Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Sexualized Male: the Act of Sexualization

Zack over at "Playing D&D with Porn Stars" has posted a very interesting question:

What constitutes a sexualized male character?

Not 'sexualized' in some ridiculous way that you don't actually find attractive, (like if you don't actually think Han Solo wearing Leia's gold bikini would be hot, don't put that) but in a way that you do find attractive... Remember: not merely "desirable" but 'sexualized'--like how a chick can be hot no matter what she's wearing, but if she's in a chainmail bikini and bending at the waist for no apparent reason, that's sexualized.

The answers have also been very interesting. I'm putting this here largely because Zack has requested that heterosexual men not respond in the comments to that post. Also, I want to look at the assumptions based around question.

Mandy's answers deserve special attention, I think:

Oh and....notice how all the characters I've listed are highly competent and skilled. They're the best at what they do or are special somehow, and it means they've really got most of their shit together. A man who can handle his sword or a man who can command a starship and defend himself in battle or a man you know just not to fuck with because it's made obvious by some action in whatever depiction of the character...That's just hot.

It's a fascinating insight. I also think it misses the question. Notice that everything Mandie discusses is who these men are. These are very much issues of soft being verbs. But when we say someone has been sexualized, that's a very strong action verb. In fact, when we see it used on blogs like “Go Make Me a Sandwich,” it seems very much an act of violation; male artists have done something heinous to their female subjects. Being sexualized has nothing to do with who these women are. It's something that is done to them, or that they do to themselves.

So what is the horrible thing that has been done to these women? The sexualized woman advertises that she is available for sex. Her costume and contortions highlight her physical attributes most associated in the heterosexual male mind with sex. Postures of submission or fear or challenge underscore the invitation. In the moment of sexualization, these women exist primarily, if not entirely, to gratify the lusts of heterosexual men.

Can we simply do the same things to men? Yes, so long as we assume the viewer is a gay man. Hence Nate's Gay Pride carnival:

Pride parades, leather bars, young men in v-necks smoking on street corners. Leather, chainmail, briefs, ass-less chaps, straps, studs, whatever. Muscular men wearing mesh shirts. Smaller boys in white briefs. Fat guys in leather pants and dog collars.

All of these advertise a man's availability for gay sex. How does a man advertise his availability for heterosexual sex with women?

Answer: he's breathing.

The general assumption in our culture is that any man who can still walk across the room is available for sex with women. Even those who can't walk across the room are assumed to want sex with women. Generally speaking, a man in the West has to go out of his way to advertise his unavailability for sex with wedding rings and priestly vestments.

In fact, sex from men for women is so available, social psychologists speak of it as having no value:

[S]ocial psychologists claim that men's sex has no value per se. In the world of prostitution you never see women paying men for sex. Men pay women for sex, men will pay men for sex, but women don't pay men for sex. You get a sense that she has something of value that he wants... Women can get sex whenever they want. Post it on Craigslist and you can have it within the hour.

Our culture not only has no real way for a man to signal that he is available for sex, it has trouble conceiving of a need for one. Lacking these signals, and all the cultural baggage that would go with them, you simply can't sexualize a man in the same way that you can a woman.

Does this mean that we can't sexualize men for heterosexual women at all? No! For, while a woman might be able to have all the sex she wants, not all sex is valued equally. A man's availability for sex might be taken for granted, but his ability to deliver sex that she wants is not.

More on that next time…

30 comments:

Greg Gorgonmilk said...

While there is a whole spectrum to consider, I'd like to generalize and say that men tend to be all about the visual stim while women tend to be more subjective/cerebral with what turns them on.

A man analyzes every body he looks at -- its form, the way it moves, the way it smells -- and is aroused by those persons that approach some internalized socio-genetic ideal. This ideal (or set of ideals) is different for all men, though there are obviously popular trends and commonalities. Which is not to suggest that men don't appreciate the persona the way women do -- it's just not as intrinsic to their sexual titillation.

Chris Tregenza said...

This was a good article until the end when I think you missed your own point.

As you astutely point out

Being sexualized has nothing to do with who these women are. It's something that is done to them ...

Something done, in a gaming context, by art directors and fan artists.

Yet the remainder of the article is about how men advise their sexual availability. Which, incidentally, ignores the fact that are large percentage of men are in monogamous relationships and are not available for sex.

