Friday, November 13, 2015

Are Beefcake Covers Sexist?

Over on the IndieRomanceInk Listserv this past week, one poster wrote of a male friend who accused the romance genre of sexism for objectifying men. In particular, this friend had a problem with the recent trend in romance novel covers, covers that feature headless male torsos, typically wearing little to no clothing. Such images, this friend felt, reduce the male body to a sexual object, and thus are sexist.

The original poster felt ambivalent over her friend's claim, and asked her fellow writers for their thoughts in response. A fascinating discussion has resulted, with some authors arguing in support of the male friend's position, others taking issue with it. And still others complicating the question in various intriguing, often feminist, ways.

So I thought I'd ask you, readers, what you think of the beefcake cover? Is is a celebration of the male body? Or an objectification of it? And if it is an objectification, is that a problem? Why or why not?










35 comments:

  1. I don't think there is any question that it is an objectification. Their naked or nearly naked presence on the covers serves to make them an object which is used specifically to attract men or women attracted to that form and to increase sales. And unless there is some aspect of the book, say the man is a nudist or a shifter who spends most of the book naked, it doesn't make any non-objectifying sense to depict the males in this manner.

    Whether or not it is a problem, is I think an entirely different question, and it is a double standard I find quite troubling from an academic perspective, and from a personal perspective I find it strange within myself that I don't have a significant emotional reaction to it. I don't know if that makes sense.

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    1. Erin: I agree that it's an objectification. Where I get held up is at the "is this a problem" issue. I myself don't find such covers appealing--but is that because there is something degrading to men about them? Or because as a woman, I've been trained not to ogle the guys (because that's what men are supposed to do, ogle the women)?

      Lots of other romance writers put up pictures of sexy, often half-dressed men on their blogs or twitter feeds etc. and obviously enjoy appreciating them and talking to their fans about them. Is looking at beefcake pictures the same as reading about beefcake guys within the books?

      Do you mean, Erin, that you don't have an emotional reaction when you look at the cover? Neither "ick" or "yum"?

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    2. Well that too. I'm neither atracted nor repulsed by beefcake covers (not like I am by the Warwick rowers, really is there anything better than prior wavering sound joyfully nude?).

      But I mean more that academically (ie in my head, not that I'm going to research it) I recognize that it's objectification and I'm troubled by it in theory, and I think I should feel something one way or the other. Either PC-wise that objectification is wrong, or from the other side, an empowered what's good for the goose attitude as some of my friends have had.

      I have neither. I find that I honestly don't care one way or the other. There's no visceral reaction like some things that are objectifying women. It's puzzling for me, you know to feel that I should have an emotional response and to not have one.

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    3. Ack, stupid phone, I meant "is there anything better than people wandering around joyfully nude?"

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    4. I dunno, Erin. "Prior wavering sound joyfully nude" is an interesting concept, LOL.

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  2. These covers and other related aspects of the genre (like having half-naked male models paid to pose in photos with people attending romance conferences and facebook parties where participants post photo after photo of half-naked/naked person) make me uncomfortable. But, if you ask me why, I don't have good answers. It just bothers me. I think the double standard that Erin speaks of above is part of it. It could be too that my own lines of what can be public versus what should be private are more "modest" than other people's. In some ways it feels like objectification to me, except the power imbalance present with the objectification of women isn't here, and the results of this objectification are different for men than they are for women, so it's a messy topic.

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    1. Yes, a very messy topic, which is why I find it so interesting to think about! Objectification of men certainly can have negative repercussions for some men. But I have male friends who say "oh, yeah, objectify me any time!," men who enjoy being the object of a woman's sexual gaze. Perhaps because they aren't constantly being regarded as ONLY a sexual object, as women are so often...

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  3. I'm not particularly (or at all) bothered by the objectification aspect, more that so many of these covers are just so tacky. It's plainly embarassing.

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    1. What does "tacky" indicate to you, anonymous? Overtly sexual? What about them in particular embarrasses you?

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    2. Hmm, mainly the way the covers are arranged and the models posed in a way that invites (or forces) to reader to ogle them. "Look,how hot I (or my visible parts in some cases) am!"

