On outrage and images of attractive men

Men’s appearance concerns have historically had less attention than women’s beauty. So, it’s a strange thing when representations of attractive men become a source of public outrage. In this blog we consider three recent examples, where the representation of ‘hottie’, ‘handsome’ or simply ‘good’’ masculinity has provoked responses of shock, anger or indignation that appear to underpin a desire to annihilate them. These are, TubeCrush, a website where users send in unsolicited photographs of attractive men on the London Underground; a Lumen dating advert for the over-50s company whose ‘Pull a cracker…’ campaign was banned on the London Underground, and; the notorious Gillette advert, ‘The best a man can be’, which received a raft of media attention for its clean-shaven, non-toxic image of masculinity (e.g reactions here, here and here). Below we discuss each of these examples and why we think this outrage is misplaced.

Photo: kevin-bhagat-804491-unsplash
So, starting with TubeCrush. TubeCrush is a blog that posts gay men and straight women’s unsolicited ‘sneaky’ pictures of ‘guy candy’ on the London Underground. At first glance, TubeCrush is easy to get upset about, especially in relation to privacy and consent. However, more often than not, the outrage related to TubeCrush engages with the argument of reverse sexism. In media and online comments, a common sentiment shared is one of reversing the gender of the photograph taker (e.g. ‘if men did this to women there’d be an outcry’) or citing TubeCrush as evidence that feminism is no longer necessary (e.g. ‘if women can do this, sexism doesn’t exist’).

The controversies surrounding TubeCrush was partly why we were interested in studying it. But what we found was something more complex. There are very different histories in men and women’s beauty and appearance concerns, the looks on each others bodies, and use of each other’s images – meaning that the power of taking unsolicited images is not the same. Meanwhile, in public declarations of outrage regarding TubeCrush, the gay male gaze is often invisible. That is, in proposing such a reversal of sexism, accounts ignore the fact that many images on TubeCrush are taken by men. Plus, the men who appear on TubeCrush often reinforced traditional masculinity, being mostly white and with clear signs of wealth (expensive watches, phones etc.) and/or physically strong, fit and sporty. Our concern with such outrage is that, even in this apparent ‘crisis of masculinity’, male power is being recuperated.

We see something similar going on with our second example, in the over-50s dating company Lumen and their recent Christmas-themed advert. The advert, based on survey data that 1 in 5 women find Santa sexy, featured a topless older man with a tattoo on his arm, tidy white beard and wearing glasses and red trousers held on with braces. This was combined with a background - historical looking portraits, dark colours, leather sofa, bare wooden floors - that suggested a wealthy, classy-bohemian, intellectual older man, alongside the tagline “Pull a cracker this Christmas”. However, this advert was banned on the London Underground by Exterion Media, who manage advertising on the Tube, and who deemed the advert sexually objectifying.

At one level, this sensitivity towards objectifiying advertising should be welcomed. It comes on the back of concerns around body shaming advertising. The London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, has been active in challenging such content in London by supporting the Women We See project, which has highlighted a lack of diversity and the high proportion of sexualised images of women in London-based advertising. Yet, with the banning of the Lumen advert from the Tube, we see something else at work. Presented as a sensitivity to gender representations, removing this image in fact represents an unnuanced application of sexual objectification. As with our TubeCrush example, the banning of the advert seems to assume that men and women’s images can be treated similarly. In fact, what we see in the original image is a topless man looking, with slight vulnerability, at his mobile phone and hoping to get a date. By contrast, the second version that passed the Exterion Media censor is an image of a clothed man who stands proud, chest puffed out and with both hands in his pockets that draws attention to his genital area (suggestive of phallic power, perhaps?). We would argue that what the apparent ‘sexual objectification’  has been replaced with is male power.    

The sense that the Lumen advert could have caused outrage – enough that it should be banned – is thus concerning to us because, in its unsophisticated and ahistoric application of a feminist language of sexual objectification, the banning of the Lumen advert undermines feminist activism on appearance, sexualisation and beauty concerns. It suggests, quite simply, that what is needed is to replace naked or semi-naked images with fully clothed ones. In so doing, it also re-enacts problematic patterns associated with the ‘sexualisation of culture’, for example in the rise of chastity movements that were founded on sexist and sexually conservative beliefs.

The undermining of feminist activism is also evident in our final example: the pouring of outrage at the Gillette ‘the best a man can be’ advert, which links male grooming and shaving to imagining better gendered futures. In the advert, Gillette play on their recognisable ‘the best a man can get’ slogan to challenge a masculinity associated with misogyny, sexism, femi/homophobia, and violence. In doing so, it articulated many feminist concerns about the damage and dangers of masculinity. Drawing on the language of #metoo, the advert variously shows ‘good’ men stepping in, for example a man resisting a row of BBQ-ing men chanting ‘boys will be boys’ to stop a fight between two young boys. Although this construct of good masculinity is apparently only available to the clean-shaven, what we find valuable is it is a vision of egalitarian masculinity (when so often men have to choose between polarised discourses of masculinity: sexist-masculinity or egalitarian-non-male). It offers a vision of a masculinity that values a safer, fairer world for women (and less strong/more vulnerable men) and equates caring with strength. Yet many people appear unhappy with Gillette’s version of an egalitarian masculinity. For example, at time of writing, 1.3 million on YouTube’s version of the advert have clicked ‘dislike’, compared with 731,000 who ‘liked’ it.

So, what’s to dislike? According to one comment on YouTube “THIS is toxic… not MEN!”. Another lists morally bad things that women can do, using the most extreme case formations: murdering children, smoking crack when pregnant or being alcoholic and abusive. They conclude, “Should Gillette sell Venus razors Marketing to women based on their negative traits...? […] they wouldn’t dare, because portrayal of women in negative light isnt politically correct... and Man bashing is...”. Meanwhile, celebrity talk-show host Piers Morgan tweeted “this absurd virtue-signalling PC guff may drive me away to a company less eager to fuel the current pathetic global assault on masculinity. Let boys be damn boys. Let men be damn men.”

What we see in this outrage, to draw on Sarah Banet-Weiser, is the relationship between a heightened visibility of both a popular feminism and a popular misogyny, especially as each appear in digital spaces. The outrage is problematic also because it creates limited space to have serious discussions about how masculinity is made visible and desirable. Interestingly, the Gillette advert’s director Kim Gehrig was also the director of Sport England’s 'This Girl Can'  advert, which provoked much needed discussion (see here, here and hereon beauty, the body, physical activity and women. By contrast, the outrage at Gillette closes down discussion, since outrage is a response to illegitimate behaviour or ideas.

In this post, we’ve discussed three recent representations of attractive masculinity in social media, public advertising, and moving image that offer examples of new ways that men are being looked at, desired and challenged. Each has provoked a response of outrage, an outrage that we believe is doing particular cultural work. When men’s image becomes so contested, we could have cause to celebrate, since a feminist sentiment is clearly making enough of a splash to create a reaction. However, we are deeply troubled by the capacity of these responses to close down possibilities for a fairer, safer, freer world. Actions based on reverse sexism arguments fail to engage with the complexity of gendered power relations, while public outrage shuts down discussion and normalises anger and resentment, often directed towards women. 

Sarah Riley is Reader in Critical Psychology at Aberystwyth University, Adrienne Evans is Reader in Media at Coventry University and Martine Robson is Lecturer in Psychology at Aberystwyth University. Together, they have written about contemporary gender issues, recently coining the term ‘postfeminist healthism’ to explore a new gendered imperative to constantly work towards health and happiness. To find out more about their work see Postfeminism and Health. An overview of this book is available here.


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