WE ARE IN the midst of a new era of movie beefcake, of sexy men with muscular bodies willing to strip down for a more than willing audience. There are very few female sex symbols in Hollywood at the moment; most of the tits and ass on the silver screen is male.
This rather shocking revelation occurred to me as I was leaving the recent Man of Steel movie. As a long-time comics geek, I’m used to Lois Lane being a hot babe. Sure, she’s also always been a brilliant and courageous investigative reporter, but comics illustrators have delighted in drawing her showing off a little leg. She was often depicted in classic cheesecake fashion, in other words not pornographically, but with a helping of pin-up girl titillation. Superman was the one in the skintight costume, of course, but he wasn’t drawn to be foxy the way that she was. Though this has changed a bit now, the classic depiction of Superman that comics fans associate with the character had no racy body language, nipples, body hair, or bulge; he was powerful, broad shouldered and masculine, but was as desexualized as a Ken doll.
In Man of Steel, though, there’s clearly a role reversal. The camera travels lovingly up and down Superman’s glistening, shirtless torso, while Lois never even warrants a bra-and-panties moment. When I left the theater scratching my head, I looked around at the other movie posters advertising the summer blockbuster fare, and I saw Wolverine’s muscular, hairy chest, Channing Tatum’s rippling biceps, and the outright gay erotica that is the 300 sequel. There was not a fetishized female body in sight in any of the movie posters. Beefcake had completely taken the place of cheesecake in the movie audience’s dining menu.
This trend has continued throughout the year, with movies like Thor and Pacific Rim having decidedly more hunk factor than babe factor, and is a trend that has been quietly building for some time. Even the James Bond franchise, the go-to for hot babes on the big screen, is now more about a ripped Daniel Craig, often shirtless or being sexually tortured, than about the Bond girls. The hero has become the sex symbol.
Now mind you, as a gay man, I welcome the current abundance of masculine eye candy. But as someone interested in cultural trends, I’m fascinated by this turn of events. The classic feminist cultural critique of the assumed straight male gaze and the female body as the sexualized object of that gaze has been quietly upended in mainstream American film, and no one seems to notice or be talking about it. Just what is going on here?
There are a number of possible factors at play. The very fact that my partner and I were at that Superman film in the first place demonstrates one of them. If gay and bisexual men only represent 5-10% of the male population, we hit above our weight in the theaters. Most straight friends my age (I’m in my early 40s) have children; they’re lucky if they can manage to see Madagascar 3 in the theater, much less an R-rated action film. Movie companies are more conscious than ever of their D.I.N.K. (dual income, no kids) market and are presumably making films with more overt gay sensibilities in mind. Unfortunately, I’m only talking gay men here. With women still making significantly less money than men, the lesbian market is rarely targeted by the film industry.
It’s a common adage in Hollywood that while women will go to see a movie with a male protagonist, men will rarely go to see a film with a female hero, no matter how sexy they are. Of course, this horrifying axiom is routinely refuted in television these days (witness the success of Orange is the New Black or American Horror Story: Coven), but Hollywood treads sluggishly in the cultural waters; films require too much capital to be as nimble and risk-taking as television or comics, and they are terrified of breaking their own self-imposed rules. Hollywood can’t even get a Wonder Woman film made, after dozens of successful superhero movie adaptations.
Beefcake is a bone the movie industry throws to straight and bisexual women, to make the sausage-fest blockbusters something that they can sit through. And a lot of straight men enjoy seeing ripped guys showing off their physiques; it’s projection fantasy if not sexual fantasy, filling the same niche as the steroid-body boom of the 1980s (Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Van Damme, etc.), and entertainment like mixed martial arts and professional wrestling.
Straight men also seem to be fine with the current lack of female tits and ass in movies. Not that it’s all gone, mind you, but scenes like the random, pointless undressing of the Alice Eve character in Star Trek: Into Darkness used to be far more common. Perhaps this is tied to how readily accessible pornography is in the Internet era. Essentially all men in industrialized countries consume porn of some kind; a recent attempt at a study linking porn to certain types of behavior had to be called off because the researchers couldn’t find a control group of men who had never watched porn. Perhaps this makes the desire for titillating imagery of women less important in mainstream film, since it’s so easy to access in other ways. Women watch less porn, which won’t change until the porn industry produces more work made by and for women, so scenes of James Bond taking off his clothes still holds a compelling erotic charge for a healthy percentage of the female audience.
Of course, gay and bisexual men watch plenty of porn, and they still delight in seeing hunky guys showing it off on the big screen; for us, however, a lot of the thrill is the newness of being a target demographic. Where I live in San Francisco, there’s a large group of gay men called the Movie Bears who descend on film theaters en mass and let their appreciation for Hugh Jackman’s bare-chested flexing be known with rowdy exclamations. Gone are the days when the only way to find homoerotic images without risking beatings or jail time was to sneak surreptitious, guilty peeks at the men in underwear catalogues.
It’s also more politically problematic for movies to sexually objectify women now than in the past. After decades of feminist critique, moviemakers are more wary of appearing sexist with gratuitous cheesecake, and observant, educated, and critical audiences are more likely to point it out. On the other hand, the male body is a territory ripe for exploitation, and I’ve heard zero cultural criticism about objectifying men; an ass shot that would seem tacky with a female actor often raises no eyebrows with a male actor.
Of course, there absolutely should be more awareness and criticism of the objectification of female bodies than that of male bodies, because of the persistent power imbalance between women and men and our cultural history of oppression and misrepresentation. Still, there is room now for the movie camera to shift–without much controversy–from female tits and ass to male, and moviemakers are clearly taking advantage of this.
The conspiracy theorist in me also has his suspicions about the corporate interests that would love nothing more than for men to be more self-conscious about their bodies; there are billions upon billions of dollars being made by both creating and exploiting women’s insecurities about their appearance and desirability. Doing the same for men would open a goldmine. Currently, it costs more to be a woman than a man (compare everything from clothing, to haircuts, to skin care), and harnessing the power of Hollywood to pressure men to shell out the same amounts for their vanity products and services would be a smart investment by those companies.
The sad truth is that the rapid growth of beefcake and the downplaying of cheesecake don’t represent a proper reversal of the paradigm of the male gaze and the female as the sexualized object of that gaze. Though it represents many interesting, and some progressive, cultural trends (such as the simple acknowledgement of both a straight female and a gay male gaze, for example), unfortunately we haven’t entered a fabulous, feminist future. Women seem to be getting less movie screen time, now that the hero and the sex symbol have been fused into a single male character. How many films from this year have actually passed the Bechdel test, which demands that two or more female characters have speaking parts, and then that those female characters have onscreen conversations about something other than men?
The superhero films that are spearheading the current generation of blockbusters are at the heart of all of this. They feature buff men in skintight costumes, the ultimate representation of this male hero who has become the sex symbol. Having a female character head up a successful superhero film franchise is almost unimaginable right now, however. Marvel has said that it won’t make a movie with a female superhero lead, and D.C. has fallen on its face again and again over a Wonder Woman movie. The Hunger Games franchise is completely alone in the current film landscape with its powerful female protagonist. But Katniss isn’t played as a sex symbol the way the current crop of male superheroes are.
Superman may have gotten hotter, but the next cultural breakthrough won’t be when Lois Lane starts showing some cleavage and gets her cheesecake credentials back again. It will be when we can finally get that Wonder Woman film made. We need a Hollywood superhero blockbuster with a strong AND sexy woman at the center of the screen. If Wonder Woman’s studly Air Force boyfriend Steve Trevor has a gratuitous shower scene in it, all the better. The popcorn will be on me!