Boys, Boobs, Bays: Baywatch, Humor, and Male and Female Bodies

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[Please note: This post features both spoilers and explicit language, used mostly to quote the film.]

I walked into the theater to see Baywatch (2017) with very low expectations. All I’d come for was Dwayne Johnson and that was all I really expected out of the movie. I thought I was about to be subjected to 116 minutes of low-brow potty and sexual humor à la discomfiting pieces like The Hangover, Stepbrothers, Ted, This is the End, Pineapple Express, and their ilk. Baywatch, however, starring Dwayne Johnson, Zac Efron, Alexandra Daddario, and Priyanka Chopra, featured more than just slo-mo running, innuendo, and swear words. Instead, the remake was emotionally touching and portrayed the age-old makeshift family trope as well as healthy romantic relationships and inspirational speeches. On top of that, the gender politics of Baywatch ran unexpectedly counter to its genre’s tendencies, portraying body and sexual humor that was not raunchy or objectifying. Instead, this film’s humor is equal opportunity — male and female bodies alike are featured — and is often used responsibly to highlight problematic social and ideological tendencies.

In the bay, Johnson’s Mitch, Baywatch head lifeguard, is the big man of the beach. Everyone knows him; everyone loves him; everyone has a story to tell of when he saved their life. Then Efron’s Matt Brody enters the scene: Olympic gold-medal champion down on his luck, forced to serve his community service on Baywatch, bad attitude, worse obedience. The two characters clash just as the number of drugs and dead bodies on the beach are racking up. To save their bay and numerous lives, Mitch, Brody, and the Baywatch team must come together, fight crime, and defeat the bad guy — I mean, girl.

Equal opportunity is the name of the game in Baywatch. While most blockbuster movies feature an uneven ratio of male to female characters, the Baywatch team is made up of three girls and three boys. The girls are taken as seriously as the boys — sometimes, even more so. Daddario’s Summer is portrayed as capable, strong, and ready to save the day or kick somebody’s ass while both Ilfenesh Hadera’s Stephanie and Kelly Rohrbach’s CJ are seasoned Baywatch alum who Mitch trusts implicitly. The team works like clockwork (except when Brody tries to showboat) because there is never a question of individual team members’ performances based on gender or even body type. Even Jon Bass’s Ronnie, a boy who looks significantly less fit when stood next to Johnson and Efron, is never doubted or counted out, a trope of excess-figurative-and-literal-weight that many comedy movies — and other genres as well — utilize to the point of obscenity. On the Baywatch team, there is no such thing as inequality based on any aspect of an individuals’ character, appearance, or identity.

In a similar move, equality abounds in regards to the movie’s use of body humor as well. In a movie based on a TV show immortalized for its sexualization of its female characters, I expected to see women belittled, objectified, and thrown under the bus as humorous film fodder. The overused trope of the objectified female body is quite typical in film — the male gaze is paramount in moviemaking — and the comedy genre especially likes to sweep women and their bodies into the exclusive categories of “sexy,” “(sex) object,” and “funny.” In this way, the female body is generally used in comedy as a prop piece. Not so in Baywatch. Not only are the female bodies in Baywatch not objectified to the point of nixing a character’s existence, but the humor associated with their bodies rarely disempowers them as objectification typically does. Instead, in moments like CJ’s first slo-mo run, the jokes made don’t focus on her body; they focus on her. “Why does it look like she’s always running in slow motion?” Daddario’s Summer asks, to which Bass’s Ronnie exclaims, “You see it too?!” This makes CJ awe-inspiring and powerful, able to slow time and capture everyone’s attention; the power is in her hands even with her bathing suit zipped to the midway point of her cleavage. Summer has a scene with Brody that also transfers the power from the male gaze to her own character when she catches him repeatedly looking at her breasts. “Did you just look at my boobs?” she demands. When Brody denies it, she bounces to get his attention right where she wants it and catches him red-handed. It’s a funny moment of girl power, and it’s at the expense not of Summer and her body, but of Brody and his pride. While the girls still wear a revealing array of swimsuits and skintight dresses and skirts throughout the film, these aspects of their appearance are never used to belittle or objectify the girls. If anything, the female body in Baywatch is empowered in being highlighted and used for humorous moments.

And it’s not just the girls subjected to body humor: The boys are thrown under the bus just as often. They have to remove their shirts, whetting and quenching the female viewers’ interest, and male nudity is not only featured more but is the only nudity, humorous or otherwise, in the whole film. In fact, there are significantly more penis jokes (4+) than boob jokes (2) and the word “dick” is used repeatedly in single scenes while no vulgur terms for breasts are used. The two scenes featuring actual penises — Ronnie’s trapped boner and Brody’s interaction at the coroner’s —also last longer and draw literal attention to the appendage (as in, it’s visible) in a way that the boob jokes do not. In contrast to the use of female bodies for body humor, both of the prominent penis jokes are used to humiliate and even disempower the male characters involved. Also, female characters are not perpetrators of the jokes, but they are gleeful witnesses. While this is just as problematic as the filmic tendency to satisfy the male gaze and psyche, it is interesting that Baywatch goes a step further in its use of body humor and completely reverses the comedy genre’s tendency to use female bodies to disempower and male bodies to empower.

In a move rarely seen in most movies, let alone comedies, Baywatch uses its humor to highlight problematic ideological tendencies that leak unannounced into other movies but seem to be wholly intentional in this one. Women who are sexually harassed are not left voiceless or inactive; Summer dismissively declares “And no fucks were given” when Brody first tries to pursue her in typical fuckboy fashion and later humiliates him further by dramatically swooning and begging him to “[p]ut baby in me now.” Not only does this empower Daddario’s Summer but it also reverses archetypes like that of the pursued female, the oversexualized female, and the submissive female and recalls the problematic social tendency to discount sexual harassment and assault. Later, in a scene featuring far less humor, when Mitch is fired, Hadera’s Stephanie is wholly overlooked for the job despite Mitch’s recommendation and her experience and talent. When Brody is given the position instead, this moment directly reflects the tendency in professional settings to overlook female candidates for often less-experienced male candidates. Chopra’s Victoria Leeds also gets to address this same ideological double standard for women: When Brody declares she’s “crazy,” her response is stone-cold: “If I were a man, you’d call me driven.” Humor is used, unexpectedly, as a responsibility in Baywatch, highlighting harmful ideologies like sexualization, sexual harassment, and gender double standards.

In these ways, Baywatch uses humor not to stand by and further problematize ideological body politics, but instead uses body humor as a tool to create character, empower characters, and note problematic comedic tendencies. While this summer blockbuster could have fallen in with other raunchy comedies — often featuring only or mostly male-leads —, it welcomes not only all audience members but all bodies, genders, and identities to its story. While not a potential award-winner (except maybe for Johnson’s smile — I mean, wait, did I say that?), Baywatch breaks down stereotypes and ideologies and uses equality and responsibility in creating humor featuring both male and female bodies.

 

 

 

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