To talk meaningfully about men being sexualized, you need to examine what art directors and fan artist do to men. Time and time again, men are depicted primarily by what they can do (fighter with a big sword, wizard casting a spell) whereas women are shown primarily as sexual objects.

There are exceptions to this but these really are exceptions. By and large, men are not sexualized.

Zak S said...

I am 100% sure that Mandy's comment was related to the "ability to deliver sexual satisfaction".

And I DO think, despite all the confusing signals, that basically giving fanservice to women basically -usually- means displaying the male as "capable of delivering satisfaction".

Obvious example would be every guitar player in the universe and his guitar-playing fingers.

biopunk said...

Guitar players? Pffft! Everyone knows bass players have longer and thicker 'strings'...

Zak S said...

Another thought:

I remember a woman complaining about the new Supergirls's Britney-Spears-esque costume. She was reviewing various artist's drawings of it.

One she thought was ok, even though it was the same costume, basically: "At least it looks like she dressed -herself- that way."

____

I think the unconscious (or conscious) context here is that when a woman is displayed as sexually available & desirable we perceive this as something that has been done -to them- by the artist.

When a man is displayed as sexually available and desirable, -we unconsciously assume that the male character would be totally cool with that--. Conan abbing out? I'm sure Conan wouldn't mind if we took a peek. Elric fondling his sword and his dashingly windswept hair? --we're sure he would be ok with a potential mate seeing that as an invitation.

This is complex territory. As a guy, it's almost impossible to do something well in public without that being--to someone--a sexual display.

Shelby Foote got proposal letters from women after appearing in Ken Burns Civil War documentary.

For characters in games, it's especially thorny: PCs display competence--it's why they are heroes. In a man, this is widely considered sexy. In a woman, this is widely considered beside the point.

Is it possible for a man to be displayed sexually -outside- of competence to a heterosexual woman?

Some, for sure--the mopey emo boyman--but is it possible to have an image of a traditional hero like Han Solo or Aragorn that displays him as -capable of giving you an orgasm- while simultaneously not also -really good at his job-?

I don't know.

anarchist said...

I read a short story, I think from the early 20th century, where a priest is constantly having women come on to him, because of his unavailability. Presumably the same thing drives some people's apparent fascination with nuns.

anarchist said...

@Zak:
"I think the unconscious (or conscious) context here is that when a woman is displayed as sexually available & desirable we perceive this as something that has been done -to them- by the artist."

In the case of the pictures critiqued by Make Me A Sandwich, it *has* been done to them by a man - they're pictures drawn by men, with no real women involved.

Zak S said...

@anarchist

Sure, but the question is whether or not you get the same "done-to-them" feeling when you see a picture of a male character showing off. Whether or not a woman drew it.

trollsmyth said...

Gorgonmilk: Mostly in agreement on this. I didn't want to go too deeply into that territory, because it's tangential. I think you can visually sexualize males for heterosexual female viewer, but as you point out, it's a lot more about context than pure physical display.

trollsmyth said...

Tregenza: Which, incidentally, ignores the fact that are large percentage of men are in monogamous relationships and are not available for sex.

Hence my comment about wedding rings and priestly vestments.

Saying that a man is "available" may not be the best phrase, but it fits the current shifting attitudes. Traditionally, women were only supposed to want sex with a man they love; lust was forbidden to them. That, of course, is silly.

Men are still assumed to lust all over the place, but to also restrain those lusts, the actual amount of restraint dictated by their context. As we're moving towards an awareness and an acceptance of female lust divorced from love and/or a relationship, I didn't want to use "desires sex" since that really doesn't fit what the sexualized woman is advertising these days. But it's still not a perfect fit.

And yes, men are rarely sexualized outside certain contexts (romance novels and rock stars and Hugh Jackman as Wolverine running naked through drainage tunnels). But more on that in my next post.

Ikkin said...

A lot of the conclusions you make seem to contradict my experiences in female-dominated fan spaces. I think if you spent time in one of those, you might walk away with a different impression of what girls find appealing. ;)

trollsmyth said...

Zak: ...but is it possible to have an image of a traditional hero like Han Solo or Aragorn that displays him as -capable of giving you an orgasm- while simultaneously not also -really good at his job-?

