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!
I made the mistake about halfway through watching Ginger Snaps of reading what Brian Collins of Horror Movie A Day had to say about it, and, boy, it got me fired up! He said the movie wasn’t “great,” which, fair enough, maybe it isn’t, but he also dismissed the main characters (two Goth sisters from Canada who battle with lycanthropy and puberty) as unlikable. Even worse, he commented on the unattractiveness of the younger sister and the hotness of the older sister. Way to react like a typical bro-dude.
Horror as a genre typically panders to the male gaze by serving up tits (and lots of them), but part of the whole point of this movie is that the girls, at least up to a point, don’t want the attention of boys and do everything they can to avoid it. When the older sister does finally have her sexual awakening, it’s horrific and doesn’t turn out well for the boys who objectified her. And the younger sister hasn’t even had her period yet, for fuck’s sake! Commenting on her attractiveness, or lack thereof, epically and ironically misses the point.
And so what if the sisters are unlikable? Of course they are. Teenage girls are The Worst. You know who else is The Worst? Teenage boys, but somehow we’ve spent decades – millennia, really – glorifying The Worst tendencies of teenage boys and nobody complains that it isn’t fun to watch. It was nice, in a way, to see teen girl characters that didn’t fit the stereotypes of either the “plucky female heroine” or “bitchy popular girl.” They were unpleasant in a realistic way that actually served a function: to cover up the fears and uncertainties of adolescence.
I know Collins’ attitude isn’t exactly an egregious example of sexism, and it’s perfectly valid for someone to find the movie lacking in various ways, but it still really bummed me out. The failure of a male viewer to understand how much it could mean to girls who love horror but seldom see anything they can identify with bummed me out. I don’t want to turn everything into some kind of feminist issue, but there’s such a dearth of good, female-centric horror with emphasis on feminine anxieties that, in the rare case where a horror film handles these anxieties honestly, I think it’s worth having a conversation. The existence of the Final Girl does very little to make a horror film female-centric and exploiting the (too obvious) fear of vulnerability and rape is just as much about male titillation as it is about a woman’s anxiety. I’m interested to see more about the everyday terror of being a girl, which I thought Ginger Snaps delivered on very well.
Puberty is scary for everyone, but at least boys get cool deep voices, fun erections to play with and a newfound sense of camaraderie. For girls, everything fractures. Formerly close bonds between friends fall apart as secrets become currency and insecurity deepens into an all-encompassing paranoia. Before puberty, you had an identity: a tomboy, a storyteller, a trouble-maker; but after puberty everything that you are is reduced to your sex. You’re either an ugly freak like Bridget or a dirty slut-bitch like Ginger, and there’s no real in-between, unless being invisible counts.
I imagine when a boy is told, “You’re a man, now,” there’s a sense of pride in hearing that. But when you get your first period and someone says that godawful fucking line about being a woman, part of your soul dies because there’s no implication of exciting possibilities or new discoveries. It’s about the crushing responsibility of being a woman, of one day being a mother, of keeping your body safe and your reputation clean. Instead of boners, you get a bloody crotch. Instead of thinking about all the sexy sex you want to have, you think about getting pregnant and turning into a walking cliché – losing your figure, losing your identity.
Being a woman (or a mother) isn’t that miserable, really, but everything feels more dramatic when you’re thirteen. I cringed so hard when Ginger’s mother reminded her she would be getting her period for the next 30 years or so. When I was that age, thinking about those things, I could feel imaginary chains wrapping around me. And I cringed for Bridget, too, watching her older sister cross that line and knowing that the horrors of growing up were waiting for her, lurking around the corner.
No wonder the sisters in Ginger Snaps are so obsessed with suicide. I thought about death a lot when I was that age, too, not because I was truly suicidal but because it seemed so much cleaner than the messy, slow-moving tragedy of life. No wonder they, like all teenage girls, are so sour and unpleasant most of the time. The end of every single day felt like a miracle of endurance, and that is really terrifying.
Horror for Girls
Making a distinction between horror about girls and horror for girls can be a little difficult. A lot of critics cite Carrie when talking about Ginger Snaps; I don’t know if Carrie is really “for girls” the way Ginger Snaps is, but sexual awakening certainly causes anxiety that can be exploited for horror. A recent example is Teeth, a movie about a young girl who discovers that she has a literal vagina dentata. The film touches on many of the conflicting fears a girl can have about her body: sexual assault, sexual prowess, and sexual rejection.
A horror movie doesn’t even necessarily have to be about “women’s issues” to be female-centric; one of my favorite movies is The Descent, about a group of friends who go on a caving trip and discover that they are not alone. The movie doesn’t force a conspicuous “Girls kick ass!” message. The characters happen to be women and they happen to like adventures – this empowers the characters by not making an issue out of it. There’s friendship, betrayal, and loss. Also, monsters.
Another movie I enjoyed was May, about an isolated, socially awkward woman who is more than a little deranged and so starved for companionship that she turns into a clingy mess at any sign of affection. She’s creepy and overbearing, but I sympathized with her, too. I wanted her to make a friend, to have a boyfriend, to maintain any kind of healthy connection that might pull her out of her pathetic weirdness. But I wanted her to still be a little weird. The movie also seemed to comment on what we now call the Manic Pixie Dream Girl phenomenon; other characters in the film see May as quirky and interesting, even though she is clearly insane. People see her as they want to, instead of seeing her as she is – and when they finally have a moment of clarity, they reject her. This is a good example of how women sometimes get trapped in roles they don’t choose for themselves, and punished when they don’t conform to the lie.
May was directed by Lucky McKee, who made another interesting specimen of seemingly “feminist” horror, The Woman. In the film, a man finds a feral woman in the woods and captures her, keeping her tied up in a shed. He tortures the woman in order to “civilize” her and, as he recruits his wife and children to help out, it becomes clear that he terrorizes his family in equal measure. At first, The Woman could seem like another exploitation film, using the blunt instruments of rape and torture to shock the audience, but when the wife and teenage daughter look at the wild girl with empathy in their eyes, the movie becomes an interesting comment on misogyny and how certain men still can’t stand to see a liberated woman. Not exactly a subtle film, but definitely interesting.
This is all to say that I am a woman and I like horror movies. I can get down with the slashing, the damsels who need saving, and the gratuitous boobage of the 80s, but every once in awhile I like my dismemberment with a little feminism.