On Culture

A Double Beefcake, Light on the Dressing

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 6, 2008

The new advertising campaign for Emporio Armani underwear features an austere black-and-white image of soccer player David Beckham posing spread-eagle in an open shirt and his designer briefs. He's leaning back on a bed covered with rumpled sheets, and like so many models, he looks profoundly grumpy.

Over at Calvin Klein Underwear, the company celebrated its 25th anniversary this fall with an advertising campaign for its new Steel line. The name, our G-rated mind assumes, refers to the steel-colored waistbands on the briefs. The ads feature the actor Djimon Hounsou in a variety of poses, all of which feature his oak-tree physique in nothing but skivvies. Hounsou's skin glows with perspiration. And he looks rather moody as well.

In both cases, the focus of attention is on the body rather than the face. The only reason you notice the underwear is that you notice the men aren't naked. It's not the briefs that stop you. It's the quads, the abs, the etc.

The advertisements are celebrations of the male physique, the kind of artistic adoration that dates back to classic statuary. Beckham and Hounsou are photographed to look larger than life, with their muscles exaggerated thanks to dramatic lighting or a thick gloss of sweat.

The men are pleasantly objectified. And after you've finished enjoying the view, you can't help but wonder: Isn't that loving, lustful gaze problematic?

Women, after all, don't want to be objectified. That diminishes their power and takes away their individuality. And that will only make life more difficult in a world that still does not always treat them as equals. You can't even call the Miss America pageant a "beauty contest" because that would be demeaning. It has to be referred to as a scholarship competition, even though no one's explaining quantum physics to win the thing. It's not okay to celebrate a woman as a "great beauty" and leave it at that. Where's the rest of the résumé? The part about her talent and intelligence and warm heart? The whole package must be presented at all times because there's too much to lose if it's not.

There's nothing in the Emporio Armani ad that refers to Beckham's success on the soccer field. (The impressive abs don't count.) And in the United States,where a significant number of people still wouldn't recognize him without a pair of cleats or a Spice Girl by his side, he risks being perceived as just a musclehead. There's no mention of Hounsou's film roles, no listing of his Oscar nominations.

So does objectifying a man diminish him? And if it does, is that worth applauding because it means the playing field has been leveled a bit? After all, if you comment on a woman's appearance, critics will be quick to scream: You wouldn't do that to a man! So if you ogle a man, does that righteously even the score?

Calvin Klein is mostly credited with popularizing the fetishizing of men with six-packs. With the help of previous models such as Mark Wahlberg, Klein took sinewy perfection out of the weightlifting parlors and put it front and center on television and in mainstream magazines.

Initially, the images were described as homoerotic, because those loving gazes didn't incorporate romance or the boy-meets-girl narrative. But that didn't last long. Soon, performers such as LL Cool J were making a point of showing off their ripped bodies to the ladies. It wasn't an indispensable tool in their performances or tied up in a complicated social/gender equation a la Madonna. It just looked really, really good.

So the culture has essentially agreed that it's okay to look. And enjoy. Thankfully, you can do both without having to contend with all the kitsch that comes along with go-go boys and the covers of romance novels. Like a lot of provocative fashion photography, these images fall somewhere between fine art and porn. The actual product in the picture -- the underwear -- is beside the point.

The sexual innuendo is uncomplicated in the Armani and Klein ads. With female models -- even the pinups of Sports Illustrated and Victoria's Secret -- there's a tendency to make the images as esoteric or fanciful as possible. The women are posed against exotic landscapes or given wings, for instance. The MAC Cosmetics advertisement featuring burlesque performer Dita Von Teese in a bejeweled lace corset uses the fantasy of an old-fashioned, teasing pinup to convey sex appeal.

Red-lipped actresses in Louis Vuitton ads often look as though they've been knocked on their back, not by lust but by a giant handbag that has fallen from the sky. In Dolce & Gabbana ads, the women play dominatrixes and are so glossy and brittle they look like mannequins. In Prada ads, they are too "Dawn of the Dead" to express much sex appeal. What's bothersome about so many advertising images using women is that the models tend to be just props in an elaborate tableau, a body draped over a car, a hanger for a dazzling frock or a blank canvas for lipstick and mascara.

The underwear boys keep things simple: glistening pectorals that look as though they have been carved from stone, all for your viewing pleasure.

We tend to think that the person in the power position is the one casting the lecherous glances and not the one on the receiving end of them. And yet, staring at the photographs of Beckham and Hounsou, you don't feel especially empowered. They seem to have all the advantages. They look strong and in control. They're preening. And they have stopped you.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company