I’m a funny one. My brain is wired weird, and sometimes it’s scary but most of the time it’s amusing. Take for example my response when asked what I, a hetereosexual woman, consider to be the ideal male physique. Most people would list about three traits, like “tall, broad shoulders, perfect teeth.” My list is… a bit longer. And don’t ask me where I get this stuff, because I just discovered in my psyche one day during my teen years, parked right next to my equally untraceable food and music preferences.
My unimaginably nitpicky criteria for the ideal male body:
Well-shaped butts, long legs, no chest hair and very little visible body hair, a certain length to the frame (a proportion I can’t describe, but I know it when I see it), a certain breadth to the shoulders (again, a very specific proportion), and the muscle tone has to be defined to a certain degree and no more but I’m not talking about the actual shape he’s in, but rather an intrinsic way his body arranges muscle and fat.
Yes, folks: the way a man’s skin, fat and muscle cling together is something that makes a difference in how attractive he is to me. Shut up. Da Vinci would’ve understood.
But a few days after I wrote that out last week and realized how hilariously specific it is, I had a truly sobering moment when I realized: my weird ideal for the male body is less specific than the US’s base requirements for a supporting or lead actress. Women who don’t meet those requirements get shuffled into “character acting.” A successful character actor is one of those familiar faces that’s been on all the big TV shows (and probably gets more interesting roles than lead and supporting actors), but you don’t know her name. Actresses are advised by agents whether their looks qualify them to pursue lead and supporting roles or doom them to “character actor” status.
The criteria for a lead or supporting actress runs something like this (at the moment – it changes every decade).
US Film & TV base requirements for lead/supporting actresses
(You can lack perhaps one to three of these traits, but you must feature the vast majority to get work in the US.)
- Fleshy, pouty lips. If she’s serious about an acting career, she’ll get the collagen shots. (Oh, by the way, rumor has it: pouty lips are out, cheek implants are in. Actress wannabes are advised to see their cosmetic surgeons for complete details on sucking out the collagen and stuffing the cheeks until you look you have three noses. Mmm, sexy.)
- Long legs.
- Look 30 or younger. (There will be 5 roles reserved in every generation for women who look grown up. Good luck landing them, ladies.)
- Several inches taller than the average woman (average height is just under 5’4″ – most actresses are at least 5’6″).
- Medium to largish breasts. (They don’t want her to look like a porn star, but if she’s serious about an acting career, she’ll get those A-cups bumped up to at least a full B.)
- No big noses.
- No noses with bumps. (You can maybe get a part on a nine year old ailing Sci-Fi channel show with an imperfect nose, but you will not be deluged with offers from Hollywood.)
- No chins which seem long or short in proportion to the rest of the face (unless you’re a Barrymore or a Spelling, in which case the rules don’t apply to you, sweetie, and can we get you something else, anything else, and please remember us to your folks!).
- Perfect teeth.
- Big eyes. (Jennifer Garner is the only exception, and look how she’s got the puffy lips and all the other traits right down.)
- Long, glossy hair.
- No visible body hair (not that this isn’t an expectation for women outside of acting, too).
- Curvy, female butts are in right now. They weren’t 10 years ago. Enjoy the whiplash from trying to keep up.
Acting talent is optional. Conversely:
US Film & TV base requirements for potential lead actor:
- Perfect teeth.
Failing to nail either of these will slow a man’s acting career down considerably, but hallelujah, thanks to dentistry, at least the field’s wide open to white guys of every description.
Do you see the problem?
Among supporting and lead male actors we have a few truly fat men and a lot of chubby guys and a lot of guys who look slim in a suit but have a little extra padding around the middle. None of these guys would have the careers they have if we applied the same standards to male and female actors. We have guys with lovely glossy hair and guys with shaved heads or various stages of balding. We have guys with big noses and weak chins. Short guys like Tom Cruise. Guys with overhanging brows. Beady eyes.
I mean, if we bumped male requirements up to something as specific as the requirements for women, the US film and TV industry would lose all its leading men overnight (just “underweight” wipes out the whole brigade, though I’m sure some of them would be willing to starve if their careers were on the line). And wouldn’t that be a pity for all those people, including me, who find quite a few American lead actors attractive despite their “flaws”? Or because of them?
How does this shit happen?
This is all a by-product of a sexist culture, but the specific mechanism that takes place is this: when industry people look at a male actor, they see and evaluate the whole man as a total package of talent, physicality, and charisma. When they look at a female actor, they see parts. They see boobies and puffy lips and butts and legs and height and hair and eyes. If they don’t see the parts they’re looking for, they write her off. In short, they can’t see the forest for the T&A.
And don’t forget the casting couch. Women weren’t allowed to act in Shakespeare’s day, so female actors have really been fighting for inclusion for five centuries, and a lot of people in the early days of film and TV didn’t let women forget that. If women wanted roles, they could damn well go the extra mile to get them, and that meant giving someone sexual favors. And now that demanding sexual favors for roles is less common than it used to be, the attitude remains the same: those uppity females need to work harder than a man, if they want a role from me. Since acting is a subjectively measured craft, the only objective requirements men who hate women can force on them are visual. Film is the perfect place for this brand of misogyny because it’s one of the last industries where you can turn someone down for not looking a certain way.
Ever since men were oh-so-kind enough to let women have jobs as an alternative to sexually gratifying men in order to be provided for, women have been struggling with extra tough requirements. Look at the airlines, who as recently as 1982 were requiring women flight attendants to be skinnier than men. It’s all about white men seeing the world as something they own exclusive rights to, and if others want a slice they’ll have to prove they know their rightful second-class place in it by complying with a bunch of insane demands as a show of loyalty to the white male power structure.
Do real life men – you know, the audience – turn up their noses at an overall attractive woman because her lips don’t pout, she carries a few extra pounds, or her nose isn’t a particular shape? Does anyone know a real life heterosexual man who’s that picky? …that you do not suspect of being secretly gay and using this stuff as an excuse not to date the woman with whom you’re trying to fix him up?
Jennifer’s proposed list of male criteria to make things fair
I don’t actually advocate this list. Like I said, many actors I love would not make the cut. This is just for demonstration purposes.
- Lean physique, lean faces. No beer bellies, no fleshy faces. (Even though fleshy faces can be attractive, sorry; they’re not in at the moment. Get over it.)
- Full lips.
- Long legs.
- ETA: Tight, well shaped butts.
- Dramatic cheekbones. (Kind of random, but hey, we have to sort the winners and losers somehow, right?)
- Several inches taller than the average man (average is 5’10″, so we’re talking a 6′ minimum).
- Broad shoulders.
- No big noses (there goes 25% of them).
- No imperfect noses (another 25%).
- No weak or jutting chins (another 25% – wow, this is awesome! Soon we’ll have all those men begging us for a session on the casting couch!).
- Perfect teeth.
- Big eyes.
- Glossy hair.
That’s really not enough. To balance out the breast obsession, I should spell out some sort of criteria for acceptable nipples and pectoral muscle shapes. I have trouble doing that because even I’m not that picky and I know there’s no single ideal. And yet the same is true with women’s breasts, and we still have to cope with this fixation.
Imagine how many attractive, fascinating male actors this criteria would weed out.
Now imagine how many attractive, fascinating female actors you’ve never had the chance to see.