Advertisers have long used handsome men to hawk their wares. In the 20th century, marketers who realized that women did a majority of the household shopping created dashing spokesmen, such as the Arrow Shirt Man, to appeal more to the ladies than the menfolk. And certainly advertising has played an integral role in the male beauty culture that has skyrocketed in the past 20 years, too. In fact, some scholars and experts trace men’s heightened attention to self and—more importantly—how they appear to others back to a single, revolutionary image from 1982.
Behold, U.S. Olympic pole vaulter Tom Hintnaus, lounging on the Greek isle of Santorini. It seems Mr. Hintnaus forgot to bring along his swimsuit for his Aegean getaway, but no matter since his ol’ pal Calvin Klein is in tow. Take a second and look at that pose, too.
Hintnaus isn’t watching us watching him; his eyes are closed in feigned obliviousness, and his body angled to draw the focus immediately to his crotch. Moreover, with no other models in the frame and minimal background detailing, we can only guess what’s going on around him, who he’s with and whom might catch his eye once he rouses from his sunny slumber. In other words, his sexuality remains completely and intentionally ambiguous. All the photo is intended to do is exhibit a scantily clad sexual object. But it’s more than the almost-nudity that matters. Rather than actively performing a role or embodying a masculinity construct, Hintnaus merely appeared, a feast for the male and female gaze alike.
Writing for the New York Times in 2004, Guy Trebay commented on the seminal underwear ad: “In [making this ad], Mr. Klein was marking the beginning of both major changes in the conventions of masculine presentation and an overall democratization of desire.”
Instead of brands and advertisers discriminating between the active males and passive females, everyone’s body became bait (although I’d argue that such “democratization” remains limited, with women still more consistently objectified in advertising). For feminist philosopher Susan Bordo, Calvin Klein’s male underwear ad campaigns were a revelation. In The Male Body, Bordo describes seeing a similar Calvin Klein ad in 1995 as “the first time in my experience that I had to inhabit this visual culture as a man.” And by beckoning the male and female gaze, some have argued that the early ’80s ad marked the mainstreaming of the gay consumer market. Today, higher-end male underwear advertising remains just as provocative, continually catering to the “dual gaze.”
Not all manufacturers or sexually uncomfortable consumers have been keen on that “dual gaze” approach, some for obviously homophobic reasons. In 2006, Danish brand JBS built an unsavory “No Naked Men” underwear campaign, flipping the script on the sexy (and sexually ambiguous) male skivvies models. It subbed out curvaceous, near-naked women, sporting its men’s underwear, meanwhile mocking the idea that anyone (or any man, really) could eroticize such uncomely, farting male beasts.
The history of male underwear advertising so far also ends not with a bang, but a telling whimper. Beckham begone! Male “shapewear” is today’s “it” undergarment. In 2004, the New York Times reported on the brand 2(x)ist as an example of how male underwear ads emphasized sex and crotch size to sell; in June, 2(x)ist made headlines for its new tummy-tucking styles.
Is this any surprise, really? Just female consumers have been told to squeeze, compress and jimmy our figures into gaze-worthy hourglasses, the male shapewear segment is the not-so-sexy, body-shaming byproduct of that 1982 Calvin Klein “democratization.”