The Gross Factor of Sex and The Typical Male Body in the Media


By Tami Winfrey Harris

Scene in question begins at 4:56.


Women are disproportionately judged by narrow beauty standards. Witness how in Sunday night’s pre-Grammy profile of Adele, 60 Minutes felt obliged to mention that the singer doesn’t have “runway model looks.” The show made clear its belief that fat women cannot also be beautiful and that beauty is as much an element of female celebrity as talent. As I tweeted during the segment, no one would think to mention that Bon Iver or Chris Martin or Jack White or Kanye West do not fit the fairly narrow and rare physical qualifications of a runway model. Many of us are used to pushing back against the constant unfair evaluation of women’s looks. Sometimes, though, we can connect the idea of judging physical appearance so closely to sexism and bias against women, we forget that it is destructive full stop–no matter the gender of the target.

I was disheartened, reading recaps of last night’s Downton Abbey on Slate and Vulture, that two writers chose to criticize the body of actor Brendan Coyle who portrays the ever-noble Mr. Bates. This episode, the star-crossed lovers, Anna Smith and John Bates, finally wed. They are shown speaking lovingly to one another in the afterglow of consummation. Both characters appear to be naked, but are covered by bed sheets. They speak intimately, and as they kiss, Bates strokes Anna’s hair in a way that demonstrates the depth of his affection. Coyle is a handsome, 48-year-old man, with, I dare say, a typical middle-aged man’s body–a body closer to those of the men who may have been watching PBS on a Sunday night than the toned and chiseled abs sported by a Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise.

But June Thomas at Slate wrote:

And then there was Anna and Bates’ nuptial nuzzling. Is it just me, or was Mr. and Mrs. Bates’ bedroom scene kind of gross? I suspect that Brendan Coyle, who plays Bates, annoyed the cameraman, because the way he was shot did him no favors.

Amanda Dobbins at Vulture wrote:

The week’s Least Appealing Romantic Encounter award does in fact go to Anna and Bates, who finally managed to tie the knot and shack up in one of the Downton guest rooms for a night. Out of all the many couples to show naked (or at least, shirtless, which is enough), in bed, together, Julian Fellowes chose these two. Sorry! You can’t unsee it! That awkward cuddling and hair-touching is a part of you now.

As Thomas hints, this, I think, is about Coyle and not the conventionally pretty Joanne Froggatt, who portrays Anna. What is gross about a man with an average body in a love scene? What about the scene “did [Coyle] no favors?” I think it is just that we aren’t used to seeing average, real bodies on screen. Everyone is super-toned from Pilates and personal trainers, spray-tanned, smooth and fitting the Western Eurocentric idea of perfect. But real, healthy human bodies are not hyper-muscular or perpetually tanned or porn-star smooth. That is true of women’s bodies and it is true of men’s bodies, too.

On Saturday, I went to see a stage play of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. There is a scene in the production, where several of the men appear shirtless in boxing trunks. I was struck by how average the men appeared–some large, some small, a little muscle here, a little softness there. I noticed, because I don’t usually see actors who look this way. And I admit that I noticed Coyle’s body, too. I didn’t find it gross, but just…normal. And that is refreshing.

That some watchers found Anna and Bates’ love scene unappealing is a sad reflection of our culture and the ridiculous physical perfection we demand of actors and actresses, and in turn, regular folks. I think it is also worth noting that two women writers at progressive media outlets would likely never have sneered at a love scene starring an average-bodied, middle-aged actress. I think they would have applauded her bravery and affirmed her beauty. Irrational, Hollywood-generated beauty standards are damaging and wrong. But they aren’t just wrong for women, who admittedly bear the brunt of them; they are wrong for everyone. It is disappointing when smart people don’t remember that.