Equal Sex: In Film and On TV, Masculinity is Sexy, Safe — And More Complicated Than Ever

We're surrounded by beefcake: is this a backlash to the mainstreaming of feminism or a byproduct of it?

If there’s one moment in Mad Max: Fury Road that flipped the 2015 blockbuster from a female-friendly action film to a feminist statement, it’s the Bullet Farmer scene. Max (Tom Hardy) has just one bullet left in his gun, and he’s already missed his target: a vehicle carrying the villain Immortan Joe and his henchman, the Bullet Farmer. Furiosa (Charlize Theron) runs over and crouches behind him, her hand reflexively shooting out in a wordless gimme, gimme. Without turning around, he hands back the gun, which she rests on his shoulder and fires. It hits the target.

Audiences went nuts over this scene for the same reason they went nuts over Mad Max: It’s a rare action movie that takes women seriously not just as objects of desire, but as heroes in their own right. Furiosa is not only a better shot; it’s the acquiescence of male power   — the speed with which Max hands over that gun, no questions asked — that makes the scene stand out. And when Max steps aside and lets Furiosa flex her muscles, it only makes him sexier.

The scene points to a growing trend in popular film and television toward a more nuanced portrayal of masculinity. In recent years, stories about women and girls have broken new ground, to the obvious excitement of those of us who crave emotionally honest depictions of the women onscreen. As feminism has found an increasingly significant role in mainstream pop culture, depictions of men and male sexuality have correspondingly grown more subtle and complex.

Canadian journalist Rachel Giese, a regular contributor to CBC’s pop-culture radio program q and Chatelaine magazine, is at work on a book about modern boyhood and masculinity. She recalls, “When I was in university there was this poster of a hunky guy with a naked torso holding a baby. It was this black and white, kind of artsy photo — when you moved into your dorm, there was always a poster sale. And I feel like this moment is that poster.”

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Women are three times as likely as men to take their clothes off in a Hollywood film. But a new coterie of TV and movie hunks are starting to correct that imbalance.

We all had a good chuckle when we first heard Steven Soderbergh and Channing Tatum were making a movie about strippers. But 2012’s Magic Mike turned out to be a raucous, richly textured meditation on female desire for and celebration of the male body. Take the scene in which Tatum’s love interest, Brooke (Cody Horn), sees him perform for the first time. She’s a stand-in for the average female viewer, ready to roll her eyes at the spectacle of male strippers, who are often viewed more as comic relief than erotic fodder — think of the myriad bachelorette party scenes in which the goal is to embarrass the bride-to-be, not turn her on.

But when Mike (Tatum) strides onstage to the tune of Ginuwine’s “Pony” and gyrates in a pair of sweats and a tank top, Brooke is mesmerized. The camera devotes equal time to his performance and her reaction to it: She’s turned on, despite herself; it’s only when he slips off the sweats to reveal a bright red thong underneath that the spell is broken and she snaps out of it.

The women in Magic Mike XXL are bolder. The 2015 sequel to Magic Mike (directed by longtime Soderbergh collaborator Gregory Jacobs) goes bigger and harder, doing away with plot almost entirely in the service of pleasing women. Mike joins his gang of ripped pals on the road to a stripper convention in Myrtle Beach, and along the way, they offer their services to a variety of women: the cashier at a highway rest stop, the mostly black women at a Savannah, Georgia strip club, a group of wealthy, middle-aged white women enjoying a girls’ night at a mansion where the dudes have been invited to spend the night.

For Kiva Reardon, a programming associate for the Toronto International Film Festival and founding editor of the feminist film journal Cléo, Magic Mike XXL is even better than Magic Mike: “It’s a really amazing, fantastical world where women’s desires are respected and not made fun of, and it’s safe for you to desire and for men to be made vulnerable because women are making themselves vulnerable and being open about their desires,” she gushes. “It’s just like a beautiful fantasyland.” Every woman in the movie is a “queen,” the men, their humble servants. There’s no boorishness in the strippers’ behavior; they even visit a Jacksonville drag club where they cheerfully partake in an amateur competition, without a hint of mockery or scorn.

As Reardon points out, film has always been interested in stories about masculinity and men — they’re the ones who have historically gotten to make movies in the first place. What’s new, she says, is the “hyper-sexualization of men” in film. Reardon doubts a studio would have released a movie like Magic Mike XXL a decade ago: “Studios have always had an inkling that they can sell things to women, but in a certain way — like the women’s pictures of the 1950s or ’60s, or Mother’s Day, that kind of marketing campaign. But Magic Mike XXL was different, like, ‘Come, it’s gonna be a rowdy fucking time.’”

Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! may not be an explicit female fantasy like Magic Mike XXL, but there sure are a lot of half-naked men preening for the camera in his latest film: Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan declared it “accidentally one of the gayest movies of the year.” The core cast of college baseball players circa 1980 spend most of the movie lounging in cutoff shorts and tight tees, or chasing tail at nightclubs in high-waisted jeans, their tucked-in shirts unbuttoned at the top.

The young men in Everybody Wants Some!! are flagrant pussy hounds, but their antics don’t tip over into misogyny. They make fun of protagonist Jake (Blake Jenner) when he meets a girl he actually likes — played by the lovely Zoey Deutsch — but they all happily tag along with him to a party hosted by her drama-geek friends. Some critics took issue with the film’s lack of female characters; Jake’s love interest is pretty much it. MTV’s Amy Nicholson felt the film was a “regression” for Linklater, writing that Deutsch’s character “exists mainly to validate Jake in front of the dudes and expose him to weird parties with her artsy friends.”

But the lack of meaty female roles in Everybody Wants Some!! makes sense. The film is set in the very masculine world of college baseball; you could almost smell the body odor and cologne in the shabby house they share, and the absence of women means the guys are relaxed and exposed for the viewer. We see their insecurities, hear their discussions about women and sex and baseball and their hopes for the future. In between their too-confident swagger, their non-stop bragging and one-upsmanship, they let slip their insecurities. We see how the pressure to perform sexually and athletically shapes them as young men, how easy it is for their goofy posturing to veer into vulgarity. The movie views its characters with warmth and flexibility, like a good friend who sometimes needs to be reminded that he’s being a dick.

The men in Everybody Wants Some!! are both its subjects and objects, a trend that makes Giese both excited and a little wary. You may have heard of Canada’s new feminist-identifying prime minister, Justin Trudeau; more likely, you’ve seen pictures of him with his shirt off at a charity boxing match a few years back, or cuddling newborn pandas at the Toronto Zoo. For Giese, this kind of macho-man sensitivity is a double-edged sword.

“I think the Justin Trudeaus and the Magic Mike presentation of masculinity allow men to split the difference,” she says. “Because your physical presence is so powerful, you can kind of challenge the idea that you’re less than manly. It’s a very interesting and I think clever way to challenge masculine norms while kind of reinforcing them at the same time.”

There’s another downside to the increasing objectification of male bodies onscreen. Of the comic-book movies of the past five years or so, Giese says, “We’ve never had a moment where the male body is more on display in a heterosexual context like that.” Journalist Logan Hill described the grueling workout routines, heavy drugs, and meager diets of Hollywood’s leading men in a 2014 article for Men’s Journal, writing, “You simply don’t get your name on a movie poster these days unless you’ve got a superhero’s physique — primed for high-def close-ups and global market appeal.”

This trend toward super-ripped male bodies onscreen has been on the rise since the late ’90s — as Hill writes, every Hollywood trainer cites Brad Pitt’s lean physique from 1999’s Fight Club as inspiration for his clients. The article includes side-by-side photos comparing Sean Connery as James Bond in the late sixties with Daniel Craig’s ultra-jacked Bond from 2006’s Casino Royale; Giese points to the scene in which Craig emerges from the ocean, a callback to the Ursula Andress beach scene in 1968’s Dr. No, as an early example of this brand of male objectification. “I think Daniel Craig was both Bond and a Bond girl at the same time,” she says.

Of course, it’s still more common to see a woman play the sex object than a man; a 2014 study from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media showed that in movies, females are four times as likely to be shown in “sexy attire,” and nearly twice as likely to be shown as thin, than males. And women face more scrutiny and judgment over their bodies in life as well as onscreen, which makes it difficult to get too worked up about Hollywood’s objectification of men. After all, ogling beautiful bodies has always been a major reason to go to the movies; for straight women, this trend is more likely to spark excitement than alarm.

But as a consequence of the growing sexualization of male bodies in a heterosexual context, male characters in film and television are starting to confront themselves as sexual objects with a kind of anxiety usually reserved for women.

