional male hero is a stand-in for the real-world male filmmaker and/or audience member; so the fictional male does, gets and is all the things about which the real-world male fantasizes. Either he’s a dumpy loser who gets the hot girl, or he’s a shirt-busting hunk – or, for bonus points, he’s a shirt-busting hunk of a loser who gets the hot girl. That objectified male body, the sculpted Marvel superbody, is another expression of male fantasy. It is indeed a common thread, but not because it’s what women want to see; rather, because it’s what men want for themselves.
Or rather, that has been the case for a long time. Recent cinema, however, believing itself to be on the cutting edge of progressiveness and equality, has begun to objectify men for women instead of for men. The easiest way to tell the difference is that this new and improved take on male objectification usually does not coexist alongside female objectification, as it always did before; where Mission: Impossible’s Ethan Hunt and Jane Carter once took turns being sexualized and objectified, now films like Star Wars: the Last Jedi and Alita: Battle Angel spare the female lead and only put her male counterpart’s body on display.
There are two driving motives behind this surge of male objectification intended to appeal to women. First: to dull women’s aversion to seeing themselves objectified, and second: to nurse the guilty feelings of “woke” men who have recognized that their sex is responsible for objectifying women on-screen since the inception of film.
To the first – if on-screen sexual exploitation can be transmogrified into an expression of equality, where men are exposed and objectified for the pleasure of women as much as women are exposed and objectified for the pleasure of men, then the same progressive camp that has long decried the sexualization and objectification of women as a reprehensible symptom of patriarchal societal dominance somehow stumbles into avid supportership of this indiscriminate objectification. Now objectification happens to everyone, men and women alike – if that doesn’t satisfy you, are you really interested in equality or are you just looking for something to complain about?
If equality were the only issue at stake here, this would be a satisfactory end destination. But as Christians, we should know better than anyone that there’s a lot more to it. We are all called to look at others, male or female, as humans, not as sexual objects. Regardless of whether it’s women being objectified on-screen, or men, or both, it’s demeaning and counter to the dignity of the person. We should strive to create a culture that recognizes, celebrates and preserves human dignity.
And to the second point – an ever-growing number of men recognize the longstanding disadvantage at which a male-dominated entertainment industry has put women. Even if they aren’t personally responsible for it, there’s often an attached sense of guilt – survivor’s guilt, as it were, or the guilt of the privileged. Often, that guilt translates into support and approval when the injustice that has been inflicted on women for so long is inflicted on men. There’s something comforting and relieving about a solution as simple as punishing men. The real solution is not to punish anyone, but to demand better treatment for everybody; achieving that cultural recognition and celebration of human dignity is a much less comforting, more difficult road.
As a side note, an interesting spin-off of these two motivations for the objectification of men is the careless bestowing of sexual power upon women. In a society where the balance of sexual power certainly does not favor women, it is perceived as harmless and even humorous when women on screen are allowed to act in ways that are no longer considered acceptable for men. As a general example, even up to very recent cinema, sexually inappropriate behavior from men ranging from crude speech to threatening behavior was tolerated, laughed at and even rewarded.
Now, as we as a society finally come to the realization that that’s actually not acceptable, there’s an inclination to over-correct; women can engage in everything from crude speech to threatening behavior, and that’s apparently alright – because in a society that feels bad for doing that to women but is still catching up to the fact that men can also be victims of sexual violence, the widely accepted reaction to women harassing men is amusement, instead of disapproval.
About the Author
Marielle Cuccinelli (class of 2019) is Virginia-bred storyteller who’s been obsessed with action movies for as long as she can remember. She’s pursuing a Communications Major with a double emphasis in Screenwriting and Directing at JPCatholic in order to live out her ambitions of bringing the female action heroes she looked for as a kid to life on the big screen. She spends her free time writing feature films and choreographing fight scenes.