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beauty (re)discovers the male body

excerpts from Susan Bordo, The Male Body

p. 168: men on display

Putting classical art to the side for the moment, the naked and the nearly naked female body became an object of mainstream consumption first in Playboy and its imitators, then in movies, and only then in fashion photographs. With the male body, the trajectory has been different. Fashion has taken the lead, the movies have followed. Hollywood may have been a chest-fest in the fifties, but it was male clothing designers who went south and violated the really powerful taboos --not just against the explicit depiction of penises and male bottoms but against the admission of all sorts of forbidden "feminine" qualities in to mainstream conceptions of manliness.

It was the spring of 1995, and I was sipping my first cup of morning coffee, not yet fully awake, flipping through The New York Times Magazine,when I had my first real taste of what it's like to inhabit this visual culture as a man. It was both thrilling and disconcerting. It was the first time in my experience that I had encountered a commercial representation of a male body that seemed to deliberately invited me to linger over it. Let me make that stronger --that seemed to reach out to me, interrupting my mundane but peaceful Sunday morning, and provoke me into erotic consciousness, whether or not I wanted it. Women --both straight and gay-- have always gazed covertly, of course, squeezing out illicit little titillations out of representations designed for --or pretending to-- other purposes than to turn us on. This /p. 169: ad made no such pretense. It caused me to knock over my coffee cup, ruining the more cerebral pleasures of the Book Review. Later, when I had regained by equilibrium, I made a screen-saver out of him, so I could gaze at my leisure.

I'm sure that many gay men were as taken as I was, and perhaps /p. 170 some gay women too....

Some psychologists say that the circuit from eyes to brain to genitals is a quicker trip for men than for women. "There's some strong evidence," popular science writer Deborah Blum reports, citing studies of men's responses to pictures of naked women, "that testosterone is wired for visual response." Maybe. But who is the electrician here? God? Mother Nature? Or Hugh Hefner? Practice makes perfect. And women have had little practice. The Calvin Klein ad made me feel like an adolescent again, brought me back to that day when I saw Barry Resnick on the basketball court....

I brought the ad to classes and lectures, asking women what they thought of him. Most began to sweat the moment I unfolded the picture /p. 171:, then got their bearings and tried to explore the bewitching stew of sexual elements the picture has to offer. The model --a young Jackson Browne look-alike-- stands there in his form-fitting and ripspeckled Calvin Klein briefs, head lowered, dark hair loosely falling over his eyes. His body projects strength, solidity; he's no male waif. But his finely muscled chest is not so overdeveloped as to suggest a sexuality immobilized by the thick matter of the body. Gay theorist Ron Long, describing gay sexual aesthetics --lean, taut, sinuous muscles rather than Schwarzenegger bulk-- points to a "dynamic tension" that the incredible hulks lack. Stiff, engorged Schwarzenegger bodies, he says, seem to be surrogate penises-- with nowhere to go and nothing to do but stand there looking massive --whereas muscles like this young man's seem designed for movement, for sex. His body isn't a stand-in phallus; rather he has a penis --the real thing, not a symbol, and a fairly breathtaking one, clearly outlined through the soft jersey fabric of the briefs. It seems slightly erect, or perhaps that's his non-erect size; either way, there's a substantial presence there that's palpable (it looks so touchable, you want to cup your hand over it) and very, very male.

At the same time, however, my gaze is invited by something "feminized" about the young man. His underwear may be ripped, but ever so slightly, subtly; unlike the original ripped-underwear poster boy Kowalski, he's hardly a thug. He doesn't stare at the viewer challenging, belligerently, as do so many models in other ads for male underwear, facing off like a street tough passing a member of the rival gang on the street ("Yeah, this is an underwear ad and I'm half naked. But I'm still the one in charge here. Who's gonna look away first?") No, this model's beautiful languid body posture, his averted look are classic signals, both in the "natural" and the "cultural" world, of willing subordination. He offers himself nonagressively to the gaze of the another. Hip cocked in the snaky S-curve usually reserved for depictions of women's bodies, eyes downcast but not closed, he gives off a sultry, moody, subtle but undeniably seductive consciousness of his erotic allure. Feast on me, I'm here to be looked at, my body is for your eyes. Oh my.

