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Movie posters: How are men depicted?

Natasha Culzac

poster1 300x225 Movie posters: How are men depicted?A man stands fixed and resolute, clinging to a pump-action shotgun. Both of his taut arms are adorned with globular biceps and his creased brow, clenched lips and sullied t-shirt tell us that this is one tense situation.  Next to him is a dirt-ravished Dodge Charger and beside the car, two more staid-faced men survey the oncoming danger, whilst glued to their guns.

In the above Fast and Furious 5 poster, were Vin Diesel and Paul Walker the product of sexual objectification and re-touching, and if so, does this even happen that often? We’re so used to airbrushing, in all its ubiquitous glory. We’re used to the connotations it has on our collective consciousness, on our views of what is ‘beautiful’ (even if unobtainable) and in the use of it to re-enforce gender stereotypes. In December’s issue of Allure magazine, Keira Knightley bemoaned the sometimes-dubious swipe of the Photoshop wand: “They always pencil in my boobs. For King Arthur, for a poster, they gave me these really strange droopy tits. I thought, ‘well, if you’re going to make me fantasy breasts, at least make perky breasts.’” Perhaps we are used to seeing women digitally squeezed, preened and perfected, but to what extent are men subject to the same treatment in the promotion of blockbuster films?

Much of the discussion on airbrushing has centred largely on the alteration of female bodies and the effect this has on women’s psyches, yet we rarely talk about the men. After all, it would only equate that in portraying societal ideals of good looks, men’s brawn had been lovingly digitally-augmented, too, surely?

Sim Branaghan, author of British Film Posters: An Illustrated History, says that the practise of enhancing men on promotional material is no new premise: “Most male stars are sex-objects, and they’re portrayed as sex-objects.  The design-technology involved has changed, but the mindset hasn’t.” He’s saying: cinema promotion is essentially sales… and sex sells – with both genders.

Of course, photo manipulation existed long before computers, where actors and actresses, pre-1990 Photoshop launch, were simply drawn or painted in a flattering light and then unfavourable qualities were scrawled out or over, per request of the star. One of the major poster illustrators between the ‘50s and ‘70s was Tom Chantrell, the mastermind behind iconic posters for The King and I; One Million Years BC; and Star Wars. “Tom always made a point of making his stars look as good as possible – which for the men meant bulging muscles, and for the women a massive cleavage.”

But what about today? Branaghan is adamant that the depiction of men and their need to embody exaggerated, stereotypical ideals on posters hasn’t really changed over the years.  And perhaps he’s right, it’s just that sexiness per se (à la women), is not something that men have always needed to obtain; instead they’ve had to exemplify rather different, more ‘masculine’ characteristics.

“When we put men together, it is all about how the light catches the crags, catches their experience; they’re on a journey, they’re in a battle, they’re doing something like that,” Says Paul Mitchell, creative director at TEA. He adds sardonically: “God forbid you show that with a woman.”

TEA Creative is a design studio and consultancy which has been producing movie posters for the last 10 years, including: Love Actually; Tomb Raider; and Die Hard.

Crucially, the designer of a film poster is lead not only by the studio, but the content of the film and the personalities of the characters in it. This is perhaps why many of Tom Chantrell’s posters from the ‘60s overwhelmingly showcase women in suggestive stances and scantily clad – because they were a consequence of the sexploitation period of cinema, in which low-budget productions pandered to a sex-starved audience. Chantrell was, really, just showing the characters for how they were depicted in the film. Today, that also means portraying the boys from The Inbetweeners Movie as truthful to their characters and not as rippling Adonises.
However, Mitchell describes the number of things that are flexible: “Men are always made to look strong on a poster. That’s not necessarily that we change them, it’s their positioning, how they’re positioned in a group.” When asked if he broadens torsos and plumps-up limbs, he responded: “We’re lucky in the film industry, we don’t really need to do that. They’ve already spent six months working out in the first place. Yes, you add definition and lighting because it dramatises a poster image. There are obviously nicks and marks and if they’re distracting they will be removed… [but] there’s very few men we go about doing anything more to than that, really. I was trying to think of things where we have done it and it’s very rare.”

