Masculinity under the gaze

It has come to my attention that Nicolas Winding Refn (director of Drive and Only God Forgives, and the subject of my Master’s thesis) directed a commercial that aired during the Super Bowl this past weekend. While I’m not normally one to pay much attention to commercials, this particular ad is very interesting for a number of reasons, not the least of which because of how it subverts and challenges the idea of the male gaze.

The focus of the ad (and thus the gaze) is on the objectification of a man (in this case, David Beckham), and it presents his muscular body as an object to be looked at and desired. In the ad, Beckham is being photographed in his underwear for an ad campaign promoting his new line of clothing at H&M. Taking a break, Beckham goes outside to the roof of the building where the photo shoot is taking place, and gets locked out. He must engage in a series of what could be considered manly activities (running, jumping, etc) to get back inside the building without being seen in his underwear, which we are to presume is a potentially embarrassing situation. The more masculine Beckham acts, however, the more his clothes get torn away, and the more his body is revealed. By the end of the ad, Beckham is left naked and vulnerable before the cameraman and his assistants, and his power has seemingly been stripped away.

In many ways, Beckham represents the sort of hegemonic masculinity (i.e. he is powerful, sexy, wealthy, etc) conceived by R.W. Connell back in the 1970s. More importantly, however, it is this sort of hegemonic masculinity that Refn is directly challenging in nearly all of his films. In many ways, this advert seems to continue this subversion of hegemonic masculinity, primarily because it strips Beckham of this veneer of the hegemonic ideal. While he is revealed to possess a muscular and powerful body (what Roger Horrocks might term a phallic male body), by the end of the ad Beckham is nevertheless left embarrassed and humiliated, as evidenced by his nervous gulping right before he dashes off camera at the end of the ad.

In many ways, David Beckham conforms to Roger Horrocks conception of the phallic male body, which is described as "erect, always ready for action. It is deeply veined, ribbed, with a massive head. It tenses itself, ready to explode. But crucially it is rigid, since the man himself is emotionally rigid.”
In many ways, David Beckham conforms to Roger Horrocks’ conception of the phallic male body, which is described as “erect, always ready for action. It is deeply veined, ribbed, with a massive head. It tenses itself, ready to explode. But crucially it is rigid, since the man himself is emotionally rigid.” (Horrocks, 1994, p. 140)

Despite his obvious physical perfection, Beckham is laid low by his nakedness. This runs counter to the idea that men are simply supposed to “man up” when it comes to nudity, and reject notions of modesty. Indeed, Western culture often places an emphasis on the unclothed male form, as evidenced by the preponderance of advertisements or other mass culture objects that feature shirtless men (but only those who are muscular, and thus represent the hegemonic masculine ideal). Society often tells men that nudity is not something to be ashamed of, so long as you have that all important Y gene (not to say that the female form isn’t also prized in Western culture, but there is a double standard placed on women, who are often shamed for engaging in overt exhibitionism).

Yet, male modesty is a powerful thing, and in recent years men have experienced a sense of insecurity about their bodies when confronted with mass culture artifacts such as the one above. More importantly, these insecurities are not at all unlike those that women have experience for years, as they have more traditionally been the target of shaming by the beauty industry. Indeed, as Richard Senelick (2014) points out in this revealing Atlantic article:

“Many men don’t speak up about their desire for privacy in fear that they will be mocked for not being ‘man enough.’ In Texas we ask young men to ‘cowboy up.’ There is the assumption that men bond by swimming or showering together in the nude, but I can assure you that, given a choice, we would have rather worn a bathing suit and showered in a stall.” (online)

Therefore, it is vital to note that this advertisement, which at first seems to be celebrating the very sort of hegemonic masculine ideal embodied by David Beckham, ends on a note of embarrassment and modesty. It reveals that despite a cultural pressure for men to reject shame, even those individuals who represent a sociocultural masculine ideal are often subject to feelings of modesty that might not be considered “manly.”

Works Cited

Horrocks, R. (1994). Masculinity in crisis. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Senelick, R. (2014, February 3). Men, manliness, and being naked around other men. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/02/men-manliness-and-being-naked-around-other-men/282998/

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