Is it OK for women to objectify men?

David Gandy in a Marks and Spencer ad.

Women have been objectified for decades, so is there anything wrong with turning the tables on men, asks Katy Harrington

I ADMIT it. I have on occasion been guilty of boyeursim. By that, I mean voyeurism of a sort, where women shamelessly objectify men.

I’ve watched a West Bromich Albion match just to look upon the glorious Greek footballer Georgios Samaras. I’ve endured weeks of Strictly Come Dancing only to marvel at the wonder of a shirtless Gleb Savchenko, I’ve seen half dozen Daniel Craig movies, but could barely tell you the plot of a single one.

Georgios Samaras
Georgios Samaras

And still, when my brother is watching the women’s semi-finals of the Wimbledon (not strictly, I suspect, for the sporting spectacle) I have no issue berating him for being smarmy and sexist. Am I hypocrite? Maybe, but I’m not alone.

The most recent examples of boyeurism are to be found on the small screen. The words heartthrob and Tolstoy might not appear together often, but that changed when the first episode of a new adaptation of War and Peace aired two weeks ago. The good looks of leading man, actor James Norton, caused quite the reaction on Twitter, making him the newest subject of female adoration.

Norton, who plays the moody, broody Prince Andrei, has been dubbed the “Russian Mr Darcy”, and earned a whole new host of female fans, who took to social media to praise everything from his acting skills to his cheekbones.

Norton’s not the first to be swooned over. The whole objectification debate really heated up last March, when the BBC dramatised a series of historical novels by Winston Graham called Poldark. No big deal, until episode three when the protagonist Ross Poldark, played by the impossibly handsome Irish actor Aidan Turner, scythed a field with his top off.

Now the makers of Poldark were blatantly using Turner’s pecs appeal as a ratings winner, because despite doing nothing to further the plot, they included the scene, and later released an image of a makeup artist carefully painting dirt and sweat on to Turner’s rock-hard abs. Yet they could hardly have predicted that an 18th century Cornwall mine owner cutting his grass would send the internet into meltdown and spawn hundreds of articles and opinion pieces across print, online, and broadcast media.

To give you a flavour of the fervour, when the BBC hosted a Twitter #AskPoldark Q&A with Poldark himself, it swiftly turned into a farce with questions about the plot and filming in short supply and plenty of women asking for the actor’s hand in marriage.

Aidan Turner in the now famous Poldarkscene
Aidan Turner in the now famous Poldark scene

Linda (using the handle @linsnap) tweeted: “My mower has packed in. Will you come and scythe my lawn please?

#AskPoldark” Cycling Moose @MamaMoose_Be asked: “How do I refrain from licking my flatscreen tv?” Sue Crocombe @shinybluedress commented: “I was of the opinion that nothing could ever beat the sight of a Cornish coastline. Then I saw Aiden Turner on Poldark #AskPoldark.”

Later, in a poll of 44,000 users, the scene was voted the best TV moment of 2015. Sensing the public appetite, the Beeb had Turner go shirtless again (this time with nothing but a precariously draped towel to cover himself) in the TV adaptation of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.

Turner in Poldark, Savchenko on Strictly, Jamie Dornan in Fifty Shades of Grey, Channing Tatum et al in Magic Mike XXL, David Gandy in body-hugging swimming trunks for M&S, Becks stripping off for H&M ‘Bodywear’ range (again), 2015 was the year when objectification went both ways.

Magic Mike
Magic Mike

Does this signify equality among the sexes? Is boyeurism just a bit of harmless fun? Or by shouting for equality and demanding not to be objectified, while shamelessly ogling men, are women having their feminist cake and eating it?

I would argue that objectifying men and objectifying women are two very different things.

The first reason is historical. From the (very) recently phased out of topless Page 3 girls in a national newspaper to Playboy centrefolds and women’s magazines which fill pages by picking over how well the ‘stars’ look in their bikinis/ ball gowns/gym gear, women have been subject to serious objectification for decades, so excuse us if we are justifiably annoyed by its prevalence, but we’ve had a gutful.

Turn on the TV any day of the week and you will see multiple examples of men being funny, sexy, selfish, caring and clever all at the same time. They solve crimes and crack jokes, seduce women and save the world, bring evil wrongdoers to their knees, battle inner demons, drive fast cars and are home in time to put their kids to bed. (Just think of Walt in Breaking Bad — a crystal meth dealer who will do anything for his family, or Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes, a sociopathic crime solving genius). And yet, it’s still a rarity to see female characters given the same scope. Far too often women are either one-dimensional mums or vampish whores, capable of being caring or sexual, but not both.

