A New Look at Men in Public and Private

By Susan Bordo

Farrar Straus Giroux. 320 pp. $25

Reviewed by Louis Bayard

Feminism is, by most reports, in its "third wave," so it shouldn't be surprising that a feminist scholar can look at a man's physique and see something besides a gun quivering in its holster. But if this no longer qualifies as heresy, it's at least a sufficient novelty to give Susan Bordo's The Male Body the kick of a spectator sport.

Bordo has already made a name for herself with an absorbing, highly praised deconstruction of the female form called Unbearable Weight. Now she has smuggled herself into the male bivouac, not to bury men but to appraise them . . . and, more intriguingly, to empathize with them. Canvassing the pertinent sociological texts, sifting through decades of media imagery, cracking open an array of masculine icons from Norman Mailer to Calvin Klein models, Bordo finds herself experiencing, somewhat to her own surprise, an "unexpected kinship" with the male gender.

"I've come to see that it's dead wrong to think of men and women as creatures from different planets," she writes, "hard-wired with incommensurable responses, values, styles. Yes, we're different in many ways, and some of those differences may be biologically grounded. But many, too, are -- paradoxically -- the result of what we share. We are immersed in the same culture, haunted and taunted by the same images. They simply do their work on us in mirror-image ways."

Thus, the airbrushed photograph of a thin, beautiful woman damages both the woman who can never be her and the man who can never have her. The use of hydraulic phallic metaphors like "power tool," "rod," and "torpedo" doesn't just encourage male aggression; it sets up the aggressor for failure. For the penis is not, as Bordo argues, "an impenetrable knight in armor" but "in fact wears its heart on its sleeve. That's what's so magical about it. What other feature of the human body is as capable of making the upwelling of desire, the overtaking of the body by desire, so transparent?"

Well, if you put it that way. As the preceding example demonstrates, Bordo's agenda is to see the male body "not only as a physical entity -- which it assuredly is -- but also as a cultural form that carries meaning with it." This, I'm happy to report, is as jargony as she ever gets. The Male Body turns out to be an unqualified pleasure: thoughtful, funny, unusually engaging, with moments of almost novelistic poignancy. Bordo is especially affecting in her portrayal of her father, a "Jewish John Barrymore" who once consorted with glamorous molls and spent the rest of his life selling candy. His legacy of pride and anger and shame is so powerful his daughter spends an entire book trying to sort it out.

That emotional undertow is what gives The Male Body its deeply personal, often confessional tone; it may also account for the book's (not unpleasing) shapelessness. Bordo is the kind of observer who wanders where her interests lead her: sexual harassment, erectile dysfunction, cinema's "male rebel" figure, the merger of gay aesthetics with mainstream advertising. Long sections of the book have very little to do with the male body, and the most searching textual analysis is performed on Lolita, Nabokov's tone poem to the nymphet.

In the end, what really interests Bordo is how men go about being men. And she's the first to say it ain't easy. When boxers and football players are rewarded for the violence they inflict on the sporting field, then punished as soon as the violence spills into the real world, our culture, she suggests, "has a small problem knowing what it wants from men."

Bordo's conclusions, then, define the new rules of engagement for modern-day feminism. Men are no longer oppressors but oppressed -- broken, like women, on the wheel of culture. It is culture that litters our brain with esteem-shattering images; it is culture that forces us into competitions we can't win. And so perhaps it is culture that makes me find Bordo's analysis both extremely acute and slightly overheated. I wonder: Aren't most people able to look at, say, the image of a beautiful man or woman and separate fantasy from reality? Must we always be mastered and unmanned by the imagery we see? Bordo is a wit and a card, but her dark depictions of pop culture presuppose a nation of pod people, waiting to be given marching orders by a race of bony models. Must . . . starve . . . myself. Must . . . buy . . . power tool.

Louis Bayard is the author of a new novel, "Fool's Errand."