As you will know all too well if you’re a regular visitor to this blog, I don’t have a problem with male ‘objectification‘. More please.
But there’s objectification and there’s objectification. Despite not being altogether innocent of sadistic tendencies, I’m not sure I’m also cool with treating hot ‘objects’ that gladden the eye as idiots who deserve a good slapping for making us perve over them.
OK, I might think it sometimes, but I probably wouldn’t say it out loud.
But food giant Muller have no such inhibitions. They’re acting out this sadistic ambivalence loud and proud in front of millions. In their latest TV ad a young, attractive, nearly naked pole vaulter with a smooth, edible body is scoped by the camera in extreme close-up while a young, pretty, also fit – but less naked and less ‘objectified’ – blond woman scoffs the smooth, rather less edible-looking product.
She is so excited by the ‘fat free’ claim for the product that she yells it out loud – ‘FAT FREE!’ – distracting the vaulter, who hits his buff chums in the head – and in the butt – with his BIG POLE.
It’s slightly reminiscent of the recent Bonmarche TV ad campaign, in which random men were ‘accidentally’ beaten up by sassy ‘ladies’ – to communicate ‘female empowerment’ and sell clothes.
Though in the Pole Vaulter ad, apart perhaps from the fact he glances at the yoghurt scoffer and raises a wolfish eyebrow, there doesn’t appear to be much of a pretense at some kind of dubious feminist statement. And of course, the smacked about men are objectified as well.
We could, if we were inclined to give a giant multinational the benefit of the doubt, perhaps treat this as a one-off by Muller (annual turnover 5BN Euros). But this is not the first time Muller have beaten up on (fit) men.
In fact, there’s a whole series of ads from the last few years flogging their (apparently female-targeted) food product, all using the same formula: gawp at men’s bodies to get the viewer’s attention, and then punish the male trollops for being so damn hot and making us drool over them.
HUR-HUR the dishy lifeguard I was drooling over fell on his arse!
LOL! the hot volleyballer I was eating up got hit in the head!
HAR! The tasty swimmer I was drinking in fell off the diving board!
OMG! The delish Greek god lost his big ball!
Now, I don’t think these ads are something to report Muller to the ASA over – though they would be in a flash if it was a bloke eating yoghurt and sexy women were getting get hit in the head. And I’m certainly not ‘offended’ by them – but I am intrigued how Muller and their ad agency clearly think this is such a cool and successful format that they keep repeating it.
Perhaps the fact that Muller is a Bavarian company needs to be factored in here. Bavaria has a strong tradition of ‘physical comedy‘. In other words, men falling over is fucking funny in the land of lederhosen and slapsticked thighs. And at least in this regard, Bavarian humour is globalised humour – it doesn’t need dialogue/dubbing.
But it’s the way that slapstick sexualisation is used here that is key. In most of these ads the (idealised) female consumer appears oblivious to these (even more idealised) males – she only has eyes for Muller Light. But the camera lingers over the ripped, lean, nearly-naked male at least as much as over the product – because the viewer is likely not quite so interested in gazing at fat free yoghurt as they are in feasting on mouthwatering man-flesh.
(Full disclosure: this is probably the only reason I noticed the ad.)
Of course, the close-ups on the woman eating the yoghurt are ‘sexualised’ too, in that orgasmic, Cadburys Flake fellatio advertising cliche. But this is mostly to portray the plastic pot of aerated dairy products as even ‘yummier’ than the ‘hunks’.
That’s, like, totally objectifying. But pretty much a standard trope in mainstream advertising these days, and rather more common on TV than the ‘real’ or traditional form of objectification, i.e. of women. Apart from anything else, it doesn’t provoke protests – and anyway, most TV viewers are female and most TV ads target female viewers.
Where the Muller ads go further is in debasing the male love-object. The hunks need to be punished for being so damn tempting. They obviously ‘love themselves’ – who wouldn’t, with those ‘fat free’ muscular bodies? So they need to be taken down a peg or two. Or just hit in the head.
Fame, fame, fatal fame. It can play hideous tricks on the brain.
Last week C4 aired Crazy About One Direction a documentary about ‘Directioners’, febrile fans of the globally – some would say criminally – successful reality TV assembled UK boy band One Direction, or ‘1D’ if you’re typing with your thumbs.
They were all teenage girls. Now, I’m sure there are male Directioners out there (and that would make for an interesting doc in itself), but I reckon many of them would turn out to be quite a bit older than teenagers. In fact, I might be a male fan of 1D – if quite liking ‘What Makes You Beautiful’ and thinking the blond one would make a cute car dashboard gonk counts.
