Tuesday, November 27, 2012

How dare movies acknowledge the female gaze!

Max Read of Gawker brings our attention to (and nicely tears apart) a painfully misogynistic op-ed by Richard Cohen. Cohen doesn't like that the new James Bond is ripped, and prefers a "sexual meritocracy," which apparently means that male appearance doesn't matter when it comes to getting the girl. It's "game" all over again: the foolish, self-defeating belief that any man can snag any woman if he just behaves a certain way. Reverse the genders and it's clear why this is ridiculous: when looking for a partner/whatever people look at other people-of-the-sex-they-find-attractive and make snap maybe-no decisions. Sometimes yes-no, but generally more like maybe-no. A certain bar needs to be crossed, or else "romantic" isn't a possibility. (Once possibility is established, plenty of other factors can - generally will - lead to a no. Unless someone is, I don't know, Natalie Portman-level attractive, in which case maybe not.) Cohen's point, in other words, is that the male gaze is a given; the problem is that nowadays, movies cater to the female one as well.

Oh, but a point could be made that "ripped" isn't the be-all and end-all of male beauty. It's not what individual women (or gay men, I suppose, but this being a post about an op-ed about hetero dynamics...) generally want, and it wasn't always (still isn't?) what male heartthrobs need to look like. I mean, I've never been a huge fan of Cary Grant, but my understanding is that he was thought to be quite good-looking. He certainly wasn't cast despite what he looked like, even well into middle age. Much like the women who believe their lives would be entirely different if they lost five pounds, there are, apparently, certain men who think intense, time-consuming workouts plausibly increase their appeal to the opposite sex in something like proportion to the effort put in. Not likely!

But what "ripped" is, in movies, is a stand-in for physical-attractiveness-to-women, or to-a-certain-woman. A male character with abs, one who is relatively young or as the awful saying goes (and I'm picturing Rob Lowe of late) well-preserved, is one we are to assume the female lead finds physically desirable. There's really no other universal way of conveying this, with the possible exception of casting Jon Hamm. ("30 Rock" viewers did not need this spelled out.) If you want to show, in a movie, that women, like men, rule out great numbers of potential romantic partners on account of, just-doesn't-do-it-for-me, abs will help get the point across. We have similar cues for female attractiveness. But we assume men will only consider as romantic possibilities women who meet whichever standard. Maybe we-as-a-society are starting to assume this about women as well. This should be celebrated, and in no way requires that ordinary men spend three hours a day in the gym.


Sigivald said...

I dislike a "ripped" Bond purely because Bond, in the Fleming novels, is not a body-builder type.

Nothing to do with sexual politics or gendered-gaze - merely fidelity to the source material.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Fair enough? But if that was Cohen's beef, he should have said so.

PG said...

I think the novel "From Russia With Love" indicates what Fleming had in mind for a Bond body, and it definitely included working out. In the same novel, villain assassin Krassno Granitski is depicted as having the excessively muscled body: a woman massaging him thinks of it as "the finest body she had ever seen," "fantastic muscles," yet "somehow bestial." So yes, Bond is supposed to represent a certain degree of cleverness, wit, intelligence, not just to be dumb muscle like Granitski. Nonetheless, Fleming was not so ignorant of biology as to think that Bond could perform the feats of physical strength and endurance that he did without spending some of his spare time working out instead of reading a book as Cohen demands.