This is a repost of an article originally posted on /r/Masculism, here: http://www.reddit.com/r/masculism/comments/1j9vy4/objectification_and_the_male_power_fantasy/
This is probably my most successful/popular article to date, probably due to its analysis of some pop culture artworks rather than simply sticking to theory. But theory plays a big part (of course).
A common debate that takes place within the gendersphere is one which focuses on how (typically male-targeted) fiction portrays female characters. Many feminists allege that, speaking generally, the predominant portrayal of female characters constitutes objectification by portraying women as “sex objects.” Typically (although not universally), these feminists express concern that these kinds of fictional portrayals encourage men to see real-world women as not individual persons with the capacity to make their own decisions but rather as physical things that exist principally to serve the sexual demands of men.
In response to this, many advocates for men’s issues point out that male characters are also depicted with idealized body types that don’t represent real-world males.
The typical feminist rebuttal to this argument is that a false equivalence is being made – the physical idealization of female characters is intended to serve as erotic titillation, whilst the physical idealization of male characters is intended to be empowering; the women are sexual fantasies, the men are power fantasies, and in both cases the characters are created to cater to the fantasies of an assumed-to-be-male audience. Thus, the women are still portrayed as objects, whilst the men are portrayed as subjects (and the physical idealization serves to emphasize this).
This argument has, in my judgment, a degree of truth. The traditional norms of gender are ultimately predicated on the subject-object dichotomy, with manhood conceptualized as a precarious social status that is earned and validated and reinforced via actions producing specific outcomes, and womanhood conceptualized as an innate property of female individuals. Men do, women are, because a manhood is about doing and womanhood is about being. I agree that the traditional norms of gender are outdated and destructive towards individuality, and as such I believe that reinforcing these norms is something best avoided.
However, I disagree that the so-called “male power fantasy” is devoid of objectification. Indeed, I would not describe it as a fantasy of power or agency at all. Rather, I am going to argue that the “male power fantasy” is in fact objectifying of men, and that to call it a “power” fantasy is a substantial error. In reality, the “male power fantasy” is better understood as a gender conformity fantasy – a fantasy of being or becoming a “real man” – rather than a fantasy of power. And if one accepts the proposition that traditional gender norms reduce people’s power (defined as control over one’s own life), then the so-called “male power fantasy” is in fact a fantasy that glorifies powerlessness.
As examples of my point, I will be using two works of male-targeted fiction; the movie Thor (a superhero film based on an intellectual property owned by Marvel Comics) and the video game Gears Of War (which Cliff Bleszinski, in an interview with Kotaku, said used unrealistically muscular characters specifically to serve as a fantasy of empowerment).
Part 1: Objectification
The feature which separates Subjects from Objects is that a Subject possesses a mind/consciousness/free will – in brief, a Subject makes choices. Subjects, unlike Objects, can initiate action, and their actions are not the product of “causes” but rather proceed from reasons, goals and motivations. As such, Subjects can be held responsible for their actions whilst Objects cannot; a murderer is put on trial and imprisoned, but the murderer’s weapon is not.
Human beings are Subjects – indeed out of all entities which we know of, human beings demonstrate the most indisputable level of subjectivity. This has led to a situation where we often see “humanity” and “subjectivity” as essentially synonymous, and as such “objectification” (denial/marginalization of a subject’s subjectivity) is seen as dehumanizing. The possession of a mind/consciousness/free will, the ability to initiate teleological action, the capacity to choose, are the traits which separate us (as human beings) from all other known entities (there is some debate as to the cognitive capacities of higher animals, but that issue is beyond the scope of this essay). The denial or marginalization of these traits constitutes a denial/marginalization of our very humanity.
But in discussions of fictional portrayals, “objectification” goes beyond a mere acknowledgement of a character’s possession of free will/choice/etc. Let’s take, for example, the classic piece of BDSM erotica The Story of O. This piece of literature portrayed a fully consensual BDSM arrangement, with the consent of all parties repeatedly affirmed over the course of the story – and unsurprisingly, the anti-sex Radical Second Wave feminists Andrea Dworkin, Susan Griffin and Joan Smith attacked The Story of O as objectifying, even though all characters (particularly the submissive main character) are repeatedly acknowledged as possessing free will/choice/agency.
