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I Don’t See the Shirtless Ones: Denying the Male Aesthetic of Slasher Films

There has been (and continues to be) discussion on the “sexualisation” of women in slasher movies, and this is a natural response to a subgenre that is culturally invested in marrying the body – naked and otherwise – with sex and violence. Therefore it completely makes sense to have such a topic examined, scrutinised and thoughtfully explored from varied angles. By their very nature, slasher movies are about flesh; bare breasts are part of the lexicon and the sexual energy of the many slasher films to come out of the so-called boom of the early eighties employ such archetypal imagery that stems from everything from opera to the theatre of the Grand Guignol to exploitation cinema and beyond.

However, the role of men in these films in that exact same realm seems to be neglected. It is as if many critics and audiences alike don’t seem to “see” the male body in the slasher film. The shirtless male – who is commonly on display in these movies – apparently has no distinct sensuality because a lot of spectators (of all genders) seem to not associate the masculine aesthetic as an erotic one. In this neglect and inability to associate the male form in a “sexualised” manner inadvertently (and sometimes proactively) renders female and queer male audiences invisible; it denies their spectatorship in the specific sphere of sensuality presented in the slasher form. This is not only sexist and homophobic from the perspective of those who trivialise and poo-poo male sensuality in cinema, but also ludicrous in that women and queer men are a driving force in both fandom and film criticism, and always have been.

There seems to be an innate fear in the male form on display from certain male spectators, who would possibly be the same folk who would cry “Put a shirt on!” when they are faced with a gent who is proud of his musculature and has it on show.

It is also an acute study in how some men seem to belittle and trivialise women’s sexuality, reading it as either non-existent or “cute” and never seeing desire, hunger or an assertive importance in embracing “hot men on screen”. When faced with gay male spectatorship, this trivialisation can manifest into other forms of ugly disdain.

It can be argued that there is a massive cultural and artistic difference in the image of a bare chested woman to a bare chested man in film, however, when one denies “seeing” the male form as something more than a character in transition from being clothed to not, it can be absolutely considered a dismissal of female and non-hetero male sexuality.

You also find a lot of male audiences completely disinterested in female leads and female characters, honing in their focus on specific male characters (most notably established character actors and the like who filled a role specifically written for such legends of the silver screen). For instance, many male audiences will discuss Donald Pleasance in Halloween (1978) but neglect the driving force of most of that film, that being Jamie Lee Curtis, Nancy Loomis and PJ Soles; three teenage girls discussing babysitting, boyfriends, parents and school. It is interesting to note that most – if not all – slasher films are female-centric and female-focused, with teen girls or women in their twenties being the leads and copping the most screen time: talking, engaging with one another, exhibiting a cinematic expression of friendship and unity, solidarity and a sisterhood. When male audiences are watching these films, they are ultimately watching what they would bemoan a “chick flick”, so it is somewhat funny to hear such sexist rhetoric come from a committed male fan happy to watch such feminine outings simply because it is a slasher film. An argument could be said that this subgenre of horror is a sort of descendent of the “women’s pictures” of the forties, where the likes of shop girls, single mothers and working class heroines sacrifice and struggle in order to survive but more importantly help others out. All this is important because there is a systematic link between fan-lead misogyny (that being certain male audiences not caring about female characters/actresses/women behind the camera) and homophobia (actively not “seeing” the sensuality in male characters presented on screen).

Slasher movies bring nubile, healthy, young and very good looking people to the fore, generally putting them in danger and of course killing them off one by one. The women of slashers are gorgeous yes, but so are some of the men, and both are sexual beings and both eroticised, then rendered “lambs to the slaughter” usually in little to no dress. But for some reason, the male form is not looked at in the same light as the female form – and outside the aforementioned argument, a reasoning behind this could possibly be that the women who are disrobed and presented in a hyper-sexual manner get operatic and highly stylised deaths, while a lot of the males “cop it” quick. This could possibly be read as an insight into the creators caring more about the women of the piece because we generally spend more time with them and see their experiences more, thus their deaths are more impactful if given a solid treatment (as an aside, many young actresses have gone on the record in saying they treasure that their onscreen death is iconic in the vast world of horror cinema), while for a lot of the “boyfriend” roles, the guy is more or less dispensable and therefore not worthy of a grandiose killing; much like his eighties cinematic relative the action movie henchman who is offed by the hero in a swift and brutal blow.

