How can you tell when a man’s being presented as a sex object? Turns out there’s one simple, checkable criterion.
The male gaze is a tricky thing; it’s so pervasive that we tend to take it for granted, but at the same time it’s also surprisingly subtle. In some cases, it’s obvious when a woman is being presented as pure eye candy, being optimized for assumed popular taste:
In other cases, it’s less obvious. At what point is a woman just being onscreen without the clear intent of being drooled over?
Interestingly, the situation is much more clear-cut when it comes to men. At this point in our cultural zeitgeist, there is a simple, one-step objective test for whether a man’s body in a film or TV show is being presented as a sexualized gaze-object.
Does he or does he not have any body hair?
Because if he does not, that means that a conscious decision was made to undergo a difficult and painful process to render his body visually attractive according to present aesthetics. Body hair is considered unattractive at the moment, but almost all adult men have it. Therefore, if you’re seeing a man’s skin on a screen, and he’s not fuzzy, he was almost certainly shaved, waxed, or otherwise depilated in order to more closely fit society’s current fashion for “attractive”.
There are a few exceptions, but they’re few and far between, as in the “savage” appearance of Jason Momoa on Game of Thrones.
Once you notice it, it’s impossible to escape; nowadays almost the only time you’ll ever see body hair on a man is as part of a joke about how hilariously, disgustingly unattractive he is.
This is such a useful test because there’s no way it can be accidental. Apologists for frequently-crass sexualized images of women have tons of reasons why she just happened to be wearing that top, or that was the most convenient camera angle, or whatever nonsense. But there’s no way a grown man’s entire body accidentally depilates itself. Chris Evans did not trip and fall into a vat of wax. Daniel Craig did not get distracted while shaving and forget to stop until he reached his toes. Magic Mike is not set in the aftermath of the big explosion at the Nair factory.
Mind you, there’s another side to this, too: there’s no casual skin showing in most TV shows and movies; certainly not male skin. When a man is not being overtly sexualized, there’s a simple way to tell: he keeps his clothes on. That speaks to a whole other set of weird and creepy assumptions about bodies and sex, but that’s a rant for a different day.