But of course, ‘quite liking’ doesn’t count. At all. Timed to cash in on the cash-in release of This Is Us their remarkably boring-looking band movie this was a TV doc about OMG!!! LOVING!!!!!! 1D. About crayzee teen girl fandom, with beating hearts hovering sweetly, expectantly, menacingly over ‘i’s. About extravagant professions of undying, breathless, pitiless devotion for people you’ve never met – along with not entirely serious threats to top yourself or lop off limbs if they don’t acknowledge you. And hanging around the arse-end of concert stadia for hours and hours on the off-chance of screaming at a blacked out minivan which may or may not contain a member of 1D accelerating away from you.
Not to forget playing all this up for the cameras – something teen girl pop fans have been wise to for generations: e.g. that immortal, always-recycled clip of a girl outside a David Bowie concert in the 1970s sobbing gently and completely unconvincingly to camera about not getting to meet Ziggy – and, when she spots the camera’s attention wandering towards other fans, suddenly crying MUCH LOUDER.
So far, so Bay City Rollers. This doc’s main update on this now very familiar trope seemed to be that thanks to social networking fans can now monitor their idols constantly on Twitter, searching endlessly for clues as to their whereabouts and feeding their imaginary relationship with them. But watching teen girls watching their idols’ Twitter feed waiting impatiently for the next status update which may or may not be posted by a member of Simon Cowell’s PR team isn’t exactly great TV.
Demented as this kind of fandom may seem in its main professed hope – that the beloved will love you back or even notice you – it isn’t perhaps quite as irrational as it seems. After all, this unreality really brings fans together.
Much was made in the doc of the fact that most of the girls interviewed don’t have boyfriends. But it didn’t bother mentioning the fact that they do have girlfriends. Lots and lots of girlfriends. Who all want to have Harry Styles as their boyfriend. Or at least, enjoy thinking they do. But, of course, the chances of this desire ever being put to the test are rather slim. So everything remains endlessly, exquisitely unconsummated. It’s the perfect romance, really. And it’s part of 1D’s job description to remain always (or for a couple of years or so) available for the fans’ endless yearning – and pursuit. 1D are electric hares at a musical greyhound track run by Simon Cowell, but with fussier hair.
So the fans may or may not be single but are far from lonely because they have everything in common with one another, with the ‘pack’ – shared excitement yes, but most especially delicious disappointment, which is after all what pop music is all about. Though, to be fair, the look on the face of one of the girls when another fan was proudly showing off phone pics of her smugly beaming face next to various indulgent over-moussed 1D chaps accosted in some hotel reception was not exactly what you’d call sisterly. (And the DIE BITCH! tweets some 1D fans like to send to girlfriends of band members,or bomb threats sent to magazines that run interviews with the band they disapprove of, definitely aren’t.)
The fun of being girls together asserting an active, quite possibly aggressive sexual interest in pretty, pouting, packaged, passive boys is something I encountered full-frontal way back in 1994 when I wrote a piece about Manchester boy band Take That playing Wembley Arena at the height of the teen feeding frenzy surrounding the grinning Manc lads in leather harnesses. I spoke to a group of rambunctious girls (and a mum or two) who’d come down from the North to lust after the boys. I asked them who their favourite was:
“HOWARD!” “ROBBIE!” “MARK!” “JASON!” they all scream at once. “Mark’s brill ‘cos ‘e’s so short an’ sweet an’ lovely an’ ‘e looks like you could do anything you like to ‘im!” “Howards’ ace ‘cos ‘e’s got pecs, and ‘cos ‘e’s got a BIG PACKAGE ‘e’s REALLY, REALLY, WELL-ENDOWED!!” How do you know? “You can’t miss it when ‘e comes on stage!!” says Lucy. “It just about pokes yer eye out!,” adds Lucy’s Mum, helpfully. Pardon me, but didn’t The Sun tell us recently that mums were shocked by the new saucy TT show? “I am shocked,” she admits. “I expected them to get their kit off!!”’
As another pretty boy bander from Manchester who knows a few things about fandom and gender reversal (and most of whose fans were male) put it: She wants it Now and she will not wait, but she’s too rough and I’m too delicate….It’s a sobering thought that the women having the time of their life at the Take That gig nearly twenty years ago and baying for Howard’s BIG PACKAGE would be the mothers and grandmothers of today’s 1D fans.
