Modern masculinity too ambiguous


Sunday, September 5, 1999

The Male Body: A New Look at Men in Public and Private
by Susan Bordo. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 358 pages. $25.


     Challenging the reductive Mars-vs.-Venus logic of pop psychologists, Susan Bordo writes, "For all of our differences ... men and women do not come from different planets."
     As it has long done to women, advertising now makes men into sexual objects, and men, too, receive mixed messages about how to behave. The chapter, "Gentleman or Beast? The Double Bind of Masculinity," notes that our society's standards of manhood require that men be both aggressive and sensitive, which may (for example) be very confusing to a young man on a date: should he "be a man" and kiss her or would that be insensitive, possibly even sexual harassment?
     The book tends to focus more on heterosexual male bodies but does address how gender and sexuality intersect. For example, Bordo laments the change from film idols like Fred Astaire and Cary Grant, men whose appeal lay in their charm and wit, to the more hyper-masculine stars in current movies. Rupert Everett's character in "My Best Friend's Wedding" so appeals to heterosexual women because, though his sexuality prevents a romantic relationship with Julia Roberts' character, he represents a Cary-Grant-style masculinity absent from most straight male characters today.
     "The Male Body" offers a thoughtful, engaging analysis of American masculinities in the latter half of the 20th century. Like Susan Douglas's "Where the Girls Are" (1995), Bordo's is a scholarly work that wisely refrains from piling on the jargon. In a style that, though less punchy than Douglas's, remains frank and personable, Bordo weaves a nuanced analysis of advertising, film, pop culture, literature, and her own personal history.
     Despite the cover's discreetly blurred photograph of a male torso, the book is not afraid to be direct in its discussions of men - O.J. Simpson, Bill Clinton, James Dean, Marlon Brando, to name a few - so, if candid discussions of male anatomy offend, this book may not be for you. But most people would benefit from reading about the ways in which gendered expectations shape men's behavior as much as they do women's. As Bordo writes, "We're all earthlings, desperate for love, demolished by rejection."
     (Phil Nel is a visiting instructor of English at the College of Charleston.)




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