      I have no problem with nudity otherwise where it fits the context.

      These are romance novels, and so I would expect the cover to be... wait for it... romantic.

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  4. I find the headless ones a little uncomfortable, for the same reason I find depictions of nearly-nude headless women uncomfortable - the reduction of a human to a set of attractive parts feels weird to me. I'm less uncomfortable with beefcake that has a head. But for myself, it's not a selling point at all. I'd be happier with a clothed set of people.

    I do recognize that there are some potential, theoretical issues with the objectification of men, but, if I am very honest, I get a little bit "Get over yourself" if people reeeeeeeeally want to argue that this is actually harming real men in any way. I find that to cause some internal eye-rolling. In a patriarchy, you're going to have work a lot harder than this to convince me that the people in the one-down position have any real power to harm the people in the one-up position through this type of objectification, particularly when the objectification is speaking almost exclusively to other people in the one-down position, it's not as though these are images that are force fed to teenage boys 24/7 as they form their self-image. Generally, I'm not really sure that I can believe that the female gaze exists at this point, and if it does, it's so much of a thing setting itself up intentionally in opposition to the norm - look, the female gaze, we are looking at this man's torso! - that it still exists in a sort of statement-art place, not as a thing that individual men are going to be internalizing and carrying through life.

    But like anonymous above, I mostly find this sort of cover tacky and embarrassing, I would probably not buy one of these books in hard copy. (I read romance novels hoping to find the elusive "it's literary romance about emotional connections but with a guaranteed happy ending!"), not because I am interested in depictions of hairless male torsos.)

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    1. Anonymous, I agree that the male objectification isn't an institutional form of sexism, one that can have major negative implications on men as a gender. I can see how they could be harmful to individual men, though, as could the depictions of perfect male bodies that appear INSIDE the books themselves, even those without beefcake covers.

      A male friend of mine once complained that he could never live up to the perfection of the guys in romance novels, and that made him feel lesser. Yes, a lesser evil than widespread institutional sexism against/objectification of women, but still a complaint worth considering.

      I ask the same question I asked anonymous above: what does the word "tacky" mean? What is embarrassing to you about the naked or part naked body on the cover of a book you're reading?

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    2. Hmmm, how to phrase this?

      When I do stop to think about it, what I think I find troubling about the double standard, is that just because in some way we can quantify a social issue as less harmful or damaging than other things, doesn't make them any less wrong. I'm sincerely not trying to "What about the menz?!?!" But the analogy that keeps coming to mind is the people in the US who claim that feminists in this country should just stop and get over it because we have it so much better than women in middle eastern countries. This is such an imperfect example, but why shouldn't we as humans, as a society, try to better every thing we can, even if the thing we're improving on isn't the what situation we could be addressing?

      Maybe, my issue might be that it seems like giving up and saying well if we can't stop men from objectifying women we should bring it down to the lowest common denominator and objectify everyone.

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    3. I'm the anon above, with a belated response to your follow-up question about "what does tacky mean here".

      I've thought about it more, and I'm literally not sure. I think there is a set of factors related to socialization via a patriarchy that I can't unpack very far, because they are so deep in my brain. Do I not like to look at pictures of shirtless men because I naturally, myself, find that it is just not my preferred form of visual erotically-tinged material? Is it that I have been socialized to believe that women do not appreciate male beauty in the way that men appreciate (or "appreciate" - words are hard) female beauty? Do I think it is lustful and therefore wrong and unfeminine to ogle men? I'm literally not sure. I have feminist ideas about how absolutely women should feel free to appreciate naked men if that's what they're into, but for myself, I can sense an internal mental block to female gaze. I just can't do it. I can't look lustfully at a physical man in a way that is acknowledged by others (I think it feels that since the book cover is made to be looked at, there is an implicit sense of an audience to your gaze).

