I recently finished reading Jack Meyer’s book The Future of Men, which has completely changed the way I see men. It’s a fascinating collection of stats, stories, and analysis on how we got to the current definition of masculinity, and what we expect(and hope)men to be in the years to come.
This month, I’m going to take a few of my favorite passages from the book and share some of my thoughts about them. You can read the first one here.
Here’s the second, focusing on the representation of women in media:
The early feminist movement challenged male-dominated ideals and institutions. As the women’s sexual revolution evolved, female sexuality and influence in relationships moved front and center. Playboy both exploited and contributed to the feminist movement by using celebrities and high-profile women to advocate for female control over their own bodies and to champion feminist principles in a sexually charged editorial environment that targeted men by objectifying women and airbrushing them to inhuman perfection. As objectification of the female body has become epidemic in culture, so has women’s sexuality evolved from a subtle to a dominant place in pop culture. Entertainment and advertising are no longer filtered for male needs and interests but have recognized women’s emerging power and fully embraced the shift. E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey, Zane’s The Sex Chronicles, and other books and films put no-holds-barred female sexuality on full display, serving as entertainment and primers of women actually want.
Books, music, dancing, movies, television, and fashion all embody how women view their own sexuality. Celebrities such as Angelina Jolie, Scarlett Johansson, Rihanna, and Lady Gaga have acknowledged their sexuality, with Jolie suggesting that being a sex symbol is a good thing. Combine these outward symbols of overt female sexuality with men’s inherent tendencies toward female objectification and men’s unacknowledged, repressed, and typically private behaviors connected to emotional detachment and disassociation, however, and we have a confused male gender struggling to understand and adapt to a world in which they can no longer rely on tacit and passive acceptance of their sexual addictions.
Let’s unpack this a little bit. We’re now at a point where we have female sexuality being expressed outside of the male gaze in all sorts of media. Meyer is saying that because of that, men are confused in how to react to things that depict women in different roles—outside of the previous ones focused on objectification.
I think a big part of men’s confused behavior comes from seeing more women embrace their sexuality, and showing how they can be empowered by it. On the flipside, mens’ behaviors on the same thing tend to be private. I can see how there could be a weird relationship forming here, where men are increasingly feeling intimidated by women who are comfortable with their sexuality.
Does this mean that men should just start posting more images of themselves and owning their sexual image? Unfortunatley, it’s not that simple. Because we’ve dealt with such a long history of women being subverted in media, I think that first—men need to first be comfortable with the fact that women can express themselves how they want. This means actually being open to other narratives that put women in roles men might not like at first. Things like superheroes, company executives, or governments.
Men also shouldn’t just copy the way women have been represented, and hope for some sort of equality. Even though videos like these do a good job in educating men about the things women go through for advertising, men are still in a privelaged position. We can go through those experiences once, and get back to our lives as men. But women have to live those experiences every day. I think men should be active in exploring new ways to express and talk about their emotions and their sexuality—some of the best ways to do that are through art. There might not be any definite answers at first, but just making the effort of exploring those things can open the door for other men to build on.
Frank Ocean’s new album seems to be a step in the right direction, playing with the idea of having labels in the first place. Everything from the title of the album, to the lyrics, to the music videos—are laced deep with symbolism and alliteration. This article sheds some light on how it’s different from past musicians playing with sexuality and gender roles:
On Channel Orange and it’s predecessor Nostalgia, Ultra, queerness was hinted at occasionally through the use of male pronouns if it appeared at all. But the way queerness works its way into Blond(e) is different to anything we’ve seen from Ocean, or any other popular male artist, before – whether it’s Bowie toying with androgyny, Prince whipping up male and female energies into an erotic frenzy, or Perfume Genius blowing smoke directly in the face of homophobia. If each of the aforementioned have worked to break down the stigma surrounding labels by owning all the things that society has traditionally vilified, then Frank Ocean has taken things a step further and released a body of work that acts as though those labels never existed in the first place.
Queerness enters into Blond(e) – an album whose title exists in both male and female forms – matter of factly through the universal lenses of love and heartbreak. We need Frank Ocean for his ability to articulate the things we can’t. Yearning, loneliness, and the draw of things that are bad for you: these are the reoccurring themes of Blond(e). He spends the album navigating the memories of people no longer in his life, and the prolonged resonance left by others who were barely in it at all. His battle is internal, grappling with notions of what’s good for him, what’s bad for him; what makes a good person, a bad person. You don’t need to be queer to identify with that.
One of the most important things here is noting Ocean’s courage to explore these themes and emotions, without being confined to traditional masculine tropes. The big thing here is expressing the sense of vulnerability in men. That things may not be easy or comfortable, and even if you’re ‘tough,’ you still might be lonely. And even if you are, Ocean is showing men that it’s really ok to talk about your feelings. Maybe even with— gasp— other men.