Monday, May 9, 2011

What a Shirtless Thor Means for Female Moviegoers

by Sara N.

I caught the movie Thor this weekend, and boy, did one scene jump out at me. Behold:

It's glorious, like a sunset or an infant's first smile.

Thor, having just landed on Earth after being expelled from Asgard, is changing into mortal clothes. Shirtless, he emerges to talk to his two women rescuers, who both stop and stare. Then the camera does something strange: It lovingly pans up Thor's naked torso. It lingers. It practically leers. The shot is pure beefcake, and it is definitely there for an admiring sexual gaze — certainly not typical for an action/superhero movie, where an unclothed dude is not intended to be a sex object.

This was the most work-safe image of this scene that I could find.
Feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey argued that the default "gaze" when watching a film is a male one. Viewers identify with male characters; female characters are sexual objects, meant to be looked at and little else. A good example is the famous scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High when Phoebe Cates climbs out of the pool. She's an explicit male fantasy, there to be gazed at as a sexual object. The camera's gaze is a male one, and she is filmed in a way to emphasize a male's appreciate of her body. It is not a neutral gaze, but a possessive, objectifying one.

Wow, did this shot in Thor invert that. Natalie Portman and Kat Dennings both turn their gazes on Chris Hemsworth, whose gleaming torso becomes an object of titillation. We, the audience, gaze, too. Not to sound like Carrie Bradshaw (man, do I not want to sound like Carrie Bradshaw), but I couldn't help but wonder what this shot says about superhero movies in 2011. Are filmmakers finally acknowledging that women are audience members for these types of films, too?

Certainly, there have been plenty of unclothed men in superhero films of the past, but never in such a straight-forwardly admiring way. Tobey Maguire stands shirtless in front of a mirror after his transformation in Spider Man, but the point of the shot is to marvel at his overnight muscle growth. Robert Downey Jr. often works in his lab in tight tank tops, but he's building machines — manly man's work. Ryan Reynolds is shirtless during a prolonged torture scene in Blade: Trinity, but Mulvey would argue that the violence being done to his body mitigates any sexualization in the scene. All the diaper-wearing fellas in 300? Their bodies are fighting machines, meant to cut and to bleed, not merely to be gazed upon. Hugh Jackman is frequently shirtless as Wolverine, but he's also frequently fighting. He isn't merely filmed in all his hairy-chested glory as a sexual object. (To be fair, I've pretty much blocked out the Wolverine movie, but I think I would've remembered if such a blatant eye candy shot was thrown into that film.)

That helmet really complements his biceps.
These were not here yesterday.

How much of this scene is CGI?

I am Wolverine, hear me bellow.

I'll be honest; I've been looking for an excuse to
post this picture for a while now.

No, the scene in Thor was markedly different. The camera treated actor Chris Hemsworth's body with the reverence typically reserved for Megan Fox in Transformers or Scarlett Johansson in Iron Man 2. If the camera could've wolf-whistled, it would have.

Scar Jo
M Fox

So director Kenneth Branagh has given the ladies something to look at without violence marring the shot and with no other actions like robot-building or firing a gun or punching an enemy to serve as a distraction to the naked male torso. At last, we have an acknowledgement that women make up a large percentage of the audience for action-heavy superhero movies.

Kat D. is literally behind the wheel in Thor.
The thing is, I'm not sure this is entirely a good thing. We need more than an inversion of the objectifying male gaze for female viewers. Many women buying tickets for these movies are choosing to be there rather than being dragged there by a husband or boyfriend. Look, I'm all for the glory of a buff, shirtless Australian, but I'd be much happier if the influence of female moviegoers was acknowledged by creating roles for women that go beyond the love interest or the secretary or the grandmother. I would be thrilled if women in the big-budget summer movies would no longer be defined by their relationships to the male characters. And to be fair, Thor does this; Kat Dennings' character is a terrific comic foil whose battiness has nothing to do with being a supportive romantic partner to the lead man. We need more female characters like this who have their own agendas and goals and motivations.

To summarize, the loving camera caress of Thor's Norse pecs? It may be a good start. (And if we are very lucky, it's a shot that will be repeated in Green Lantern later this summer.) But the women who love superhero movies will respond even better to more parity in casting and writing.

