Monday, October 05, 2009

essay: undressed to kill

What we talk about when we talk about men undressing; a version of this appeared in Verve's October issue, in a men's special called 'Best Undressed.'

If you go to Hyde Park in London today, you will see a magnificent bronze statue of Achilles. This sculpture was commissioned and paid for by ‘the women of England,’ who collected a magnificent sum of ten thousand pounds among themselves, hired a well-known sculptor, and had the statue designed by 1822. Reason? The statue was a female tribute to the Duke of Wellington, the dashing, authoritative general who had just recently led Britain to victory in the Napoleonic Wars. Originally titled ‘The Ladies’ Trophy,’ the Achilles statue came to be commonly known as ‘The Ladies’ Fancy.’ ‘The artist had submitted to the female subscribers,’ said a letter of the time, ‘whether this colossal figure should preserve its antique nudity or should be garnished with a fig leaf. It was carried for the leaf by a majority ... [t]he names of the minority have not transpired.’ Later, it turned out that the fig leaf had not been mandated by the women at all – it was the gentlemen who headed the statue committee who ordered the sculptor to cover up Achilles’ man-bits.

It’s worthwhile to stop here and point out that the glories of nude sculpture in India, while providing plenty of juice for the eye in the sacred confines of temple architecture, are unlikely to ever be put to use in service of a human public figure. Can you imagine a statue of a demi-god constructed by all the ‘misty-eyed women’ (as American journalists described the swooning masses who greeted the late Prime Minister on his travels abroad) who idolised Pandit Nehru in the ‘40s and ‘50s? Even more implausible is the idea that women today might commission a crumpet in bronze for his dimpled Gandhi scion, however much we like him.

But then mentally undressing men has grown much easier – breathe easy, Rahul – since Wellington’s time. Obligingly, men these days often undertake to do it themselves. Not since the times of ‘antique nudity’ has the field afforded so much eye candy for the female gaze. They strip on stage at concerts, on the pitch during matches, in film and television. American president Barack Obama even does it on holiday – and three cheers for his firm stomach and well-defined arms. Like devaluating currency, male nudity may not always be for our benefit, but it doesn’t mean we can’t find ways to profit from it.

Women have always been objects of affection, and otherwise. This is what led feminist film critic Laura Mulvey to the theory of the ‘male gaze,’ which argues that cinema always puts the audience in a masculine, subject position, and the woman on screen in a passive role of the object: looked at, wanted, and acquired purely for male visual pleasure. The theory has played a seminal role in the way we talk about male and female roles in culture today. While acknowledging the limitations of seeing all film or all art through this lens, it’s now obvious to us that women are used as passive receptacles of sexual desire to an overwhelming degree in almost every visual art. Studies of advertising have often found that both men and women respond more positively to the aesthetics of a female body that a male one. This may be true; but you can bet that over two and a half millennia of art objectifying women hasn’t come about because girls happen to like girl parts.

So why hasn’t there been an equal and opposite tradition of all-out boy-ogling from the women’s point of view? Fact: for as long as there have been fit men, there have been ladies unabashed about swooning over them. But it’s hardly astonishing that this phenomenon has been put in the shade by its male counterpart. Significant chunks of female public endeavour have already been beaten or burnt out of the history books, and female sexuality more than most. That’s why the Wellington story is entertaining for several reasons: it perfectly illustrates the women’s enterprise, the men’s prudery, and most of all, the effects of mass female enthusiasm for a man who was his time’s equivalent of a Hollywood superstar – just one who could beat tyrannical dictators for real. (You let us know when you’re ready for that, Gerard Butler.)

You may, of course, point out that naked men are very well represented in art history. On the subject of statues alone, we could point to the all the sculpture in Western and Eastern art that does away with the fig leaf and rather obviously worships warriors of a bygone era haunch over bicep. But most of these were created by men; and created in times when worshipping beauty in all its forms came with a certain freedom from sexual expectations. In fact, it’s impossible to separate the undressed man from his context: Michelangelo’s David is semi-religious High Art. For that matter, modern male nudity is just as interestingly complex. What is a punk rocker’s skinny bare chest: a sex symbol, or the embodiment of an entire way of life? What is Thierry Henry doing when he takes his jersey off at the end of a match to swap with an opponent? Is he trying to provoke mass hysteria among watching women or simply partaking in an old football tradition?

