In Beauty (Re)discovers the Male Body, feminist writer Susan Bordo invites readers to identify advertisements that appear to infringe upon “traditional gender roles and the ideological messages contained in them.” These, she explains, “display a complicated and bewitching tangle of new possibilities and old patterns of representation.” The analysis of such aspects differs depend on the time period one analyzes. Old patterns of society, including the roles of men and women changed through time, creating new possibilities for both men and women. The roles of men and women transcend former modalities because of the way body image is displayed in today’s culture. Today, advertising sculpts society’s perception of what the male and female body should entail. Messages permeate throughout advertisements, creating an ideal perception of what beauty is. Susan Bordo analyzes and criticizes the use of the male figure in advertising and how male bodies are presented as tools of pleasure. Bordo’s perspective on the male and female body can be easily reproduced when analyzing any advertisement dealing with gender, but certain aspects can be expanded and redefined when put to the test.
The roles of men and women were very defined by society’s standards until the latter half of the 20th century in American society. It was the norm for men to be the ones responsible for providing the family with food and protection, while a woman could not excel or even dare try to do a man’s job. Women were limited to doing household duties such as cooking, cleaning, sewing, and caring for the children. Body image is the particular reason why this way of life survived for so long. Everyone was judged by physical appearances; because women have genetically smaller bodies than men, weakness and inferiority was associated with them. The institutionalized male mentality saw women as inferior to men not only in every physical way, but intellectually as well. A woman was thought of as incapable of carrying out any intellectual task, so her role revolved around household duties. Soon enough women attended higher education and proved to be as capable as men in various fields like finance, medicine, politics, and so forth. Traditionally, the female figure was used for its beauty and elegance, traits that were connected with womanhood while masculinity and ruggedness were identifiable with the ideal man figure.
Product advertising before the 21st century was based on either one of two demographics: men or women. Since tasks associated with domestic duties were a woman’s job, advertisements dealing with cooking or cleaning were targeted specifically for female appeal. Ads contained the images of ideally beautiful women with the product. Such advertisements sent the message of what a woman should be like. Whether it is subliminal or intentional, advertisements always relay a stronger idea. Successful advertisements before the latter half of the 20th century sent a witty catch phrase which one could relate to, but the exploitation of a human’s body image did not occur until afterwards when, beauty became redefined in all aspects.
Throughout history, societies have been known to be patriarchal, a characteristic that is at a slow decay in contemporary Western culture. The roles of men and women are becoming less and less rigid. During the 80’s, women began to grasp a taste of what the professional world had to offer. Not only were women proving their ability to take on the professional world, but the way they were viewed began to change. Women’s character in society was becoming closely associated with sexuality unlike ever before. In a sense, society portrays women as trading one form of slavery for another: First they are slaves to the male chauvinist mentality, and now they are slaves to their own sexuality. Even though women now a day thrive in academics as much as men do if not more, media advertising portrays females based on how appealing and superficially beautiful they are. This not only sets a new standard in the way women ought to look, but also redefines beauty as a tall thin light-skinned young woman with 34C breasts. Sex sells. Contemporary means of advertising focus on women’s physical traits as a way to capture male attention and make women want to be desirable. As Bordo explains, “Women learn to anticipate, even play to the sexualizing gaze, trying to become what will please, captivate, turn shame into pride… when women sense that they are not being assessed sexually–for example, as we age, or if we are disabled–it may feel like we no longer exist” (135). Advertisements have put so much emphasis on the male and female sexuality that people fail to take into consideration one’s values and virtues, but rather determine whether someone is good or bad depending on their sexual appeal. The exploitation of the male and female body image has become a part of advertising; consequently, it becomes a part of society.
The institution of advertising has evolved to the point that not only products are being displayed, but ideas as well. Vanity has always been a strong motif associated with the women figure; however, in the world of today, vanity is projected through advertisements as a trait common to men. Bordo explains that previous to today’s society, “The man who cares about his looks the way a woman does, self-esteem on the line, ready to be shattered at the slightest insult or weight gain, is unmanly, sexually suspect” (156). Advertising has changed society’s view of the male body in such a way that today male advertising suggests a hint of femininity which appeals to a man’s sense of vanity. Calvin Klein models pose differently than the old traditional advertized male figure. Rather than showing signs of aggressiveness or roughness, they pose in a graceful manner, presenting themselves as eye candy, focusing on sexuality and the new ideal look. As Bordo contrasts two different ads of the 90s, she sums up her thoughts in five words, “Men act and women appear” (154). Action and appearance were defining qualities to men and women respectively, but with the evolution of society, the gender dualities of men and women are dissolving away. Society throws more and more advertisements with the male figure appearing as beautiful rather than showing any sign of action or the traditional qualities of a man.
Accepting Bordo’s invitation to analyze and evaluate an ad, one may find truth to her reasoning. A Macy*s Christmas advertisement exposes an attractive blond woman wearing revealing clothing, posing next to Christmas gifts. Her attire resembles that of Santa Claus, but with a much different design meant to squeeze and reveal her breasts. No words are included in this page-long ad, only the image of perfection is displayed. This ad both directly and subliminally offers a forceful suggestion as to what the ideal Christmas should be in the typical household. It sends the message that presents and attractiveness are as much a part of the holiday as Jesus’ birthday. The thing that creates great emphasis on the product of “Christmas” is the woman’s subtle cleavage. One must understand that without the woman in the ad, the theme of Christmas shopping would not nearly be as effective, since there is no human body image that the viewer can relate to. By using the female image of an attractive woman, advertisers persuade men and women to “invest” in buying Christmas gifts from the Macy*s store. Men not only desire the idea of being with a woman like that, but also desire the idea of buying to be considered as having the Christmas spirit, while women desire to be as beautiful as the women in the advertisement.
Traditional gender roles have changed through time and still no man or woman is free from society’s judgment. What is referred to as “standard” adapts to changes. The roles of men and women depicted by media advertising become more and more undefined as time progresses. Body image loses its integrity as superficial desires overrule any type of interior beauty. Every ideological message focuses more on ideal beauty and ideal social status rather than an individual’s ability. The usage of sexuality in the portrayal of semi-naked male and female bodies, calls for human nature’s curiosity about sex. The media and advertising are launching the world into an era opposite to that of the Renaissance; a future that is becoming more dependent on temptations of the flesh than on intellect and morality. With most traditional stereotypes of the gender dualities of men and women fading, human bodies are more revealing than ever creating a link to sexuality, a topic which appeals to all types of buyers.