In ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Laura Mulvey makes a point of saying, on page 12, that men ‘cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification’. When she made this observation in the 1970s, the media climate was certainly much more one-sided in that it objectified women not exclusively but much, much moreso than it objectified men. Forty-odd years later, the cultural landscape has changed, and the balance is still skewed, there has been a leveling of sorts in that men have become more exposed to the same exploitative media trends that women have been exposed to for over a century. While this is a legitimate concern, it also has an overtone of ironic justice to it, which is even more disturbing.
In Laurie Penny’s excellent book, Unspeakable Things, she points out that both genders are held up to impossible standards, taken to illogical extremes by the media they consume. Advertisements, implicit or explicit, create self-hatred and envy, which drives one to uphold the convictions or buy the products therein. She also points out that, while eating disorders in women are well-cataloged (however ineffectually) and well-researched, the rising trend of dysmorphic disorders in men is largely unexamined despite coming from the same source – the self-hatred provoked by people whose jobs focus around how to make you give them your money for something that probably isn’t worth it.
What Mulvey predicted and what Penny flatly states boils down to ‘women like to look too’, and that’s perfectly fair. Culture is inescapably visual, and the increased presence of worldviews that are not those of white, straight men within a certain age bracket broadens the potential for turning the gaze on the gazers. There was always pressure on men the same way there was pressure on women, but it didn’t intersect this directly. The ideal woman, according to (broad) media trends is feminine, passive, sexy (but not sexual), thin, and white (or if not, titillatingly and stereotypically exotic); the ideal man is strong, wealthy, sexually insatiable, emotionally inscrutable and capable of (victoriously) inflicting violence. Those stereotypes still exist and in force, with the technological advancements required to present them all with even more unrealistic aesthetic appearances. When people are exposed to hundreds of ads in a day (and that’s before they get to what’s depicted in their recreational media), it’s pretty understandable that things are starting to go into the domain of equal-opportunity misery, although it’s still a decent way away.
It’s pretty well impossible to fit these criteria, which advertisers, producers and their associates know full well. This perceived deficiency has made a decent number of people quite wealthy, and to an extent they probably don’t or didn’t know how things would fall out on their consumers. Coincidentally, an overwhelming percentage of these people are (like this writer) white, male extroverts with a remarkable deficit of ethics and shame. When Mulvey was writing, visual culture was nowhere near its prevalence today and thoroughly dominated by this demographic. Now, those standards are multifarious, absurd in their presentation and near-completely inescapable, and the demographic that benefited from them the most is now visibly suffering from it. That, at least to some, is a prime instance of gruesome irony.