Which brings us back, I’m sure you’ll be glad to hear, to bumming. By far the most memorable section of Crazy About One Direction and the part that caused the most controversy examined the phenomenon of ‘Larry shippers’, 1D fans who fantasise about a relationship between Louis Tomlinson and Harry Styles writing passionately romantic or outright erotic stories, complete with eye-popping illustrations. Harry Tomlinson, the beast with two very shapely backs. One Direction fans can be very polymorphously perverse.
‘Shipping’ seems to be an update on ‘slashing’ – the long-established fanfic tradition of women writing storylines for one another that bring male celebs or fictional characters together for their enjoyment: e.g. Spock/Kirk, Starsky/Hutch, Sam/Frodo finally gloriously consummating, if you like, or even if you don’t like, a hidden subtext. And yet this was the part of the documentary that was generally seen as most ‘bizarre’. C4 played up to this with a slightly sniffy voiceover that introduced shipping Larry with the line ‘…and they have funny ways of showing their love.’
What’s really ‘funny’ is that manlove for ladies, the female version of men’s enjoyment of woman-on-woman fantasy, is as old as pop music. From The Beatles to The Bay City Rollers to Wham to Take That boy bands have slyly exploited the girlish fantasy of cute, coiffed boys who live together and out of one another’s fashionably-styled pockets, usually supervised by a gay male father figure/manager. Boy bands are a kind of gay porn for girls. Wham were explicitly told by their manager Simon Napier Bell to flirt with one another on stage to get the girls hot (advice that George Michael seems to have taken to heart). Take That took things a be-thonged step further and were test-marketed on gay men before being offered, with their heads resting on one another’s shoulders – no doubt exhausted after all that dancing around and slapping their arses on stage – to teen girls.
Twenty years on it’s not necessary to test market a boy band on The Gays any more. Everyone seems to know the formula. How to do ‘gayness’. Including of course the boys themselves, whose tenderness and physical affection for one another is much more ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ for their metrosexualised generation than it was for the Take That one. Thanks, in part, to Take That.
You could argue that the Larry shippers are only joining the dots that have already been drawn – very close together – by 1D’s management and the whole history of boy bands. As one girl put it, “I think the management secretly love Larry.”
Though admittedly some of the Larry shippers/slashers are a trifle over-zealous, insisting that Louis and Harry REALLY ARE, LIKE, TOTALLY!!! shagging one another’s brains out non-stop and that any girlfriends that come along are JUST A DIVERSION, SHEEPLE!!! As one fan put it in the doc, “A lot of the fans wouldn’t be so jealous if they had a boyfriend instead of a girlfriend.” Or perhaps it’s better to find a way of believing that the doll-like boys are, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, sticking to your storyline – rather than following their own.
But what’s really ‘crazy’ is the way so many people have failed to see and hear the literally screaming evidence of the gravitational pull of manlove for ladies and the voyeuristic, highly kinky ‘female gaze’ powering it.
A few years ago a UK TV producer friend of mine tried vainlyto pitch a documentary proposal we’d put together about women’s interest in man-on-man action and the huge but largely unspoken role it had played in shaping a lot of pop culture. Apparently the response was always the same: bafflement. Followed by a certain amount of unease. Followed swiftly by total and no doubt highly reassuring scepticism that such a phenomenon existed at all.
Oh, but it does. It really does, guys. Like, TOTALLY!!!
Once again, I’m very grateful that American feminists have scientifically proven (by looking at dusty back issues of Rolling Stone magazine) that men aren’t ‘really’ objectified, only women are.
Because it means that this eye-popping ad for toilet cleaner featuring a tarty boy band suspended beneath the rim of a toilet in cages, imploring ‘baby’ to pull the chain and flush them – slowly washing away their clothes – doesn’t really exist, and none of us need have nightmares about it.
Mark Simpson sees Take That eaten alive at Wembley Arena
Originally appeared in Attitude magazine, October 1994 and collected in It’s a Queer World
IN GREEK MYTHOLOGY, Maenads were “frenzied women worshippers of Bacchus” who were inclined to “rend to pieces” unfortunate men who passed their way. They were known by their unearthly shrieking howl and wail – often the last thing a man might hear. Tonight the ancient noise floods the auditorium and makes my knees knock. Tonight a cyclone of screaming, whistling, whirling teen-girl frenzy is surging around me and quite unmanning me.
Tonight Take That play Wembley Arena.
