The hypersexualization and objectification of female characters is a major problem in storytelling.* Whether heroes or villains, female characters are often put in revealing or otherwise sexy costumes not because it makes sense for the story, but because it will presumably please straight cis men. This degrades women by treating them as sexual objects rather than individuals with agency. It’s also insulting to men, as it assumes we won’t watch or read a story without some titillation to help us along.
Unfortunately, whenever this topic comes up, someone will always try to claim it’s no big deal because men are objectified too. They’ll point to a shirtless Wolverine or to Superman with a painted-on costume and use it as evidence that everything is fine and there’s no need to change anything. This happens so often that we have no choice but to address it and explain why it’s not a good argument.
Male Characters Have More Variety
The first thing to understand is that when it comes to a variety of looks and body types, male characters have it way better than their female counterparts. In novels and other written works, men can look like almost anything. Some literary male heroes are even, gasp, not conventionally attractive! Amazing. Meanwhile, even in the year 2020, it can be difficult to find novels where the women aren’t described in terms of how beautiful they are.
Even in less-diverse visual mediums, you’re far more likely to see men who are older, balding, chubby, asymmetric, or otherwise not the perfect picture of conventional attractiveness. In spec fic, we also get a lot of male characters who look like strange monsters, from Davy Jones and his squid face to Swamp Thing and his body made of moss.
Women, on the other hand, have to be all hotness, all the time. It’s everywhere. It’s so important for female characters to be attractive that actresses are often the same age as their characters’ sons. When we get female monsters, they’re almost always the sexy type of monster. You’ll notice that Poison Ivy is an attractive green woman, not a living pile of vines. Heck, they even turned Shelob, a giant spider, into a sexy humanoid woman for a recent video game adaptation. There are a handful of (mostly white) actresses with the starpower to get major roles despite being over 30, but that’s about it.
So when a male character is depicted as over-the-top sexy, we men have plenty of other characters to pick from. Women simply don’t have that luxury. It matters more when they see a female character getting objectified, and it’s false equivalency to bring up a male character or two who seem to be in a similar situation.
Power Dynamics Are Unequal
Speaking of false equivalencies, it’s our old friend, context. Stories don’t exist in a vacuum, and neither do the characters within them. Instead, these characters are part of the culture that created them, and that culture doesn’t treat women particularly well, to put it mildly.*
While being conventionally attractive has advantages no matter who you are, the pressure on women to look good is simply an order of magnitude higher than it is for men. Sometimes this manifests as official policies, like companies insisting in their dress code that women wear high heels to work. In other cases, it’s simply an unspoken assumption, where women who don’t spend hours on their appearance are described as “unkempt” or “unprofessional.”
Then of course, there’s the no-win scenario where women are expected to be sexually available but also never have sex because then they’d be sluts. Women are told they need to wear short skirts and low-cut tops in order to be appealing, then degraded for doing so. This rabbit hole never ends, if you were wondering. We can follow it to men feeling like they own their female relatives’ sexuality, or the epidemic of male bosses demanding sexual favors in the workplace.
The bottom line is that sexualized male characters don’t hurt men in real life. They don’t reinforce cultural tropes that devalue or degrade us for our appearance. Sexualized female characters, on the other hand, can cause real harm to real women. When female superheroes are displayed in sexy poses that are physically impossible, it reinforces the contradictory standards women are held to in real life. When scifi films find contrived reasons for the female crew to strip down, it furthers the idea that women exist to be sexy for men. The list goes on. There’s simply no equivalent for male characters.
Shirtless Hunks Are a Fantasy for Men
When someone brings up the idea of male characters also being objectified, they usually present it as a case of turnabout being fair play. Women get these gorgeous beefcakes to ogle, so why shouldn’t men get the same thing? This doesn’t address unequal power dynamics that result from a lack of character variety, but it still sounds reasonable at first.
Then you realize that many of these supposedly objectified male characters aren’t there for the women in the audience at all, but for the men. Some women do find them attractive, of course, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but as others have pointed out, there are a lot of traits that straight and bi women tend to find more attractive than hypermasculine pectoral muscles.
Instead, the Hugh Jackmans and Henry Cavills of the worlds are largely wish fulfillment for male viewers. We men are supposed to imagine being these overmuscled bodybuilders as they go on cool adventures. When storytellers want a guy to be attractive to women, they focus more on his emotional state than his jacked muscles. You can see this in action by watching or reading just about any story aimed primarily at a female audience, be it a YA romance or a romantic comedy.
If you want an even more obvious giveaway about who these muscly boys are for, take a look at the works they appear in. Superhero stories are the most obvious culprit, as they are full of lovingly detailed six-packs and have been marketed exclusively at men and boys until very recently. Shounen anime also has more than its fair share of shirtless dudes and is even more blatant about the audience it wants.
So let’s bury the idea bodybuilding male heroes are somehow a service for women. At best, it’s a naive misunderstanding of how stories are created, and at worst, it’s just a bad faith argument.
The Argument Is Whataboutism
I’ve talked about whataboutism before, but in brief, it’s the practice of trying to excuse something by pointing out something else that’s completely unrelated. During the Cold War, the USSR would deflect criticisms of its human rights abuses by saying “But what about what America is doing?” America would then promptly return the favor, and both sides would build up their nuclear stockpile. It was an exciting time to be alive.
How does Cold War propaganda apply to arguments about fictional characters? Simple: even if male characters were being objectified in the same way that female characters are, that wouldn’t mean anything. The fact that there are also shirtless dudes in fiction has no bearing on the discussion of female characters being objectified. Better representation for women won’t affect how male characters dress.
If you’re someone who uses this argument and thinks that oversexualized male characters are bad, then we’re actually on the same side. Even though the abundance of ripped dudes isn’t equivalent to how female characters are treated, it can still get annoying. Never in my life have I looked anything like Ben Affleck’s Batman does after his grimdark crossfit workout, and I would love to see more male heroes with bodies closer to my own.
So if you’re actually upset by the way male characters are portrayed, there’s no reason to get into fights about female portrayals. Feminists aren’t out to create a never-ending parade of shredded Adonises. On the contrary, most of us would love to see fewer stories saying that men have to be violent and domineering to be truly masculine. That would be better for everyone, no matter their gender.
On the other hand, if you don’t actually care about the way male characters are portrayed or sexualized, then this argument simply means nothing. It’s a distraction technique, and a clumsy one at that. I recommend you stop using it, or you’ll find yourself looking more than a little silly.
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