So I read the original article with Eleanor Tomlinson last week and thought there were definite parallels to Arrow, Outlander and a bunch of other shows being marketed to women lately, and I just wanted to air some thoughts. Brace yourself for some long top-of-my-head musings I copied over from a private discussion.
Specifically as regards to marketing (so, not who is watching, but how shows are advertised and language used in interviews):
Speaking of Outlander, I think the issue began early on when Starz made the decision to market the show as a romantic period bodice-ripper. At the beginning there was a short period where the “Time Traveling Female Badass” was being stressed, and for whatever reason, that didn’t get response maybe and so we went full “Watch Us We Have Hot People Doing It.” Then the kilt questions, endless reblogging of Sam’s butt and his naked self in the river, interviewers and ads stressing the sexy aspect… None of this is inherently wrong, I want to stress that I don’t think sex is bad or shameful. But I do think that consumers (or viewers, in this case) are buying what you write on the label. IMHO the marketing campaign managed what decades of the Dewey Decimal System couldn’t, which is pigeonholing the story into sexy people sexcapading.
I admire Eleanor’s statements when she points out the show is more than its hot lead, or his chest, or questions about it. I think it’s great that people want to watch a show because it’s sexy, but I don’t
think that’s the main or ONLY reason to watch. I think for Outlander, the story this season was groundbreaking and really well-acted– the whole Culloden arc is tragic– and some people are still complaining there wasn’t enough (physical) intimacy.
Is that a failing, or an unmet expectation? For Arrow, Stephen Amell used to be shown shirtless ALL the time, and I occasionally still run across a disappointed fan asking why this doesn’t happen as much anymore. I feel your pain, ladies (and gents), I’m a hetero woman with eyes…but I’m more interested in why we feel it should.
I don’t think it has to extend into objectification. That would require institutional prejudices that simply don’t exist for men as opposed to women (historically speaking). But I do think there is a place to consider a work of art independent of how hot the actors are, because 1. most actors are hot 2. an actor’s job is to disappear into the role. So by some standard if the actor’s attractiveness supersedes the performance, that’s an issue. At the other end of this is a self-fulfilling prophecy: a less attractive character actor is somehow thought to be “better” and garners more buzz or awards than someone who is attractive and isn’t
thought to work as hard. This was one of the points in the Method article I linked last week.
This also touches a bit on the trap a lot of creators are falling into when they make and market these shows: if you create an expectation, people will demand you feed the beast. If you say you do sexy in a feminist way, feminists are still going to want that sexy. Put a shirtless guy on an ad, and people will tune in to see shirtless men. I’m oversimplifying, of course, but that is one of the reasons it’s so important to understand what is being sold, and the contract of sorts you are making with your audience. I think in a way this might be a learning curve for shows as they navigate the new wave of viewers who demand both visual gratification and social awareness from their shows.
The Poldark actresses seem to be making a concerted effort to back away from oversexualizing their show and fellow actors not as a way to shame their fandom, but as a way to take back creative ownership of their performances. While I still maintain that objectification isn’t a standard for male actors as it has been for female actors, the balance of power towards empowerment should be something both sexes (and the audience) strive for. If you’re unfamiliar with the objectification vs. empowerment distinction, here is a very helpful cartoon from Everyday Feminism that really enlightened me. Basically what it comes down to is, who has the power?
So when I apply this to actors on a series, it’s a bit fuzzy. Initially the power is not in the actor’s hands, as they have to submit to a producer/director/script. I suppose they have the power to quit and break contract but usually 1. they are convinced it is part of their job as the person who brings that character to life, 2. they are doing it for the good of the story, and 3. It is a moment in time and not their whole portrayal. The problem arises that now that we have the power to capture and reproduce that moment ad infinitum, the power is taken from the individual. The moment can be isolated from the narrative and the individual presented only as a sexual object, independent of his own intentions and that of the story. That’s troublesome.
But as I said earlier, sex is great, we all like it, and it sells. So how to reconcile this new sensitivity in an enlightened social age with people who just plain like seeing butts and abs? Maybe the point now is that this is happening more and more to cis males, we can come up with a set of standards across genders that can be adhered to and become a new social norm. A new concept that takes into account the joy we find in bodies while limiting the power we give them as marketing objects. We can hope, at least.