The entrance of the ‘lads’ is still some time away, but that doesn’t stop the girls exercising their vocal cords and advertising their appetite. They are hungry for masculine meat. Their banners proclaim their ravenous intentions: GIVE US A SNOG, ROB, and A QUICKIE IN THE DARKIE, MARKIE. To quote someone else from Manchester: They want it now and they will not wait, for they are too lovely and too delicate. I sink even lower into my seat. But I flatter myself – these girls aren’t interested in stringy old steak like mine; they want prime, pumped, waxed, tanned, moisturised boy-flesh.
Nevertheless I can’t help looking around for another male to cling to. I spot a middle-aged steward guarding one of the exit doors. ‘I’m too seasoned to be scared, ‘ he says. (I think he means ‘experienced’ rather than ‘flavoured.’) ‘I’ve seen it all before with The Beatles. Now that was real hysteria. You had to stretcher out hundreds of fainting girls in those days. We hardly get any now.’
But isn’t that just it? Isn’t that exactly why we should be really, really scared? I mean, these girls are ball-busters; they’re in control. They’re not keeling over – they know what they want and they’re gonna stop at nothing to get it. It’s the men who are fainting now. ‘Well, some of their banners can be a bit explicit,’ admits the steward. ‘Some of them are too obscene to allow into the auditorium and we have to confiscate them.’ What sort of things do they say? He flushes red. ‘I can’t tell you that, I’m afraid’ he demurs hurriedly. ‘You’ll have to use your imagination.’
Unfortunately my imagination is already working overtime. From my lofty vantage point in the gallery, the arena looks just like the inside of the wrecked spaceship in Alien. Those rows of teeny-boppers look like the cute pods in the vast cargo bay that John Hurt got a little too close to. Lurking within each one of those diminutive schoolgirls is a ruthless appetite to consume the world just waiting to burst out. These girls – with their flashing red plastic horns (symbol of the ’94 tour), TT scarves, key-rings and slurpees – know that the teenybopper juggernaut of boy bands is just a lipsmacking taste of things to come.
The multimillion pound Take That road-show, bringing joy to thousands of young girls, is the prototype future economy of the Western World. Making these girls happy will become the economic imperative of the Twenty First Century. They are the consumer queens of tomorrow and capitalism will organise men, material and technology to pleasure them as long as they have cash to spend. These are girls who are becoming women in a world whose only use for men who don’t sing, dance, and flash their pert buns is lifting the amps on and off stage.
Lucy, Jane, Trish, and Caroline are demure sixteen-year-olds who have travelled from Swindon to see their heroes. They are chaperoned by Samantha, Lucy’s mum. ‘I can’t wait to see them get their kit off – PHWOOAAARRRRRRRRR!’ shouts Lucy into my ear. ‘What I wouldn’t do to them if I could get my hands on them!’ What about the other boy bands? What’s so special about TT? ‘They’re just the best,’ yells Trish. ‘They really know how to make you feel good; they really try. Plus none of the others have got their sex appeal. They can dance, wiggle their bums, and sing – plus they’re VERY SHAGGABLE!’
Who’s your favourite? ‘HOWARD!’ ‘ROBBIE!’ ‘MARK!’ ‘JASON!’ they all scream at once. ‘Mark’s brill ‘cos ‘e’s so short an’ sweet an’ lovely an’ ‘e looks like you could do anything you like to ‘im.’ ‘Howards’ ace ‘cos ‘e’s gorgeous, ‘cos ‘e’s got pecs, an’ ‘cos ‘e’s got a BIG PACKAGE – ‘e’s REALLY, REALLY, WELL-ENDOWED!!’ How do you know? ‘You can’t miss it when ‘e comes on stage!!’ they hoot. ‘It just about pokes yer eye out!,’ adds Lucy’s Mum, helpfully. Pardon me, but didn’t The Sun tell us recently that Mums were shocked by the new saucy TT show? ‘I am shocked,’ admits Samantha. ‘I expected them to get their kit off!!’ And what does your husband think of all this? ‘Oh, he’s quite into it. He does TT numbers in a thong after the pub on a Sunday.’
But the key question has to be, what do TT have that Swindon boys don’t? ‘MONEY!’ shouts one lass. ‘TALENT!’ another. Meanwhile Mum offers: ‘All the good-looking boys round our way are either married or gay.’
At last the boys make their much-anticipated entrance and the crowd ululates, trills and whoops, rising to a maelstrom of sound matched only by a squadron of Concorde’s taking off and exploding. The boys rise up from beneath the stage on a platform, clad in tech-noir army uniform – boots, grey tunics, and silver helmets – singing ‘We’re gonna make you feel so good.’ Toy soldiers played by toy boys. Perfect. A salvo of cuddly toys lands on stage, beginning a bombardment that lasts all night. (I can’t decide whether this is a sign of the girls’ initiation into womanhood, a putting away of childish things – or merely an exchange of one fluffy comforter for another.)
