Someone (who shall remain nameless…) started me on Supernatural. Yes I know I’m about eight seasons too late but in the last couple of weeks I have rectified that and am halfway though season six already. It has become something of an obsession and I am just about in love with Cas…but I digress.
The purpose of this post is not a foray into fandom, nor a litany of reasons why I too want a gruff little angel to call my own. Nope, I’m talking about the increasing trend of feminising male heroes.
Take that image, for example. Jensen Ackles, as anyone who is anyone will know. He plays Dean, the butch big brother to Jared Padalecki’s Sam.
Now like all good alpha heroes, Dean is royally screwed in the head from the offset. And by what? By love, of course. Just like every Darcy and Heathcliff before him. It’s a trope as old as time: you take a big, strong man who – allegedly – has no time for the weaker sentiments of the heart. He’s a badass through and through. Except, of course, he isn’t. Really he’s a big simpering jelly of emotion, and don’t we as readers/viewers love to watch him fall apart? Ackles, for the record, cries beautifully. And oh! how frequently Dean cries.
Still, I did find my eyebrows rising when I saw that particular image posted on his facebook page. (Don’t. Just don’t. I know, I know, I know.) You don’t need me to point out that’s a completely feminised image. Time was we’d get our kicks perving on our heroes either covertly or innocuously (after all, men are expected to wander around topless at some point or other). The shot of Colin Firth coming out of the lake as Mr Darcy being a case in point.
Yet another feminised image, although not such a blatant one. His white shirt all wet and clingy, the dusky hint of nipple, the way the material clings to the contours of his body… Is is really any different to half-naked images of wet women on beaches?
Not so much.
So maybe we’ve always enjoyed turning our alphamen into fetishistic objects, and maybe the only way we know how to do that is to feminise them. Or perhaps we consider all objectified bodies as feminine regardless of biology? Are the two things intrinsically linked? When we see an image of a body created for the purpose of titillating the viewer, why do we automatically connote that with femininity?
The desiring gaze has, historically, been the sole preserve of men. Women are not meant to make eye contact, they are meant neither to leer nor to respond to leering. Women are the subject. We are designed to be looked at, not to look. This view is ubiquitous. Listen to any lament about “the state of things today” and somewhere in there, I guarantee, will be the example of so-called “ladettes” catcalling and leering at men when they go out drinking. Turns out, the boys don’t so much like the shoe being on the other foot.
Yet you can’t get far without being confronted with some primped and primed airbrushed image of aspirational masculinity. By which I mean femininity. Men are waxed and shaved and sculpted just as much as women these days. Their outward signifiers of maleness – stubble/beard growth, muscle definition, that tantalising bulge between the legs – are worn almost as drag. They’re posing as men.
Something like that, for example. Look at those perfectly sculpted eyebrows, the lovely long lashes, flawless skin, pouting pink lips and big baby blues. He’s adorable. And that stubble sets it off perfectly: razor-edged and designer-length. Just to remind us viewers that he is, categorically, a man.
I could show you a hundred, a thousand images exactly like this one. This is the new face of desirable masculinity.
I have a book that I positively adore, Male Mystique. It’s a collection of old magazine ads from the ’60s and ’70s for various products aimed at men. They shout slogans such as Attention Male Chauvinist Pigs and Now Get Swedish Girls! (My personal favourite – Musk. The missing link between animal and man.) No gloriously made-up and perfectly presented blokes here. They positively wallow in the beards and musk; leather and cigarettes and fine-aged whisky. But isn’t that just another form of fetishisation?
Rather like car design seems to go in trends, from the boxy brown and orange creations of the ’70s that today are painful to the eye, to the sweeping, curvaceous machines of the new century, so too do men and women remodel themselves (and each other!). Curves are the new straight lines, as it were, be those curves a perfectly-proportioned breast or the soft swell of downy-haired, gym-honed pectorals.
As I stated at the beginning of this post, we have always – always – feminised male heroes (inasmuch as being a fool for love is a feminine trait). From Romeo to Darcy to Dean, they’re all men deemed by general consensus to be strong, butch, alpha; yet they all fall to pieces when it comes to matters of the heart. Love takes them and tears them apart and if they don’t get their HEA it destroys them, be that love romantic or familial (or combination of the two!).
What we are seeing, in these pretty-boy poster images, is the visual representation of a fictional trope that has existed for centuries. And, of course, the shifting trends of what is and isn’t considered attractive. Five or ten years from now, those images will have changed again. But the alpha heroes will remain the same.