Is it feminist for five national papers to have topless Poldark on their front pages?

Is ogling a sexy man the same as ogling a sexy woman? Discuss.

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Something struck me when I looked at today’s newspaper front pages this morning. And it wasn’t topless Aidan Turner’s muscular physique. No, it was the fact that five national papers were using the return of BBC One drama Poldark as an excuse to run front-page pictures of topless Aidan Turner’s muscular physique.

THIS IS PROGRESS! I couldn’t help thinking, images of the British press’s time-old penchant for Page Three models, teenage blondes getting exam results and barely dressed female celebrities flashing in my mind. What a time we live in that newspapers are now using any excuse to sell papers by objectifying a hot, semi-naked man instead of women!

But it’s more complicated than that. A debate is brewing over whether it’s OK to ogle an attractive man simply for his looks – if we’re fighting against this attitude towards women in the media. Why is it one rule for women and another for men?

This is what the Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir asks in a column puffed on the front of the paper alongside, yes, the now ubiquitous picture of Aidan Turner with his wams out.

“As Poldark strips off (again!), why is it OK for women to ogle men – but not vice versa?” is the headline, with a huge image of Turner squinting hairily into the middle distance just below it (captioned, inevitably: “Eye candy: Aidan Turner flaunts his toned torso”).

Hypocrisy aside, Moir’s point is this: “Yes, we women can ogle, but men can’t. Is that entirely fair? No. But it is entirely wonderful.”

The broadcaster Mariella Frostrup recently pointed out what she sees as a “double standard” in female writers openly lusting after Poldark when male writers wouldn’t get away with writing similarly about women.

“If a male colleague had penned… [the same thing about] any of Turner’s equally appealing female co-stars, his cries of contrition would be drowned out by Twitter’s Troll Chorus,” she wrote. “We are losing not only our sense of humour but our sense of proportion as we throw every act of perceived sexism into the #MeToo basket”.

Channel 4 News’ Cathy Newman, who has extensively covered sexism in politics and misogynist abuse, also asked Twitter whether it’s right to objectify Turner if we expect the opposite from men:

The feminist activist and writer Caroline Criado-Perez argued back that this is not a double standard, because men have not been objectified and oppressed throughout history by women who value them on their looks.

“There is no history of men’s worth being reduced to how fuckable they are,” she tweeted. “No one is saying that unfuckable men shouldn’t be allowed out in public. Why are you even posting this?”

This is the key feminist argument in favour of slavering over Turner’s torso, and against the idea of reverse sexism in general: he and his kind are not held back by a society that judges – and has always judged – them on their appearance and sexual compliance.

But Frostrup’s warning against a sense of humour failure when it comes to the Poldark double standards debate sits uncomfortably when you do look at it the other way round. Just think of how often Page Three has been explained away as a bit of fun by male editors, or male Sun readers, in an attempt to make feminists look joyless and patronising, for example.

In their recent books about modern masculinity, both the actor Robert Webb (How Not to be a Boy, 2017) and artist Grayson Perry (The Descent of Man, 2016) argue that the patriarchy and gender norms can be incredibly damaging to men’s self-worth and emotional wellbeing as well as women’s. Perhaps it’s better for everyone if we don’t idealise certain body types – “flaunted” in “barely-there breeches” or not...

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

She co-hosts the New Statesman podcast, discussing the latest in UK politics.

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