Remember the British pop group Right Said Fred? In 1991 and 1992, their hit song "I'm Too Sexy" was inescapable. People either loved it or hated it, but it achieved pop-culture trope status because it touched on a widely accepted sentiment: Straight men who present themselves as sex objects are ridiculous.
I thought of it recently while watching a trailer for an upcoming movie called Balls to the Wall. It looks like Revenge of the Nerds meets The Full Monty—a low-paid (and badly groomed) IT nerd wants to give his hot fiancée an expensive wedding, so he becomes a male stripper. With this flimsy plot device, the moviemakers will take every cliché about male strippers, dress the men up in bow ties and thongs, and thrust them onstage to face... blistering contempt. Because if a movie hero wants to appear scantily clad onscreen, he can only retain viewers' respect if he also kills someone. Think about it: almost- naked man with a weapon? Conan. Almost-naked man without one? Borat.
It's a less-examined aspect of sexism. In that worldview, women are assigned value based on appearance. We may get a low score or a high one, but we can't opt out. Now, it's sexy to be objectified when you want to be. Performing a stylized female sexiness on chosen occasions is both a gift to a lover and a narcissistic pleasure. Trying to be a sex bomb all the time, however, is tiring, expensive, and hard on anyone's self-esteem. That pressure creates some female resentment of men, because men aren't expected to do the same.
But it's more accurate to say we don't allow them to. A straight guy doesn't have the option of openly presenting himself as a nonviolent sex object without being—at the very least—viciously mocked. But my observations of male sexual fantasies indicate that lots of men wish they could. They would love to raid a Chippendales closet and strut like peacocks before a feminine gaze, but they don't dare. It makes me wonder if there's some psychological projection going on in egregiously sexist men. They won't give themselves permission to act like sex objects, so they're trying to experience it vicariously. It's not an excuse, but it's an idea.
However, it's not just men enforcing these rules. Women can be pretty quick to see a guy theatrically showcasing his sexuality as an offense against good taste or a sexual threat. Or, perhaps, as an implied rebuke to how we perform sexiness? But it doesn't have to be any of those things. Cheering for male strippers in the movies won't magically end sexism as we know it, but sneering at them teaches men that they'd better not try to express their sexuality that way, and that's a shame. I find there's nothing like a taste of the other perspective to raise someone's consciousness. It might ease some of the tension if everyone had the opportunity to experience the mating dance from both sides of the thong.