This leads me to make a proposition about what constitutes objectification – to use Kantian language, to portray a character (in-universe) as a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves, marginalizes their agency by reducing it down to acting as a functionary of some other will, and thus portrays them as an object (an instrumentally useful tool). In this way, being acknowledged as a subject is not protection against objectification. Sexual objectification consists of showing a character as existing principally to satisfy others’ sexual desires, however one can objectify characters across multiple dimensions depending on which ‘ends’ they exist to serve.
This is hardly a controversial proposition – the concept of objectification is Kantian in origin and radical anti-pornography feminists Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon both appealed to the Kantian reasoning (see http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-objectification/). Non-radical feminist philosopher Martha Nussbaum also appealed to Kantian reasoning in her famous 1995 article Objectification (published in her book Sex and Social Justice) and described treating someone as a means to another’s end as “instrumentality” – which she classed as a form of Objectification.
Part 2: Traditional Masculinity As Objectification
If to be reduced to a functionary of others – a means to others’ ends rather than an end in onself – constitutes objectification, then both traditional gender roles are objectifying. Firstly, the gender system arose primarily to incentivize reproduction and population growth in a world where most children didn’t see their tenth birthday – sexual dimorphism necessitated that women bear many children over time and men serve as protectors and providers. The resultant social norms – good woman is mother, good man is hunter-warrior – reduced women to fertility objects and men to provision-protection objects.
Females, with a few exceptions owing to natural infertility, would simply gain the biological capacity to bear children owing to their maturation process. In short, their ability to serve as a means to socially-mandated ends was assumed, and thus their womanhood was conceptualized as an inherent part of their nature.
Men lacked this particular developmental feature, since the socially-mandated end of men was to provide and protect for others across a long span of time and biological maturity was no guarantee of being either able or particularly proficient at fulfilling this end. Thus, a male’s ability to serve as a means to their socially-mandated end had to proven and demonstrated, and thus their manhood was conceptualized as an ideal to aspire towards. As is typical with Platonic idealism, the normative pressure is to aspire towards the ideal – to prove oneself a “good” man by complying with the role’s demands.
The good man was a good provider – i.e. one that provided for his tribe and family and not only for himself. The good man was a good warrior – i.e. one that defended his tribe and family from external threats and was willing to die for the ‘greater good’ of his group. The good man may have been competent and powerful, but this power was justified in terms of service to an higher will (the idea of individuals living their own lives in accordance with their own wills is historically quite recent – principally it is a product of Enlightenment Individualism, which is far newer than traditional gender roles). The good man was thus a means to an end – a disposable tool – an object (albiet objectified in a very different manner to women).
Part 3: Masculinity, Dominance, Submission and Self-Determination
This naturally clashes strongly with an understanding of masculinity as dominance. Both feminist gender theory and traditionalist gender norms often conceive of masculinity in terms of dominance and femininity in terms of submission. This contains some truth but it is an oversimplification which ignores a feature of traditional masculinity that has been long-ignored; traditional masculinity, owing to its hierarchical nature, contains a significant component of submission.
As explained in my article Separating The ‘Boys’ From The ‘Men’ (http://www.genderratic.com/p/3977/reddit-repost-separating-the-boys-from-the-men-male-hierarchy-and-the-oppression-of-men/) , the Platonic Essentialist nature of the socially-mandated male role results in a multi-tiered hierarchy of “real manhood.” Those who are not “real men” are practically treated as a third gender. Those who are “real men” compete with each other in order to attain superiority, and eventually an “Alpha” status defined by possessing the ability to revoke an inferior’s “real manhood” and socially emasculate said inferior. For the purposes of this article, let us call those “real men” who lack “Alpha” status “Betas” and let us call those males who lack “real man” status “Omegas.”
Traditional masculinity, whilst often mischaracterized as being centered on dominance, mandates that a Beta submit to his Alpha so as to avoid being rendered an Omega. Sure, the Beta isn’t as good a man as the Alpha (by social standards), but he is still a “real man.” The penalty for unsuccessful rebellion is a loss of status, which may reach the level of social emasculation.
