OK, here's something completely disturbing.
The CW's Next Top Model, a reality show, hosted by Tyra Banks, where contestants vie to become a supermodel, just had a mini-challenge where all the contending models were photographed dead. Follow the link above for all the pics and for the comments by the judges.
Here are just a few:
Nigel: The look on your face is just extraordinary. Very beautiful and dead. (later) I think Sarah is the classic example of someone who isn't typically pretty, but translates amazingly well on film.
Nigel: It's a great shot. Death becomes you, young lady.
Tyra: (re: Brittany's decision to pose outside of the tub) This was amazing. So, if you didn't speak up, you would have had a beautiful shot, but you spoke up, and now it's probably one of the best of the bunch.
Miss J: What's great about this is that you can also look beautiful in death. Jennifer Pozner
puts it better than I could:
For decades, media critics such as pioneering advertising theorist Jean Kilbourne have argued that ad imagery equating gruesome violence against women with beauty and glamour works to dehumanize women, making such acts in real life not only more palatable and less shocking, but even aspirational. ANTM's pretty-as-a-picture crime-scene challenge epitomized the worst of an insidious industry trend that, ahem, just won't die. [....] ANTM is less a "guilty pleasure," as TV Guide and infotainment shows have called it, than it is a cynical CW cashcow guilty of making product placers, and Tyra Banks, rich at the expense of not only the self-esteem of the few hungry (in every sense) young strivers appearing in the modeling competition, but of the millions of girls and women, boys and men, who watch the show uncritically, learning that unhealthily underweight, Brazilian-waxed waifs can only achieve the ultimate in beauty when they appear to be erotically, provocatively maimed and murdered (as they were this week), self-abusive (as when models were made to pose as bulimics mid-purge last season), corpses (as they were during a prior season when the challenge involved posing in caskets lowered into open graves in a cemetery).
Now, I'm far from the first person to find this whole thing disturbing. And I won't be the last to say that this sort of thing would not be done with male models. But let's make an important observation here: This sort of thing actually doesn't
happen to men in a comparable parallel situation.
Fetishizing violence against women isn't new to mainstream media. Here we have a broadcast network showing and glorifying images of women bruised, deathly pale, and bleeding. Now we can say that most of society doesn't sexualize images of men as it does women for many reasons. But all those reasons are related, in some way, to heterosexuality. Whether "Men are more visual" or "Men objectify women" or "Men just like looking at a beautiful woman more than women like looking at beautiful men", all of these explanations for the general absence of eroticization of men in mainstream media assume heterosexuality. So, by that logic, we should see fetishization of violence against men in mainstream gay media.
I say this because gay men and straight men have a lot more in common than a lot of people are willing to admit. We hit puberty at the same age, we have the same sex organs, we have the same sex hormones (Lord knows there have been enough studies on that one), and we're brought up in the same culture. So, there's no reason to believe that we are biologically programmed to find different things sexually attractive outside of sex.
But things are so different with regards to the images of men that mainstream gay media sexualize and the images of women that mainstream heterosexual media sexualize. Gay male magazines are filled with pictures of shirtless men - shirtless, healthy men having fun. (OK, sometimes they're "pensive", but never bone-skinny or dead.) Gay TV shows (made for gay male audiences) like Queer as Folk show men who work out and take care of themselves - not men who starve themselves or abuse themselves (except in a few sappy episodes, but they aren't sexualized).
Take, for examples, the cover of this month's Tetu and the cover of this month's Vanity Fair:
Notice how the Tetu cover shows the man's face and how the woman in the Vanity Fair cover is being grabbed so violently?
And the covers of DNA and the aptly named Stuff, both from this month:
Is it just me, or are there ribs showing in the Stuff cover?
I think there's more to this than to say that what gay and straight men sexualize is based in large part on gender stereotypes that each group learns from society in general. This can be regarded as a place of comparison between the status of men and women in our society, a starting point for criticism because it shows that men don't innately associate violence with sex or bone skinniness with beauty and that there is a way to portray beauty without demeaning the subject of that beauty.
Would the female modeling industry and our society's attitudes about women be different if the fashion industry portrayed women as healthy, autonomous, and strong?
(h/t to Feministing)