So, if it’s not sexual objectification that a man must endure by being on a film poster, then it’s more likely the promotion of clichéd gender traits. For men, these would be the likes of physical strength, leadership, success and heroism. “A man’s face carries a character, whereas a female’s face is often directed towards ‘the perfect’… You never, in a poster, make a man look weak, unless they are supposed to be Bleeker [in Juno]. If you are looking at men in a film poster, there is an exaggeration somewhere but it’s normally to do with a sense of purpose, of what they’re supposed to be doing – are they the saviour, the protector, the hero, the challenger, the warrior?”

poster2 300x225 Movie posters: How are men depicted?Yet, whilst women are continually (and it quite often feels, increasingly) on the receiving end of airbrush tyranny, Mitchell says there’s a current trend which favours leaving man as is his, in all of his splendour, moving away from the cosmetic re-touching which may have been performed in yesteryears: “One of the earliest examples I came to as a designer was Morgan Freeman, who is a face full of character and he always used to have little pockmarks. I remember in the films of the 90s, they would get re-touched out – now, if you took them off, you would be actually altering his persona… [and on Bradley Cooper appearing on the recent Silver Linings poster] The female lead on there, Jennifer Lawrence, is quite heavily re-touched. Him? He’s kind of left to look a bit dishevelled. He’s left to be quite… tatty…” Mitchell believes that the zeitgeist now centres on men looking a bit “knocked-about” and “experienced in something.

The tipping scales have always plummeted towards women where gender, sexualisation and re-touching are concerned, but perhaps the playing field is slightly more level when it comes to the reinforcement of gender ideals – both ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ are stereotyped in mainstream media. Either way, it’s great that there may be a reversal happening in the re-touching and beautifying of men (in that body image problems aren’t fun for either sexes), but it’s a shame that that can’t happen for females, too. Mitchell said: “We’ve had a recent poster where we were dealing with older actors and actresses – well-known, some would say, national treasures. And you didn’t touch the men, hardly. You made sure the lighting worked on the poster. But you weren’t that concerned about the wrinkles, the crows feet, the shape in the face [or] if they’ve got jowls hanging down. It’s not like where with a woman, we’ve got to remove it.”

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  • The Linoleum Surfer

    The point about male actors “already having worked out for six months” is very telling. It’s the same dysmorphic trend as under-weight women. And it’s not just the working out: men in films might be “masculine” in their posture, gym-pumped physique and even facial cragginess. But they are also increasingly infantile, sexless and plastic creatures – almost like the manufactured action figures produced for merchandising. The “personality” is ersatz, like the comically roughened voice and staged aggression of a WWE theatrical “wrestling” performer – always “tough”, posturing, ready for action. A childish fantasy of what it would be like to be a strong man.

    An example to make my point? Look no further than “Thor”. True, this was a movie based on a comic book character. But can anyone really explain why the supposedly overtly masculine and sexual Norse deity of thunder, the uber-manly, muscular, womanising, hard-drinking, hammer-throwing bruiser, the very definition of excessive maleness, would be depicted as having carefully waxed his chest?

    Never mind the numerous movie nerds who somehow seem to have carefully-developed gym bodies regardless of the sedentary, passive lifestyles they portray. Or that every romantic hero, of any social standing, occupation or age, must be as toned as a middleweight boxer. These portrayals might often be as incongruous as they are unrealistic, but at least they are masculine – and in their own way no more silly than choosing film stars on the basis of their good looks. But why emphasise the power of the male, while simultaneously emasculating him? The waxed chests, the short trousers, the boyish haircuts, and of course the ever more infantile behaviour to match? Is this really how men want to be, let alone how women want their men?

    Perhaps it’s just the ubiquitous celebration of youth to show a man as unshaven on his face, like a man, while at the same time removing his body hair like an unthreatening, prepubescent boy. But it certainly looks peculiar to me.

  • Guest

    Gender media psyops is a thoroughly worrying issue. Would be nice to see the author write more on this type of subject.
    Now I’ve said that, however, she probably wont; praise from the despised can be so obnoxious.

  • peatstack

    Its far beyond posters – men depicted in film have long been 2 dimensional weak characters that are terrible or silly role models. Think of a film where there is an intelligent whole alpha-male character… “Frankly my dear, i don’t give a damn.” – I have to go back to gone with the wind to find one. Walter white in Breaking Bad perhaps; but why are powerful male role models so incredibly rare in film? Even powerful complex alpha-women are getting more common.