Things are changing — thanks to the likes of characters like Sarah Lund in The Killing, Liz Lemon in 30 Rock, Peggy in Mad Men, Carrie in Homeland, and Jessica Jones, but we’ve still a long way to go. Only when the light-hearted ogling of men on screen starts to make us question whether a man can ever be more than an object of sexual gratification will have a problem on a similar scale. Will Aidan Turner’s career be ruined because he took his top off? Not one bit.

Writing for feminist website Jezebel, Irin Carmon sensibly stated that what matters most here is context.

“Men do not have trouble being taken seriously based on their looks… nor is their worth in society primarily judged by them,” she wrote.

Therefore, drooling over an actor in jodhpurs (Mr Darcy) or a footballer in the World Cup (take your pick), she argues, “won’t contribute to the overall oppression of men… They will not be paid less on the dollar or subject to violence in representation or acts. They will nothing be treated like meat or chattel. Period.”

Daniel Craig
Daniel Craig

If the line between natural and normal sexual desire and harmless fun and dangerous, threatening sexism hadn’t been crossed a million times then I’d have far more time for the ‘Meninist’ argument that guys have it as tough as women.

To those who are sympathetic to that argument I would say this, yes the world is unfair and men shouldn’t be expected to look like David Gandy in the shower, any more than women shouldn’t be constantly lambasted for being too fat or too thin, but here are some home truths.

The latest figures from the EU Commission show that the gender pay gap in Ireland is 13.9%. A 2015 survey by Dublin-based employment law consultancy, Graphite HRM, found that eight out of 10 Irish women have been victims of sexist jokes in the workplace.

It gets more serious. According to Women’s Aid, domestic violence, a crime that is often ignored, affects one in five women in this country and in 2013, of the 2,203 people who attended Rape Crisis Centers in Ireland for help, 87% were female. This is not man-bashing, this is not finger pointing, this is fact.

No one is saying that all men are guilty of objectifying women. But anyone who thinks the pendulum has swung and we now live in a world with equal rights for men and women, needs a wake-up call.

Any argument, like that recently made by writer Martin Daubney, who says men are now objectified just as much as women, but they just don’t complain about it, is built on quicksand. If men were being catcalled on the street, patronised and paid less at work, told to change how they dress so as not to tempt sexual predators, or in fear to walk home alone at night, you can be sure they’d be complaining too.

There is a difference between simple, shameless objectification and something more sinister.

Compare these two recent advertisements.

First, think of that famous Dolce & Gabbana ad in 2006 with English uber model David Gandy lying in his boat — cool, sexual and powerful — despite having nothing but tighty whiteys on. Gandy’s ad was the start of the “hunkvertising” trend which uses hot men to sell everything from perfume to pants.

Compare that to the controversial Hunky Dory’s ads in 2011, which pictured models dressed in tiny ‘sportswear’ and bras with their breasts bulging out of their tops alongside slogans like ‘Taaaaaaasty’, and you quickly see the difference between sexy and sexist.

None of us should be surprised that sex still sells, the point is, some of us pay a bigger price for objectification.

Laura Bates’ who started the ground-breaking EveryDay Sexism campaign, which gives a platform to women who encounter sexism in all its forms, says the feminist goal is not censorship, nor is it to “publicly punish” sexist ads or attitudes.

“It is to create a society in which it would never occur to anybody to do either in the first place.”

That society might still be far away. In the meantime men objectify women, women objectify men and to an extent, we all objectify ourselves (take a minute to trawl Instagram if you don’t believe me). If we really want equality between the sexes, what would be helpful is, without losing our sense of humour, or turning into PC Victorian prudes, we could all work out a way to express our sexual desires without needing to objectify someone else in the process.

It’s something men and women clearly need to work on — I’ll start by saying sorry to Aidan Turner.


Irish actors turning heads

Jamie Dornan: Physically perfect, then you add that accent — compelling.

Jamie Dornan
Jamie Dornan

Andrew Scott: Even as the deranged evil psychopath Moriarty in Sherlock, you can’t help but love him.

Andrew Scott as Moriarty in Sherlock
Andrew Scott as Moriarty in Sherlock

Michael Fassbender: He makes it look easy, ‘it’ being internationally lusted after.

Michael Fassbender
Michael Fassbender

Colin Farrell: The alpha Irish hottie. Gets better with age.

Colin Farrell
Colin Farrell

Aidan Turner: New kid on the block. The hair, the body, the brooding.

Aidan Turner
Aidan Turner

Jack O’Connell: Bad boy raw appeal.

Jack O’Connell with Angelina Jolie
Jack O’Connell with Angelina Jolie

Robert Sheehan: Current cult crumpet. Those curls make him look like Michelangelo’s David.

Robert Sheehan
Robert Sheehan


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