Reddit Repost: “Objectification and the ‘Male Power Fantasy'”

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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).

Introduction
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 I agree that the traditional norms of gender are outdated and destructive towards individuality, and as such I believe that reinforcing these norms is something best avoided.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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<span class="dsq-postid" data-dsqidentifier="4029 http://www.genderratic.com/?p=4029">20 comments</span>

  • An easy point to miss about Gears of War is that the whole metaplot of the series (games from Judgement to 3 – and all the comics and novels too) revolves around “Sera and the COG start equal as a volunteer army – men and women both being treated the same within the COG’s army, no pussy passes or get back in the kitchen syndrome” (I mean, come on, in RAAM’s Shadow, a prequel DLC, Alicia pulls a Heroic Sacrifice to save Jace from the titular RAAM) and then as the Locust war presses on, society gets forced to gender roles. Men get conscripted and forced to fight, women get conscripted and forced to breed, while pockets of Stranded lack even that luxury for their women – everyone gets a gun, no matter what age or sex.

    And then, by Gears 3, the COG is all but dissolved, and the number of bodies that humanity has available gets so low, that everyone is Stranded. While, yes – there is a gender conformity fantasy element in Gears for men, there’s also some fairly spot-on social commentary for those who care to listen. And even for some of those who don’t, the initial “grr ultra testosterone shoot things CHAINSAW yes sir” nature of the first game on it’s own can hook a player into being interested.

    Haven’t seen Thor, don’t care much for it anyway, so nothing on that.

  • Christopher Wedge,

    Thanks for that info. The backstory differs from the games themselves (you don’t need the backstory comics or anything to understand the context of the games), but you make a good point. Indeed, it makes sense that the gender roles would get more intense as the hardship increased on Sera.

    With respect to RAAM’s Shadow and Alicia performing an heroic sacrifice, IIRC the backstory has the COG eventually restrict military service to women who are infertile… so wasn’t Alicia infertile? Maybe the DLC was set before they started putting fertile women in breeding camps.

    I am sure that in the backstory and extended world there may be some commentary and deeper thoughts, but I think you’d agree with me that the main games are exceedingly gender-traditional.

  • Just a couple of comments before a little analysis.
    We are all subject/objects. It is not an either/or.
    Free will is limited to the range of choices given. When told we have the choice of A or B, we may not choose C. We may not even be aware of the existence of C. Further, if D acts upon us, our range of response may be E or F, but not G if D eliminates that as a response.
    I don’t see Thor’s hammer as a phallic symbol. It may have somewhat of the right shape, but given its use, it is more a symbol of physical strength than it is of sexual virility. The hammer does not penetrate, it pounds. Thor was emasculated, not sexually, but physically. The outward appearance of masculinity was taken from him, not the innate maleness.
    “We could describe Asgardian gender standards of embodying certain elements of Toxic Masculinity”
    I absolutely detest the term “toxic masculinity.” This is mostly because of the negative connotation of the term and the negative stereotypes of men derived from those negative connotations. It is typically used as a weapon to demean and shame men and masculinity. I see it as even worse the “man up” or “grow up” because those at least imply that it is possible to become a “good man.” “Toxic masculinity” implies that masculinity itself is undesireable.
    “As E.S. Raymond points out in The Myth Of Man The Killer…, 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.”
    Absolutely, which also helps explain how otherwise good men became Nazi’s who committed the most heinous of atrocities. That it was mostly men who did this is not surprising when you consider that following orders and submitting to superiors is a key component of masculinity. The power was found not in the killing of the Jews, but in the acceptance into the brotherhood for having done so. It emerges from the basic human needs for belonging and safety (See Maslow’s Hierarchy). Belonging to the Nazi Party helped to ensure personal safety and the safety of one’s family. It gave one prestige and earned the respect of other Party members thereby satisfying needs on several levels simultaneously.
    “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, albeit in a very different way to the manner in which traditional femininity objectifies women.”
    I find this feminist position interesting because it only looks at traditional fiction from the male perspective. Sexual objectification of women in fiction is only objectification of women by men. When examined from the perspective of the women, the women are subjects (actors), actively using their sexual appeal to manipulate men. This may or may not be true of video games, but in traditional fiction the female character is often seen to be using her charms to manipulate and even trap the helpless male character who cannot resist his own sexual urges.
    I was recently watching the movie The Warriors, in which a street gang is falsely accused of killing a gang leader and has to fight its way back to its home turf. A gang of women uses its sexuality to lure them into a trap where they can be killed or subdued. In another scene one of the Warriors is arrested because he cannot resist a woman (undercover police officer) sitting alone on a park bench. The male gang members appear to have agency and be making their own decisions, but in reality they are powerless in regards to female sexuality. While they are objectifying the women, the women are objectifying them and using them as a means to an end. Depending upon the perspective, both the male and female characters can be viewed simultaneously as subjects and objects.