At his job? No, but his job could be something she's less than interested in. The best example is the bad boy on a motorcycle. He exudes mastery, stamina, strength, a certain honest bluntness when it comes to sexual matters, and enough danger to make a fling with him exciting.

But outside sex, the dude is a complete liability. He'll be a drag on her socially and financially, to the point that the fact that he's not likely to hang around long becomes a virtue.

Here's the big difference I see between what I'm talking about and what Mandy was talking about: being Aragorn or Picard is a lifetime of habit. You can't really capture that in a single moment. It's something you earn through repeated excellence. Can it be sexy? Absolutely. But such men haven't been sexualized in any way.

You can be a biker bad boy for the weekend. Most bikers I know have fairly standard nine-to-fives and mortgages and all of that (especially those with Harleys). But for the weekend, they can put on the leathers, mount their iron, and hit the highway. Maybe their goal isn't to attract women, but it does send an undeniable sexualized message to the women who see them.

But yeah, more on that in the next post.

trollsmyth said...

Zak: Sure, but the question is whether or not you get the same "done-to-them" feeling when you see a picture of a male character showing off. Whether or not a woman drew it.

I think you can, but it's pretty contextual and extremely particular to the woman and her tastes-of-the-moment. Yeah, I need to get the next bit of this up. Back to the adjective mines for me. ;)

trollsmyth said...

Anarchist: In the case of the pictures critiqued by Make Me A Sandwich, it *has* been done to them by a man - they're pictures drawn by men, with no real women involved.

Really? You sure about that?

This is one area where GMMaS can rub me the wrong way. Yes, in many cases, it's art created by men. But I find it hard to believe the entire stream in every case is all male, from the artists to the art directors to the marketing executives to the web page admins. Maybe it is (especially when she's talking about games made in China), but that doesn't really click with my personal business experience. Especially when you're talking about "larger" companies like Paizo; I'm pretty sure Lisa Stevens and Sarah Robinson aren't guys.

trollsmyth said...

Ikkin: Care to share some details? I'm not doing this just to hear the sound of my own, er, typing. I really do want to get to the root of this issue, so if you think I'm barking up the wrong tree, please let me know how and where. :)

faustusnotes said...

sexualization is something that is done to you, and in real life men and women present themselves in a way that approximates that sexualization while retaining their... respectability, in various ways. Which is why the more extreme versions of "sexualizing fashion" are more prevalent in teenagers.

But you see sexualization of adult men just as you do women. A few brief examples include: the movement of rugby outfits from the baggy, daggy clothes of the 80s to the fitted gym-bunny outfits of the 90s; Host bars in Japan; pretty much everything that goes on in the "mardi gras" gay scene.

Many women claim that they find this appearance gross, but many love it. Feelings about whether it's good or bad arise from their view of how much the woman in question values ideals like seriousness, trustworthiness etc over being a jock.

It's no coincidence, for example, that two key things about pr0n aimed at women is that it has handsome men, and you can see those men in action, enjoying themselves.

A final example: I'm a kickboxer, and I've spent a lot of time around men training hard in this sport. They're all acutely aware of how impressive the sport makes their bodies and how much many women like it. Their key interest is in the pursuit of excellence in the sport but they're definitely aware of how it sexualizes them, and they all think this is a good thing. As do their women.

I really don't think you can go past the uber-heterosexual treatment of modern rugby players (as opposed to the high camp of NFL) as an example of the sexualization of men.

N. Wright said...

This is a really interesting article, and it's always interesting to see perspectives on the other side. I haven't got the time right now to read all the comments, but it's certainly interesting.

I have a sneaking suspicion that this is one of those caveman-brain type bogeymen, where the explanations are shrouded somewhere in the mists of time. Not that it isn't worth talking about, of course. :)

DHBoggs said...

You've almost made a difficult realization in your post trollsmyth that most people just never fully wrap thier heads around. Culture Matters. There are reasons why anthropologists typically disagree with psychologists etc. on almost everything including both what constitutes sexualization and meaning ascribed to image. Look, sex certainly is a biological condition and "sexy" inarguably begins with biology, but its refined, defined, and altered by experience, by swimmiung in the cultural soup that we live eat and breath 24 hrs a day. Simply put, there is no such thing as a "sexualized image" independant of cultural meaning and individual interpretation. How you read that picture may be entirely and completely different from they way it would have been read by your great grandfather or by Joe Shmoe from Timbuktu. Pronouncements of universal, uncontextualized, meaning are nonsense. In my culture and based on my experience I may read someone in an image positively, as being confident and attractive, you may read them as foolish or out of place etc.

