More and more men are sexy, and why that’s OK

It’s hard to feel sorry for Kit Harington. He’s beautiful, he’s good at his job, and he gets to wear a jacket made from crow feathers to work. Here he is as Jon Snow in Game of Thrones:

Kit-Harington-as-Jon-Snow

I called Harington beautiful, but he might not like that. He recently said that being labelled a hunk is demeaning. Poor lad. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on. I don’t think that a few people saying he’s a hunk strips him of his dignity and respect. He’s not objectified like a woman on Page 3 is objectified. (Kit got me thinking about objectification and my own body and my experience with desire—see this post.)

When it comes to men, what we have is not objectification. Not in a systematic way anyway. What we have is this: some men play characters on TV and bring joy to some people who find those men attractive. The men we’re talking about, like Harington or Aidan Turner who plays Poldark, are in fact rarely naked or sexualised in the way they’re presented. I can only think of once in four whole years that Harington has been playing Jon Snow when he actually got his top off, and that was in a murky pool in a cave. (You didn’t get to see much, even if you paused your DVD.)

Justin Bieber on a crap lunchboxThis is not objectification. You could argue that other men are more close to being objectified. The faces and bodies of, for example, pop stars like Justin Bieber and the lads from One Direction are cut out and slapped on perfume bottles. They are turned into full-page calendars that are less about knowing which day Easter Sunday falls and more about which way the shadow falls on a Bieber bicep. Nameless male models, meanwhile, stretch out across billboards to advertise aftershave or beer or pants. Sometimes their heads are cut off. These men splayed in these ways are susceptible to objectification, meaning their bodies are being used as objects. Somewhere between a photoshoot and a poster pasted onto a lamppost they stop being men and they start being used as a thing—that’s all objectification means. That can be demeaning.

The objectification of men is not a big deal (yet). Most men in the media are doing something, being somebody or being themselves. Like Jon Snow/Harington. They are not things. The media is full of fat men and skinny men, men of lots of different colours, and so on. (Yes, we still don’t have a media that reflects our populations but the men who are there are portrayed as people.) This is what I meant when I said that objectification of men is not happening in a systematic way. Every so often a TV drama comes along and features a hotty that straight women and gay men drool over. Harington and Darcy in a lakeTurner are the latest. In 1995, the UK nearly ground to a halt when Mr Darcy went for his dip in the lake.

I think this kind of sexiness is fine. Seriously Kit, how is it demeaning? You say that it can “feel that your art is being put aside for your sex appeal”. I just don’t think that’s happening. For sure there might be a minority of people who watch Game of Thrones hoping for a glimpse of your sword, but they’re going about it in a very inefficient way. Game of Thrones has roughly 1,003 other characters—and some of them wear far fewer clothes than you. Why don’t those women who are setting aside your art for your sex appeal just look at some fan art instead? I bet there’s even animated porn versions of you and your heavy brow. In any case, those women are a minority. Most people are watching Game of Thrones because of the drama. The drama, man! The blood and the guts, the treachery and the redemption. The dragons! Did I mention the dragons?

So no, Kit, your art is not being set aside. Don’t worry. We are all watching your art. We just also like to see your arse every so often too. Your arse is part of who you are, it’s part of your person, and usually when it’s on show it’s part of your character. Male nudity is hardly EVER gratuitous. Seriously, I look for it a LOT and it is very rare compared to female nudity.

I think this plea for more male nudity also comes from Mark Simpson, who recently spotted the ad on the Tube of the naked man advertising protein powder. Simpson says, “More of this filth please!” He doesn’t seem to have a really deeply thought-though case for this argument yet (he’s smart; it’ll come). At the moment his case seems to be that some research shows that naked men can help advertisers sell their crap to men as well as naked women have done for decades. I heard Simpson talk a little more about this at a panel discussion recently. He said that he wants more men to be portrayed sexily because he wants men to feel comfortable being desired.

I agree with him on this. It is not just a selfish plea from a gay man. I believe it’s the sex-positive way to balancing the media a little. At the moment the media operates through something called the male gaze, meaning most of the images are made as for straight men. Think Page 3. Think film posters with semi-naked women and suited men. Look around and you’ll see more sexy women than sexy men—that’s the male gaze at work. It leads to the belief that men are the doers of sex and women are the ones that sex is done to. (Sounds like rubbish sex if that’s only the way you ever have it.)

So one way of redressing this is to do what Simpson says and have more sexy men everywhere. It’s a classically liberal argument. It’s like Caitlin Moran’s position on porn. She knows that a lot of porn relies on negative representations, so she says we just need more of it. Pray the positive stuff goes into battle with the negative stuff. Flood the market with diversity and you’ll end up with a more accurate and more realistic version of reality. Plus something for everyone.

That’s all well and good. But what of social progress? Is doubling the number of bodies we see on the side of the bus going to make us into better people? A friend said to me recently that the answer is yes. Well, yes in the long run. He said social equity is inevitable. Activists need to keep fighting but the most they can do is speed up progress. Media and culture are gradually getting better, he said: just look at the shift in gay characters towards a more diverse representation, from Queer as Folk (young, attractive) through Six Feet Under (partnered, different ethnicities), to Cucumber (old, young, sexy, ugly, fat, thin, disabled, black, white, Asian, everything).

I agree with my friend up to a point. He’s correct, but it doesn’t mean we can sit back and wait for freedom. We have to monitor this progress, to make sure it’s improving and not leaving anyone behind. So if we flood the streets with more naked men advertising flip-flops, as Simpson wants, we have to watch billboardwhat happens to our boys. The minute boys start to worry that they don’t look as good in flip-flops as that 5-metre-tall sexy hunk on the side of that building, we have to do everything we can to build that boy up. Or to show him that he doesn’t need to be 5.2m, and that the billboard is tricking him just because it wants to sell him some crap flip-flops that were assembled by an unlucky kid in a distant factory. We have to take care of this boy, and we can only do that by keeping that critical conversation alive while we boost the number of sexy men on show.

The alternative strategy is to shut it all off. This seems to be what Alice Jones suggested in a comment piece recently. Her main point is that men are not objectified in the way women are, so efforts are best focused on empowering women not stopping men stripping off. Fair enough. But on the way to making that argument Jones says “it’s not OK to objectify anyone, including men”. Her piece sympathises with Harington. She strikes the tone that lusting after blokes in pants on the screen is a bit naff, or at least that it should be discouraged.

I really don’t think is a good argument, even if it merely backs up Jones’ main point that gender equality is better reached by strengthening the hand of women. It’s not a good argument because at worst it leads towards a purging of any fleshy image, and at best it feels like she’s saying we shouldn’t, um, fancy anyone. For many people, Cucumber’s portrayal of walking around the supermarket and having lusty thoughts about strangers as they pick up a bag of spuds nailed it—that is, we cannot help ourselves fancying people. And really in essence there’s no harm done with a bit of checking someone’s buns (ogling, winking, wolf-whistling, groping—all not OK).

So what do I want? More sexy men, yes. More commoditisation of anyone, no.

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