Pecs appeal: what The Guest reveals about Hollywood’s new stripping sexism

15 Sep

Ye gods, but Dan Stevens is gorgeous in new movie The Guest. You hardly recognise him from Downton Abbey: the puppy fat is replaced by cheekbones, the floppy fringe by manly stubble, the limpid blue eyes are now focused laser beams of energy. He needs to be gorgeous: the more interesting first half of the movie, before things go pear-shaped and daft-thrillery, is all about how he wins over a family, one by one – the mother through sensitivity, the father through beer, the young son through help with bullies. But does he really have to win over the 20-year-old daughter by stepping from a steamy bathroom in the skimpiest of towels? Those pecs! Those lats! Those abs! She swoons.

If Stevens becomes a star on the back of this, and he surely will, his personal trainer deserves 10%, along with his agent and manager. In fact, it’s a little surprising there’s not yet an Oscar category for that. And what’s interesting is how thoroughly gratuitous nudity in Hollywood has now been turned on its head.

Right into the ‘90s it was almost impossible to be an actress and not get your kit off, unless you were Meryl Streep. It’s why columnist Julie Burchill used to call acting a form of legalised prostitution. Even the respected auteur Robert Altman pressurised Greta Scacchi (unsuccessfully) to show off her celebrated bust in The Player, despite a prior agreement: “When it came to the day of the shoot,” Scacchi later recalled, “he told me ‘Get yourself on the set, take your knickers off and do what you’re paid to do.’” Demi Moore was paid a record $12 million to strip off in Striptease. Halle Berry is rumoured to have been given an extra $500,000 to show her boobs in Swordfish, though she denies any extra fee.

How times have changed in the new millennium. When Alice Eve gratuitously stripped in front of Kirk in Star Trek Into Darkness, the backlash was huge, to the point where the scriptwriter apologised – and even then she only undressed to bra and pants. There is no expectation now that beautiful and talented actresses such as Jennifer Lawrence will have to get naked to get ahead. It’s one reason, aside from righteous indignation at the appalling invasion of privacy, that the recent hacking of nude celebrity pictures has aroused such interest: in the ‘90s, it would have been nothing people hadn’t seen before, on screens 40 feet high.

No such reticence applies to the male physique, and I blame Brad Pitt. When he took his shirt off in Thelma & Louise, revealing the washboard abs beneath the cheeky grin, it opened the doors for equal opportunities sexism. Since then, Matt Damon, Tobey McGuire, Will Smith, Ewan MacGregor, Michael Fassbender, Tom Hardy, Hugh Jackman, Tom Cruise, Gerard Butler, Ryan Reynolds, Channing Tatum… actually, it would be quicker to make a list of actors who haven’t had to bulk up and strip off.

And now, finally, there are signs that the more insidious sexism in Hollywood may gradually and grudgingly be coming to an end. It’s long been argued by movie execs, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, that films with women in the lead roles don’t make money. None, therefore, were made… so none made money. Bridesmaids in comedy, and in the blockbuster market The Hunger Games and Gravity (though its director initially had to fight the studio to get them to okay a female lead), have demonstrated the fallacy, and execs are, according to the New York Times, taking note.

There’s still a ways to go, and still a big disparity in pay cheques. But, in liberating Hollywood’s women, must we objectify Hollywood’s men? How long before aspiring male actors are simply reading for the part of “Hunky Boyfriend: must be prepared for Shower Scene”?

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