  • TDOM,

    Yes, I absolutely agree that human beings are subjects that exist physically (i.e. inside matter, thus objects as well). Indeed, since minds only exist inside certain physical organisms (from what we know, humans), I’d argue that the concept “subject” presupposes “object.” We are subjects that exist objectively.

    As for free will, I don’t want to get into a discussion about whether it exists or not (although obviously free will does NOT imply that everyone everwhere has all alternatives always open or available to them at all times). For the purposes of this discussion, I’m treating free will as axiomatic. After all, if there is no such thing as free will there can be no such thing as “objectification” (and since pretty much all Radical Second Wave and Third Wave feminists accept that individuals are almost entirely socially constructed and that we can be brainwashed by the media into raping other people, all of their complaints about “objectification” are logically invalid since they’re denying the assumptions of the concept “objectification” in the first place… but that’s a digression).

    Whether or not you see Thor’s hammer as a phallic symbol isn’t the point – the broader audience clearly does. A phallic symbol isn’t necessarily a literal penis or a representative of a literal penis – its a symbol that stands for both masculinity and efficacy/competence. Look at how a lot of people speak – the two concepts are clearly connected in the popular mind (someone who fails at something or is outperformed by another may say, metaphorically, “I’ve been castrated!” or some variant of this. Obviously they aren’t claiming literal castration). Remember that a mass market artwork needs to use the symbols/tropes/conventions of the popular mind. Thor’s hammer is given to him by his father like handing car keys to the kid… it was an endorsement of his “real manhood” (which Odin revokes after Thor does something stupid). Of course Thor’s actual maleness (a property of his biology) wasn’t taken from him – he was socially emasculated. It should also be noted that in both the comics and the fandom, “the hammer is his penis” (or puns of that nature) are long-running jokes.

    As for “toxic masculinity” I’m using the term to refer to “when masculine gender-compliance incentivizes immorality.” There is non-toxic masculinity as well. In addition, toxic femininity clearly exists. I can understand a distaste for the phrase, but the concept itself has validity (at least when it isn’t being abused and manipulated).

    We’re absolutely in agreement about the Banality Of Evil/Nazi atrocities.

  • “Whether or not you see Thor’s hammer as a phallic symbol isn’t the point – the broader audience clearly does. A phallic symbol isn’t necessarily a literal penis or a representative of a literal penis – its a symbol that stands for both masculinity and efficacy/competence.”

    I think the reason it is seen as a phallic symbol is that the audience has been trained to see it that way. Anything long and slender becomes phallic, especially if it represents power and/or authority. The problem I have with this is that by deeming such items phallic, male sexuality becomes the equivalent of power and authority making it easy to demonize male sexuality. Rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, etc. become all about power and control rather than sex and/or relationships which leads to a misunderstanding of these issues and so-called solutions that do more harm than good. Sexuality is only one aspect of masculinity and a man can become emasculated in other ways. The loss of physical strength is one of those ways and Thor’s hammer makes more sense as a symbol of that strength than as a phallic symbol.

    I don’t dispute the concept that masculine gender conformity can incentivize immorality, just the labelling of it as “toxic masculinity” for the reasons previously stated.

  • TDOM,

    I absolutely agree that phallic symbolism and the package-dealing of symbols of violence with male sexuality are problematic. However, the symbol exists within the mind of the general audience, and that’s the point I’m making.