Such an attitude of male sexual supplication, although it has (as we'll see) classical antecedents, is very new to contemporary mainstream representations. Homophobia is at work in this taboo, but so are attitudes about gender that cut across sexual orientation. For many /p. 172: men, both gay and straight, to be so passively dependent on the gaze of another person for one's sense of self-worth is incompatible with being a real man. As we'll see, such notions about manliness are embedded in Greek culture, in contemporary visual representation, and even (in disguised form) in existentialist philosophy. "For the woman," as philosopher Simone de Beauvoir writes, "...the absence of her lover is always torture; he is an eye, a judge...away from him, she is dispossessed, at once of herself and of the world." For Beauvoir's sometime lover and lifelong soul mate Jean-Paul Sartre, on the other hand, the gaze (or the Look, as he called it) of another person --including the gaze of one's lover -- is the "hell" that other people represent....

/p. 173: Women may dread being surveyed harshly --being seen as too old, too fat, too flat-chested-- but men are not supposed to enjoyed being surveyed period. It's feminine to be on display. Men are thus taught --as my uncle Leon used to say-- to be a moving target....

/p.174: Scientists and "ordinary guys" are totally in synch here, as is humorously illustrated in Peter Cattaneo's popular 1997 British film The Full Monty. In the film, a group of unemployed metalworkers in Sheffield, England, watch a Chippendale's show and hatch the money-making scheme of presenting their own male strip show in which they will go right down to the "full Monty." At the start of the film, the heroes are hardly pillars of successful manliness (Gaz, their leader, refers to them as "scrap"). Yet even they have been sheltered by they guyhood, as they learn while putting the show together. One gets a penis pump. Another borrows his wife's face cream. They run, they wrap their bellies in plastic, they do jumping jacks, they get artificial tans. The most overweight one among them (temporarily) pulls out of the show. Before, these guys hadn't lived their lives under physical scrutiny, but in male action mode, in which men are judged by their accomplishments. Now, anticipating being on display to a roomful of spectators, they suddenly realize how it feels to be judged as women routinely are, sized up by another pair of eyes. "I pray that they'll be a bit more understanding about us" than they've been with women, David (the fat one) murmurs.

They get past their discomfort, in the end, and their show is greeted with wild enthusiasm by the audience. The movie leaves us with this feel-good ending, not raising the question obvious to every woman watching the film: would a troupe of out-of-shape women be received as warmly, as affectionately...?

/p. 175: I had to laugh out loud at a 1997 New York Times Magazine "Style" column entitled "Overexposure," which complained of the "contagion" of nudity spreading through celebrity culture. "Stars no longer have private parts," the author observed, and fretted that civilians would soon also be measured by the beauty of their buns. I share the author's concern about our body-obsessed culture. But, pardon me, he's just noticing this now??? Actresses have been baring their breasts, their butts, even their bushes, for some time, and ordinary women have been tromping off to the gym in pursuit of comparably perfect bodies. What's got the author suddenly crying "overkill," it turns out, is Sly Stallone's "surreally fat-free" appearance on the cover of Vanity Fair, and Rupert Everett's "dimpled behind" in a Karl Lagerfeld fashion spread. Now that men are taking off their clothes, the culture is suddenly going too far. Could it be that the author doesn't even "read" all those naked female bodies as "overexposed"?