As I have argued above, traditional concepts of gender are heavily grounded in notions of maturity – hence how “grow up” and “man up” are functionally synonymous. A Beta who unsuccessfully rebels against the Alpha is often called a “brat” or “punk” – two terms with immature connotations (bringing to mind discontented children/teenagers who dare question their allegedly-omniscient elders). To be a “real man” is to not act like a child male (a “boy” – a common emasculating slur), and to rebel is childish.
In short, real men acknowledge rank and obey their superiors. The military is an institution held as the height of masculine, and it is brutally hierarchical (and, in what would be a paradox to those that define masculinity purely in terms of dominance, it is the soldiers rather than the officers that are considered more macho even though the officers hold command).
As such, submission to authority is not inherently emasculating, but rather masculinity-mandated under certain conditions.
When asserting one’s own self-sovereignty (which is inherently rebellious since it denies the legitimacy of others’ dominion over oneself) is seen as transgressive of the gender norms, when surrendering one’s will is seen as properly masculine, when obedience is elevated to virtue, it becomes impossible to see traditional masculinity as being about dominance alone. When knowing one’s place and being a good soldier is a masculine duty, one can scarcely describe traditional masculinity as empowering men to live their own lives on their own terms.
And it is this self-sovereignty-sabotaging ideal of masculinity which is being aspired to.
Part 4: Case Studies
In light of the above, the discussion moves to two real-world works of fiction targeted primarily towards young males and aimed at providing a so-called “male power fantasy.” I shall argue that the object of these fantasies is in fact gender-compliance, of being a “real man” rather than possessing power (“power” being understood as self-determination).
Study A: “Thor”
The movie “Thor” provides an interesting case-study in the culturally-induced self-loathing of many nerdy young men; simply take Thor and his brother Loki and ask oneself “which of these characters is the audience surrogate?”
Clearly, it isn’t the six-foot-three, unshaven, heavily muscled, popular, father’s favorite Crown Prince. Thor embodies the normative ideal of Asgardian masculinity – a warrior who wins with as much force and as little tactics as possible.
The slightly shorter, slender, pale, dark-haired Prince Loki fights with deception, trickery, illusions, sorcery and throwing knives – all of which transgress Asgard’s concept of how a “real man” fights. His skills are seen as mere “tricks.” And Thor’s friends are arguably Thor’s friends who endure Loki’s presence out of respect for Thor rather than like of Loki.
To use language suited for the high-school target demographic, what we have is a simple contrast between the popular, gender-normative jock and the unpopular, gender-atypical nerd. Out of these two archetypes, who is more representative of the typical audience of comic books? And who exactly is the villainous one?
In a way, Loki’s relationship with Thor can be seen as having similarities to that of the target audience’s relationship with Thor: jealousy and resentment and wishing to be the golden, approved of, normal kid. Loki is in effect a representative of Jung’s Shadow – the parts of the self which are disowned on some level.
But the relationship between Thor and Loki cannot truly be understood without viewing it in the context of the Princes’ relationship with their father, King Odin – they both crave their father’s approval and endorsement. It is implied that Thor begins with this endorsement, and Loki does not. As I wrote in my article The Literal Patriarchy (http://www.genderratic.com/p/4021/reddit-repost-the-literal-patriarchy-men-and-masculinity/), this approval/endorsement is something which our gender system places a high value upon; the result is that culturally speaking, father figures have the ability to bestow or revoke “real man” status.
This is precisely what Odin does to Thor during an early part of the film. After Thor rashly causes an incident which nearly triggers a war (an incident caused by Thor reacting with outrage at another character verbally emasculating him), Odin makes Thor human and casts a spell on Thor’s hammer which results in Thor being unable to use the hammer until proven “worthy.” During a verbal admonishment, Odin verbally emasculates Thor further, calling him a “boy.”
The implications should be obvious – verbal and symbolic (the hammer being a pretty obvious phallic symbol) emasculation combined with depowering until Thor began to meet Odin’s standards.
