There’s been a lot of discussion of a series of illustrations, some of which are reproduced here, that show what male superheroes would look like if they were posed like Wonder Woman is on the cover of the latest Justice League. I was particularly interested to see those images in conjunction with a new study that looks at 1,000 Rolling Stone covers and determines that the images of both men and women have become more sexual more frequently over the 43 years the magazine’s been published, but that over time, the number of sexualized and hypersexualized images of women has increased faster than the number of comparable images of men. I mention this because while I think reducing women to their sexuality is a problem, we’ve also got something of an equal opportunity problem here.
The reason those images of superheroes posed like Wonder Woman are resonating is in part because they’re funny, they’re superheroes in drag. They help make clear why it’s ridiculous to have Wonder Woman running around fighting evil in a swimsuit — it can be hard to see things as ridiculous when they’re all you’ve ever seen, but when you see a reversal, like a pantsless Batman, it’s usefully jarring. But these images don’t accomplish their full purpose because they aren’t actually meant to be sexy. They don’t communicate to men what it’s like to see another man held up as an object of pure sexual desire for women’s consumption.
That’s one of the reasons I cracked up in the 2 Broke Girls extended trailer when Kat Dennings explains that she can’t resist her cheating newly-ex boyfriend because of “he had these muscle thingies [adjacent to his abs]…I don’t know what they’re called but they make smart girls stupid.” Or why Crazy Stupid Love is selling the joke where Emma Stone tells Ryan Gosling, “It’s like you’re Photoshopped!” when he takes off his shirt. There’s this idea that female desire doesn’t exist, or if it does, that it’s sort of laughable, which both of those examples thankfully reject, but as a result, we have fewer images of men that are just purely about being beautiful and covetable. Patrick Swayze’s incredibly desirable in Dirty Dancing, but the fact that there are so few images of men that are just available for the female gaze like that hugely magnifies the significance of his performance and his self-presentation in the movie.
I don’t want to live in a world where we remove all images of women that are desirable. I just want more of other kinds of images, and equal opportunity for women who like to sigh over dudes to have images to sigh over.