Jamie Fraser, the male lead of Starz’ Outlander, is blatantly objectified for the female viewer. Played by Scottish actor Sam Heughan, Jamie is the poster boy for this new brand of sensitive, manly hunk: he’s buff, with a mop of shaggy red hair, and as a soldier in 18-century Scotland, he knows how to fight. But he’s also sensitive and good-natured, and in a rare move for TV, he’s a virgin — it’s his wife, the more experienced Claire (Caitriona Balfe), who deflowers him on their wedding night.

A hybrid of fantasy, romance, and adventure, Outlander is based on a series of books, so the writers didn’t create him from thin air. But translating him to the screen meant contending with the inevitable: that Jamie would be an instant sex symbol.

“We definitely are aware that he is like the fantasy man,” says Toni Graphia, one of the show’s four writers, over the phone. “There are a lot of discussions in the room where the women will say, ‘Jamie should behave this way,’ and the men say, ‘Well, no man would ever do that.’ And we say, ‘Yeah, we know! We know you guys won’t do that, but you should!’” The writers have a nickname for him: “The King of Men.”

Still, Jamie is not just eye candy, and the writers are careful to balance his fantasy qualities with the qualities of the average 18th-century Scottish man. Claire is a strong woman, and he struggles to conform to expectations that he take control in the relationship and stand up to his wife. In the penultimate episode of Outlander’s first season, Jamie is brutally tortured and raped by his nemesis, the redcoat Black Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies). The second season, currently airing on Starz, has had fewer of the first season’s notoriously steamy sex scenes, as Jamie deals with the trauma of the assault.

Outlander is not the only TV show to depict a male victim of sexual abuse. On Transparent, Josh Pfefferman (Jay Duplass) is a 30-something bachelor who has an ongoing sexual relationship with his former babysitter. As a 15-year-old boy, he and the then-25-year-old woman had regular sex, which Josh views as a high-five for adolescent boys everywhere. But he’s clearly damaged by the experience, and we watch him sabotage his relationship with his fiancée as a direct result.

The Americans’ Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) is TV’s most emotionally disturbed man, a Soviet-era spy whose conscience threatens to swallow him whole. In the third season, it’s revealed that Philip’s training as a young man in the Soviet Union involved forcing himself to have sex with a series of strangers, to learn to manipulate both himself and his assets; for a man to have sex with someone against his will, he still has to be able to get it up. It would be easy to play these situations for laughs, but Transparent and The Americans treat these characters as victims of serious sexual abuse.

The Americans and Outlander — recently the subject of a sharp essay by The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum — feature two particularly poignant depictions of men in distress. Outlander, she writes, is “as thoughtful about male vulnerability as it is about female desire,” and that vulnerability makes Jamie and Philip not just sympathetic and human, but attractive. Any man can build muscle, but Jamie’s sex appeal comes from his sense of humor and humility, and the writers know it

“I think it’s important to note that the portrayal of masculinity is not just the portrayal of the men and their characteristics,” Graphia says. “It’s how they behave in relation to a woman. The fact that both Jamie and Frank [Claire’s former husband] listen to Claire — that’s sexy, because they treat her like an equal.” It turns out the fantasy man isn’t the richest, or most powerful, or the one with the biggest dick: he’s the one willing to step back to make room for his woman.

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It would be reductive to say that the shifting attitudes toward masculinity reflected in our movies and TV shows is a result of more women writing and directing those movies and shows. That may be true to an extent, but the film industry is still dominated by men, and while TV is a lot better, it’s not nearly equal.

The more discernible shift is that writers and directors seem to be making choices that prioritize female desire over male ego — objectifying male characters for the pleasure of a female audience.

I remember seeing Magic Mike with my then-boyfriend when it first came out (he was the only man in the theatre), and when we left I could feel the insecurity coming off him like steam. I felt bad, but not that bad. Women are used to confronting souped-up images of the female body everywhere we go; we know what it feels like to be exposed. Men feel insecure about their bodies and their sexuality, too, but we don’t often give them a chance to see that anxiety reflected back at them onscreen. But objectification begets introspection, and for two blissful hours, the men of Magic Mike were exposing themselves for me and my fellow queens while the sole man in the audience squirmed — we got to have our beefcake and eat it, too.

That two-pronged attack is the real feminist appeal of Mad MaxMagic MikeOutlander, and the rest. It’s a win for women to watch men writhe onscreen like sex objects, sure, but it’s even better that our popular entertainment is starting to propagate a version of the male ideal that makes room for the kind of insecurities that all humans grapple with, regardless of gender. The trend puts forth a bold vision of a world in which men and women not only work together toward equality — they both benefit from it.