Greg Christopher said...

Excellent post, Brian.

You have really been hitting the nail on the head lately in terms of social commentary. Kudos!

Roger the GS said...

If in our current cultural milieu there is not a lot of sexualized male art in gaming, consider that to sexualize a male image implies a male (or "masculine" i.e. predatory female) gaze, which sets off all kinds of active and passive homophobia and gender phobia alarms.

But it doesn't even have to go as deep as homophobia; just a similar reason why "gamers" don't usually like challenges of physical skill. The gender setup where only women are judged on their appearance and only men on their skill and achievements, is very conducive to men of unenviable appearance and great skill, if only at some nerdly pursuit. Being reminded of the desirous physical gaze brings all of us kicking and screaming to the very high school situation we are still running away from, where either you are an unattractive guy being ridiculed or an attractive guy being questioned for hanging out with nerds.

What this means for the *female* gamers who have much the same motivation is, I think, precisely the source of many of the objections to female-heavy sexualization.

trollsmyth said...

Wright and Christopher: Thanks!

DHBoggs: Hang around for act two; we're getting there. ;)

Roger: ... implies a male (or "masculine" i.e. predatory female) gaze, which sets off all kinds of active and passive homophobia and gender phobia alarms.

Yep! Kinsey got all sorts of crap over this, but I think our culture is finally getting to a place where a woman can express lust without love or a socially sanctioned relationship, and not immediately be labelled a slut. As we go there, I think we'll see a lot more interest in what her actual interests are.

What this means for the *female* gamers who have much the same motivation is, I think, precisely the source of many of the objections to female-heavy sexualization.

I don't doubt this at all. Even the beautiful (conventional or otherwise) can find it irksome in the extreme. I am, however, extremely uncomfortable with the way many of the objections have been voiced (that Zak S might find them personally insulting and infuriating wouldn't surprise me in the least) and I think there's a certain insensitivity to the point, methods, and business of sexualization inherent in them.

(And, I'll admit, banishing sexualization from my gaming table would so utterly transform my game as to make it unrecognizable.)

Still, the pros and cons of sexualization aren't the point of this post. I'm just exploring what it is, so I can discuss how it can be done to men in the next one.

Zak S said...

@trollsmyth

When I said "job" I meant it figuratively, i.e. "good at whatever it is (broadly defined) he is trying to do at that moment".

Being able to light a cigarette with one hand while riding down US1 can be someone's "job" in this context.

mxyzplk said...

Good points, I was reading the comments about sexualised women being women in suggestive poses indicting they're ready to have sex. I was like "what does that mean for a man, because in pretty much any position we're ready to go..."

But more seriously, in the end people find women projecting sexuality in art objectionable for a variety of reasons, including 1) women should be pure and it's just wrong to show them all naughty and 2) women are in an oppressed position so are more vulnerable and therefore sexualizing them dominates them while sexualizing men, the dominator, is not similarly oppressive. In general for reasons good and bad, since men are considered the majority/dominators and women the minority/oppressed, there can't be parity on how these things are viewed. Once everyone's actually equal and comfortable with it, I would expect most of that to go away.

trollsmyth said...

Zak: And it's entirely possible (hell, likely) that I was reading too much into what Mandy wrote. Her "got his shit together" comment, and her choice of icons, really felt like a list of responsible, competent men of accomplishment (which, honestly, says a lot about her taste in men, I think, and all of it good).

That said, the bad boy trope is often attractive because part of his "job" is being a disaster waiting to happen. Ditto for the self-destructive, rebellious poet and a dozen other "types" I'm sure we could come up with. They promise a flirtation with danger, though if she's smart, she knows to disentangle herself quickly before the trainwreck starts.

But expanding her focus on competence to include that sort of thing, then yeah, I'm mostly in very close agreement with what she wrote on your blog.

Anyway, part two is up. Hope it's helpful.

Ikkin said...

