Male Beauty, Female Gaze, and the Thinking Woman’s Sex Symbol
So…I know this isn’t Tumblr or anything, but I’ve been looking for a platform to discuss my little obsession (or as the Huffington Post calls it, a situation) with British star Benedict Cumberbatch. My friend Ellie and I had a little discussion in the comments the other day about Male Gaze and Female Gaze and I realized that male beauty and the complexity of female desire are things I would like to explore in more depth.
I’ve only recently learned how to look at men, which is fucking depressing because I’m in my thirties. But when I was younger, the men who were touted as sex symbols always turned me off or creeped me out a little (ugh, New Kids of the Block). This is in part because a lot of heartthrobs are conventional-looking, which has never been my thing. But it’s also because I could see the strings; especially when you’re a teenage girl, hot guys are marketed pretty aggressively. Look at this guy. You should find him attractive. I think what creeps me out is realizing that someone behind the scenes has been thinking about my sexual desire. Men are used to having images engineered to their desires and served up liberally, but the only time women’s libidos are considered is during seduction. When a hunk of burning love is offered to me, I’m naturally suspicious of their motives; someone is getting off, and it sure as hell isn’t me. I’ve had to retrain my thinking a little bit to allow myself to check out and appreciate a good-looking man – and feel entitled to do so (as long as I’m not a weirdo about it), rather than ashamed.
Ellie’s comments raised the issue of the objectification of men on television, lamenting, “…in the critical discussions I’ve read, they all talk about the Gay Male Gaze. Can we not talk about a Female Gaze at all? … [I]t’s just an automatic assumption that it must be a Male Gaze – there can be no such thing as a Female Gaze because women are to be objectified, they never do the objectifying.” Feminist philosopher Susan Bordo has an explanation for this phenomenon and discusses it at length in her great essay, “Beauty (Re)discovers the Male Body.” She talks about the emergence of a gay male aesthetic in the mid-nineties, due largely to Calvin Klein and Gucci ads that featured beautiful male models in their underwear (or sometimes completely nude). She writes: “Throughout this century, gay photographers have created a rich, sensuous, and dramatic tradition which is unabashed in eroticizing the male body, male sensuousness, and male potency, including penises.” Although these striking and controversial images may have been intended to appeal to gay men, Bordo argues that women have also been the beneficiaries in this beauty revolution. In other words, women learned everything they know about appreciating the male body from gay men.
I think another reason why we tend to assume that all gaze is male is because of the old cliché about men being “visual creatures,” more so than women. I don’t know what the exact science is, but this always struck me as a bullshit excuse for some men to keep leering while neglecting their own physical appearance. For men, the idea that they might be judged and evaluated on their appearance the same as they have done to women is terrifying, so they placate women by citing neuroscience. Physical attractiveness isn’t important to you. You don’t see what you see. Bordo is also unconvinced by this line of reasoning and explains that “Women aren’t used to seeing naked men frankly portrayed as ‘objects’ of a sexual gaze… So pardon me if I’m skeptical when I read arguments about men’s greater ‘biological’ responsiveness to visual stimuli.” She believes instead that physical reaction to visual stimuli is a learned response, built through social conditioning. The Female Gaze, then, is something that we can cultivate as long as we allow ourselves to “see.”
Ellie is right when she says that male objectification is more prominent in the world of television, where female viewership thrives. She cites Teen Wolf as an example, and I’d throw Supernatural out there, too. Even Battlestar Galactica, the kind of sci-fi show that would normally be geared exclusively toward a male audience, tends to objectify the men as much or more than the women (in keeping with the BSG universe’s emphasis on gender equity). There’s a lot for ladies to love about Mad Men beyond the female characters’ pretty dresses. I think male objectification is even more common when it comes to anything marketed toward teens. For some reason (again, creepy), we seem to focus more on the sexuality of teenage girls than adult women. What else explains the popularity of Justin Bieber, Twilight, One Direction and other boy bands?
Obviously Female Gaze is a real thing, but it can be harder to identify for a number of reasons: women are out of practice when it comes to objectifying men; what women find attractive is frustratingly subjective; Female Gaze is often hard to untangle from straight Male Gaze. What happens in a lot of cases is that a man’s emergence as a “sex symbol” is driven not so much by female desire but by male wish-fulfillment. When a woman is marketed as a sex symbol, she only has to appeal to men, but when a man is marketed as a sex symbol, he must appeal to both sexes. Women love him, but more importantly, men want to be him. George Clooney. Brad Pitt. Once upon a time, Tom Cruise was a cool man of action. Various incarnations of James Bond. Men want us to find these men attractive because it ties into their own self-image.