Like the troopers they are, the munchkins from Manchester skip, jump, and shuffle their way through their back-catalogue. The air is heavy with sweat, oestrogen, and Lily of the Valley. Girls are ignoring official exhortations not to stand on their seats, bopping their backsides off with a determination and energy that makes you wonder how much TT have to do with it. Yes, the boys are nice little movers, they do have some very catchy numbers, and they promise to ‘make you feel so good,’ but it looks like these girls are the sort who can take care of their own orgasm, thank you very much.
Halfway through the show the boys leave the stage for a costume change. A giant metal walkway covered in flashing lights descends. The boys re-enter in powder blue Sgt Pepper suits. The salute to the Beatles shows the boys’ determination never to disappoint their audience and grow up. They wont make the mistakes the Beatles made – they won’t desert pop for rock; they wont take drugs; they won’t get political and expect to be taken seriously; they won’t get married (OK, so Gary might run off with Elton John). TT are the Beatles as your Nan would like to remember them – all McCartneys and no Lennons.
Time is the greatest threat to passion and to boyhood. So the next number, ‘Babe,’ underlines TT’s postmodern mastery of it. A projection screen shows black-and-white film of VE Day celebrations and returning troops. Little Markie steps out of the screen (through an ingenious slit) wearing an RAF greatcoat with a kit bag slung over his shoulder, singing ‘Babe, I’m back again.’ Doesn’t it just make you want to hug him really, really hard till his little ribs crack and puncture his lungs? The message is clear: TT were always here, are always here, will always be here to ‘make you feel so good’.
Sentimentality dealt with, the boys turn their attentions to ‘sex’ in the second half of the show, changing in to black net shirts and hot pants – well, everyone except Gary, who’s still wearing trousers. What’s the matter with his legs? Are they just fat or do they betray signs of – God forbid! – secondary sexual characteristics?, i.e. hair? Can’t he shave them like Howard? Alas, Gary’s shyness about showing a bit of legs spoils the effect of the black net shirts. Less ‘sexy,’ more a carefully contrived compromise that allows you to glimpse Gary’s flesh but breaks up the lines enough to prevent you deciding whether he really is a pudding or not.
That the lyric they’re singing is ‘Give good feeling to me’ is not without significance. Now that ‘sex’ has replaced romance, the boys sing a passive version of their initial promise to ‘make you feel so good’. The girls do their best to satisfy the boys. They gasp like a cracked steam piston as TT offer themselves. They roar like Niagara in flood when TT thrown themselves down on the stage. They thunder their feet like stampeding buffalo as the boys slowly crawl to its edge and wail like a missile attack when TT stand up and thrust their hips at the crowd. When Howard takes of his shirt the screaming melts my earplugs.
As an encore, the boys perform ‘Pray’ in white smocks, looking very angelic with their hands pressed together and heads bowed. But after the song finishes they are dragged into ‘Hell’ by little devils. Then out of the pit comes Lulu in red, followed by the boys who have now been Satanised, wearing red horns – and, everyone except Gary, very little else – for ‘Relight My Fire.’ Howard is ‘wearing’ a black leather jockstrap and a pair of red chaps with his bum poking out the back, which he generously sticks out at the audience and slaps repeatedly. Gary, meanwhile, is clad in a blazer and flannels. Thus TT negotiate all the key dilemmas of girl teendom: virtue and sin, love and sex, rough trade or rich fat boys in blazers.
The grins on the faces of the TT boys are convincing and suggest that they might be enjoying themselves even more than the fans. ‘Ree-light my fi-yer/Your love is my only dee-zeyr/I need your lurve/I need your lurve!’ They croon sincerely to Lulu, cavorting around her like kinky acrobats. It’s only fitting that the nearest thing to heterosexuality that these future mothers of our nation have witnessed all evening is pretty boys in bondage gear singing a gay disco classic to a middle aged camp icon.
So what do the Swindon mob make of the rumours that TT are gay? ‘That’s just bollocks,’ they all agree. ‘People are just jealous of their success and want to bring them down,’ says Caroline.
And, hypothetically speaking of course, if they were gay, would it stop you chasing them?
‘No’,’ she replies, unphased, and looking at me levelly. ‘I’m into gay men.’