  • Final Fantasy XIII’s plot has the entire cast (about half men and half women) being deemed as dangerous traitors, “tainted by the enemy”. And unlike the Gears of Wars plot above, or the Thor one, they don’t try to redeem themselves through supplicative means, but by trying to destroy the authority who condemned them.

    The problem is, that’s EXACTLY what the authority wants, a death wish. The authority cannot suicide, and their other god-like allies are unable to harm it. So they had to get “the other side’s” allies (the enemy mentioned above) to taint the main cast, so the main cast would kill him, so the entire world would collapse, and there, that authority hopes, they can make their creator god come back (some theory that when tons of people, think millions, die at once, the “gate of souls” goes larger, and thus the Maker would come back).

    I like those kinds of games because they go against tropes often. Rebel, and win. Or die trying. And try to find a solution to some unsolvable problem.

    When you get ‘tainted’ by the enemy like the main cast, you are “conscripted” to do a mission. Fail to do it, turn to stone. Succeed, turn to crystal. Don’t do anything or fail, and yet have will to stay alive? Become a zombie.

  • Your perspective on Thor as subservient is interesting. I think it makes particular sense in light of his repeated choice across multiple films to give up the throne. His growth as a character consists almost entirely of recognizing and accepting that his usefulness is maximized when he plays the role of cog-in-wheel rather than (supreme) leader. Usefulness to whom? To society at large, it seems.

    That said, I’m not convinced you can tie this glorification of subservience to gender. Service to others, i.e., altruism, is the predominate moral code of our time and has been for millennia. A true hero (as opposed to an anti-hero) almost always serves or sacrifices to others, regardless of gender. While the sacrifice tends to take a gender-specific form, the cog-in-the-wheel aspect is the same. Princesses accept their responsibility to the state by getting married (or not), having babies (or not), or doing whatever else serves the common good. The actions demanded of them stem from gender, but the subservience is the same.

  • S. Misanthrope,

    I absolutely agree with you that both gender roles were based on service to society (i.e. altruism). I never said that men were the only ones expected to be altruistic… but the ‘forms’ of altruism they were expected to participate in differed (after all, women had to serve society through having more kids, which men cannot do).

    As for the issue of Thor and giving up the throne, is being a King necessarily egoistic? Thor’s characterization tends to lean towards that of a rather hot-blooded and rather fratboyish (in the endearing way) kind of guy. The position of King would keep him off the battlefield and alienated from his comrades. In addition, Thor gives up the throne because he wants to spend more time amongst the humans… he seems to gain a lot of happiness and fulfillment from that. So I’m not sure that relinquishing the throne is necessarily altruistic on his part.

    That said, there are certainly other occasions in which he acts altruistically… which frankly I am not a fan of.

  • Without rewatching the film, I can’t be certain, but I remember it doing that thing a lot of American art does where we mix altruism and self-interested individualism into a lovely mess. I think we see and feel throughout the film how Thor might be happier in his battlefield role, but when it comes time to make the grand statement of moral purpose it’s thoroughly altruistic. What’s best for society is what’s best for you…everybody wins, yay…

  • Well, when you have altruistic doctrines like Christianity on one hand and the Declaration of Independence claiming that pursuing personal happiness is an inalienable right on the other, its no surprise American art will tend to mash the two together.

    To be fair though, at least there is SOME role for personal happiness in the American vision. That’s better than most other places!

  • It should be noted that “happyness” is a word that has changed meaning significantly since the writing of that document. The original meaning of that word is “the basic necessities of life”. In other words food, shelter, clothing, medicine, and clean water. It has nothing to do with personal fulfilment – that’s too far up the pyramid and not what Jefferson was referring to. Gingko could probably say more on the “drift” of meaning of words as circumstance and memes change (hint hint?).

  • Is the consensus here that altruism is in and of itself a bad thing, or are we just bemoaning the overemphasis on altruism to the absolute exclusion of any thought of personal fulfillment?

  • Theodmann,

    By the definition used by Auguste Comte, the philosopher who coined “altruism”, then altruism BY DEFINITION excluded any considerations of personal fulfillment.

    “Altruism” commonly is used as a synonym for benevolence (i.e. helping others) but that is an error – altruism is EXISTING FOR THE PURPOSE OF helping others.