      I don't know if I feel that anyone should feel that they ought to "live up to" people in romance novels. Romance novels are fantasy versions of real dynamics. It feels to me kind of similar to when someone says - well, pornography harms women because women then enter into competition with these women who are not "real", I have always found that dubious. I know that is potentially thorny in a feminist space - some people have very strong pornography feelings, and that's fine, I'm not about convincing people. But it does feel increasingly to me that what I want is for EVERYONE to move toward personal liberation - for a man to say "I don't feel that I need to "live up to" anything, I am my own free person", for a woman to say the same, for us to stop having weird ideas that we could or ought to feel somehow in competition with fantasy images. And that to me is prime feminism, as feminism is the primary movement that challenges patriarchal attitudes. I am less interested in a vision of feminism where we have increasing numbers of rules so that all public expression is acceptable, and more interested in a vision that champions individual freedom and liberated individuality. ie people can have beefcake book covers and enjoy them and other people can not feel involved in that or called to also have that sort of body.

      I am also given pause any time I hear anyone say anything that sounds to me like the policing of the already very narrow realms of allowable female fantasy. I don't think I can get on board with claims that men in romance novels should be more like "real men" (itself a questionable idea) so that real men don't feel threatened by those fantasy depictions - this seems to me an issue that has come up over and over and over wrt female reading, there is always a contingent of people eager to police what women are allowed to read and enjoy in a way that is simply not true when it comes to male reading.

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  5. A post over at Heroes and Heartbreakers reports that the original "clinch" covers were created to attract the attention of the male truck drivers who delivered the books to mass market outlets, and who were the ones who chose which ones to get the best spinner rack spots! I'd never heard that one before! http://www.heroesandheartbreakers.com/blogs/2015/11/stepping-back-in-defense-of-the-romance-novel-cover?image&utm_source=heroesandheartbreakersnewsletter&utm_medium=newsletter&utm_term=hhgeneralaudience&utm_content=-na_read_blogpost&utm_campaign=111115

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  6. All too many romance covers range from cheesy to cringe-inducing, which is one of the reasons my discovery and enjoyment of the genre dates from the advent of the Kindle and Nook apps. Among other surprises, it was a relief to discover the quality of the content is often in inverse proportion to the quality of the cover. Not much happier with the lady in a voluminous ballgown covers or the generic couple with dog covers.
    On the topic of objectification, of course a naked torso is just that, but another factor might be financial rather than philosophical. There is a significantly lower cost to use an image of a model who is not identifiable.

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    1. So glad that the rise of the ebook brought you to give romance reading a try. Some romance authors seem to like the "cheesy" covers, but I tend to hear more complain about them than not. Do you find the covers of ebooks less offensive?

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    2. It is not that I find the ebook covers less offensive, I simply don't have to see them. I think romance covers belittle the genre. I wouldn't touch them for ages because I thought they were dumb, which some are, mostly based on their covers.

      I always assumed the covers say something about the book/author/target reader. As has been previously mentioned, the ones with stronger female covers tend to feature women on the cover.

      As a side note, what is with readers over a Goodreads searching the internet for images that match their vision of the main characters and posting in their gush (oops review). Remaking the cover?

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    3. I agree, it's nice to not have to deal with cover atrocities. Regarding covers though and preventing one from getting in on romance earlier, I was fortunste that my library stocked plenty of romance with nice ambiguous covers, like the old white and gold Julie Garwoods or the non peopled Amanda Quicks. I miss those covers and they're books I still hold in my physical library.

      I also never got the Goodreads makeovers, until I came upon Ilona Andrews, whose covers were just stunningly bad compared to content. Now I think I get it.

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  7. I agree with those that say it's definitely objectification - pretty much a textbook case, really.

    But I also agree with those who aren't sure if it's a problem.

    In m/m romance, there's a perennial discussion about whether m/m, more-or-less as a whole, is objectifying and damaging to gay men, and I take that argument much more to heart than an argument about objectifying and damaging the (presumably) straight men represented on m/f romances. I think it does, for me, come to "punching up" vs "punching down". Or, maybe for gay men and women, "punching across"?

    Obviously it would be nice if we weren't punching at all. But maybe, barring gender inequalities, there doesn't have to be a punch associated with objectification? I mean, objectifying a living, breathing, 3-dimensional person would always be a problem, I think. But objectification based on a 2-dimensional image taken of a person who has willingly posed for the photo and been paid for his or her time? I think that's only a problem if there's a larger issue of gender inequality at play.

