Let’s talk about the objectification of the male body in fashion advertising. Wait… what😮? I can hear your thoughts from here, you know! Is there such a thing to begin with? And if there is, why should I even bother since we all live in an heteropatriarchal society where the objectification of the female body is the rule?
Beginning with the ‘objectification’, this term simply refers to treating another person as an object. When a person is objectified, this person gets dehumanized by being reduced to the status of a lifeless object. When it comes to sexual objectification (thank you, feminism for coining this phrase 🙏🏾) that concerns us here, not only is another human being looked at as an object, but they are also rendered a sexual object of the viewer’s desire. In other words, a body stops being a body belonging to and expressing a person, and instead becomes a body over which the viewer exerts a dehumanizing control 😤. And I am talking about a viewer since this process takes place within a visual economy (fashion is definitely one such economy!), where the gaze is the primary medium via which we experience the world. To be sure, this gaze is far from innocuous.
On the contrary, feminist film scholars, Laura Mulvey in particular, have come up with the expression of ‘male gaze’ in order to precisely emphasize how the world and the people that inhabit it are depicted visually, mainly from a masculine and heterosexist perspective, that represents women as mere sexual objects for the pleasure of the male viewer. Fashion is, unfortunately, no exception to this rule, since it is inevitably part of the heteropatriarchy. Furthermore, the fashion industry -with the aim of maximizing its profits- not only capitalizes on sexual objectification, but also contributes to further consolidating the stereotypical gender images, on which the latter is based.
So far so good, right? Things start to get more complicated when we turn our gaze (see what I just did there, huh? 🤣) from mainstream fashion to the LGBTIQ+ one, from ‘women fashion’ to ‘menswear’. In the case of fashion that addresses exclusively gay men, we come across a series of catalog and editorial photoshoots that promote clothes and underwear in a highly objectifying way. The vast majority of men on these photographs resemble gay clones (gay slang alert!), a modernized version of gay hypermasculinity straight out of the visual universe of Tom of Finland. They look like interchangeable and uncannily undisguisable bodies, divested of their unique personality and reduced to their appearance, bodies that literally em-body the hegemonic subject of heteropatriarchy, that is the hypermasculine, ‘str8-looking’ (yes, I am on Grindr too!), white, cis, and able-bodied Man.
The surprising thing about these images is the context within which they are found. These are re-produced by firms whose ‘gayness’ in many cases isn’t explicitly stated, but rather implicitly evoked by the fetishized hypermasculine look of both their models and their products specifically designed to overemphasize the ‘package’. Even in these cases, men are portrayed in the following ways gathered and analysed by Prof. Sut Jhally in his 2010 documentary film ‘The Codes of Gender’: standing upright, looking all serious or having mean expression on their face, eyes wide open, alert and in control of their bodies, physically active, hands in the pockets, exposing their muscles, etc.
One of the arguments made by this film is that advertising not only sells things, but also ideas about the world, and more specifically advertising constructs culturally, via its visual representations, gender itself. One cannot help but wonder 🤔: are these male models supposed to look ‘gay’? or do they look like the object of gay men’s sexual desire? And if so, is this object of desire the stereotype to-the-point-of-caricature of heteromasculinity? To put it differently, does the gay male gaze ultimately amount to our well-known male gaze, the same one that objectifies women and supports the visual economy of heteropatriarchy itself?
To be sure, heteropatriarchy and masculinity are two closely related yet different things that must be carefully distinguished. While heteropatriarchy refers to a socio-political system where (primarily) cisgender (same gender as identified at birth) and heterosexual males have authority over cisgender females and people with other sexual orientations and gender identities, masculinity denotes a certain gender expression or identity potentially performed by anyone regardless of the gender they were assigned at birth. And even though heteropatriarchy lurks behind fashion industry’s imagery of sexy masculinity, not all expressions of masculinity ascribe to the toxic ideal of dominant masculinity. To be fair, this macho Man of ads is rather an ideal to look up to, rather than the lived reality of most cis heterosexual men, an unattainable ideal, hurtful also to themselves, who strive laboriously to live up to it, but always fall short.
In Ecce Homo, we want our men, masculine and transmasculine people who honour us by posing in front of our camera to feel free to express themselves in all their glory and diversity. Besides, most of our models are not professionals, but everyday folks and members of the queer community encouraged to pose according to what comes ‘naturally’ to them. Hopefully, the playful yet sexy attitude depicted on our promotional material works against the abovementioned marketing rationale, and towards reimagining what it means and feels like to be a colourful man or masculine person, who dares to take a critical distance from gender norms and wears our undergarments as a means to craft a sexual and sexy self, beyond gender stereotypes.