There comes a point in most men’s lives when you realize that you’re perceived as public property. Maybe it’s the moment you set eyes on your Selective Service Registration Form and realize your life belongs to the state, or maybe it’s when the manager at your part-time job asks you to carry the heavy boxes again while the women stand around looking bored. The experience can come in an infinite number of iterations; the only sure thing is that the first time is never the last time. Walking around in a male body means you are constantly reminded that your value exists in the way that other people—women, especially— can use you.
Stranger still, this being valued for your income or strength or willingness to take risks is framed as a compliment—it’s not enough that men are meant to endure the neverending reminder that they exist to provide for others, they’re actually supposed to enjoy it. Men are taught to be eager to signal their wealth so that others know how to value them. Your car, your clothes, your shoes, your job, your body – lets women know just how much they can expect you to provide for them.
Recently it occurred to me that the expectation that men enjoy female attention in all forms may be behind the many unfortunate media profiles of influential men. Whether it’s Mitt Romney’s personal wealth or John Thune’s biceps—when it comes to covering successful men, the media prefers wealth and physical strength over substance and issues. Articles like these are not always written by women, but they always seem to be written for them.
A recent—and perhaps one of the most egregious—example comes from Politico, where the site ran a piece on President Obama and several other candidates physical fitness, including a topless photo of the President!
The article’s premise alone is sexist—would the physical strength of a female candidate ever be fodder?—but the content is even worse.
In a curious juxtaposition, while America’s waistline expands the candidates gunning for the White House have never looked better. Although we’ve seen trim, athletically minded tickets before (most recently, John Kerry and John Edwards), few have exhibited such a commitment to physical fitness as this year’s crop.
In short, it’s flat stomachs, across the board.
“With politicians, I think the mentality is, you’re projecting an image of looking good, that you are good, that you are strong, that you have what it takes to be a leader. I think that’s part of it.”
Multiple articles fetishize Paul Ryan’s body and his dedication to P90X workouts.
A former personal trainer, Ryan, who stands 6-ft.-2-in. and weighs 163 lbs. with 6%-8% body fat, works out like a warrior and leads fellow Hill staffers in daily morning sessions of the popular 90-day, body-sculpting program called P90X.
Time Magazine featured a photo shoot of Ryan working out, including shots of bulging biceps and sculpted thigh muscles.
What possible purpose would including such explicit photos serve other than to present a very sexual visual of Ryan? What purpose does featuring the sculpted chest of Obama on the front page of a magazine serve other than to convey he will step up and provide, as men are expected to do?
There is some logic to Ryan and Obama agreeing to have their bodies exploited this way: physical strength is taken as competence, and that competence is appealing.
But appealing to whom?
Ovulation led single women to become more liberal, less religious, and more likely to vote for Barack Obama. In contrast, ovulation led women in committed relationships to become more conservative, more religious, and more likely to vote for Mitt Romney. In addition, ovulation-induced changes in political orientation mediated women’s voting behavior. Overall, the ovulatory cycle not only influences women’s politics but also appears to do so differently for single women than for women in relationships.
When the presumed audience is always female, men’s objectification becomes the norm. A man’s humanity, his intellect, talent and substance pale in comparison to how “appealing” he can be to women. And the danger of the female gaze is that it does tangible harm. When the media focuses on powerful men’s wealth and strength and social utility, their credibility is undermined. And in everyday life, the assumption that men’s usefulness as providers must meet female approval isn’t just burdensome—it’s harassing. This is especially true for young men who bear the brunt of the female gaze everywhere from school to the airport, under constant assessment for how much they can bring to the table in terms of resources.
In a media landscape where sexist hit pieces on powerful men are common, “appealing” profiles that focus on a man’s muscle tone and body fat percentages are especially insidious.
But objectification is not a compliment, even when well-intentioned. Old habits die hard for women who have been raised to believe what they think about a man’s income and ability to provide for her is the most important piece of information they can relay. But wallet-measuring isn’t journalism, and until some women learn as much, we’re going to be stuck with a media that is more gold-digging dating service than press.
You know this is a reversal, right? Yep, Jessica Valenti, boo-hooing her way across the pages of The Nation that the male media gaze is so mean and focusing on how women look is just one more attempt by the patriarchy to keep women out of power.
It’s almost funny that Valenti can live and work and presumably observe some actual humans around her and yet fail to notice that the female media gaze gives as good as it gets.
Now, I need to do a little more research on the fitness levels of politicians. I find I make much better assessments when the candidates are topless.
Mmmm. Topless candidates.
Lots of love,