The biggest problem I see in addressing the question of the objectification of men (or the representation of men as objects of desire) is that we can’t really avoid comparing it to the objectification of women and that is such a heavy burden to carry… Having said this, I’ll try and take the boat through this marshy waters.
What brings me here is a movie, namely Maryland (aka Disorder), written and directed by Alice Winocour, featuring Matthias Schoenaerts in the leading role. As I was watching the movie, I had the recurrent feeling of being a voyeur, actually a non-passive observer, as if that which I was witnessing was somehow too private for me to share, as if the sexual drive between the two main characters was somehow a triangle of which I was part of. I’m sure that’s not really the case, but somehow the director and the actors succeeded in making the observer feel part of Vincent’s neurosis (the leading character). Or is it something else? I think it is. Staring opposite Vincent is Jessie (Diane Kruger) and it’s through her eyes that we truly see him. Although Vicent transforms her into the object of his disorder, I feel he becomes her (and our) object of desire.
The movie tells the story of Vincent, an army boy who suffers from PTSD, after returning from Afghanistan. Vincent is hired to do security on a very rich woman and her son, who end up being attacked by people who are out to get her husband, an arms dealer. And this is as much as needs to be said about the (terrible) plot, because the movie is really not about this denotative layer. There’s something else happening underneath this more immediate violence and that something else is worth mentioning. Did I mentioned I love the movie?
What this team managed to do (and I have no clue if it is or is not intentional) is create a movie where the observer is female and asked to identify with another female, which happens to be a man. And that’s quite unusual (as Laura Mulvey beautifully put sit when she addresses the male gaze in Hollywood cinema). Don’t get me wrong, this is really not on the surface of the movie. In fact, a less attentive observer would say the opposite, for what is obvious is that he desires her, in which case she would be in the most conventional position of all, as an object of desire. However, the way the director Alice Winocour shoots Matthias Schoenaerts transforms Vincent into an object of desire. And it’s not like the observer is invited to fantasize about him (nothing like that), is more like we (as women) are invited to identify with him (as objects of desire), instead of projecting ourselves onto the female character and her position, which would be the usual empathy mechanism in place.
Jessie, the female character, has a very complex relation with Vincent. She keeps her distance, she is often afraid of him, but he is her ticket to a new life and she projects in him her desires of a men that could hunt bears (so she says). When Vincent asks her if she has somewhere to go, in case she needs to leave the house, she says she only has one friend in Canada. He notices she’s also fragile and all alone, totally dependent on her husband. Later one she asks him if he has ever been to Canada and here’s an excerpt of that conversation:
Jessie: Have you ever been to Canada?
Vincent: No, I’ve never been. And you?
J: I think you’d like it.
V: Why do you say that?
J: I don’t know. I can picture you there. Not in the cities, in the nature. It’s big. There are lots of lakes. I can see you hunting bears. It’s true. I’m sorry.
Although aware that I’m projecting too much into this dialogue, my feeling is that when Jessie is apologizing to Vincent for saying she was picturing him hunting bears, that apology is man’s apology to women for the objectification they’ve endured. I’m sorry that people in advertising think that objectifying men is somehow a departure from objectifying women. It’s not, it’s exactly the same thing, except for the fact that it doesn’t bring with it centuries of demeaning and oppression.
When I see an add like the one above (which is everywhere to be seen in Portugal these days), I understand that it shouldn’t be taken too serious, but I can’t help but feel sorry for the people who created this, for how small minded they are to think they should keep reproducing the stereotype of the strong man who likes the outdoors getting his hands dirty (etc., etc.) If they were objectifying a woman, advertising for the same label, where would you think they would place her?