Thursday, July 07, 2005

For my first post I thought I'd cheat, because why not get more mileage than you deserve? This appeared in the male objectification issue of Craccum (Issue 3 14 March 2005).

The Crux of It
I launched into tertiary study in the skody days of grunge. It was all Sub Pop, drooping Goths and holey jerseys. I therefore remember orientation before it became a seething mass of commercialism; before multi-nationals started competing relentlessly for brand-recognition in first-years’ minds as well as the biggest possible slice of their course-related costs. I’m so old I almost remember what it was like before blokes became print-ad sex-objects and my friends started buying farcical posters of semi-naked men grasping babies. Almost – but sadly not quite.

Sociologists have identified that men are becoming more sexualized and objectified in advertising. Traditionally it was women who were constructed in ads as something a reader could have if they (he) bought a particular product. This construction became more complex when the second wave of feminism struck and women had significant disposable income. Advertisers found they could attract female consumers by commodifying the message of feminism. In other words advertising tried to suggest to women that they could experience freedom not through activism but by purchasing products like cigarettes or beauty products to “please” themselves. Ads implied readers could be like the woman in the picture if they just forked out for the product.

In 1969, the Stonewall Riots in New York, a sustained melee between cops busting in a gay bar and the queens inside who were none too happy, caused a liberation in attitudes towards homosexuality. This caused a spill-over into the world of advertising. Product managers recognized increasingly liberated gay men as a significant consumer group for the first time. Suddenly the male body became something that could be offered as part of a product package. Print ads featured gorgeous men and created myths, suggesting to gay readers that if they bought a particular product they could get the body, the life-style or even a man like the one in the ad. Think Calvin Klein’s “Obsession” series. Never before had so many abs been seen in one place at one time.

Of course ads targeting only gay men are rare outside of the gay press because the heterosexual majority of readers tend to find a gay narrative a bit, well, alienating. So typically the male body is objectified in advertising so it can be interpreted as either heterosexual or homosexual by both male and female readers. He’s there, he’s cut and he’s looking at you. You can either imagine “having” him or “being” him depending on your gender and orientation. I’ve asked a non-representative sample of female friends about the whole male sex-object phenomenon. They agreed that if an attractive image of man is presented to them they’re going to enjoy it. “Why not?” said one “Everyone looks at each other all the time anyway”.

Unsurprisingly then, two studies have shown that gay and straight men are becoming more concerned about body-image. Researchers are speculating that greater numbers of perfect-looking male bodies in the media are linked to increased eating disorders and body dysmorphia in both groups. It’s tempting to see this as a sort of nasty tit-for-tat. Women have been objectified for ages and now boys it’s your turn for over-exercise, neurosis about butt-fat and endless spending on appearance and grooming products and/or surgery. Plus women now get to ogle and judge your appearance just as we have been ogled and judged. However I’m electing to restrain my natural urges to revenge and voyeurism and would like to suggest two arguments against the celebration of male objectification.

First up I’m against male objectification because I’m tired of female objectification, and it’s just not nice to be a hypocrite. My most hated example, one that gets me ranting with little invitation, is the latest TV ad from Tui, the one with the gorgeous women in various sates of undress running the brewery. Sexist and unfunny - best of both worlds. Yeah right. I’ve got a litany of unfavourite female advertising “objects” ranging from vodafone’s black cartoon character “Booty”(!?) used in a txt promotion several years ago, to the Jim Beam Girls and their calendar signing escapades at Shadows. In this there are elements of women’s choice of course and I’m absolutely not criticizing the calendar girls personally. However there’s always a certain amount of painful irony in hearing ugly spotty guys bag the crap out of physically perfect promotions girls whilst simultaneously calling them sluts.

And finally, anything that creates cash for large companies by increasing pressure to buy products that are patently unnecessary isn’t high on my list of must-haves. I’d just occasionally like to be addressed by the mass-media, or even ranting student-card hawkers, as a citizen instead of a consumption unit that can be potentially manipulated into a purchase. Grunge is dead. Long live the Goths.

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Anh Nam said...
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