Thor only reclaims the hammer by proving himself, i.e. complying with Odin’s will. He regains his symbolic masculinity by sacrificing his own life for the humans (both affirming male-sacrifice (and hence male disposability) as well as self-sacrifice (and hence Christian and Comtean ethical beliefs)), simultaneously complying with his father’s will and a deeply-rooted premise of the gender system. Thor regains his masculinity through acts of submission (as paradoxical as this may seem).
This is further validated when at the end of the film, Thor confesses to Odin that Odin is a better King than Thor would ever be and how he longs to make Odin proud. Odin then confesses pride in his son. Yet again, Thor acquiesces to Odin, and through that gains approval and is validated as a “proper” man.
Thor may be physically mighty, but he lives essentially as his father’s vassal, motivated entirely by the desire to prove himself and live up to his father’s standards. He desires to serve as a means to his father’s ends and be a good, dutiful son. How, with any depth or meaningful contemplation, can this be seen as a power fantasy?
Indeed, if Loki is the audience surrogate, then the film itself explicitly denies being a power fantasy; Loki clearly states that he never wanted the throne (i.e. wasn’t interested in power) and only ever wanted to be Thor’s equal (the “in father’s eyes” is implied).
At the climax of the film, after discovering his actual heritage as a frost giant foundling adopted by Odin, Loki uses a superweapon to attempt genocide on his race’s homeworld (after killing their King, who was Loki’s biological father). Loki’s motivation was to prove himself to Odin, to prove himself a good son, and to essentially out-Thor Thor, by demonstrating (though an extreme act) compliance with Asgardian standards (including gender standards (we could describe Asgardian gender standards of embodying certain elements of Toxic Masculinity)).
Loki’s plan failed, and when Odin looked at him with nothing but disappointment and regret, Loki committed suicide. As Warren Farrell pointed out, suicide is not a response to power, but to powerlessness.
If Loki is the target demographic’s representative and Thor is the escapist character, then the Thor film is no power fantasy. It is a fantasy of fitting in, of meeting popular standards of masculinity, of pleasing authority figures. It is a fantasy of being the good son that makes Daddy proud. It is a fantasy of proving oneself a “real man”. It is a gender conformity fantasy, and therefore it is the opposite of a power fantasy.
Study B: “Gears Of War”
Amongst gamers, “Gears Of War” as an IP is infamous for extreme levels of conventional masculinity. In an interview between Cliff Bleszinski (the game’s creator) and Kotaku, Bleszinski stated that the unrealistically muscular (i.e. hyper-masculine) bodies of the main characters were intended to give a sense of empowerment to the player. This statement is of course in line with the “power fantasy” narrative, but to paraphrase Warren Farrell, men have been taught to think of that which makes them powerless as power.
“Gears” takes place in a world run by a totalitarian-collectivist dictatorship called the Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG). The symbolism of the acronym should be obvious – being a cog in a machine is clearly objectification, isn’t it? So, obviously, since this game is a power fantasy (i.e. a fantasy of having/attaining/increasing one’s control over one’s own life), the plot must be about a rebellion against the COG, right?
In reality, the plot focuses on a super-gruff, super-growly, steroidally-sized soldier named Marcus Fenix; a war hero who fought for the COG in multiple battles, but got stripped of his rank and thrown into prison for going against orders. The story begins with Fenix being reinstated, although Fenix’s CO Colonel Hoffman is not happy at all with this. Over the course of the story, Marcus Fenix aims to prove himself to Hoffman; at the climax of the game when Fenix is hanging on for dear life to the struts of a flying helicopter, Hoffman finally reaches down and helps him up. The music grows to a soaring, triumphant crescendo.
The story here is one of Marcus Fenix proving himself, through compliance to an authority figure, as a reliable and effective servant – a very good cog in the machine, as it were. Like Thor, Fenix is punished for a transgression against his overlords, and is given a chance to redeem himself through compliance to his ruler’s standards. Like Thor, Fenix is eventually redeemed for his transgression through servitude. Like Thor, Fenix has to please an elder male authority figure (Colonel Hoffman in this case), and just like in the movie Thor, the audience is expected to find fulfillment in the approval of said figure.
