“I think it’s appalling that for a long time only women were objectified, but I think if we really want to advocate for equality, it’s important to even things out. Not objectify women less, but objectify men just as often as we objectify women. There are a lot of women who got careers out of it, and I’m using it to my advantage. And at the end of the day, our bodies are objects.”
Whatever co-opting Hollywood has performed of “geek culture” in the last decade—once again elevating superhero movies and sci-fi franchises to billion-dollar blockbusters—it has done so at the expense of the image of the “geek” itself.
While the so-called “beta male” had enjoyed a period of time as the hero of movies and television, it is clear the “jocks”—and their muscled, “perfect” physiques—have once again been held up by the media as the Ideal.
And no place is this more evident than the aforementioned “comic book flick,” filled with countless images of heavily buff men with no apparent body fat—movies like the “Avengers” franchise, Batman v. Superman, and Suicide Squad. Even a theoretically “quirky” hero like Ant-Man needs to “shape up” or “ship out.”
But what impact has this switch in preferred protagonists had on the self-esteem and body-images of the males who consume this entertainment?
I. “HERO OF THE BEACH”
Let’s start with the star of Jurassic World and Guardians of the Galaxy: Chris Pratt.
Pratt is of course part of Marvel’s “Three Chrises”—Pratt, Chris Evans, and Chris Hemsworth. All very “traditional”-looking Male Action Heroes. Like Pratt, Evans had to significantly bulk up for his role as Captain America. Hemsworth, who was one of People’s “Sexiest Men Alive,” literally looks like the Aryan God he plays in the movies.
Pratt, popular for his portrayal of the lovable, slightly “overweight” Andy Dwyer in Parks and Recreation, famously slimmed-down/muscled-up for his role in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. This was a transformation that, in our world of social media, was documented to us via in-process photos and updates from Pratt himself.
A literal “Before” and “After”—the real-life embodiment of the “Hero of the Beach” Charles Atlas cartoon:
II. MALES AND BODY IMAGE
One place you can find many similar inspirational “transformation” pics is the site Reddit. In r/progresspics, you can see tons of “before” and “after” images reminiscent of Pratt’s. And they are indeed inspirational.
But according to a recent study, many men are working out not out of a desire to be healthier, but out of “hidden guilt and shame.”
Dr. David Keatley, who carried out the study, suggested that “the recent growth of ‘selfies’ and the return of muscle-bound Hollywood hero icons like Vin Diesel and Hugh Jackman” might be partially to blame.
Keatley went on to conclude:
“This study is important in showing that whilst they may be more unlikely to admit it, body dissatisfaction and dysmorphia can and do affect males as well as females, and therefore should be investigated fully.”
A 2014 TODAY/AOL Body Image survey found that men worried more about their appearance than their health, with 63% of them agreeing with the statement, “I always feel like I could lose weight,” and 53% not even liking to have their picture taken.
And a research paper from the same year in JAMA Pediatrics found that a number of male adolescents are, along with their female counterparts, struggling with body-image issues—albeit in different ways:
“…rates of eating- and weight-related disorders are probably underestimated among males. One core symptom of anorexia nervosa and BN is that weight and physique have an undue influence on a person’s self-evaluation. Among females, these concerns usually present as a strong desire for thinness, but males may be more focused on muscularity. At present, the diagnostic criteria assume that the same symptoms apply to both sexes. The frequency of use of products such as anabolic steroids to increase muscle size and enhance body size are at least as common among males as purging is among females, suggesting that a willingness to take extreme measures to achieve an ideal physique may be similar between males and females but with a sex difference in the desired physique and the methods used for weight and shape control.”
The cliché, at any rate, is that males are less likely to talk about their feelings and admit vulnerability. If this reticence is true to any significant extent, is that—plus far more public awareness regarding damaging idealized female forms in pop-culture—masking an epidemic of low self-esteem and self-loathing that ends up getting expressed in any number of less productive ways?
III. WHEN GEEKS WERE HEROES
About 10-15 years ago, pop-culture experienced a revolution of sorts in the portrayal of the “geek” male or “beta male.” Once merely the fodder of bullying by the (often) blonde and bronzed jocks of 1980s teen flicks, the “nerd” suddenly found himself being the hero.
