Body Talk: Men in the Media
Introduction The ubiquitous male model, all rippling muscle and emotional intelligence, is actually a very recent and culturally specific phenomenon. In this article, Rosalind Gill, lecturer in gender studies and media at the London School of Economics and Political Science, discusses the rise of images and representations of the male body in advertising and the male vanity press. She argues that a series of cultural and social shifts in the 1970s and 1980s, from feminism to the mainstreaming of gay subculture, allowed for images of this hard, sexy and sensitive man to circulate and proliferate, leaving a space that allows women to ogle as well.
Over the last decade there has been a dramatic increase in the number of images of men in popular culture. Where once images of women dominated advertising and magazines, increasingly men's bodies are taking up the inches on billboards, in fashion shoots and in high circulation magazines. However, it is not simply that there are now more images of men circulating, but that a specific kind of representational practice for depicting the male body has emerged: namely an idealised and eroticised aesthetic showing a toned, young body.
These images are most often and most clearly seen in advertising imagery, for example promotions for fragrances, underwear and shaving products. In addition to advertising, there is a very recent, less-than-a-decade-old industry in men's magazines, which have very similar representations on their covers. These are extraordinary publications--you can buy them month-in, month-out, and they are absolutely identical. I defy anybody to tell the difference between the men on the cover and any of the content of these magazines.
I would like to consider this new way of representing the male body in the media. Having conducted about 140 interviews with young men aged 15 to 35 and talked to them about how they felt about this new idealised, eroticised way of representing the male body, I am convinced that this imagery is taking off very rapidly and in a very influential manner.
This is a new phenomenon, which is culturally and historically specific. This is not to suggest that male bodies haven't been presented as desirable in the past--you only have to glance at the last one hundred years of cinema and come up with matinee idols such as Cary Grant and James Dean, to realise that men's bodies have, of course, been depicted as attractive in the past. What are new, however, are the ways in which the male body is being represented, and specifically the way that the body is coded so as to give permission for it to be looked at and to be desired. This constitutes a disruption to conventional patterns of looking, immortalised in John Berger's famous phrase, "men look at women, and women watch themselves being looked at."
A number of different trends have converged to produce this new representational practice. Clearly feminism has been crucial in producing changes in the way that masculinity is depicted and regarded. Feminists' interrogation of conventional assumptions about gender relations and feminists' problematisation of traditional masculinity have had a seismic effect on popular culture, and on social relations. Through the influence of feminism many taken-for-granted aspects of masculinity were questioned. These critiques gave rise to a new appetite for a kind of masculinity, which would encompass many traits previously thought of as feminine: emotionality, intimacy, nurturing, and caring.
We must also acknowledge the rise of humanist psychology, which took hold in the late 1970s and 1980s. This added weight to feminist attempts to reinvent gender. Such popular psychology took as its focus the notion of the "whole person." It was concerned with good communication and with validating different parts of the person and different styles of interaction. For example, assertiveness was promoted over aggressiveness. There was an increase and interest in personal therapy and in a range of alternative and complementary approaches to medicine or healing.
movements did, when taken together, was to put the idea of the whole
person on the agenda. The whole person was the self-actualised person,
and this person was implicitly seen as androgynous, with much literature
arguing that extreme masculinity and extreme femininity were not simply
socially restricting or damaging, but were also actually unhealthy.
The nature of that new man is highly contested. For some people the new man represented a shift to an emotionally and domestically involved man who is more nurturing and pro-feminist; for others he was an individualistic and narcissistic man whose bathroom shelves were groaning under the weight of fragrances and shaving products, some of which these adverts represent.
For others still the new man was the great pretender, a wolf in sheep's clothing, trying to hold on to their power whilst outwardly appearing to have changed. Although there are lots of different conceptions of what or who the new man is, there is nevertheless a sense that a new man or some different types of men have been produced.
A trend, which contributed to the proliferation of these types and images, was the rise of the style press, particularly in the 1980s. For years within the fashion magazine and advertising industries people had fantasised about the creation of a magazine that could be targeted at affluent male consumers--particularly young affluent male consumers--but this was seen as an impossible dream. The main reasons for this were that men didn't define themselves as men in the same way that women defined themselves as women. They lacked the self-consciousness about their gender. While they might buy magazines about fishing, cars, hi-fis or photography, there was a scepticism within the magazine industry about whether or not they would actually buy a title that was organised solely around the idea of being a man, in the way that women buy magazines organised around being a woman or being a particular kind of woman.
The second problem, if the first obstacle could be overcome, was the kind of tone such a magazine might adopt. Women's magazines had long adopted the formula of treating their readers like friends, and they established an intimate tone. However, this kind of intimacy and this kind of sharing, which was so unproblematic with women, was seen as being potentially threatening to men, particularly to heterosexual men. But the argument goes that in the 1980s this taboo was broken down. Sean Nixon has written very persuasively about this, talking about the emergence of The Face magazine as a key moment that allowed depictions of masculinity to move from a gay subculture into the mainstream. The rise of the style press gave permission for many different kinds of images of masculinity to circulate that did not exist previously.
The new man shopping
The pink press
It is within the gay media that representations of men as erotic objects to be viewed were first produced, and arguably what has happened over the last decade is the mainstreaming of this genre. If indeed these gay images of men have gone mainstream, then this has been the result of a realisation that representations of men previously confined to gay subcultures were enormously desirable to some sexual heterosexual women. Suzanne Moore has argued that it was precisely the growing visibility of eroticised representations of men outside the gay media that facilitated or gave permission for a new kind of gaze among women. She suggests that this constitutes a major disruption to the politics of looking, so that rather than simply being objects of the gaze, women have become active subjects who can look as well as be looked at.
Women can look as well
Back to the pictures
The emergence of this kind of representational practice and the pervasiveness of this practice as a way of representing men's bodies has led to a number of different claims being made about what is going on. One is the suggestion that we have actually seen a radical change in the scopic order, that it is no longer just women who are objectified, that now men are equally objectified. Another linked claim has been that the consequences of this kind of change will be more and more problematic among young men in particular and associated with poor body image. Commentators talking about this often cite the rise in eating disorders among young men as one of the impacts of this kind of imagery.
A third, more general claim is that men are increasingly defining themselves through their bodies and this is linked to more general sociological and economic arguments about what has happened to work and the end of the career. The decline of manufacturing and the end of the notion of a job for life has led to assertions that men have been searching for new sources of identity. What they have come up with is their body as a study in identity and self-definition.