As for dimpled behinds, my second choice for male pinup of the decade is the Gucci series of two ads in which a beautiful young man, shot from the rear, puts on a pair of briefs. In the first ad, he's holding them in his hands, contemplating them. Is he checking out the correct washing-machine temp? It's odd, surely, to stand there looking at your underwear, but never mind. The point is: his underwear is in his hands, not on his butt. It --his bottom, that is-- is gorgeously, completely naked --a motif so new to mainstream advertising (but since then catching on rapidly) that several of my friends, knowing I was writing /p. 177: about the male body, E-mailed me immediately when they saw the ad. In the second ad, he's put the underwear on, and is adjusting it to fit. Luckily for us, he hasn't succeeded yet, so his buns are peeking out the bottom of the underwear, looking biteable. For the Times writer, those buns may be an indecent exposure of parts that should be kept private for --and for thousands of gay men across the country-- this was a moment of political magnitude, and a delicious one. The body parts that we love to squeeze (those plastic breasts, they're the real yawn for me) had come out of the closet and into mainstream culture, where we can enjoy them without a trip to a specialty shop....

/p. 179: thanks, calvin!

Despite their bisexual appeal, the cultural genealogy of the ads I've been discussing and others like them is to be traced largely through gay male aesthetics, rather than a sudden blossoming of appreciation for the fact that women might enjoy looking at sexy, well-hung young men who don't appear to be about to rape them. Feminists might like to imagine that Madison Avenue heard our pleas for sexual equality and finally gave us "men as sex objects." But what's really happened is that women have been the beneficiaries of what might be described as a triumph of pure consumerism-- and with it, a burgeoning male and fitness and beauty culture-- over homophobia and the taboos against male vanity, male "femininity," and erotic display of the male body that have gone along with it.

Throughout this century, gay photographers have created a rich, sensuous, and dramatic tradition which is unabashed in eroticizing the male body, male sensuousness, and male potency, including penises. But until recently, such representations have been kept largely in the closet. Mainstream responses to several important exhibits which opened in the seventies --featuring the groundbreaking early works of Wilhelm von Gloeden, George Dureau, and George Platt Lynes as well as then-contemporary artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Peter Hujar, and Arthur Tress-- would today probably embarrass the critics who wrote about them when they opened. John Ashbery, in New York magazine, dismissed the entire genre of male nude photography with the same sexist tautology that covertly underlies that Times piece on cultural "overexposure": "Nude women seem to be in their natural state; men, for some reason, merely look undressed...When is a nude not a nude? When it is male." (Substitute "blacks" and "whites" for "women" and "men" and you'll see how offensive the statement is.)

For other reviewers, the naked male, far from seeming "merely undressed," was unnervingly sexual. New York Times critic Gene Thompson wrote that "there is something disconcerting about the sight of a man's naked body being presented as a sexual object"; he went on to describe the world of homoerotic photography as one "closed to most of us, fortunately." Vicki Goldberg, writing for the Saturday Review, was more appreciative of the "beauty and dignity" of the male nude body, but concluded that so long as its depiction was / p. 180: erotic in emphasis, it will "remain half-private, slightly awkward, an art form cast from its traditions and in search of some niche to call its home."

Goldberg needed a course in art history. It's true that in classical art, the naked human body was often presented as a messenger of spiritual themes, and received as such. But the male bodies sculpted by the Greeks and Michelangelo were not exactly nonerotic. It might be more accurate to say that in modernity, with the spiritual interpretation of the nude body no longer a convention, the contemporary homophobic psyche is not screened from the sexual charge of the nude male body. Goldberg was dead wrong about something else too. Whatever its historical lineage, the frankly sexual representation of the male body was to find, in the next twenty years, a far from private "niche to call its home": consumer culture discovered its commercial potency.

Calvin Klein had his epiphany, according to one biography, one night in 1974 in New York's gay Flamingo bar:

As Calvin wandered through the crowd at the Flamingo, the body heat rushed through him like a revelation; this was the cutting edge....[The] men! The men at the Flamingo had less to do about sex for him than the notion of portraying men as gods. He realized that what he was watching was the freedom of a new generation, unashamed, in-the-flesh embodiments of Calvin's ideals: straight-looking, masculine men, with chiseled bodies, young Greek gods come to life. The vision of shirtless young men with hardened torsos, all in blue jeans, top button opened, a whisper of hair from the belly button disappearing into the denim pants, would inspire and inform the next ten years of Calvin Klein's print and television advertisements.

