Does a half-naked man make you curious?
While feminists have long decried the negative effects of the male gaze, whereby literature, film, television and other artistic media are singularly produced to appeal to a heterosexual male demographic, I’m starting to see a trend toward its hazardous converse, the female gaze. In the recent Ghostbusters reboot (whose girl power message I totally appreciate), it made me uncomfortable to see how Kristen Wiig’s character, Erin Gilbert, drools over and objectifies the hot and sexy but truly moronic receptionist, Kevin, played by Chris Hemsworth. Even though his dumb but cute parts in the movie garnered a few laughs, I couldn’t help but think that if the roles had been reversed and the receptionist had been cast as a woman, many women would have found the role highly offensive.
It concerns me that as Hollywood and the media seek to pander more and more to the female audience, they will end up promoting the female gaze as an antidote to the male gaze, but this swing of the pendulum won’t ultimately serve our interests as women.
The female gaze has long persisted in the Romance genre. This myopic lens through which many female Romance writers create their MCs (Romance speak for male characters) serves to objectify the opposite sex and establishes in female readers false notions about what the ideal man should be, whether hot, wealthy, brooding, military, rogue or tattooed. I call this phenomenon “Recreating Adam”.
Sadly, by Recreating Adam, Romance writers are guilty of doing exactly what the male-dominated media does, that is to objectify, thereby reinforcing the patriarchal standards that distort both male and female roles and keep them locked in a sexist game.
You don’t need to look far to find evidence of this. Half-naked (or mostly naked) men grace the covers of a substantial majority of Romance novels, both in traditional print and ebook format. Placing a hot guy on the cover is designed to invite the female reader in with his bedroom eyes or feral scowl, if she even sees his face since a six-pack is usually enough to grab her attention. However, these covers also have the perhaps subconscious effect of placing the man at the center of the romantic relationship where the reader is inclined to care more about him than the female character. In fact, I often find in reviews that what predominantly determines the female reader’s opinion about the Romance story is the likability or desirability of the MC who rarely, if ever, reflects any kind of normal or even realistic person.
By Recreating Adam, Romance writers are shaping the perception of what it means to embody masculine energy. At the extreme, masculinity is exclusive, violent, domineering, and emotionally stunted — think Christian Grey, although look at pretty much any Romance book and you’ll see that the majority of MC’s all posses at least one or more of these attributes. Upholding these types of characters as an ideal man puts men in a difficult position of either living up to or defying a set of expectations.
The standards set by these largely one-dimensional, unrealistically gorgeous, ripped, wealthy, strong and virile men are not true ideals that make for a well-rounded being or life partner.
These characters fail to come even close to realizing the potential of what it means to be self-actualized individuals. And while this may be acceptable to those who deem Romance fluff or escapist trash, I truly believe that such depictions of men and women are hurting the potential for real relationships. Dating sites, millennial blogs, and magazine articles continue the endless cycle of What’s Wrong with Me or What’s Wrong With Him?,which doesn’t lead to any real self-assessment. But for all the back and forth, few, if any, are taking a critical look at the stories we’re consuming as a society and questioning how they influence, however subconsciously, the way in which men and women perceive one another.
Feminism is fundamentally about equality. Therefore, placing men in objectified roles as a way to show women in power is not ultimately going to empower women. Instead, if we want women to be elevated within societies around the world, we must also elevate men. By this, I don’t mean putting them above women in terms of stature, but rather giving them the space to be more than what they’ve been allowed to under patriarchy. This means subjecting men to a different standard, one where their emotional and psychological maturity matters more than whether or not they can maintain a six-pack, play hero or make a seven figure salary.
We must destroy the view that men are somehow superior, but we cannot do this simply by asserting our superiority.
What we need is a new Recreation of Adam in which men are actually portrayed equal to their counterparts (whether male or female) and where the power dynamics are more balanced. We need fewer MC’s who are Navy SEALS or Alpha assholes and to have more fictional “book boyfriends” (as many Romance readers like to call them) who reflect the attributes of men that we most need in our society, namely men who are present, supportive, gentle and encouraging and most of all men who respect themselves.
As much as we must fight to change the male gaze, we must be equally committed to stop perpetuating the female gaze, which can be just as insidious.
Narrowly defining what it means to be male in this world based on superficial qualities sets us back. We need to allow our fictional male characters, as well as men in the real world, to inhabit those internal, caretaking spaces we’ve been expected to fill under patriarchy just as we aim to inhabit the external, public spaces of leadership and social revolution. Men must be encouraged to cultivate these sensibilities with our support because, as women, we understand what it means to have been pigeon-holed into societal roles.
This begins with writing a new story for both men and women, one in which both are whole and complete, where their existence does not depend on the other but is entirely interdependent. Radical transformation of this world that does little to truly honor women or men is well overdue. As authors, one way to effect positive change is for us to write it.
Fiction takes us to those deep places that reside in our subconscious where we find our deepest fantasies, as well as those core beliefs that form the foundation of our perception of reality. Romance writers have incredible power to influence change because Romance books capitalize on emotion. Regrettably, far too many have only managed to do the opposite by playing off stereotypes of male and female roles, thus supporting repressive, and sexist patriarchal beliefs. It’s time to see beyond the bare chests, ripped muscles, and wavy hair and to stop imbuing men with our narrow ideas of them but instead allow them to express themselves in a balanced way. If it’s what we want for ourselves as women, we must allow them to do the same in these fictional stories as well as in reality.