Trollsmyth: Care to share some details? I'm not doing this just to hear the sound of my own, er, typing. I really do want to get to the root of this issue, so if you think I'm barking up the wrong tree, please let me know how and where. :)

Sorry, I didn't have time to make a full-length response before (and I probably should have made it clear that the "you" was plural rather than specific, because I disagree with your OP less than some of the comments). I'll give you a proper explanation of my thoughts now, though. ^_^;

Here's the thing: fangirls in female-dominated fan spaces aren't quite so far removed from guys as guys like to think they are. ;) They're not less visually-oriented, they don't assume availability, and they're certainly not less inclined to desire things that the object of their lust would be reluctant to give.

That probably sounds a bit controversial, but it's not hard to find if you look for it. Just go to deviantArt, type in the name of any character who could vaguely fit under the banner of "bishonen," and see what kind of results you get. Sure, you'll find a bunch of images of, say, Aragorn being cool and competent at whatever he's doing, but the comments don't treat that as sexualized -- and you'll also find stuff like Aragorn chewing on his Evenstar necklace which they clearly do treat that way despite having no practical purpose whatsoever. (And note that I only used him as an example because he was brought up in contrast to "mopey emo boymen" upthread -- even though that type of character makes a better example)

Even if you won't grant me that, though, fanart in general should be an interesting case to test your "desirability" theory up against, because the desirability of the character is implied by the very existence of fanart of that character. And yet, fanartists still sometimes add an extra level of "availability" over the top of that (which shouldn't be the case if men are assumed to always be available).

trollsmyth said...

mxyzplk: Yeah, I think the first point is silly and the second is kinda predicated on the first. After all, a man drawing a woman being heroic or badass isn't humiliating in any way, or considered oppressive. It brings to mind the old joke about how menstruation would be something to brag about if it happened to men. ;p

That said, I don't think it's unreasonable for individuals to be annoyed about any aspect of a product, to make their annoyance known, and to vote with their money for products that don't annoy them. There are aspects of this topic that trouble me (negative messages about women's bodies and sexuality, for instance), but I don't think any product has the right to expect people to support it regardless of their individual inclinations.

trollsmyth said...

Ikkin: Ah, yeah, I see what you mean. Though I have to wonder how much is the context (Mortensen as Aragorn) and how much is the actual content. Would any guy chewing on his necklace like that do it?

What's very interesting is how that's a classic female sexualization trope ported directly over to the male. Can you get away with that without it being bishi? Does it only work because he's been feminized in other ways? Ditto for this pick. There's a strong homosexual current in this one. I know some girls find that incredibly erotic and some find it a squick, but I do think you're on to something here.

Ikkin said...

Trollsmyth: Though I have to wonder how much is the context (Mortensen as Aragorn) and how much is the actual content. Would any guy chewing on his necklace like that do it?

I don't think it really has anything to do with Mortensen as Aragorn, except insofar as Mortensen is an attractive guy. I mean, sure, it's not going to work for any guy, because a good portion of that group would be visually unappealing. But it's certainly not something that only works because Aragorn is already seen as a powerful-hence-desirable character, because good-looking "losers" are just as likely to be drawn this way.


Can you get away with that without it being bishi? Does it only work because he's been feminized in other ways?

That really depends on how you define "feminized," doesn't it? It's certainly opposed to the male-defined male ideal. Aesthetic appeal in general seems to have been defined as feminine (just look at the way guys describe cars), so if you go by that, "feminization" is pretty much part of the process. But I don't think there's really much you can get from that, other than "guys don't like being judged in aesthetic terms."

Robert Fisher said...

Yeah. The thing that struck me about the replies to Zak’s question was that women more often talked about what they inferred about the man’s character from the image rather than his clothing, pose, anatomy, etc. It suggested that appearance doesn’t really matter except to the extent that it infers something about the personality.

And this is true for me too. It is often what an image infers about the personality of the woman depicted that will affect how attractive I find her. And these images labelled as sexualized I often find unattractive.

Greg Gorgonmilk: “A man analyzes every body he looks at -- its form, the way it moves, the way it smells -- and is aroused by those persons that approach some internalized socio-genetic ideal. This ideal (or set of ideals) is different for all men, though there are obviously popular trends and commonalities.

Well, I know that for me this is wrong. I have no single ideal. I find a very wide range of female bodies attractive. Indeed, beauty is often in the individualness.

(And those studies that show that when you average assessments of beauty among many people an average image comes out on top just make me laugh. ^_^)

I tend think these cultural ideals about what is considered and depicted as attractive are artificial and more a fashion than about what actually arouses us.

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