I would like to present the popularity of Benedict Cumberbatch (star of the BBC’s Sherlock and rising Hollywood player) as proof that the pure Female Gaze exists. He is an odd specimen, for sure: his prominent forehead and hollowed-out cheeks give him a slightly “rugged” quality, while his startling blue eyes and full lips push him toward the “pretty” end of the spectrum. Additionally, his high cheek-bones and the way his eyes are wide-set and slightly angled evoke a third descriptor: “exotic.” These three elements could add up to a hot mess, and sometimes they do – he is a beautiful man but not always the most photogenic. Critics describe his attractiveness in backhanded terms: unconventional, a “surprising” sex symbol, “unexpected” heartthrob, etc. The unspoken idea is, We think he’s ugly but for some reason women like him.
Because of his unconventionality, I don’t get the sense that the BBC was initially pushing Benedict as a sex symbol, and this is part of why women respond to him so intensely. He doesn’t feel packaged and sold, or at least he didn’t prior to the first season of Sherlock. I think to a certain degree, Steven Moffat (the writer/producer of the series) knew what he was doing when he cast Benedict as Sherlock Holmes; Moffat has praised his looks highly, calling him “dashing” and “this beautiful, exotic creature.” As a result of Benedict’s unusual charms, female viewers feel like they have “discovered” him, which heightens the cultish adoration of his fanbase. They are proud that they “get it,” that they can see beauty where others might miss it. I think, in the land of straight girls, or at least brainy straight girls, difference is valued more highly than a scientifically “attractive” symmetrical face. Male traits that are striking win out over the generic. Straight male viewers don’t understand Benedict’s appeal and voice their criticisms loudly – calling him horse-faced, a lizard, an alien, etc. I don’t think it’s about jealousy, even, just bafflement. They want to get a handle on women’s desires, but they’re still trying to look at attractiveness from a particularly heterosexual male point of view.
Any discussion of what women find attractive is going to be subjective, and Benedict’s charms go far beyond the physical or tangible. First, there’s the smoky baritone voice (goddamn that voice). Then there’s his electric presence, a charisma so intense that, combined with his exotic looks, causes him to practically burn off the screen. If his presence alone doesn’t make you a believer, then his interviews reveal a man who is quick-witted, intuitive, charmingly candid (and sometimes awkward), intelligent, and hilarious. He’s sensitive in all the right ways (defends feminism, cares deeply about children in Africa) and manly in all the right ways (skydives, rides a motorcycle). What thinking girl could possibly stand a chance in the presence of such a man?
He has rightly been called “The Thinking Woman’s Sex Symbol,” which is partially due to his geek credibility. But I still think it’s a curious turn of phrase because we’re more used to hearing about the “Thinking Man’s Sex Symbol.” I believe this is another double-standard of the Male Gaze. Valuing a woman for her intellect or her unconventionality still seems a little revolutionary, even in 2012 (unfortunately, “thinking man’s sex symbol” is often a euphemism for “brunette” or “has tits smaller than a C-cup”). I don’t know why we rarely talk about the counterpart for women; maybe we take women’s thoughts for granted or maybe it’s because we’ve bought into the whole idea that women aren’t as shallow as a men (or as visually oriented) and therefore “thinking woman” is redundant. No matter; as an actor who has portrayed Stephen Hawking, Sherlock Holmes, Vincent van Gogh, Victor Frankenstein and various other geniuses, Benedict Cumberbatch can’t help but ooze intellectual (if not always sexual) prowess.
But just because there’s a cerebral component to his appeal doesn’t take away from the strong reaction provoked by the visual aspects. Maybe it’s just me, but perfect symmetry is boring. If you’ve seen one conventional pretty boy, you’ve seen them all. I take one look at their faces and they’re burned into my brain; no need to ever look again. But something about Benedict’s kooky, shape-shifting features invites me to keep looking. They never settle perfectly on my mind so I have to double-take, triple-take, look and look again. There’s always something new to see. And so I gaze.
I will end my fangirling by sharing a few videos.
My favorite funny interview. So adorbs!:
Benedict shows his storytelling skills in this radio interview by recounting his traumatic carjacking/kidnapping experience in South Africa:
And finally, nothing gets me hot like a beautiful man speaking eloquently about Modernist literature:
Thanks for humoring me! Share your man-crushes in the comments!