Irradiated by LabRat
By way of Peter through what was apparently Michael Z. Williamson’s Facebook page, a bit of visual snark:
Now, what I want to talk about is only tangentially related to the point Peter set out to make, and I have no idea what the context of Williamson’s post looked like, but I still think it makes for something interesting to write about, so.
Whether we’re talking about Pattinson in Twilight or Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic or Justin Bieber, guys: don’t worry about these dudes. Don’t worry that they’re not what you’d want to be or want your son or any other guy to be. They’re not for you, and they’re not for your son or any other man. They’re for women, and mostly for younger women and outright girls at that. The modern equivalent of Clint Eastwood in the sixties and seventies isn’t Robert Pattinson, it’s Daniel Craig or Jason Statham. The equivalent of Robert Pattinson forty to fifty years ago isn’t Clint Eastwood, it’s David Cassidy or any of the Monkees. You find them unappealing and vaguely horrifying because they’re NOT what men hopefully imagine themselves to be, or want to be. No man wants to be Cassidy or Pattinson unless the prospect of an endless sea of women in a berserk lust is so appealing they’ll do anything, no matter how degrading*. They’re not a male fantasy at all, nor were they ever designed to be by the people who made and marketed their careers: they’re a sexual female fantasy.
There’s a concept out there you’ll sometimes see referred to in those circles what wonk on about media and gender issues, which is called male gaze. The image above, and especially related issues that are more explicitly about how “gay” people like Pattinson and Beiber are, summarizes male gaze perfectly: it’s the idea that the default viewer, of anything, is a straight man. The only way you can take someone pretty who’s made their entire career off selling their image and body to women is “gay” is if you implicitly assume that whoever is taking them in and enjoying them and paying for them is, well, male, because that’s what consumers of media are.
Media is in the business of selling fantasies, and not all fantasies are for everyone. Hollywood and other entertainment media still mostly go by the default rules of male gaze, so most male characters aimed to sell a fantasy are male power fantasies- what men themselves would like to be themselves. Accordingly, most female characters are primarily constructed around male sexual fantasies- what they’d like to have from a desirable prop in their lives. The older James Bond movies are a pretty pure illustration of this; we’ve got James Bond, who is cool and smart and powerful and brilliant and has every gadget in the world- power fantasy- and any Bond girl, who have names like Pussy Galore. A woman may enjoy media like this (I often do, when it’s not blatantly misogynistic as well as simply centered around male gaze), but it’s not for her, not in the sense of being a fantasy designed for her.
Women have consumer dollars to spend too, so there is also a smaller, but very defined, market for media entirely constructed around female gaze. Twilight is pure female gaze, and all the male characters are constructed as female sexual fantasy the same way that the Bond girls are male sexual fantasy. At first just about all female-gaze products were this kind of fantasy, but as more female writers broke out of the pure dungeon of the romance novel, female power fantasies akin to the male power fantasies started to appear as well**; the “urban supernatural” genre is heavily dominated by female authors, female gaze, and female fantasies, and True Blood would be an excellent example of a piece of media that is mostly if not entirely defined by female gaze- the characters and plotlines are a mix of female sexual fantasy and female power fantasy.
The two assumed points of view and sold fantasies aren’t necessarily kept in their own separate ghettos; female action stars and characters are very often an attempt to combine female power fantasy with male sexual fantasy. (See: anything Joss Whedon has ever done, ever. The lead character in Resident Evil. Most female comic book characters that actually do anything.) The counterpart, male power fantasy and female sexual fantasy, is a bit rarer and usually much more subdued on the female sexual fantasy front, but if the lead character of an action movie always seems to find a way to lose his shirt and has seemingly gratuitous sensitive moments, it’s likely he’s at least a little of this. The lines here get pretty blurry, but if I had to pick examples again, I’d say most James Bond movies are pure male power fantasy, and the Indiana Jones movies are mostly male power with a dose of female sexual mixed in. Indy spends an awful lot of time shirtless, the camera treats Harrison Ford’s body lovingly, and he doesn’t shoot his girlfriends even when they deserve it.
This Shortpacked! cartoon is a pretty good distillation of the divide between male and female gaze and power fantasies versus sexual fantasies. Comic art, by its nature, tends to give away very quickly who it’s by and who it’s meant for. Rob Liefeld: all male power fantasy, male sexual fantasy, all the time. Shoujou***: all female power and sex fantasy, all the time. The Justice League animated series is an interesting example that, even judging by the art alone, seems to be about power fantasy for both sexes with sexual for both taking a backseat but present role; the character designs are exaggerated (the burlier male characters all seem to have shoulders that are about six feet wide), but instead of having their breasts and butts exaggerated as is standard for American superhero comic art, they’re exaggerated in the same way the men are- wide shoulders, big upper arms, smaller hips. Nobody’s bust is bigger than her shoulders are. The women (mostly) have more revealing costumes than the men, but it’s hard to tell how much is to be sexually appealing and how much is simply the legacy of their original character designs in earlier comics- and the male models have some concessions to female gaze as well.
Neither Twilight men nor Bond girls represent anything approaching realism or really even healthy fantasy, but they are what they are and they don’t exist to make the gender they’re not made for, comfortable, or to model anything for them except by collateral damage, as it were. The more explicit they get and the more they descend into the realm of pure fantasy and its rules, the more they tend to make the gender they’re stylizing deeply uncomfortable, precisely because being a pure object is an uncomfortable position to be in. When these types actually have the chance to become dangerous is when few or no alternative, aspirational fantasies are available- when a kid would be in a position to think the sexual fantasies of the opposite sex are the only available aspiration. This is why a dearth of female power fantasy characters that aren’t equally or even moreso male sexual fantasies is a problem, and while it would be if the reverse were true, I don’t think that’s the situation we have today so much as simply some prominent male characters (and I would argue people like Bieber are as much characters as anything) who are straight up female sexual fantasy. This is not to say there isn’t some deeply problematic stuff in it, or in some of the material sold to men and boys as power fantasies- just that I don’t think the risk of men and boys thinking Edward the Sparklepire is a model meant for them to emulate is one of those issues. As with most pure fantasy, the biggest risk for both sexes with the material aimed at them is in coming to believe it has anything much to do with reality.
Or, South Park can talk about it…
*Footnote for men of my generation: Did you want to be a Backstreet Boy or a member of N’Sync when you grew up? Even though all the girls your age were wild for them? No? I thought not.
**This is not to say that aspirational fantasy fiction aimed squarely at women is modern; explicit power fantasies are much moreso. Much of what Jane Austen wrote is aspirational and sexual fantasy for women.
**Okay, maybe not quite entirely all, but going into the details unpacking cultural, gender, and marketing issues there would take a longer post of its own. Suffice to say shoujou anime and manga is still built primarily around female gaze and has its own art style for good reason.