So did anyone else see Thor this weekend and notice this? And am I forgetting about any other shots of male superheroes in other films that are clearly intended for the female gaze?
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  1. Gotta say.. I fail at having female gaze. During that scene I got uncomfortable and then I giggled when ladies in the audience wolf whisteled. I turned to look at my boyfriend (I dragged HIM to the theater) and he was laughing too and then I felt better.

    Is it the female gaze? I love that it is. But it's also another scene in which Portman gazes whistfully at Thor. In this movie.. is Thor not the stand-in for the male viewer? When he is lusted after by the female audience, are we just lusting after all men? Is that why my boyfriend was laughing?

    Or did he think that some of those muscles were a bit much?\

    I don't know but I def think you are on to something. Check out that split second moment in the Captain America trailer, upon exiting the super soldier serum .. cage? wtf is that thing? Cap gets his pecks poked by a lady!

  2. I, um... Huh? Did you say something? Sorry, got distracted.

  3. I can't wait to see what "Captain America" has in store for us! And yes, I'm a bit uncomfortable gazing like that in a theater full of strangers. Sadly, in my theater, there was neither embarrassed giggling nor wolf whistles.

  4. Under Gerard Butler you said GCI instead of CGI. I don't know if it says there's a maleness lacking in me or not, but all the examples you gave of male pandering have never even caught my eye. At least not the way you describe. Though, that said, i understand what you're saying.

  5. There was even a scene when Thor gets knocked backwards and slides across the floor and the camera comes to rest on the bulge in his pants. I kid you not. I am very uncomfortable with all this. The answer to the problem of the objectification of women is not the increased objectification of men! ("an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind")

  6. Pity us ladies! We've been watching movies with loving camera caresses of lady curves for YEARS.

    But I agree with you; increased objectification, no matter the gender, doesn't improve anything.

  7. YUMMMMMYYYYY Thanks for the pics hahahaha. Meh a movie like this is not intended to be a highly influential piece of media, it is fluff...fluff with a bit of an opportunity to have a good old perve. Let's not take ourselves too seriously, he is playing Thor after all and I'm pretty sure in comic books he is often shirtless

  8. Oh yes. I noticed. I noticed a lot... and appreciated it a lot too. It was a very pleasant distraction.

  9. I think that the violence and victimization of Ryan Reynolds' character in Blade 3 ups the porn, not limits it. He's a sexualized victim, like those cheerleaders in horror movies, all vulnerable and teasingly bruised, ready for any "violence" to be visited upon their person.

    I don't think it erases any of the charge, at all. I think it's supposed to heighten it.

    I'd also argue that putting a character working at what they do well (like Tony Stark) is competence porn and is made to make them more attractive, and is to enhance the prurience of the moment, perhaps make it a little less shallow. But the ogling is definitely encouraged then.

  10. Anon on 6/4, that's an interesting take, particularly the idea of competence porn. That makes me want to comb through other recent movies for more examples. I did think that RR's character in B3 was more defiant and vocally resistant throughout the torture, rather than screaming and pleading and crying. And he did ultimately escape, fight back and win. I think that kept him from being a true victim in the "horror movie cheerleader" way. Just my opinion, though, and your point is still a good one.

  11. mmhmmm..... I for one, am definitely NOT complaining about sexually objectifying males! I thought it was about time that woman had something like that to ogle at! And Ryan Reynolds, my god! I have to agree with Anon on 6/4 as well, I was soooo young when I saw Blade 3, but I remember thinking he was one beefcake, but even the fact that he was tied up, he was sexy as hell, and the whole situation was somewhat sexual.
    I don't know if I'm making any sense. I'm just thinking about Chris Evans' muscles in the Capt. America films. GORGEOUS!

  12. I thought this was a great article! I am doing a paper on this for my college film paper and you really hit some good points in this article. I was looking for scenes from Thor to reference to in my paper and this one came to mind. Then, I found your article. I think there will be more films that "expose" or objectify the male form... especially with all of the superhero films. But I agree, this was definitely a scene that was created with the female gaze in mind. Keep up the good work!

  13. I am not going to lie Chris Hemsworth is fine. I seriously wolf-whistled.

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