Nakedness is contextual. Men have controlled the juncture of creativity and desire for so long that it’s very difficult to see a man stripping as pure titillation. It’s why Madonna’s long-ago quip about crucifixes being sexy ‘because there’s a naked man on them,’ was both so ineffectual and so offensive to some people. It’s simply untrue. It doesn’t tally with the relationship between male nudity and female fantasy. In drawing our attention, the undressed man becomes the subject of a story first, and the object of desire later. We may not always look at a woman in the nude and ask ourselves to look beyond the obvious, but when it comes to undressing men, we want to unpack them on several levels at once.

There is, of course, a whole industry dedicated to naked men and their ability to evoke intense visual pleasure: gay porn. Unsurprisingly, this is not made for straight women; nor is it obliged to. But then, pornography, straight or gay, is almost never created for women – think of all those girl-on-girl skin flicks that have nothing to do with lesbianism and everything to do with guy titillation. The odd attempt almost always meets with the fig leaf treatment in the mainstream. Take the case of UK’s Filament Magazine, a recently-launched quarterly that advertises itself as ‘72 pages of intelligent thought and beautiful men.’ The models all kept their trousers on for the inaugural edition, but at the first hint of an experiment with anything more extreme in future issues, there was wholesale balking at the printer’s and in certain parts of the media. The magazine had to campaign for enough funds and support to change printers to bring out their second edition.

Why does male nudity depend so much on subtlety? What is it about the full monty that is so fraught? It’s hardly dangerous. It isn’t even all that interesting to many straight women, in the first place. We’re bored by the hearty emphasis on muscle and gland that seems to preoccupy so many male fantasies. Whether by element or design, most of us show no overt preference for full frontals. At this point in time in our history, we’re perfectly appreciative of the raised thigh and the suggestive shadow. A good girl would cover her eyes at the merest hint of immodesty – sure thing! – but even bad girls, for the most part, tend to prefer having something left to the imagination. Context, we repeat; not contumescence.

Men like to lament long and late that this is one of their biggest problems in trying to relate to women. If everything about women is supposed to suggest that they are creatures of impenetrable mystery, then everything about men indicates that they want to be taken at face value. As things stand, our culture chooses to accord the issue a flippant sort of status quo. Men’s wants, we are told, are simple and easily understood. ‘So let me get this straight, darling: your primary needs are beer, sex, and sports on the telly.’ It’s true: we don’t get it straight. We’re trained by long habit to enjoy emotional complexities. Many of us think of depth as a positive attribute of character. If we were less derided for it, we might devote significant amounts of pontification to proving that men have complex inner lives – perhaps as much as men like to pay lip service to furthering the Freudian quest for what women want.

Men and women both respond well to nudity; but men historically fear it more than women do. It hits close to the defensive instinct. The truth is that nakedness draws its anxieties and its tremendous appeal from the same place: vulnerability. It is a large part of the intuitive attraction of bare bodies. Annie Leibovitz – a woman who has probably undressed more men in the course of her career than the best of us – knew what she was doing when she took that famous photograph of Yoko Ono with a naked John Lennon curled in a foetal embrace around her. The honesty of the picture is heartbreaking; it certainly is a little frightening. In vulnerability is truth, and truth can make, but also break, power.

And the truth shall set you free. Without excusing art that degrades or belittles the human body, it’s fair to say that nakedness represents liberation: and in a long and complicated list of human desires, freedom comes first. With nothing left to lose, and everything to gain, the undressed man is all possibility, all potential, simultaneously able to create desire and fulfil it.

The Duke of Wellington went on to become Prime Minister, in an age when women did not yet have the vote. Today, we can go one better than the women of merrie Englande building a monument to their collective crush. We can buy men’s music albums and their films. We can sit through hours of bad advertising to watch their matches. We can blog and re-tweet their pictures, and write about them in magazines. We can even, yes, vote for them. If that makes men afraid – well, where’s the surprise? Everything about the female gaze tends to do that. To the paranoiacs, the oversimplifiers, and the politicians we can only insist: don’t worry – it’s never just about your body.

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