“Power” is not the object of this fantasy – being a good soldier boy is not a position of power. One might be shooting tons of enemies and kicking proverbial ass across a pixel-gore-coated screen, but one is doing so on orders. As E.S. Raymond points out in The Myth Of Man The Killer (http://catb.org/~esr/writings/killer-myth.html), military insociation is based upon breaking people’s individual will and reformatting them into collective-identifying agents of the wills of their superiors – in short, removing the sense of individual agency/responsibility – in short, objectification. It is a fantasy of instrumentality (in the sense Nussbaum used the term) that powers “Gears Of War” – a fantasy of being an effective attack dog who is rewarded by his master.
Marcus Fenix is the slave of a totalitarian regime and exists to serve his government. His career consists of following orders. He is merely a tool with a gun and even though he is unrealistically muscular and speaks in a guttral snarl, he has no control whatsoever over his own life. His motivations consist of pleasing the higher-ups. The sales figures of the “Gears” series make it clear that a disturbing number of young men indeed believe that Marcus Fenix is an empowered man.
But Fenix is a clear case of Nussbaum’s instrumentality – in slaughtering legions of enemies, Fenix proves his usefulness. In ordering his squad around, he fulfills the demands of his own superiors. In fulfilling aspects of the masculine gender role, he serves. He may not be sexually objectified, but he is clearly objectified.
A soldier fighting for a totalitarian state, striving to prove himself a useful instrument of his rulers, is hardly in a position of power. But what Marcus Fenix does display is a level of gender conformity which is borderline ludicrous – as explained above his instrumental efficacy is perfectly in line with the traditional expectations of manhood. His stoicism is practically a running joke. His size is extraordinarily unrealistic considering his nation is living at near-starvation. His voice and mannerisms and facial features speak for themselves. So what is the object of the fantasy?
An interesting case could be made that a fantasy of power over others is exhibited by Gears Of War. For one, as the game is a Third Person Shooter, one can argue that the nature of the gameplay involves exerting power (in this case, violence) over the opponents the player faces. For two, in the context of the game’s plotline, Marcus Fenix is the leader of his squad. However, with respect to the second point, the fantasy of power over others is marginal compared to the overwhelming lack of power that Fenix has in the storyline – he has superiors too, after all. And with respect to the first point, almost all action games fulfill this role, even those with female protagonists; is Bayonetta thus a transgendered or autogynephiliac power fantasy?
The power over others Marcus has is justified in terms of how he uses it to serve his own superiors, nation and family – he is merely a conduit for the power over others possessed by his superiors. He is a senior slave who sets out to win the approval of his rulers and prove himself a good soldier. He is not a fantasy of power, but rather a fantasy of appeasing traditional standards of masculinity. Compliance is hardly an assertion of power.
Part 5: Conclusion
The depiction of men in popular (and typically male-targeted) fiction is an important issue for anyone that wishes to criticize the traditional gender system. However, some feminists react to attempts to discuss the topic by arguing that it falsely equates female-characters-as-sex-objects with individuated, powerful and truly human idealized men.
But this argument errs because traditional masculinity has always been objectifying, albiet in a very different way to the manner in which traditional femininity objectifies women. The male gender standards demand that a man be an instrumentally useful, compliant servant; a male may possess agency but he is no “real man” unless he deploys that agency in an approved fashion.
As such, works of fiction typically seen as “male power fantasies” become more comprehensible as fantasies of compliance with gender norms. As demonstrated by the two case studies provided, neither central character could be described as possessing control over their own life; both central characters act as executors of an higher will than their own and follow narrative arcs where they are rewarded with approval for being good subordinates. If Thor Odinson and Marcus Fenix are embodiments of normative masculinity then to fantasize about being them is hardly a fantasy of power.
A different kind of objectification is not a power fantasy. A fantasy of measuring up to social norms is not a fantasy of power, nor are such fantasies a product of power; rather, they are a response to and manifestation of a profound powerlessness.
Those who wish to address how the gender system harms men should continue to analyze the depictions of men in popular culture, particularly in male-targeted fiction. Fiction crafted for a target audience will typically attempt to embody and flatter the beliefs, norms and values of this audience; thus, fiction can serve as a reflection of that audience’s greatest desires and aspirations. What does that imply about the so-called “male power fantasy”?
Feedback and discussion is appreciated.
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