No longer would the “computer nerd” or comic book collecting enthusiast or intense gamer be merely dismissed as a lovable weirdo at best, a creepy McCreeperson at worst—he was now dictating what was “hot” in pop-culture. He WAS the protagonist, not his best friend or comedic side-kick.
Movie-makers and corporate marketers bowed down to the wisdom of the Geek-as-Alpha, tailoring their products to cater to that demographic. And the biggest movie franchises seemed to be born from that “nerd fandom”—the Batmen, the Marvels, the Tolkien stuff.
Nothing more encapsulated this Geek-as-Alpha era better than the “Transformers” movies. Shia LaBoeuf, who personified the nerdy awkward “beta male,” had the hottest chicks and was friends with elaborate CGI-representations of beloved 1980s cartoon characters.
Shia was…dare I say it…a bonafide Action Movie Star.
And unlike the cinematic male protagonists of the past, the Geek-as-Alpha didn’t have to conform to a “traditional” body type—”traditional” meaning either the chiseled Male Action Star or the skinny, delicate Emo Star of which Johnny Depp would be the archetypal figure. Geek-as-Alpha could have a paunch. Seth Rogen could be a sex symbol. Kevin Smith was the aesthetic taste-maker of this period in pop-culture.
Which brings us back to Andy Dwyer. Andy, along with the sweetly gawky Jim Halpert from The Office, was definitely shaping up as a “Geek-as-Alpha”—but then came Guardians of the Galaxy. And have you seen John Krasinski lately?
IV. ET TU, HALPERT?
The Krasinski of Michael Bay’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is barely recognizable: bearded, humorless, ripped, and carrying automatic weapons.
And yet Krasinski—who was originally considered for the role of Captain America but was turned down in favor of one of the “Chrises”—is only literally following in the footsteps of fellow NBC sitcom star Chris Pratt. Machoing up, losing the “dorky” factor, and then using a PR campaign to present “his new body.”
Like Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World star Pratt, Krasinski debuted his “improved” physique in that bible of contemporary approved male norms, Men’s Health. In “How Actor John Krasinski Got Incredibly Ripped in Just Four Months,” the actor makes it clear that “the sensitive guy” is a thing of the past:
“When John Krasinski hits your multiplex this January, he’ll be a long way from the most-popular role of his career, as Jim from The Office. He’ll be playing a Navy SEAL in 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. And he will be every bit as jacked as you’ve come to expect an action star to be.”
JACKED! Do you hear: he’s gonna be jacked! No more of that candy-ass metrosexual bullshit. Now he’s JACKED!
V. HOW “JURASSIC WORLD” KICKED SAND IN THE NERD HERO’S FACE
But wait a minute—
Wasn’t the success of these Marvel movies considered a “triumph” for geek culture? That people might have laughed at the Geeks for reading comic books, but now those comic books create billion-dollar franchises and essentially dictate our pop-culture? Isn’t that the line marketers have been using to fellate literal legions of fans who conduct pilgrimages to San Diego Comic Con each year?
And yet in fact, the Geeks did not inherit the Earth. Instead, we see the blond jock-types who might have been cast as the villain in Karate Kid become the latest generation of Heroes.
This concept plays out in Pratt’s Jurassic World in the most baldest of terms possible, with the character of Lowery Cruthers the JW technician. Even the name, “Low-ery,” gives you some idea of what the writers of the movie think of him.
Perhaps several years ago Lowery, played by Jake Johnson, would have been that Beta Male Hero of a Michael Bey film. He has the look down: nerdy glasses, geek T-shirt, collectibles on his desk.
And yet he is NOT the hero. And he is so much not the hero that the film makes a big point to show him get rejected by his female counterpart—the dreaded “friendzone” gambit played out in the big screen.
Lowery: Someone has to stay behind.
[leans in to kiss]
Vivian: Uh, I have a boyfriend.
