Imagination Connoisseur, Manuel Schaper, writes in with a follow-up to his earlier letter on the “female gaze” and how female sexuality is portrayed in art with a deep dive into what makes men worth looking at as an object of desire.

Dear Rob,

Greetings to the Robservatory from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

This is my follow-up letter to that recent one, where I discussed the issue of visual pleasure, the portrayal of female bodies in popular cinema and the visual regime of the male gaze as a central element in Hollywood movies, exemplified in the James Bond film – DIE ANOTHER DAY. I was very happy to see you read the letter on the show and also to hear Willow Yang’s thoughts in response to it in another episode recently. The made-up Han Solo scene with him re-imagined as a character designed for a female gaze had me laughing.

In this letter I’d like to talk a little about the results of my study that used Laura Mulvey’s concept of “to-be-looked-at-ness“ to find out more about the representation of male bodies as erotic objects.

As I said I wrote my masters thesis on this – and the analysis was based on a German porn magazine for straight women, not a movie or TV show – I think this is still interesting and topical for Robservations, but will keep it short. (I don’t want to bore anyone with the details of eroticized male naked bodies.)

Try reading the rest of the letter aloud without giggling!

I take no credit for this theoretical rollercoaster ride and will name drop the smart people who came up with it. I had introduced Laura Mulvey’s concept of “to-be-looked-at-ness“ earlier: a state of erotic contemplation, shown in slow-motion via the typically male protagonists eyes.

For male bodies, this seems to work a little differently and I want to outline here some theoretical background as to why that is the case. When we talk porn, or just sexuality in general, psychoanalytic theory suggests that there are different ways to appropriate the object of desire, and that there is a male and a female way of achieving this. In analogy to the physical/carnal way of sexual appropriation, we may assume that the male gaze takes possession of its desired object through (visual) penetration, which reflects probably 90 percent of all porn content. This also implicitly tells you who it is designed for, and thus can help to explain why most women reportedly have little to no interest in it. It is showing penetration, it is designed for a penetrating gaze and it is focused on the female body’s natural orifices and phallus.

Now here’s the thing: heteronormatively speaking, the female body is not designed to sexually penetrate a male body. Scholars have argued that the female equivalent of sexually appropriating the male body and objectifying and controlling it is via fellatio. But oral sex is a “risky“ thing in that it might result in being sullied or violated, since it also means being penetrated at the same time. Kenneth MacKinnon called that “uneasy pleasures.“ MacKinnon wrote a book with that title and if you or Willow Yang or anybody else is interested in the topic, I highly recommend reading it.

If we take into account the idea that oral consumption is the female pendant to penetration, then the ways male and female bodies are set up as sex objects should in fact be different. If we follow this line of thought we may assume that male bodies are to be presented in ways that suggest not only a minimzed risk of being violated sexually, but also that they are fit for oral consumption, i.e. they have the same or similar properties as good, fresh, nice and clean food.

Yes, food.

So in short, the male gaze seeks to penetrate, the female gaze seeks to lick or eat, in a metaphorical sense, and the ways bodies are portrayed for those respective gazes varies to meet that preference. It may sound absurd but it is interesting, when we think about how often we use words related to oral consumption and taste with sexual innuendo like “tasty,“ “yum yum,“ or “sugar.“

I think this whole idea can be criticized on different levels and it may be too generalizing, but I think a major strength of it is that first of all it acknowledges the reality of female sexual desire and visual pleasure.

What I do take credit for is finding strong indication that this stuff is very accurate for the material I had analyzed: The magazine showed naked male bodies, without focusing on their genitals exclusively. The person’s names or pseudonyms and occupations were shown and most of the time they were photographed in their own apartments, which made everything more personal and comfortable. Most of them were presented as nice, calm and approachable people in private sceneries. Not sweaty and hyper masculine hairy macho type characters dressed up as cops or firefighters for excitement and kink, more like the average cool guy next door or someone you spot on a university campus.

The whole setup – from camera perspective to locations and action – served to portray them as harmless, most of the time. There was hardly any action except for some masturbation, notably without any bodily fluids shown (no indication of a risk of being sullied).

Other activities had a direct or inherent connection to food, for example when they were preparing food or feeding the observer by holding food in the direction of the camera. Cleanliness was a big thing too, because when you want to lick and eat something, it should always be nice and fresh and clean. Often the models were bathing or showering, which emphasized this aspect even further. Interestingly, this corresponds with the cliché of female obsession with hygiene, too – but I’d like to add here that this is probably more the flipside of a very common carelessness among men (let’s be realistic, guys). The image series of the models, all amateurs by the way, were never arranged to form a narrative structure, which supported the state of erotic contemplation even more in my opinion: when there is no coherent narrative structure of the moment apparent in the sequence of images, like in a comicbook, there is no way to tell how much time is passing, or if time is passing at all, like in a dream, suggesting that the pleasure of the moment never ends. I promised to keep it short so I stop here and not go into detail any further, even though I could.

I conclude this letter with an outlook: One can always argue that such examples are actually more about what the creators believe the female gaze desires, but then again, we could make that same argument for female bodies in Hollywood movies or porn. I personally do not think that everything is in fact that easy, and that human psychology, sexuality and desire are probably less clear-cut and binary and the ways they flow into works of art and popular culture are probably more complex than that, but nonetheless this is an interesting approach. An approach that is using idealized concepts, but puts some things into perspective for us when we think about the ways we look at others and the ways we’re looked at by them.

Best regards,
Manuel Schaper

P.S.: By the way, remember Burt Reynolds’ legendary nude Photoshoot in Cosmopolitan from 1972? I recommend checking that out, it is another interesting historical attempt to show a male body as an erotic object for the female gaze.