Realms IV: Boobism and Beefcakism

I didn’t think I had much else to say on the topic of what has variously become known as BoobFail, CoverFail, et al.

However, conversation down in the comments thread of my original post has gotten me to wondering.

Is there even a place for boobs — the display of boobs, the admiration of boobs, the use and employ of boobs — in science fiction or fantasy?

How about beefcake — hunky, muscular, attractive guys with shirts off or showing a lot of skin? Is there a place for this sort of thing in the field(s) we all know and love?

Not just a few people have derided the Realms of Fantasy cover because it shows a female figure with boobs, and somehow the use or employ of boobs — and by association, the like of boobs being used or displayed — is adolescent or beneath us as players and workers in the field(s) of science fiction and fantasy.

Boobism, supposedly, is not a mature component of a mature genre.

As someone who is a more or less enthusiastic Boobist — hey, sue me, Dolly Parton and Elvira made strong impressions on me as a lad — I disagree with the notion that emphasizing boobs on cover art, in illustration, or even in a textual format via character description, is inherently immature. The boob is what it is: a piece of the female anatomy which is explicitly feminine and, therefore, something liable to be highlighted or otherwise made prominent in fiction and entertainment.

Because that’s what fiction and entertainment do: they take otherwise ‘ordinary’ characters and people, and blow them up to something larger than ordinary.

Consider Arnold Schwarzenneger, the aging king of silver-screen beefcake. Was it his acting that made him famous? No. Though his acting did improve over time. Was it his delivery and his personality? Here again, no, as these two things are nowhere in evidence with his first, most iconic roles: the Terminator and Conan the Barbarian. What this man is best known for is being a muscular stud. Huge pecs and biceps and a body that looked every inch the example of 20th century masculine heroism. Men loved him because he was macho and his characters were macho. Women loved him for many of the same reasons, and also because he was fun to look at.

Is there a difference between the Beefcakism of Schwarzenegger and, say, the Boobism of a magazine cover?

Are we objectifying — unnecessarily — the feminine and the masculine when we reduce them to their exaggerated physical characteristics, such as big boobs for ladies and big biceps for gentlemen?

As noted in past essays, I think much must be laid at the feet of the viewer, reader, and consumer. Everyone brings to the table their own tastes, preferences — sexual as well as aesthetic — and it’s virtually impossible to form any kind of objective standard for what is and is not proper. One person’s too-big boobs are another person’s too-small boobs. One person’s hypertrophied body-builder is another person’s ideal of perfect fitness.

Part of what makes this so complex, is that SF and F are consumed by young people, and young people are already barraged with a range of negative body messages. Especially girls. The old Barbie line of dolls is a good example of how a certain kind of body standard has been pressed upon generations of women when they were young, so that now there is an anti-Barbie backlash which rejects Barbie in one or several ways: her skin color, facial features, overly small waist, overly large bust, wide hips, etc. Barbie, for many, has become an icon of the Unhealthy Expectation. And I personally am hard-pressed to disagree.

When we create characters in fiction, or portray them in images and on film, what messages are we sending to our kids, and are those messages healthy or unhealthy?

In the case of Der Governator, I’m not sure many boys my age grew up having a body image complex because our chests and biceps weren’t ever going to match Arnold’s. But then again, boys in Western society generally aren’t expected to appeal to girls in the same way girls are expected to appeal to boys. As a social rule. There is far more pressure on girls — as part of their self esteem and as part of their upbringing — to be attractive and appealing to boys. So perhaps it’s not fair to compare Beefcakism and Boobism, as concepts for application.

But should we go the other direction? Kick the Boobists and Boobism out of SF and F altogether? So as to avoid playing into the existing cultural body image pressures that have already warped the playing field for generation after generation of women?

What about the Beefcakists and Beefcakism? Should we similarly tone down or eliminate body examples like Arnold from the landscape, so that neither boys nor girls — males nor females — are getting messages through the medium that are unhealthy or otherwise damaging?

Or should we give Beefcake a pass simply because women have so long been on the short end of the teeter-totter, in terms of sexual imagery and sexual power dynamics? Maybe eliminating Boobism and emphasizing more Beefcakism is just fair play, to make up for the long years of explicitly objective use of the female to sell various kinds of entertainment; as if the only components to women are their boobs, their butts, and their capacity for providing men with sexual pleasure.