    In economics, “altruism” is often understood as “gaining satisfaction from seeing others satisfied” – which is really just natural human empathy. This is also erroneous (going by Comte’s definition).

    So it really boils down to definition. If you use the definition intended by the coiner of the word, then “altruism” does mean absolute exclusion of personal fulfillment (except the kind of fulfillment of “you did the right thing!” which would happen to someone who truly internalized the altruist morality).

  • Ah, I see. I was going by the definition in common use and was confused about why everyone was decrying Thor’s tendency to do nice and/or heroic things for people. It is, after all, what one expects of a superhero.

    There’s been discussion before on this site about men being the lower class and women the aristocracy of today’s society. Women wear more expensive and less practical clothes than men, who are more manly the more physical their work is, and so on. Feminism’s mistake is in assuming that it is men who are the aristocracy and women the proletariat. (Ginkgo said somewhere recently that feminism is male supremacist. I’d clarify that it’s a male supremacist ideology and thus the feminist project [to use Fidelbogen’s term] is a female supremacist one.) Thus they get most everything almost exactly wrong. Power fantasies are no exception.

  • I was also using the philosophical definition of altruism, and yes, that’s why I appeared to be (and am in fact) against it in my comments. A sacrifice isn’t a true sacrifice unless you get a lesser or non-value in return, so the typical superhero’s actions aren’t often truly sacrificial. When Thor destroyed the bifrost, he (apparently temporarily) gave up access to Natalie Portman, but the alternative was to destroy Asgaard (or something- I don’t quite remember). Presumably it was worth the trade, and so it wasn’t truly a sacrifice. In contrast Peter Parker is often told (particularly in the Toby Maguire film series) that his personal values shouldn’t factor into his decisions at all, which is truly altruistic.

  • Originally I had another post I was working on, but covering everything that came to mind was getting unwieldy, and since the comments have shifted to altruism, I’ll address that, since it actually has a strong prevalence in ‘male power fantasy’ and pop culture.

    Superman and Batman are probably the two best known superheroes in pop culture…and both of them are dedicated altruists as Comte defined. Both characters have given up personal pursuits, and placed crimefighting/heroism before everything else in their life.

    In Batman’s case, this is even taken to the point where in Batman Beyond, Bruce Wayne is shown as having become a crotchety old man who lives alone in his home, evidently without any family or friends, having distanced and isolated himself from others to focus on his role as Batman.

    The way I read someone defined the difference between Marvel comics (Thor) and DC comics (Superman/Batman) is Marvel characters are people the reader relates to, while DC characters are people the reader wants to be.

    Odd when you consider that a number of characters in DC live by a moral code which prohibits them from using their power for personal gain, and restricts their ability to socialize and have intimate relationships.
    It also strikes me that female superheroes tend to be less rigid in this subjection to this moral code as well.

    DC is supposedly the poster child of power fantasy…yet their characters are also the poster children of altruism.

    Funny when you contrast that against how, when people talk about these characters, they always go after the power fantasy aspect of it, and always portray that power fantasy as being an example of male selfishness.

  • S. Misanthrope,

    To be fair, one of the Marvel films was very much non-altruistic… the first Iron Man film was very much about enlightened self-interest and individuation (forging one’s own destity, refusing to simply continue the ‘family legacy’ and instead build one’s own, etc). Ignore the other two, they descended right back into Comte County.

    But yeah, Spider-Man’s altruism really is hardcore self-destructive. I hated those films.

  • Ah, but Iron Man was intentionally developed by Stan Lee to show off the fact that he could make comic fanboys fall in love with a Capitalist superhero, contrary to their professed moral code. It’s the exception that proves the rule, because it was specifically crafted to flaunt convention in that way. And when your individualist hero ultimate descends into alcoholism, what does that say about the underlying morality?

    A+ to Bronze Kettle’s comments. Spot on.

  • S. Misanthrope,

    Sure, that was the intent. But first, the movie version of the character is pretty unique to RDJ’s portrayal (he’s ‘nerdier’ than the comic version, and frankly I like that), and second, the point is I just ignore the movies which follow the first.

    The first Iron Man is an absolute masterpiece. All the rest NEVER HAPPENED (ahh, fiction, wonderful stuff).

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