Phwoar & Peace: Escapism or sexist hypocrisy?

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Aidan Turner became the centre of a social media storm when he appeared shirtless in the BBC series Poldark.
Aidan Turner became the centre of a social media storm when he appeared shirtless in the BBC series Poldark.

Hail to the new age, and the triumph of the ladies who leer, the women-who-phwoar!

Social media has given free rein to a female foible which was actually always there, but expressed only between friends - whether in boarding-school dormitories, factory canteens or round the TV, as we wore out the old video cassette of Colin Firth climbing out of the lake as Mr Darcy in a wet shirt.

Now this female lechery has gone public online. After generations of putting up with wolf-whistles, "witty" remarks about our bulgy bits and being scored out of 10 by certain men (who themselves, to be honest, often might barely make a two) the tables are turned.

It seems we have started publicly to objectify men, emphasising their physical glories the way they sometimes do ours: that is, without much reference to any more permanent and inward qualities.

It's sort of refreshing, in a way, to see women in a Twitter frenzy over some TV hunk. Aidan Turner got it first in Poldark, scything with his shirt off, then bared his pecs and abs again in a low-slung towel in And Then There Were None, the not-so-festive Agatha Christie thriller. "Worth the licence fee alone," cried one tweeter, while another enthused: "Is Aidan Turner contractually obliged to get his kit off? I'm not complaining, mind, *wipes drool off chin*". Another typed, feverishly: "Drop the towel!"

The towel got its own fan club after a while, one viewer writing in drama-critic style: "The scene with shirtless Aidan Turner was entirely necessary and perhaps slightly too short."

Aidan talked of the deep character differences between the roles, but may not feel entirely confident that anyone was listening. It's unnerving for an actor, just as it probably was for Nicole Kidman when a brief nude stage appearance got her the deathless review "pure theatrical Viagra".

It's happening to men now. It feels almost like vengeance for all those times that subtle, thoughtful female stars have been defined by how much exciting flesh they show.

The latest male victim is James Norton as Prince Andrei in War And Peace (trending on Twitter for a while as Phwoar! And Peace). Even the adaptor of Tolstoy's novel, Andrew Davies, encourages it by saying that while there is no Darcy-style wet shirt, Norton is "just as lovely with everything on".

Online the girls weighed in merrily. "Fine specimen of a man . . . Ooh I do like a bit of James Norton on a Sunday night" . . . "Cheekbones and jawline are a thing of wonder . . . lost in James Norton's jawline". A few men with a taste for men joined in: "I could hardly speak," said one.

Only one disgruntled voice criticised Norton thus: "Huge eye bags and wide piggy nostrils, if this is what girls fancy these days they must be desperate." As with the objectifying of women, there's always a backlash.

But mainly it's approving. One friend reports that her sister, as Andrei stood alone in a field of waving grass, yelled confusedly: "Get your scythe out, Norton!" As if we're entitled, by payment of the licence fee, to one shirtless male torso per hour, ideally rippling in action.

The cast of War and Peace.
The cast of War and Peace.

It's not even the first time young Norton's had this kind of attention. Last year, he played an urbane and dishy vicar in the gentle murder mystery series Grantchester. After the first episode, one woman wrote on Twitter: "We all need to talk about how hot this vicar guy is . . . he's seriously beautiful. Look at his teeth. And his cheekbones. Gawd."

Another weighed in with: "Haven't seen a vicar that hot since Richard Chamberlain in The Thorn Birds."

There's a certain amount of anxious chin-stroking over this outbreak of gleeful female lusting. But it's not a new emotion - raunchy female empowerment was much encouraged a few years ago by TV programmes such as Sex And The City, the US TV show about shopping and bed-hopping.

We no longer feel we have to pretend, Barbara Cartland style, that all that attracts us are the keen eye and wise protectiveness of the male. We can admit that there is delight to be found in a gorgeous six-pack, tight bum and muscly arms, even if the owner of them is quite boring and stupid.

Men have always carried on this way about women - hence expressions like dumb blonde, arm-candy, trophy wife, bit of fluff. And women have put up with all that, whether in ordinary life or as actresses.

Girls have been hired to drape themselves over cars as pure decoration, pose for Pirelli calendars, do the Bunny Dip at the Playboy club. It was just the way it was. Feminism cries out against it, but it never really went away.

So is this a kind of female revenge, treating and referring to pretty men the way men talk (or did talk) about women? You have to admit if men do go online, in their own names, to talk droolingly about actresses in mainstream drama, saying "Drop the towel!" or complaining of insufficient flesh on show, they are shouted down by feminist opinion, or at least told a serious drama is not a strip club and to show some respect.

Should women, in a public forum, be regarded as tasteless or aggressive when they do it? Is it - perish the thought! - harder on men, a bit more cruelly embarrassing, because they're new to being victims of "body-fascism", their dignity more easily wounded?

I worry a bit about actors whose bodies are drooled over with little reference to their diction, charisma, or interactions with cast, period and plot.

James Norton has a tough role as Prince Andrei, brooding, wanting glory in war but wondering what it's all about, unable to accept his clingy wife, but feeling guilty about it. He said the director kept telling him not to smile. Ever. It's an acting job.

James Norton in War and Peace.
James Norton in War and Peace.

He - like Aidan Turner - would probably rather people didn't go on and on about chests and muscles and (gasp!) tight white breeches, and the swoony effect on a chap of having his jawline framed by inches of gold braid and red velvet, with festoons of gilded uniform tasselling across his nipples, tempting a girl to tweak it. I feel for him, I do. And as my own taste in youth generally ran to runty, bespectacled geniuses rather than beautiful hunks, I don't generally join in. But there it is. Women are roaring body-approval now, lad-fashion, and the guys have to be brave and accept it, as female performers always have.

So, mesdames, you have already had Andrei of the smouldering jawline shoving his wife in a chair, stalking around, standing in a field, sitting in a nightshirt gazing at a holy medal, and riding a horse.

In coming weeks there will be much more. Mr Norton will surely do it all beautifully. And as long as he gets credit for that, as well as droolworthiness, fair enough.

- Daily Mail

- Daily Mail

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