    Its far beyond sexual doctoring of photos – its social doctoring of what men represent in our society – nothing to be respected… The male aspect that resists social change and stands up for social justice is erased for selfish flawed stupid men, why don’t they just commit suicide, our world has no place for great men.

  • Humanism or GTFO

    This article displays an astonishing lack of awareness to the prevalent and quasi-sytematic media portrayals of men as second class human beings. I suppose I shouldn’t expect anything better than this from the Independent a.k.a. the daily dose of “how and why all men are the root of all evil yet profoundly stupid and incompetent” hate-filled propaganda.

  • julianzzz

    Camouflage cosmetics, leaping cars and artistically arranged explosions plus choreographed sex sessions and lovingly lingering torture scenes make for very, very boring films. I invariably close my eyes and snuggle down for a little shut eye when they start.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Dominic-Berry/689660675 Dominic Berry

    I’m with Peatstack. Give us alpha male role models to inspire us.
    I’ve read enough feminism and self-improvement teaching me how to be fair and considerate in my relationships with women. But you know what? No matter how nice you are, no matter how educated, PC, it doesn’t make you sexy. Trust me I tried it. Polite consideration, reassuring and obescance to family values will put you into frendzone acceptability. You’re getting ther night bus home.
    Hitchcock also had the sense that nice girls haev the same problem as nice guys – romance needs mystery and challenge. Being steady and reliable is just way too predictable to be interesting.
    The first thing that makes you sexy is heroism. It’s difficult to pull off in real life, but you feel good about yourself and women love it. We actually need it. It’s good for us.
    I liked Harrison Ford in Star Wars. He was never in control like James Bond or Captain Kirk. He was always just winging it. As he said himself, ‘I’m making it up as I go along’. A true Harlequin of the Italian comedy tradition.
    And the second thing? Holding your own.
    Luke Skywalker was the nice guy. Case in point – he never got laid, even though he blew up the Death Star single handed. Why? Because in addition to you being skillful at your job, women have to know you’re not a convenient pushover. This is doubly true in real life.

  • http://twitter.com/scrotgrot Alex Robinson

    50% of the audience is women, of course men are sexualised. People are too simplistic when they think about this. They say this or that actress is being exploited because she is wearing barely any clothes, one-dimensional as a character, her photos have been retouched. But just because men don’t have skin on show doesn’t mean they are not being sexualised, we know women are naturally sexually attracted to alpha males with a high social standing, and so male sex objects are objectified through having certain simplistic character traits: being a hero and suchlike. This may make their characters, on average, more well rounded than the female ones, but really, it’s not much to shout about, they are still nowhere near as complex as a real person.

    That can’t ever change, because a film only has a couple of hours to introduce us to not only a plethora of different characters, but also the relationships between them and the plot that goes on. If the plot of a film were a person, we would also say it was being exploited and dressed up into an escapist, fantastical version of itself.

    There are many different types of exploitation which is why it’s always puzzled me that only people like actresses and strippers are seen as exploited. To me, getting a load of money for sitting around looking pretty sounds a fabulous proposition, much better than the forms of exploitation available to the rest of us: pushing pens in a dingy office, that sort of thing.

    It’s not *really* about sex anyway of course, it’s more about the particular tropes of the genre. For example you will see men objectified as above in action films, but in a comedy men are much more likely to be soft-featured, socially awkward, lazy… both are exploitative insofar as an actor is exploited by pigeonholing his personal attitude and features into offensively narrow stereotypes.

  • GwendolenMeiMeiWilliams

    With regards to women, I quite liked the covers for the Desperate Housewives DVDs, they were sexualised, I’m not denying that, but they were also depicted as strong and powerful in “warrior” poses.

  • GwendolenMeiMeiWilliams

    Or endless battle scenes. Oooh look the one guy with a beard in a silly costume is sword fighting with another guy with a beard in a silly costume. Oh look, know they’ve dropped their swords and are wrestling. Oh no, that’s two different guys with beards and silly costumes. Oh a horse. Oh it’s dead now. Look some blood.

  • http://www.facebook.com/timothymichaelwalker Timothy M Walker

    I think it’s a great question but I don’t feel it’s been explored to any satisfaction in this article. Focusing on action films ‘for men’ is not going to be indicative of their sexualisation in films or posters and it appears to focus more on the issue of women’s depiction. The lead man is arguably as far removed from normative appearance as the lead women.


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