    I think.

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    1. Yes, I've been wondering about where the line falls between objectification and celebration. Or, to put it another way, when can objectification be celebration, too?

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  8. I do not have a problem with it. Beefcake (or cheesecake) celebrates sexuality. As a person who tries to be sex-positive and avoid slut-shaming, I do not see anything harmful about a beautifully-lit photo of a scantily-clad model (of either sex) in a pose that does not make him or her appear to be the victim of violence or coercion.

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  9. I don't think it's necessarily sexist, but I personally find it icky. My personal tastes are admittedly apparently rather strange, as even though I'm primarily attracted to men, I'm really not into the muscled look, and would much rather look at the attractive woman he might be with. Then again, I'm much less likely to buy a book if a man's on the cover than if a woman (or two) is there instead. But, apparently the market doesn't agree.
    I would agree that it is objectification, but that's different for guys anyway, which gets into a bunch more issues, and while I do theoretically support more objectification of men and fewer for women to even the playing field, that doesn't necessarily mean I want to see the former personally.

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  10. Is it (sexual) objectification? Sure. Sexist? Not so much. Sexism = prejudice + power, and even in a genre mostly dominated by women, we don't have that kind of social power.

    Is the objectification a problem? Maybe. I personally don't much care one way or the other, but I would argue that some objectification ISN'T wrong. Where it becomes a (sexist) problem for female sexual objectification is that it's EVERYWHERE.

    I feel bad for the guy if he's made uncomfortable by it, I genuinely do. But it's not sexist.

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  13. Sorry! It seems to have posted three times for some reason.

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  14. GREAT topic. My first book cover has a nekkid male chest, and, as a male friend put it, "it's quite nipple-tastic." And he has no head. I have to say that, rather than being put off by the cover, my hunky chunky husband and his friends all like to joke about which one of them posed for it.
    I guess there are as many opinions about this as there are book covers, and I have some thoughts, too.
    I like the sexy bits as a celebration concept...
    ...and many of us write about big, strong men...and a big strong set of man boobs over a six-pack is shorthand for a story about a big, strong man. I think that in our society, those images have become shorthand. We see "hoodie guy" on a cover and know we're probably getting a story about a guy who keeps difficult things hidden inside him. We see a guy with jeans that barely cover that groin grove, and know we're getting...well, more than the groin groove. Same as when we see a firm, curvy female abdomen that we're getting...run of the mill American beer. Soooo...it's not a perfect system, and there ARE people who are harmed, depending on the medium and the product and the depiction...
    But this is romance. A fantasy with a happily ever after. And hopefully few of us expect that the person that we're going to wind up with looks like that.
    As for the headless aspect? I get that a lot of people see this as about objectifying a man's body, but I like to imagine my own version of a cute guy as the hero.

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    1. Sigh. Groin groove, not grove. Although there's definitely that, too...

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  15. http://magazine.foxnews.com/love/muscular-guys-make-worst-boyfriends-says-new-study

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  16. Great discussion! I feel uncomfortable with the covers. I know I will never use one, unless someone tells me it will boost sales and presents statistics to prove their point. To me it reduces romance to sex. I like sex, but unfortunately I am looking for much more in a romance novel. I want to know the HEA is about more than great sex. On the other hand, Cara McKenna uses this type of cover and I loved both 'Afterhours' and 'Unbound.'

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  18. Interesting discussion indeed. I thought I was the only one who didn't enjoy those covers. I think they objectify men, and I don't like objectification of any kind. Not that it's the end of the world, as women are entitled to eye candy and no one is being harmed by those covers. I guess my issue is that it's done over and over and over. I find many of those covers tacky, and the naked male torso is so overused on romance novel covers that it becomes the cliche of the cliche. There is an objectification because those images are there to sell, the same way you have female models showing skin on magazine covers so to attract male readers. I just think there could be more variety and subtlety on romance novel covers. In my opinion, the constant use of those "beefy" images don't favor much the romance genre. I'm not a prude, I'm not against nudity, I just think it's overused.

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  19. How else to signify sexuality, is the question, or do we need to? Is it good or bad that romance is synonymous with sex, a shorthand?

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