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!
Notice what wasn’t included in my titular list? Professional scolding. There’s a big hole at the center of “A Scandal in Belgravia” and it’s shaped like Irene Adler – The Woman the episode is supposedly about, except Steven Moffat doesn’t seem as interested in her as everyone else does. She appears only in a few scenes; her absence dominates (puns!) the episode more than her presence does, giving way to more important business. Moreso than Irene Adler, this episode is really about the non-romantic relationships in Sherlock’s life: his friendship with John, his fraught sibling relationship with Mycroft and his makeshift family that includes landlady Mrs. Hudson and coworkers Molly Hooper and Greg Lestrade. The relationships and how they define Sherlock’s character are crucial to answering the big questions that the show has already put forth. The first question, as raised by Lestrade in “A Study in Pink,” is whether or not Sherlock is not merely a “great man” but a “good one.” The next, interrelated question, raised by Jim Moriarty in “The Great Game,” is whether or not Sherlock even has a heart that can be burned.
Enter Irene Adler, whose sole purpose is to chip away at Sherlock’s icy façade. Now, I’m not interested in getting into the argument about gender roles and sexual exploitation, which has been the main focus of fan and critical discussion regarding “A Scandal in Belgravia.” The portrayal of women on the show has been problematic, I admit, but I still love this episode. It’s the funniest the show has ever been, the saddest it’s ever been, and the best distillation of what Sherlock is ultimately about: trying to discover what kind of man Mr. Holmes really is.
Mrs. Hudson makes an important pronouncement near the beginning of the episode: “Family is all we have in this world.” Earlier in the show’s run, Sherlock might have taken issue with such an openly sentimental statement, but here we see him reluctantly take his place among a makeshift family of his own. This transition won’t be a smooth one, as best demonstrated by the delightfully awkward Christmas party scene. The party is significant because it marks the first time the series has shown the entire cast in the same place, at the same time. Although John is obviously the one who planned the party, they are all connected through Sherlock and they each care about him in their various ways.
Caring is most painful for poor Molly. Her portrayal as a hapless doormat putting up with Sherlock’s abuse has also received criticism as another example of the show’s damaging sexual politics. Depending on your perspective, she’s either a pathetic victim or a persistent geek girl who can see beneath Sherlock’s prickly surface to offer him unconditional love. Whatever the case, it’s nice to see her stand up for herself and call Sherlock out: “You always say the most horrible things.” Oblivious too many times before, Sherlock seems overwhelmed by the realization that anyone takes what he says to heart. For all of his feigned arrogance, he doesn’t really think people are listening to him and he’s touched when he sees that they do.
Sherlock is good at observing people, but is flummoxed when those same people are staring right back at him. This might be the true reason why Irene Adler’s naked entrance throws him off – not because she isn’t wearing any clothes, but because it’s clear to him that she made the choice solely for his benefit. She knew he was coming and dressed for the occasion. He doesn’t know what to do with that kind of attention. When she calls him sexy, he really doesn’t know how to respond. He thinks he’s invisible, or like a two-way mirror. It shocks him to discover people can actually see him, too. The image of the Great Observer and the way he is forced to recognize himself, in turn, being observed is another interesting thread that runs throughout season two (the “private detective”/”public image” encounter with the paparazzi also drives this home). The struggle with other people’s perceptions fits nicely with Sherlock’s journey toward self-definition as he becomes more socially connected.
Back to family. Is there a better scene in the whole series than Mycroft and Sherlock’s conversation in the morgue? From Mycroft’s offering of a single cigarette (“It’s Christmas”) to Sherlock’s emotional dodge when his brother’s questioning becomes too pointed (“This is low tar”), the scene paints a vague but devastating outline of the Holmes’ boys’ cold upbringing. When Mycroft says, “Caring is not an advantage… Sherlock,” the scolding edge in his voice shows that they’ve had this conversation more than once. Does the sentiment (or lack thereof) come from Mycroft himself, or was it handed down from their parents? Is Sherlock truly a “high-functioning sociopath,” as he describes himself, or has all warmth simply been beaten out of him? Mycroft may turn out to be the true sociopath, molding his brother into his own image because he doesn’t know any other way to live. Despite his throwaway line at teatime (“I’ll be mother”), he inhabits the role of the stern, unfeeling father, while John steps more easily into the nurturing maternal role.
So what about John? Is he just a friend, or a care-taker, a protector, the butt of gay jokes? Sherlock and John have settled into an easy friendship, giggling like schoolboys in Buckingham Palace. They snipe at each other about who has the better website. The two men’s personalities have started to merge in fascinating ways: Sherlock shows compassion toward Molly, and John can’t even tell his own girlfriends apart. Regardless of sexual orientation, they are a couple, as Irene points out.
To sum up, despite the well-worn criticism that people have already leveled at this episode, I thought it was a smart, sweet, funny installment that shows a surprising amount of depth despite the obvious ploys for titillation. Yes, making Irene Adler into a femme fatale dominatrix was a little easy. Making a character gay, only to have her fall in love with a man because he is just too awesome, is a little offensive. And the less said about Irene’s last-minute rescue, the better. I pretend that never happened. But there’s a lot I’ll defend here, even if no one else does. I’ll defend the gratuitous nudity, especially Sherlock’s, because hey –we’re equal opportunity objectifiers here, and also because it seemed like a pretty good inside joke on the part of the writers (Benedict Cumberbatch gets naked all the time in stuff! He just buffed up for Frankenstein!) And I’ll totally defend the groan-worthy “I am SHERlocked” pun because it was the right amount of funny and melodramatic for me. I think the camera-phone was speaking for us all.
Stray Observations (in the AV Club style):
- “I always hear ‘Punch me in the face’ when you’re speaking, but it’s usually subtext.”
- Don’t fuck with Mrs. Hudson, seriously.
- Sherlock has mastered the art of passive-aggressive violin playing.
- For some reason, it really tickles me that when Sherlock says, “Say that again,” John’s first instinct is to say, “You’re right.” Someone has been very well-trained.
- This episode features my favorite visual gag on the show: Sherlock trash-talking a guy who has been sitting behind him the whole time.