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Male sex symbols June 15, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Advertising, Fashion, Pop Culture.

Anyone driving into London from Heathrow Airport will have noticed the gigantic poster of a muscular, semi-naked male.

He is advertising Abercrombie & Fitch, that great retail feast of homoeroticism. I am not sure when it was that we replaced the slender, round-shouldered figure of the English male with an ancient Greek version but this model is now ubiquitous and triumphant.

Abercrombie & Fitch is his temple. The staircase at the shop is decorated with colossal portraits of athletic young men in Edwardian sporting scenes, tennis, fencing, cricket, rugby. All are in degrees of disrobing.

The sexual worship of men rather than women is a cultural phenomenon. In 2003, Germaine Greer wrote a book called Beautiful Boys, which claimed a woman’s right to ogle boys. Greer described her pleasure in the young male form as a “western taboo”. I see no taboo. This season’s fashion photography makes Robert Mapplethorpe look prudish.

Dolce & Gabbana has a magazine advertisement showing a man in briefs sunning himself with an enormous python crawling over his body. Diesel has a bare-chested man with his head on a woman’s lap, begging for a glass of water. Both men look sensational and sexually vulnerable. Female fashion ads are about clothes, male ads are about the contours of the male torso. The bodies on show are Olympic ideals, strong, athletic and without blemish. The girls, by contrast, are strangely sexless.

The question is > do male youths want to be sex symbols? Until recently, they had to be gay and exhibitionist to attract that kind of attention, whereas girls received it passively. It is an unfamiliar experience for boys to be adored merely for their looks. Yet if men, rather than women, have become society’s sex symbols, they have been complicit in the change. Young men are visibly more narcissistic than a generation ago. The big money in the beauty industry is in male toiletries. Men such as David Beckham have consciously appealed to both sexes with flirtatious changes of hairstyle and experimentation with thongs and sarongs.

The beautiful boys of ancient Greece exhibited themselves in gymnasiums. Men, and not only gay men, are now doing the same.

The open admiration of young men in ancient Greece was part of a culture of manliness where women played a subservient role. In modern Britain, it looks like the reverse. Young men are flaunting themselves peacock-style because they are no longer necessarily the economic providers. However, beautiful boys may discover, as many beautiful girls have done, that being a sex symbol is a limited kind of existence. Once those Abercrombie & Fitch men notice the first sign of jug handles and sprouting body hair, they will need a second string to their bow.

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