Bringing Sexy Back

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.

When life gives you lemons

Supposedly if life gives you lemons the appropriate reaction is to make lemonade. But what do you do if life doesn’t give you lemons, but a family that hates and degrades something that is a very large aspect of who you are?

Many people, myself included, hide ourselves. We choke down those parts of ourselves which others dislike. Eventually we learn to dislike them ourselves. We learn to dislike those traits because it makes choking them down easier. Like taking medicine with sugar. Or making lemonade.

But this personality-lemonade isn’t always mixed just right. Sometimes it’s too sweet and it makes our stomachs cringe as we struggle to swallow. Sometimes it’s too sour and we spit it out entirely. Sometimes we run out of the water and the sugar and just can’t make anymore lemonade with our life-given lemons.

Even scarier, sometimes we learn to like the lemons. To love the lemons. To embrace their scent and their taste and their all around awesome lemony goodness. Sometimes we stop trying to make a part of ourselves disappear by covering it up with other things.

But once you start to love those lemons it becomes very difficult to continue to make lemonade. You no longer see the sugar that was previously used to mask the genuine taste of the lemon as necessary. And watering down something so natural and wonderful feels like a crime. But you still have to choke down those lemons because if other people knew that you liked them… well, a funny look would be the least of your problems.

If people knew about your lemons, or worse if people knew you LIKED your lemons, then there’s no telling how they would respond. They might try to take them away. They might try to convince you that you don’t really like them, it’s just a phase and eventually you’ll realize (just like everyone else does) that liking lemons is not a natural thing to do. Worse yet, they might even abandon you, walking away because they hate lemons so much that no one else in their right mind should like them.

So the fear of other people knowing about your lemons outweighs the displeasure of having to hide them and choke them down. You try your best to make as much lemonade as possible in order to get through the day. But when you’re alone you secretly continue to enjoy your lemons. Your aspects of life that others don’t approve of. You continue to remind yourself that your lemons are great. You force yourself to wait patiently for the day when you don’t have to make lemonade anymore.

To wait for the day where instead of telling you to make lemonade, people will tell you how great lemons can be – just as they are.