Along with the increased interconnectivity and constant exposure to mass-media’s visibly gendered and sexual representations of the human body, male physique is being (re)moulded. New masculinities are relying on cultural and social capital to embody the neo-hipster and the sporno in an effort to verify their offline lives. As a result they’re experiencing what women or marginalised/subordinate men have experienced all the time: representing the particular and the material.
As traditional and socially embedded male hegemony gets eroded, normative masculinities are becoming more and more objectified and sexualised, resulting in a spectacle indicating a (partial) loss of the ‘perceived’ power. My research examines the male physique spectacle (online and offline), the masculine persona and the changing sexualities, while my studio practice will utilise the deconstructive methods of collage along with screenprinting and photography to break the ‘template’ and reveal its desires and vulnerabilities.
What follows is a part rant/part abstract which was printed alongside my first (of a series) exhibition at George Fraser Gallery on Sept 4, 2014.
With the emergence and proliferation of the smartphone, along with increased interconnectivity and constant exposure to mass-media’s visibly gendered and sexual representations of the human body, male physique is being (re)moulded. Mainstream culture is getting ‘pornified’1, and new visual desires are being (re)fashioned relying on new conventions of selfrepresentation–the compulsion of seeing yourself in a mirror (or through a lens), then throwing it out in the open for everyone to see.2
“When you work in the fashion industry you can make things that are seen by so many people. That’s the
most subversive thing [having a sex website]; to be out in the mainstream and get away with it. I know most people have collections of this kind of material… It comes from porn. I think it will become the norm for people to have cameras in their homes, documenting their sexual activity. It’s there; why not bring it out into a mainstream context? I guess it’s just fun to have the website up, like a hobby, every guy’s dream.”3 (emphasis added)
The above paragraph is an excerpt from an interview by Dian Hanson in Terry Richardson’s book Terryworld,
published by Taschen in 2004 (1st edition). Terry shot these photos in a close range, documentary-amateurish style, revealing his own adventures and that of his friends, their sex life, the things they get up to. The photos project a certain authenticity, an unrefined and unprocessed fascade, maybe (try-hard) shocking. It also looks a bit outrageous or sleazy, but definitely not subversive. No, not in 2014. Not anymore.
Nowadays we have Tumblr, Instagram, Twitter, Vine, Facebook, Snapchat, Redtube, Xtube and a whole suite of blogs, mini-blogs, X-rated moblogs and social media websites or dating apps like Tinder or Grindr where we constantly post, brag, show-off, exhibit and ‘empower’ ourselves with ‘likes’, ‘reblogs’, ‘comments’, ‘hearts’and ‘thumbs-ups’. Terry’s photos have lost their impact, there’s no more shock, no upset or disconcert, it’s just vanilla, and somehow common.
Natasha left this book in front of my studio. She [obviously] didn’t want it anymore, and thought I might be interested in it. I was, to some degree… A bit… But then I felt ‘meh!’
I see these images everywhere nowadays, it’s not“every guy’s dream” anymore. In just 10 years’ time (approximately–depending when the interview was made) we have crossed the threshold of Terry’s [then] transgressive documentation–minus the drugs part. Maybe. So I type his website URL and check out his new entries. The first photo I pause for, is him with Jared Leto, flexing arms together, showing off their muscles. I browse more, and I can see the pattern; yes, the bodies have changed, the models ‘evolved’. Terry’s subjects are now more defined, athletic, muscular, have six-packs (abdominal muscles), they’re thin(ner). They look plastic, polished, unblemished… almost statuesque. I suddenly feel it lacks authenticity, the ‘realness’ is gone. I start wondering what’s my real? Who defines real? Those naked bodies in the photos are real after all. They are actual corporeal human bodies, and I start asking myself why do they not feel ‘real’ to me. My ‘real’– through my eyes, my perspective, myself. I reflect on my own definitions of beautiful, contemplating on all the porn I’ve seen, I still watch and browse, all the magazines I have right here in front of me. I sit back and I’m reminded…
“… people whose bodies comply with valued conventions are admired, praised, and held up to others as ideals to be emulated. In short, by judging, rewarding and punishing people of different body sizes, shapes, weights, and musculature, members of a social group persuade and coerce each other to construct socially acceptable–and similar-looking– bodies.”4
Our bodies have changed and are still changing form. The question I wanted to raise here is who defines my real? Who determines what my beautiful or pleasing is? Who decides and who benefits? Who can, or has the power to change these values and how they operate?
Our views about bodies aren’t just aesthetic, they’re moral judgements at the same time. When someone’s body is inconsistent with the prevailing social convention, as in weight, height and/or shape, that person is “viewed as lacking in self-control and self-respect”.5 Athletic male bodies have symbolic currency. This “spornosexual”6 figure is not only “a common resource for judging the adequacy of self and others”7 but also “a mosaic of physical, economic, and aesthetic transformations, a pastiche of ends and means”.8 The fit body conveys certain social values such as status, health and income. This corporeal body is socially shaped and engenders social class and its divisions.9
“Be a man!” Three words that have a huge impact on young boys growing up. There’s a modelled, constructed masculinity, an image of an ‘ideal’ that doesn’t allow these growing beings to be secure in their own body. Society, peer-pressure–including parents, force these young individuals to display and prove their gender all the time. “Manliness takes different shapes in different cultures and changes over time”10.