Klein's genius was that of a cultural Geiger counter; his own bisexuality enabled him to see that the phallic body, as much as any female figure, is an enduring sex object within Western culture. In America in 1974, however, that ideal was still largely closeted. Only gay culture unashamedly sexualized the lean, fit body that virtually everyone, gay and straight, now aspires to. Sex, as Calvin Klein knew, sells. He also knew that gay sex wouldn't sell to straight men. But the rock-hard, athletic gay male bodies that Klein admired at the Flamingo did not advertise their sexual preference through the feminine codes --limp wrists, raised pinkie finger, swishy walk-- which the straight world then identified with homosexuality. Rather, they embodies a highly /p. 181: masculine aesthetic that --although definitely exciting for gay men-- would scream "heterosexual" to (clueless) straights. Klein knew just the kind of clothing to show that body off in too....

Klein transformed jeans from utilitarian garments to erotic second skins. Next, Klein went for underwear. He wasn't the first, but he was the most daring. In 1981, Jockey International had broken ground by photographing Baltimore Oriole pitcher Jim Palmer in a pair of briefs (airbrushed) in one of its ads --selling $100 million worth of underwear by year's end. Inspired by Jockey's success, in 1983 Calvin Klein put a forty-by-fifty foot Bruce Weber photograph of Olympic pole vaulter Tom Hintinauss in Times Square., Hintinauss's large penis clearly discernible through his briefs. The Hintinauss ad, unlike the Palmer ad, did not employ any of the usual fictional rationales for a man's being in his underwear --for example, the pretense that the man is in the process of getting dressed-- but blatantly put Hintinauss's body on display, sunbathing on a rooftop, his skin glistening. The line of shorts "flew off the shelves" at Bloomingdale's and when Klein papered bus shelters in Manhattan with poster versions of the ad they were all stolen overnight.

Images of masculinity that will do double (or triple or quadruple) duty with a variety of consumers, straight and gay, male and female, are not difficult to create in a culture like ours, in which the muscular /p. 182:male body has a long and glorious aesthetic history. That's precisely what Calvin Klein was the first to recognize and exploit --the possibility and profitability of what is known in the trade as a "dual marketing" approach. Since then, many advertisers have taken advantage of /p. 183: Klein's insight....

It required a Calvin Klein to give the new vision cultural form. But the fact is that if we've entered a brave, new world of male bodies it is largely because of a more "material" kind of epiphany --a dawning recognition among advertisers of the buying power of gay men. For a long time prejudice had triumphed voer the profit motive, blinding marketers to just how sizable --and well-heeled-- a consumer group gay men represent.... It took a survey conducted by The Advocate to jolt corporate America awake about gay consumers. The survey, done between 1977 and 1980, showed that 70% of its readers aged twenty to forty earned incomes well above the national median. Soon, articles were appearing on the business pages of newspapers, like one in 1982 in The New York Times Magazine, which described advertisers as newly interested in "wooing...the white, single, well-educated, well-paid man who happens to be homosexual."

"Happens to be homosexual": the phrasing --suggesting that sexual identity is peripheral, even accidental-- is telling. Because of homophobia, dual marketing used to require a delicate balancing act, as advertisers tried to speakto gays "in a way that the straight consumer will not notice...."

/p. 185: It used to be, if an advertisement aimed at straight men dared to show a man fussing over his looks with seemingly romantic plans in mind, there had better be a woman in the picture, making it clear just whom the boy was getting pretty for. To sell a muscle-building product to heterosexuals, of course, you had to link it to virility and the ability to attract women on the beach. Today, muscles are openly sold for their looks; Chroma Lean nutritional supplement unabashedly compares the well-sculpted male body to a work of art (and a gay male icon, to boot) --Michelangelo's David. Many ads display the naked male body without shame or plot excuse, and often exploit rather than resolve the sexual ambiguity that is generated....

