Department of Rhetoric and Writing

The University of Texas at Austin

Calendar Boys, Beefcake Girls: Photographing the Bodies We Want

Rion Sabean, posed as a pin-up girl, with cordless drill

Image Credit: Rion Sabean

H/T: Melanie Haupt

My favorite way to take a break from dissertation research is to visit Facebook.  Some days, I’m lucky enough to be entertained by my friends, as when Melanie Haupt posted a provocative link to an article about male pin-ups.As linked by websites like The Huffington Post, The Daily Dish, and Jezebel, photographer Rion Sabean has captured a series of men in pin-up poses similar to those captured by photographers like Alberto Vargas and models like Bettie Page.  The pin-up, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, is “a photograph or poster of a glamorous or attractive person.”  However, pin-ups historically have been women, and women engaged in poses like the one below.

Gil Elvgren pin-up girl, posed in front of target

Image Credit: Fine Books and Collections

Sabean’s intent appears to have been to play with the gender roles here by making men adopt these kinds of poses, as he said in an interview with Jezebel:

"The imagery of showcasing the feminine/masculine ideals in one single image just struck me as something that could really work. Hilariously enough, and beyond my fascination with gender binaries and their inherent nature to be completely incomprehensible to me, I first began tinkering with the idea, because I will at any given moment strike very specific poses that would be defined as feminine by society; more specifically, the pointed toe. Haha. From there, it was completely obvious that pin-ups and all the associations with them would be the right choice in moving forward."

Comparing the images above already reveals similarities; both guy and gal have pursed lips and are posed in ways which are probably uncomfortable to hold but which highlight aspects of the physical form like the shapely leg and curvy body.  The sporty paraphernalia in each scene only contrasts the deliberately inactive pointing fingers and splayed hands.  Another group of images, this time in nearly the same pose, points out what Melanie acknowledged: these poses are very ridiculous and not a little degrading.

Pin-up girl posed with military helmetMan posed with shovel

Image Credit: Acidcow.com / Rion Sabean

In these pictures again we see the juxtaposition of the masculine objects (the shovel, the military hat) and the highly feminized pose.  The placement of the hands not only allows the subject to stay nearly vertical but also draws attention to the model’s assets.  The reveal of undergarments (the underwear, the stockings) tantalizes the viewer.  While these images serve to comically point out the problematics of the pin-up pose, I find myself as a viewer wondering if these can be read in a different way—can these men be sexy, too? Or can we find poses for women that wouldn’t be degrading?

To keep thinking about the sexualized posed body, I’d like to think about two other image collections I’ve seen this last week: the Men of the Stacks calendar and ESPN The Magazine’s just-released Body Issue.

Mr. January from The Men of the Stacks calendar

Image Credit: The Men of the Stacks

In the case of the Men of the Stacks calendar, these gentlemen have collected together to rebrand the idea of the librarian:

"We know what people think: Dewey, glasses, shushing, books, hairbuns, Party Girl and card catalogs.  Yes, we know what people think.  We know that the American library profession is approximately 80% White and 72% female; and we know that tens of thousands of librarians are expected to reach age 65 in the next 5 years.  We also know that this is not us.

"There is an entire population of professional librarians out there who disagree with the way the library profession is perceived in contemporary media outlets and in the historical consciousness of the American mind.  Different people and different associations will use different means to try to change those perceptions.  This is ours."

While not all of the photographs are as revealing as Mr. January’s, several of them use shirtless (or shirtless in aprons) men to spice up visuals of a profession whose sexualization in pornography stands in stark contrast to how it is perceived in popular culture.  While the various poses—doing yoga, on a beach, cooking—attempt to make the idea of the male librarian as a lived experience palpable to the viewer, the fact that several pictures feature shirtless men makes it very similar to a straight beefcake calendar like the yearly NYFD Calendar of Heroes, which features actual New York firemen posed provocatively with hoses and other paraphernalia, or even the beefcake magazines of the 40s-60s.  In other words, if the female form has frequently been sexualized by artful poses, the male has experienced the same treatment, though one with more arm-flexing.

Ryan Kesler

Image Credit: ESPN The Magazine

However, if both The Men of the Stacks at Sabean’s Man-Ups are engaging in social commentary, ESPN the Magazine’s Body Issue appears to be a marketing ploy.  While Ryan Kesler here is posed next to a block of ice to nod to his sport, this pose does more to show off his physique than his athletic skills.  On the other side, Julie Chu's pose harkens less to the pinup and more to Greek statuary.

Julie Chu

Image Credit: ESPN The Magazine

While this pose hints at her feminine features, it's also fairly aggressive—the eye wanders as much to her muscular arms as the breasts her pose conceals.  The tensed shoulder and stomach also make it clear that what is (at least nominally) on display here is her strength.  Julie Chu isn’t a pin-up, she's a warrior.  However, it’s also legitimate to ask if we can see a naked female form without sexualizing it.  The tagline, "Bodies We Want," can be read ambiguously either as the desire to have a muscular physique, or to have a partner so built.

As I’m thinking about these different poses together, I'm left questioning what kinds of viewers are being imagined here.  ESPN the Magazine clearly offers some titillating interest for a straight male readership, but the photographs of individuals like Apolo Ohno and José Reyes are either intended for a gay male readership, or a straight female one.  The audience for the Man-Ups is one that knows and has reflected on the original pin-ups that have inspired the poses; it’s an audience who gets the joke and can return the wink.  However, can man-ups be as sexy as these other poses?  If we understand the female body to be always sexualized, is there room for a female gaze to re-read these poses?

Of course, I don’t want to argue that women’s sexuality looks any different from men’s sexuality.  I remember here the xkcd cartoon that responded to the Porn for Women book, where the female character asserts:  “I wanted to clarify: in my porn, people fuck.”  Women or men can be titillated by all sorts of different things, and we can’t essentialize that.  Sexy is definitely in the eye—or the brain—of the beholder.  Perhaps I just want to invite further discussion considering how we think or choose to think about the gendered body in photography.  Theory has much to say about the power of the subject viewing the object/body—but how are the powers of the viewer limited by hegemonies?  And how can we talk about bodies while allowing and acknowledging all various forms of sexuality that might approach them?

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