Men assimilate these so-called ‘masculine values’ and create a form of masculine identity. They seldom step out of these constructed ideals to consider other alternatives. Apartfrom feeling an urge to display their masculinity, they are challenged to manifest it. But this socially shaped physical form, from movies, TV, magazines and fashion world is getting attention. Feminism authorised women to look, and this automatically extended to the male population across the sexual continuum11. Consumption of goods, advertising and media, are all bombarding society and its agents to gaze, to look, to want, and in the process, validating the physical strength that is valorised in male competitive activities.
The sensationalisation of sports by popular media, constructs a fetishisation of the representation and the figure of an athlete. These guys are revered and have celebrity status, they project the visual image of an idealised male: strong, tenacious, active and usually portrayed as heterosexual. Just have a look at the Jockey 2014 underwear campaign. These sportsmen function as role-models, whether they intend it, or not. They become the main focus of many adolescents who’d want to emulate and follow in their steps. The sports arena embodies many masculine qualities valued by contemporary culture. A ‘battleground’, where they push, race, punch, hit, exchange blows, compete, pierce, and crush. When these sporting bodies get coverage, they become copies ready to be reproduced.
Along with the popularisation of the internet and the dating/social apps these figures have now moved online. As they fi nd their way to the ether, they’re being constantly consumed, assimilated, appropriated and re-appropriated. The blogosphere is full of half naked sportsmen and many more fully naked athletic bodies, flexing their muscles and showing off . Throughout the process, we’re producing what we’ve consumed, and that in its turn, is to be consumed by others, then others. These countless iterations of male physique and representation have already built up and become the norm, as in Beaudrillard’s example of Borges’ map in Simulations. These “empty abstractions” from the constant bombardment of advertising have created an image that now has “hold on our most vibrant immediate sense of what is, and what matters”.12 (emphasis in original)
The dilemmas that face, and still oppress the female population on body image have now permeated (and are still penetrating) the male population. As the gaze changes directions, rotates and moves around, so will the psychological challenges and the emotional difficulties created by a culture of body beautiful. As I pause on the word ‘beautiful’, I ask myself what is my beautiful, what is my attractive? I think about all those people I fi nd beautiful, or sexually attractive, the kind I stop and look back or the type I wish I was. I realise that I am, after all, a product of this consumeroriented, billboard-ridden, porn-fi lled society, an outcome of all the advertising I was bombarded with, and all the comics, TV shows and movies I’ve seen.
- Brian McNair, Striptease Culture : Sex, Media and the Democratization of Desire/Brian McNair. (London: Routledge 2002).
- Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: The Will to Knowledge (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978).
- Dian Hanson and Terry Richardson, “Welcome to Terryworld” in Terryworld, ed. Dian Hanson, First Edition edition (Köln; Los Angeles: Taschen, 2004), 5.
- Judith Lorber and Patricia Yancey Martin, “The Socially Constructed Body: Insights from a feminist theory” in Peter Kivisto, ed., Illuminating Social Life: Classical and Contemporary Theory Revisited (Pine Forge Press, 2011), 284.
- Lorber and Yancey, Illuminating Social Life: Classical and Contemporary Theory Revisited, 284.
- Spornosexual is a term coined by Mark Simpson, a portmanteau of sports, porn and metrosexual. “A neologism used to describe a new male aesthetic marked by physical fi tness, certain types of body art and social media narcissism.” (source: knowyourmeme).
Mark Simpson, “The Metrosexual Is Dead. Long Live the ‘Spornosexual,’” June 10, 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/fashion-and-style/10881682/The-metrosexualis-dead.-Long-live-the-spornosexual.html.
- Lee F. Monaghan, “‘Postmodern’ Muscle: The Embodied Pleasures of Vibrant Physicality” in Lee F. Monaghan and Michael Atkinson ed., Challenging Myths of Masculinity: Understanding Physical Cultures, New edition edition (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate Pub Co, 2014), 17.
- Howard Saul Becker et al., Symbolic Interaction and Cultural Studies [electronic Resource] / Edited by Howard S. Becker and Michal M. McCall. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1990, 1990), 233.
- Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste/Pierre Bourdieu; Trans. by Richard Nice. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul 1984, 1984).
- Herbert Sussman, Masculine Identities: The History and Meanings of Manliness (Santa Barbara, Calif: Praeger, 2012), 1.
- American Psychological Association, Answers to your questions: For a better understanding of sexual orientation and homosexuality. (Washington, DC, 2008) Retrieved from www.apa.org/topics/sorientation.pdf.
- Susan Bordo, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (Berkeley, Calif.: University ofCalifornia Press, 2003