Rethinking Masculinity: Men and Their Bodies
Rosalind Gill

Session 2 Body Talk: Men in the Spotlight

Intro Session 1 Session 3 Session 4 Session 5 Session 6

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.

This session will consider this new way of representing the male body in the media. Having conducted about 140 interviews with young men aged fifteen to thirty-five and talked to them about how they felt about this new idealised, eroticised way of representing the male body, we are 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."

The impact of feminism and psychology

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.

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.

What these 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 rise of the new man

The rise of what have been called "new social movements" was also influential. Included in this category alongside feminism were the peace movement, anti-racist organisations, environmental movements, movements for sexual liberation, and also a variety of identity-based political organisations focusing on disability rights, post-colonial struggles, etc. What this very loose categorisation of groups share is disillusionment with conventional class-based party politics and a commitment to new forms of organisation and struggle, based less on the idea of representation and representative democracy, and more on the idea of direct action. Taken together, these new social movements disrupted our very understanding of what politics meant and represented everyday life as irredeemably political. They also promoted a different model of the individual as someone who is connected not just to family, but to wider communities and also to the environment. In doing so, I would argue that they sowed the seeds for a revisioning of traditional masculinity, and they helped to create a milieu in which a new man could emerge and flourish.

Thinking Point
How important do you think the impact of feminism has been on male representation in the media and on men's self-conception.
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 his 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 rise of retailing was the next decisive shift. In the 1980s there were massive changes taking place in the economy, a dramatic decline in manufacturing and very great rises in the service sector and retailing. Alongside this, there was a new sense in which shopping was being promoted as a major leisure activity, with the opening of large themed shopping centres, the provision of crèches and restaurants in shopping centres, and bizarrely, the promotion of trips to large out-of-town stores as a "relaxing day out for the whole family!" In fact, studies consistently find that shopping is the main leisure activity of the British. In the late 1980s especially, this new man, this nebulous highly-contested character, became the new target for fashion companies. This was heralded as a quiet revolution because men had always been considered a market that was difficult to crack. Traditionally women had done a lot of men's shopping for them: mothers and wives of heterosexual men usually bought many of their clothes. So targeting men as consumers was seen as something that was very difficult but also something that promised huge rewards.  

Music and fashion

A further factor that has evolved to produce these new kinds of images of men and their bodies is, of course, music and different musical trends. Frank Mort has argued that the new playful relationship between clothes and identity is the result of a series of changes that were actually provoked by punk in the 1970s. With its emphasis on bricollage, the putting together of things that were normally kept apart, punk created a space for men and women to be able to play with different self-presentations. It allowed the breakdown of stable chains of signification. And of course different musical cultures allow for different presentations of masculinity, so you only have to think of the image of masculinity in rap compared with heavy metal compared with new romantic compared with any number of musical subcultures. They opened up different possibilities for representing masculinity.

The Pink Press

The rise of the gay movement has been absolutely crucial and is central to our understanding of representational practices for depicting masculinities. In the UK there has recently been a great proliferation of magazines aimed at gay men. Interestingly, they are no longer just targeted at a gay political activist audience, but they specifically offer new pleasurable representations, not just those deemed politically sound. This reflects the increasing confidence of the gay community, at least in metropolitan areas, as well as the increasing corporate recognition of the power of the pink pound. And these magazines, together with gay porn, pin-ups and particular subcultural styles within the club scene, have had a profound effect on representations of masculinity through a routing that has gone through gay pornography, art-house photography and advertising. Most notably they have cleaved apart the association of masculinity with heterosexuality and the elision of masculinity with activity by showing men not simply as active sexual subjects, but as objects of desire.

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

This trend is evident in the new confident tone of women's magazines and models in advertisements who now look back and talk back, rather than simply existing as passive objects. It is humorously depicted in adverts like the Diet Coke 11 o'clock appointment, where women queue up so that they can gaze at the toned body of the labourer outside the window. The choice of labourer is very interesting, because the labourer is the iconic example of someone who is traditionally supposed to ogle women, and here this has been inverted. Without overstating this point, there are clearly many adverts, which are tapping into this idea of women being active subjects, looking at men's bodies.

Back to the pictures

So what exactly are the characteristics of the representations that we are talking about? One thing seems clear: rather than there being a diversity or a variety of different representations, we are actually confronting a very specific generic style. The models are generally white(black models are still almost exclusively confined to sports product and sports wear imagery); they are always young, usually around 30 or younger; they are always muscular; they are always slim; they are usually clean-shaven although they might have a little bit of designer stubble and they have particular facial features that connote a combination of softness and strength: strong jaw, large lips and eyes, and soft clear skin.

Thinking Point
What influence has the gay movement had on representations of men in the media over the last 20 years?
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. Here the body has emerged centre-stage.


Session 3