No, Pratt’s Owen Grady is clearly the hero of Jurassic World. Pratt, who got rid of his “Dad Bod” for a “Hard Bod.” The media can say all it wants that the “Dad Bod” is really “hip”—but clearly, in terms of the significant pop-cultural markers, that ship has sailed. All we need to do is look at the movies dominating the box-office.
At the end of the movie, Lowery—the self-admitted “fanboy”—is literally left behind. He even performs a selfless deed—but nobody gives a shit, because they’re too busy salivating over Owen’s pecs. He leaves the control room at JW completely rejected; stopping only to take the brontosaurus toy from his desk as a souvenir. And that choice is significant, in that compared to the T-Rex, the brontos are far more “beta” dinosaurs.
VI. FEAR AND SELF-LOATHING IN COMIC-CON
In the same way, male “geeks” have been left behind by the mainstream pop-cultural machine. A subset of this demographic have even “pushed back” at what they have interpreted as “feminists” overtaking their beloved fandom.
But what these “meninists” have failed to take into account is that, according to the Hollywood machine in which they invest so many of their dollars, it is the Owen Gradys who are going to inherit the Earth—not the Andy Dwyers or the Lowery Crutherses. The female fans didn’t do that. The movie makers did.
What we have done is gone back to the very goddamn place we’ve started from. The “geek revolution” of 10+ years ago tried to convince “betas” that they would be accepted just they way they were—and have the most “perfect”-looking women in the process. That’s the central mythology of the “Transformers” movies, not fucking Optimus Prime. But that was just a load of “talk.” Sam Witwickys don’t dominate the movies…the three “Chrises” do.
The idealized female form is still in full-force in comic books, video games, movies, etc.—but so is the idealized male form! And there was one brief moment in which the latter seemed to collapse in favor for something more realistic…and that moment was largely an illusion cynically constructed to play into a pre-fabricated mythology and get as much $ as possible from fanboys. Sorry! I was there. I saw the pelts being traded. This is what fucking happened.
Last year, Reddit had come to public attention for a subreddit they formerly hosted called “Fat People Hate.” And while this subreddit seemed to be largely targeted towards women perceived as overweight, I think there was a bigger issue going on there.
Why were “fat people” obsessed over in the Reddit culture? It was, I believe, largely an internalized self-loathing. And this self-loathing has been created, in part, by our own culture. It’s a culture where females have more and more outlets to find support for their body image issues; to assert that ALL body-types are beautiful. And when males try to do this for themselves, they are often largely publicly ridiculed as “neckbeards” and lonely fat guys sitting behind their computers.
And so all that rage and hurt and insecurity gets turned towards the plus-size women who are now the “stand-ins” for this self-loathing; and this rage can continue long after a real-life Andy Dwyer becomes an Owen Grady.
VII. TRENDING THE FUTURE: THE BULLIES WIN?
And so if I had to predict what we all go from here:
1. Franchise movies are going to get even MORE “traditional,” as they were in the 1980s. Rugged, muscular male heroes and “independent” women who secretly want a “real man.”
2. More of an overall obsession among some males with “transforming” one’s body to a more muscular ideal—and broadcasting this publicly through social media, Reddit, etc.
3. More “fat people hate,” as well as an increasing hate of “betas” by former betas who have gone the Chris Pratt route. In fact, that really would be the biggest trend—the bullying of beta males by alphas, not that much different from the Charles Atlas ad or the way things were before the “geek revolution.” This bullying will be done “for their own good,” of course—to “toughen them up” and encourage them to become “healthy and fit”—because nothing encourages people to become healthier in a healthy way than to bully them.
The bottom line is, of course…you should never base your fitness goals on what you see in the movies, magazine covers, etc. And a motivation of self-loathing is NEVER a consistent long-term strategy for losing weight. This goes for both men and women—unrealistic expectations of body type based on those seen in entertainment hurts both genders. And yet it is undeniable that many people enjoy those idealized forms in their entertainment—that’s not something that is going away any time soon.
But I just can’t help but feel that something was “sold” to geek culture, and then taken away from them. Because consider this:
If you applied the current aesthetic as exemplified by Chris Pratt/Evans/Hemsworth trifecta to the 1984 movie Revenge of the Nerds…
…Ted McGinley’s character would be the hero.