This is a shift in pop culture from the rom-com eras defined by such leading men as Cary Grant, Tom Hanks and Hugh Grant, when female audiences largely contented themselves with tailored suits or floppy hair as the definition of desirability. When Cary Grant traded his iconic suits and clean-shaven chin for his grizzled and tie-hating character in “Father Goose,” one of his final films, audiences were shocked and dismayed. Even the enduring appeal of “The Phantom of the Opera” depends in part on the audience’s horror at the possibility of the disfigured Erik romancing the beautiful Christine.
But now we have pretty male actors such as Sam Heughan and Jamie Dornan slowly peeling off their shirts in mood lighting to reveal cigarette burns and past flagellation. On Netflix’s “Daredevil,” when Charlie Cox’s Matt Murdock answers the door shirtless, the woman on the other side can’t keep her eyes off his chest — which is typically bloody and bandaged. And this summer’s “Tarzan” delayed until well into the movie the moment when Alexander Skarsgard’s eponymous character transformed from buttoned-up gentleman to jungle man, building up early with a slow pan over white scar tissue on his hands and ultimately giving the audience its climax when he bared his scar-defined six pack. Judging by the range of scare tissue on screen, it seems audiences can’t get enough.
Is this just another symptom of our collective cultural tastes getting darker? I suspect it is more a sign that female audiences’ tastes are changing. The critical take might be that women want a traumatized man they can “fix.” But considering the indelibility of scar tissue, I suspect there’s more to it: No longer do we need our men to be perfect. We want them to be survivors.
The scarred man of pop culture isn’t necessarily more realistic than the ideal romantic hero of the past. But he is not afraid to show that life has touched him. He has been through hardship, and the woman in his life loves him more for it. Perhaps she has been through some, too, and a man who gets that makes her feel safer. This is a good thing for men because it allows them vulnerability. The physical scars are often a sign of emotional trauma.
Thinking back to Disney princes of the 20th century, they had Ken-doll perfect looks, but still had flaws. Their flaws were usually being oblivious. Unlike the women in their lives, these princes had been mostly protected from the world. Following Disney logic, perhaps that left them better positioned to “rescue” their love interests.
But today, women are less interested in being saved and more interested in partners who save each other. This could be partly due to the fact that half the current U.S. population is remaining unmarried into our late 20s and beyond. Most of us bring a past, potentially serious baggage, to our relationships. Of course, despite that, we want our escapist rom-com entertainment to promise we can still have good and satisfying romance.
Unfortunately this shift in interest by female audiences has created yet another double standard for women in pop culture: We have yet to see a trend toward scarred women on screen. It is no longer “settling” for a woman to love a man with baggage, but men are still encouraged to like their women untouched by life. Tarzan’s Jane may have had her own life when he met her, but she was also untouched and protected — and that’s even more true of “Fifty Shades’” Anastasia. “Outlander’s” Claire and “Daredevil’s” Elektra and Karen all have difficult pasts, but you’d never know it from looking at them. Someday I hope we have more than Furiosa of “Mad Max: Fury Road” or Jessica Jones as examples of leading women scarred by their past.
It’s time for our culture to find beauty in the stories that mark us. Pop culture and the women who love it have come to accept the sexiness of a man who has lived hard enough to leave scars. Let’s rethink whether women can be sexy with the same kind of history.