/p. 186:

rocks and leaners

How do male bodies in the ads speak to us nowadays? In a variety of ways. Sometimes the message is challenging, aggressive. Many models stare coldly at the viewer, defying the observer to view them in any way other than how they have chosen to present themselves: as powerful, armored, emotionally impenetrable. "I am a rock," their bodies (and sometimes their genitals) seem to proclaim. Often, as in the Jackson Browne look-alike ad, the penis is prominent, but unlike the penis in that ad, its presence is martial rather than sensual. Overall, these ads depict what I would describe as "face-off masculinity," in which victory goes to the dominant contestant in a game of will against will. Who can stare the other man down? Who will avert his eyes first? Whose gaze will be triumphant...?

p. 188: "Face-off" ads, except for their innovations in the amount of skin exposed, are pretty traditional --one might even say primal -- in their conception of masculinity.... Pollack's studies of boys suggest that a set of rules -- which he calls "The Boy Code" -- govern their behavior with each other. The first imperative of the code --"Be a sturdy oak" -- represents the emotional equivalent of "face-off masculinity": Never reveal weakness. Pretend to be confident even though you may be scared. Act like a rock even when you feel shaky. Dare others to challenge your position.

The face-off is not the only available posture for male bodies in ads today. Another possibility is what I call "the lean" --because these bodies are almost always reclining, leaning against, or propped up against something in the fashion typical of women's bodies. James Dean was probably our first pop-culture "leaner"'; he made it stylish for teenagers to slouch. Dean, however, never posed as languidly or as openly seductive as some of the high-fashion leaners are today. A recent Calvin Klein "Escape" ad depicts a young, sensuous-looking man leaning against a wall, arm raised, dark underarm hair exposed. His eyes seek out the imagined viewer, soberly but flirtatiously. "Take me," the copy reads.

Languid leaners have actually been around for a long time. Statues of sleeping fauns, their bodies draped langourously, exist in classical /p. 190: art alongside more heroic models of male beauty. I find it interesting, though, that Klein has chosen Mr. Take Me to advertise a perfume called "Escape." Klein's "Eternity" ads usually depict happy, heterosexual couples, often with a child. "Obsession" has always been cutting-edge, sexually ambiguous erotica. This ad, featuring a man offering himself up seductively, invitingly to the observer, promises "escape." From what? To what? Men have complained, justly, about the burden of always having to be the sexual initiator, the pursuer, the one of whom sexual "performance" is expected. Perhaps the escape is from these burdens, and toward the freedom to indulge in some of the more receptive pleasures traditionally reserved for women....

Some people describe these receptive pleasures as "passive" --which gives them a bad press with men, and is just plain inaccurate too. "Passive" hardly describes what's going on when one person offers himself or herself to another. Inviting, receiving, responding --these are active behaviors too, and rather thrilling ones. It's a macho bias to view the only real activity as that which takes, invades, aggresses. It's a bias, however, that's been with us for a long time, in both straight and gay cultures. In many Latin cultures, it's not a disgrace to sleep with other men, so long as one is activo (or machista) -- the penetrator rather than the penetratee. To be a pasivo, on the other hand, is to be socially stigmatized. It's that way in prison cultures too -- a good indication of the power hierarchies involved. These hierarchies date back to the ancient Greeks, who believed that passivity, receptivity, penetrability were marks of inferior feminine being. The qualities were inherent in women; it was our nature to be passively controlled by our sexual needs. (Unlike us, the Greeks viewed women --not men-- as the animalistic ones.) Real Men, who unlike women had the necessary rationality and will, were expected to be judicious in the exercise of their desires. But being judicious and being "active" --deciding when to pursue, whom to pursue, making advances, pleading one's case-- went hand in hand.

Allowing oneself to be pursued, flirting, accepting the advance of /p. 191: another, offering one's body -- these behaviors were permitted also (but only on a temporary basis) to still-developing, younger men. These young men --not little boys, as is sometimes incorrectly believed-- were the true "sex-objects" of elite Greek culture. Full-fledged male citizens, on the other hand, were expected to be "active," initiators, the penatrators and not the penetratees, masters of their own desires rather than the objects of another's.


See separate page dedicated to Calvin Klein ads.