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

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By Tami Winfrey Harris

Scene in question begins at 4:56.

***2/12 DOWNTON ABBEY SPOILERS AHEAD…

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.

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Comments

  1. I have been a devoted fan of Downton Abbey from the start, and I think Brendan Coyle is FINE. He’s a man’s man for sure and totally my “type”. I am not attracted to the David Beckham abs or the skinny jeans-wearing metro boys. I want some broad shoulders and a chest I can park my head on while sleeping!

    I was totally amazed at the uproar after this episode aired. When I was watching I was in tears at the loveliness of it all. Anna and Bates were finally together and truly happy, and after all the build-up it was incredibly satisfying. I would much rather watch that sex scene than anything between Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

  2. Tammi, check out youtube and the fan videos about Anna and Mr. Bates. Read the comments. Alot of women think that Brendan Coyle is hot and aren’t ashamed to say so.

  3. I am so taken aback by the article. I think Brendan Coyle is very handsome and I was not repulsed by his body. I just wished they had let us see more of his chest hair. I always have been attracted to men who share his characteristics. I don’t know what to say about the “eurocentric idea of perfect”. I’m African American and I like my men a little chunky. I don’t have a perfect body( I’m all boobs and booty) and I don’t expect a man to be perfect either. Plus as a African American of Irish ancestry, the appeal of Mr. Coyle for me is that he looks like some of the pictures of my ancestors and looks like my Irish and Irish American cousins. They are extremely large broad shouldered men with dark hair and eyes.

  4. “Unfortunately it’s easy to be guilty of slipping into the mindset of looking for or trying to mirror that “eurocentric idea of perfect” that you wrote about. It’s unnerving and impractical. I suppose it stems partly from personal insecurities. Not everyone can be an international supermodel, but everyone wants to max out their own potential for attractiveness. Should we be celebrating the ‘normal’ look? Should impractical depictions of beauty be criticized?” Hmmmm .. does ‘objectification’ ring a bell? And what would Rubens think of our youth/skinny/photo-shopped culture? I am happy to read articles like this one. Enough shallowness, we’ve had enough. Perhaps the reasons for so much insecurity in physical appearance are statements like this one. Damned Greeks, I say. Oh, maybe we should bring back the Chinese ideal of physical beauty by breaking our daughters feet and binding them so that they grow to no more than 3 inches big as she matures.. what is beauty anyway? In one word: Conditioning.

  5. Unfortunately it’s easy to be guilty of slipping into the mindset of looking for or trying to mirror that “eurocentric idea of perfect” that you wrote about. It’s unnerving and impractical. I suppose it stems partly from personal insecurities. Not everyone can be an international supermodel, but everyone wants to max out their own potential for attractiveness. Should we be celebrating the ‘normal’ look? Should impractical depictions of beauty be criticized?