Kirsten Baker as the prototypical slasher movie girl in Friday the 13th Part 2.

A major ingredient in the slasher film is how such characters are killed – and often there is an erotic charge to the slaying. Therefore, you may get instant homoeroticism embedded with some of the kills at the hands of a male villain slaughtering a young man, much how you would when the same killer takes to a beautiful young woman. When The Burning (1981) delivers a heroic male in the role of the oft-discussed “Final Girl”, he is just as capable and resourceful as his female contemporaries and “goes through hell” to re-emerge as someone who is changed and now experienced. His sexuality is also a major character attribute and compliments his means of survival. Slasher films also deliver hefty amounts of shared dialogue between girls and therefore lend themselves to be a subgenre interested in the objectification of males. In these pictures, girls ogle boys, talk about boys and sexualise them, therefore it is an interesting contribution to the subgenre being completely aware of female sexuality and desire; something that should not be trivialised. It was ultimately pretty much rare for instance to find teen sex films centred around the female experience, with some terrific exceptions such as Little Darlings (1980) bringing the girl’s point of view to the fore, but in the slasher film, this is what reigns supreme: girls to the front. For queer males culturally invested in slasher movies, a lot of sympathy would ride alongside these girls of horror; heroines that could be a beacon of hope, and therefore also channel hidden desires and sensuality from a heterosexual female lens that could be shared by the queer male experience. Not only sharing the means of surviving a harsh and dangerous world, but also having fun and seeking the thrill of male beauty.

With the slasher film both being about the body beautiful and the body in decay, it makes absolute sense that naked women and men will be on fine display – both in prime glory and gore soaked demise. This is a subgenre that looks at flesh as simply that, flesh, but injects the body politics with a sensuality that is both a marking of learned strength but for the most part ultimate vulnerability. The shirtless males in slasher movies are endangered much like their female counterparts and their frailty is a masterful contradiction to their radiation of good health, virility and power as young men stepping into the world only to have it crash down on them.

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About Lee Gambin

Lee Gambin is a writer, author and film historian. He writes for Fangoria, Shock Till You Drop, Delirium, Warner Bros. and Scream Magazine. He has written the books Massacred By Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film, We Can Be Who We Are: Movie Musicals of the 1970s and the soon to be released The Howling: Studies in the Horror Film. He runs Melbourne based film society Cinemaniacs and lectures on cinema studies, currently working on a lecture series called "Can You Dig It?: Tortured Young Men in Film from 1976-1986 while working on two new books - one on the Stephen King adaptation "Cujo" entitled Nope, Nothing Wrong Here: The Making of Cujo and another book with collaborator Cris Wilson called Tonight, On A Very Special Episode: A History of Sitcoms that Sometimes Got Serious.

2 comments

  1. What I find so tiresome in horror movies is the old Puritan ethics. The first people killed are almost always the sexual adventurers. You know that as soon as one of the women takes her top off, she’s going to be the next one killed. It’s seriously tiresome. The surviving females at the end of these movies are always the ones who are not having sex. Pathetic.
    What I want to see is someone flip the script. The killer should have a Bacchus persona, rewarding the hedonists and killing the weenies.

  2. One more thing. Men with their shirts off can be seen at swimming pools, beaches, gyms, etc., with no
    sexual factor it all. Nothing inherently suggestive about men’s chest since they haven’t been sexualized for centuries the way women’s boobs have.

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