So I had a heated discussion with a friend recently about the sexualization of men and whether or not it’s a problem, or how big of a problem it is, or what constitutes sexualization, etc. I feel like I didn’t explain myself very well in that discussion, so I decided it would be a good thing to discuss at length in order to fully explain my stance.
Okay so basically, I’m going to use the Avengers movie poster as my main example because I’ve seen the argument about it so many times. For ease, here’s the image:
So. it’s often argued that Black Widow is sexualized in this poster because of her pose. Some say that if something is “mean to be empowering” then it is not being sexualization. If that is true, then this image is not sexualizing Black Widow at all.
Clearly this is an empowering pose. It is aggressive, dominant, and accentuates a primary character aspect that Black Widow is based on the Femme Fatale archetype and uses her sexuality as a weapon. It is a pose that makes sense for the character. But it is still sexualization because the primary focus of the image is how sexual she is.
But it’s based off of the female aspects of sexuality. The same parts are not viewed as sexy on men, and therefor the rules of sexualization are different.
Look at Thor, for example. He’s in the typical masculine punch-the-ground pose. It accentuates his muscles, especially his broad shoulders. Those are sexually ideal traits on a man. In fact, all of the male poses in the image strongly accentuate the shoulders of the man. Captain America’s pose is exceptionally sexualizing, because of the added emphasis on his abs (clearly a sexually desirable trait on men). The poses in general make sense for the characters, and are aggressive and strong positions. They are, however, focused on traits that buy into the sexual ideal. If that poster is sexualizing Black Widow then it is certainly also sexualizing the rest of the cast. People just think the sexualization of men is okay because it’s thought of as a positive thing. After all, who wouldn’t want to look like that?
But it is literally the same thing that is being done to women. It is creating an unrealistic ideal for men to struggle with if they don’t meet it.
Sexualization causes the same problems in both men and women – body dysmorphia, eating disorders, depression, etc. A huge problem though, is that the statistics for male mental health issues are highly skewed due to a lack of reporting because actually seeking help for men actually just furthers their distance from the ideal they are struggling with even greater, much more significantly than women who simultaneously are socially empowered towards emotional expression and have an army of social movements empowering them to fight back.
The more extreme versions of sexualization involve boiling people down to just parts and turning them into nothing more than a glorified sex toy, yes, but I can show a plethora of examples of mainstream media that does that to the same caliber as that done to women.
One of the biggest differences in sexualization between men and women is that women have realized it’s a problem and started to speak out, while men are still expected to just accept it and carry on. In fact, men who meet the ideal are essentially told to say thank you to the society that has caused this for giving them such a stringent image to uphold, while women who meet the ideal are now also told that “hey, by the way, you’re not just an object and no one should treat you that way”.
Men receive that message essentially nowhere. They are told, by activists and non-activists alike, that their problems aren’t real – or that they’re “not as important” because they don’t impact as many people. In fact, even when they have a diagnosed eating disorder it gets socially slammed – mocked far and wide a “manorexia” and seen as a total joke because guys totally don’t have feelings and definitely don’t destroy themselves to try and find some sliver of body satisfaction.
Yes, I understand and openly admit that sexualization of men is done in a different manner. And yes, I openly admit that it has been far more of a public problem for women than for men in the past. But I don’t think the disparity is that great now. I would argue that the phenomena often called “power fantasy” is actually just internalization of sexualization due to the fact that men are encouraged to just accept the standards set for them. To just grow some balls and suck it up. The fact is that these though patterns hurt men, and it IS a very real problem.
Just because men are only roughly 49% of the population and they do not openly express their body dissatisfaction doesn’t mean that a large group of people isn’t impacted. Maybe they’re just too afraid of being told to “man up” and having their failure to meet expectations be yet again reinforced to say anything.