GPAST HE HUNK
All things butch and beautiful. As a tantalising new photography exhibition opens at Edinburgh‘s Stills Gallery. reassessing the portrayal ofthe naked male body, Joyce
McMillan considers the issues it brings to light.
lfcveryou doubted that we liv e in a slightly sick society. five minutes spent contemplatingour attitudes to our own naked bodies is enough to revive your worst suspicions. ()ur attitude to bare female flesh is bad enough. smutty . sniggering. infantile. insultingordownright exploitative — and that in a culture where you can hardly turn a corner without seeing acres of blondc. beautiful. soft—yet-slimline female torso adv ertising everything from underw car to aftershave. w here Page 3 Iovelics bounce and burst from the pages of family
new spapers. and w here 'l'\' audiences are invited to diy e nightly into the w ell-tanned depthsof Linda livans's cleavage.
But mention the subiect of male nudity. and the reaction becomes downright odd. lhe half-clad or naked woman is a common enough image in our society to pass almost unnoticed in maga/incs. on hmu‘dings.cven- suitably draped - on TV. But the idea of the naked male provokes l‘eztetioiisoldet‘ision and hostility that are quite pathological. viewed from any obiectivc standpoint. ‘( )oh. yuck. looks like a load of salami.' ‘( )h. please. don‘t . . . l iust wish they'd get dressed again . . . . let's face it. most men are so ugly without their clotheson . . . ‘say a surprising number of women. :\nd from the men comes a non-committal silence. backed by a kind of refusal to look too hard. in case anyone should 'get the wrong idea'. .'\fter years of schooling themselves nevc r even to glance at other men's w illics in public
toilets in case their interest should be"
mistaken for a homosexual advance. I suppose it's more than most ‘straight' men can manage to direct a level. unemotional ga/c at the fully-exposed body of another male. even w hen it exists only in the form of a photographic image.
(‘learlyu w e‘re dealing here with an area of tremendous importance and terrificconfusion. How we inhabit our bodies. how we see them. come to terms with them. learn to love them and to love others through them. is probably the most
‘Ideal Manhood‘ by Stephen Glass
Ur; Douglas Stewart
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fundamental factor in determining our potential for happiness and fulfilment. and therefore in shaping the personal politics ofour lives
Load of salami
which will eventually affect the politics of whole nations: and yet we continue to tolerate a level of prurience and embarrassment about images ol‘our unadorned bodies - and a glaring disparity between the sexes in terms of exposure and attitude» that seems tosuggcst a real imbalance. an area of inequality. repression and fear. Some ofour attitudes are so deeply ingrained that we hardly seem aware of them; how many women. for
example. ever register the fact that
the glossy ‘w-omen’s magazines' they buy every month are crammed with semi-erotic imagesofother women. and contain fewer sexy male images than the ‘men's maga/ine’ supplements that come with them‘.’ And it's still quite common to hear people women as well as men - account for the fact that we see far more female nudity than male by simply alleging that ‘naked women are more beautiful than naked men'. as if this value-laden nonsense were some kind ofobiective fact. Of course. men can be just as beautiful
as women: but in our culture. neither
men nor women are encouraged to see them in that light. as objects of aesthetic admiration and even of desire.
It‘s in an attempt to throw some light on these complex attitudes surrounding images of the naked male that photographer and researcher Alasdair Foster. and Rob l’ow‘ell. the director of Stills ( iallery‘. have brought together this month's Stills exhibition lie/told 'I'lze .llrm. a study of the photographic male nude. It’s a busy. ambitions exhibition. perhaps a little cluttered with themes and ideas: its images range from contemporary and historical ‘art' photographs of the nude male. through advertising images and Playgirl centrefolds. to supposedly objective ‘scientific' studies of the body made in the Will century; it takes in the bodybuilding tradition and the 1930’s vogue for health. beauty. calisthenics and nudism. as well as jokey. camp images from the gay subculture. ()n the whole. it's hard to disagree with the exhibition‘s main conclusions. namely that despite all the apparent advances of feminism and gay liberation. men still submit themselves to the camera far less often than women. and that in mainstream photography at least —- in commercial. advertising. and standard editorial imagery — the images of the male body which are presented have more to with perpetuating a myth ofstrength. smoothness. power and invincibility (‘the body as phallus' as Alasdair l-‘oster's exhibition catalogue puts it) than with any truthful or genuinely erotic impulse. From a female point of view. most of the images — particularly those related to the body-building craze. a feature of the conservative l‘ifties' which has resurfaced strongly in the reactionary liighties — are downright unattractive or bordering on the ludicrous: as l-‘oster points out. most male imagery is still created 'for men. by men‘.
All the same. I can‘t help feeling that Foster and l’ow'ell‘s pessimism
about the persistence of
male-dominated imagery -‘ and the patriarchal attitudes it reflects — is a little exaggerated. ()l course. as Rob l’ow ell says. there is a tension in the male mind between the cultural myth of the phallus and the physical reality of the penis that is always going to make men wary of truthful imagesof their own bodies: it must be tough try ing to com ince yourself that you’re in possession of a kind of omnipotent. unstoppable. irresistible anatomical pow er-drill. when in fact what you have is just an endearingly small. soft and vulnerable tag of flesh. precariouslv dependent for its ability to do ' anything at all on a whole range of external stimuli and. in most cases. on the tender encouragement of a partner.
The question is. though. iust how long this male my th-making about strength and invincibility' and phallic power can actually survive the social changes of the last quarter-century. ()fcourse. we live in a reactionary decade. when gay rights are once again under attack. w hen w omen's hard-won control over their own fertility is being called intoqucstion. when all the Sixties‘ challenges to old-fashioned. militaristic. sex-repressing patriarchal culture are threatened by a determined right-wing backlash. But as l’oster pointsout in his catalogue. the post-war years have also seen a huge
ﬁ'l‘he List 13 — 2b May 1988