Me, I think parity is a risible objective. Because while I do understand the Boob Fatigue that many people have — having seen too many boobs used too often in all kinds of stories, artwork, and imagery — I am not in favor of eliminating what is, to my mind, pleasant and sometimes even elegant, inspiring imagery. And why shouldn’t we look at both sides of the coin? Buff male bodies are awesome too. Like Arnold and the cast of 300 and Brad Pitt from Fight Club. Women dig this kind of stuff. And why shouldn’t they? Brad Pitt looked amazing in that movie. Gerard Butler also looked amazing. What’s wrong with characters on film, or on book covers, or in artwork and in imagery, looking amazing?

For my money, the characters in fiction ought to be larger than life. Mentally, spiritually, physically, intellectually, etc. I don’t necessarily read or consume entertainment just to see Ordinary People. I do have a tendency to seek out and identify with characters — such as Chief Tyrol in the reboot of Battlestar Galactica — who are ‘ordinary guys’ thrust into extraordinary situations. But even Chief Tyrol was extraordinary; in ways we didn’t even guess until late into the series.

And to me, that’s part of what storytelling is all about. Ordinary is ordinary. There is no story in ordinary. In fact, most pro writers and editors always suggest that your story never really starts until the ordinary is abandoned, and you enter into the realm of the extraordinary. To include characters and character portrayal.

This is my sensibility, and I don’t claim to think that it’s the only sensibility out there. There is an entire school of thought dedicated to the notion that ordinary stories about ordinary people — flawed, fallible, small, stumbling — are the height of fiction. On television especially there has been a run of different programs dedicated to the idea of the ordinary person fumbling through an ordinary life, and only occasionally becoming or encountering something we might call extraordinary.

But that’s not why I read or watch SF and F. To me, SF and F are explicitly anti-ordinary. Their appeal — to me — has always been that they’re going out of their way to dodge the ordinary, such that the landscapes, backdrops, characters, and plots are far larger and far more impressive than anything any of us would encounter in our real, everyday lives. This escapism has been the topic of much derision in literary circles, and I won’t debate the literary merits of an escapist genre here.

I will just say that I think it’s valid for Beefcakists to want to have their beefcake and view it too.

As long as we Boobists are not kicked to the curb or otherwise given short shrift.

There is plenty of room in SF and F for fantastic boobs and heroic pecs. They’re not mutually-exclusive, nor are they symptomatic of a malady. It’s human nature to seek out and admire that which is beautiful, bigger, and more impressive than the ordinary.


  1. You raise a couple of very valid points, and you’re right- there is difficulty in deciding what to do about… visual exploitation? Shall we say? Basically, the tendency to use sex, whether aimed at males or females, to sell everything under the sun. Sex appeal has a long-standing place in SF/F- look at all the old paperbacks from the 40s and 50s with All-American Space Men and busty alien babes. I think the current problem is our supersaturation with these themes.

    I *do* believe that there should be more equality- more hunky guys to pose with the scantily-clad girls. But I also believe we should use less of each. I believe Warren Lapine made a crack about going back to dragon illustrations for magazine covers- and while he was being sarcastic, I think we should take a chance on that type of illustration. After all, we are the Science Fiction and Fantasy community, so where are all the marvelous illustrations of alien cities, fantastic beasts, and where to find them? And for those who think I’m talking about a standard fire-breathing dragon, take a step back and evaluate. We are a genre built on fantastical imaginings, yet everyone defaults to the same old image. How does that make sense?!

    I’m fine with biceps and breasts. But can I get a Beast or a Grue or a Chimera thrown in there occasionally?

  2. Sex appeal is apart of our culture. We like pretty things and we shouldn’t feel ashamed of appreciating the male and female form. Being a bisexual woman, I make no apologies for it.

    I think the best route (or at least a start) is to showcase a range of beauty and not just one set myopic standard. Queen Latifah has a different body type than Charlize Theron who has a different body type than Miracle Laurie or Cameron Diaz or Halle Berry and all are beautiful women. All have graced magazine covers and are very marketable.

    David Tennant is lanky and thin and he has a different body type than George Clooney who has a different body type than Chace Crawford or John Legend but again, all are beautiful men.

    Speaking of Chief Tyrol, he was a good looking man. Rugged and distinguished but he was attractive in a distinct manner as was Adama. They may not have been “beefcakes” like Helo or Apollo (the fathers of my children) but still attractive. Laura Rosalyn (sp?) was not Tricia Helfer but she’s a beautiful woman herself.

    When we start showcasing beauty in all types, lot of these problems aren’t going to be as prevalent.

    “There is plenty of room in SF and F for fantastic boobs and heroic pecs. They’re not mutually-exclusive, nor are they symptomatic of a malady. It’s human nature to seek out and admire that which is beautiful, bigger, and more impressive than the ordinary.”


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