For God’s Sake, Put On Some Clothes (mark II)

StathamNote: Your Mileage May Vary.

Last night my husband and I found ourselves watching The Transporter the way you do after a major holiday: flopped on the couch, too tired to move, watching The Thing That’s On because where’s the remote?). It’s a fun-dumb movie, lighter fare than I had expected, very violent but curiously… well, light. Almost sweet.  The film was made in 2002, which means it’s now moving into the realm of Elder-Statesmovie, and its star, Jason Statham, looks curiously young and blind-puppyish.  And he spends a lot of time with his shirt off.

I kept being reminded of the comment Sir Alexander Dane (Alan Rickman) makes about Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen) in Galaxy Quest: “I see you’ve managed to get your shirt off.” Tim Allen on his best day is not in Statham’s league, shirtless-viewing-wise, but he clearly had been working out to put his best chest forward, as it were, and Galaxy Quest had a good time making fun of the Golly, I’m Virile trope that shirtlessness implies.

It’s a trope that does not do much for me.  I’m all for the male form divine, but I tend to crush on a more slender, ectomorphic body type–gymnast, rather than weightlifter.  If there was more of a range of physiques displayed I might be more enthusiastic about male shirtlessness.  As it is, most media images of men without shirts are of a certain defined type (Google for images of “Men Without Shirts” and Channing Tatum gets his own subsection). They’re generally large, muscle-y men who probably can’t tie their own ties (that’s what muscle-bound means: so much muscle that it gets in the way of doing normal things).

To me, many of these guys look like slabs of roast at Safeway: rippling muscle with a faint Saran Wrap sheen.  I didn’t care much for David Boreanaz’s Angel on Buffy because–O! Woe! The Angst Which is Me! aside–he had that standing-rib roast look which didn’t interest me.  Now, with some years under his belt and a role on Bones which permits him to have a sense of humor, I find him far more appealing.

Rippling pectorals-art is one reason I found myself drifting out of reading romances many years ago. The covers with big slabs of male musculature on them actively repulsed me. I just…couldn’t.  And that’s a shame, because some of those books might have been terrific. But the prescriptive nature of the covers–here, this is what you want, this is what’s going to turn you on!–left no room for my own idea of what a sexy man looks like.  Maybe if I came upon a book without the cover I would not have this problem. But flipping through the offerings at a bookstore or online, where the cover is your first introduction to the book, I feel actively dis-invited by these images.

shirtlessguyThe shirtless (sometimes headless!) I-live-at-the-gym-why-do-you-ask image, unpacked, implies things (to me) that I find unsexy (your mileage may vary–this whole subject is nothing if not subjective). Like what, you ask?

  • Like objectification. If I resist the physical objectification of women in our culture, why wouldn’t I resist it for men as well?
  • Like one-size-fits-all-fantasies–this is the definition of sexy, accept no other, regardless of what actually turns you on.
  • Like the part being greater than the totality: the guy on the right has no face. Who is he? He is a bare chest.  At some point, when the sex stops, will he have anything to say for himself?
  • Like protesting too much: The virility of barechestedness (paging Vladimir Putin)? Surely masculinity isn’t dependent upon a polished set of pecs.
  • Like narcissism: seriously, no one gets a body like that without making it a major preoccupation.  And in the words of Marian the Librarian, I prefer men who are more interested in me than they are in themselves, and more interested in us than they are in me… or their pecs.

To be fair, I have to ask myself how a cover designer could create a romance cover that would appeal to me. And that’s tough, because like many women, I think the most attractive things about a man are his brains, his sense of humor, his generosity. Hard to find a visual for that.  And some beef-cakey guys are really smart: I heard Channing Tatum interviewed once, and was startled by how bright and quick he was. Despite his muscles, even. In the end, I think that the covers I find effective are, like sex scenes, those that allow room for my imagination to insert what I find appealing.  That kind of cover is harder to do, because the designer has to hit a sweet spot that is suggestive, not prescriptive, for the widest audience possible.  Which is a hell of a task.

When I was reissuing my early Regencies through BVC, I went with paintings from the period for a variety of reasons–one, mine are what are called “sweet” romances with no, or very little, on screen sex, and I didn’t want to promise something I wasn’t going to supply.  But also, having a woman on the cover leaves a little more leeway for the reader to imagine the hero to her own specification.  It’s the closest I could come to allowing the reader some room for her imagination.

Only the reader, of course, knows if that worked.

Posted in Art, Culture permalink

About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


For God’s Sake, Put On Some Clothes (mark II) — 22 Comments

  1. Interesting… I understand your points, and I agree with many of them. But for the headless torsos — this doesn’t bother me nearly as much as it does many others. In my opinion, the lack of a face allows me to add a face that I find attractive, personalizing the hero into the man I want him to be. (Yes, I understand this is further objectification. But I think that personalization belongs on the spectrum of humanization, if that makes any sense…)

    (And yeah, I understand the irony of my posting about this, with all the torsos on the Diamond Brides series. But I’ll argue all day long that those torsos serve a purpose — alerting readers to the sub-genre, including the relatively high level of sexual content in the books.)

    • I thought hard about whether I wanted to publish this ramble, specifically because several of the writers at BVC have books that partake of the bare-chested torso imagery. And I’m not (I hope) being critical of that imagery so much as trying to unpack what why I have such a negative reaction to it. I agree totally that the naked torsos serve a semiotic purpose (there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write) in terms of signaling content.

      I suspect that some of my negative feelings extend all the way back to the dawn of high-level-of-sexual-content in romances (I published my first romance on stone tablets, distributed by Mastodon Press), where so many of the books themselves were heavy on the plumbing and not particularly good about the personal interplay. The point in some of those books was not the relationship but the orgasm, which I found uninteresting. So it’s possible that my flinch-negative response is to my expectation that that’s what those naked torsos are signaling.

      Book covers and the imagery thereof are tough. Book covers in a genre to which you do not subscribe are damned near impossible.

  2. At least when it’s Hollywood, again it’s the male gaze telling women what they are to find attractive, which is what other men think is non-threatening to them — i.e. the stereotype they still hold in mind as assuring them this huge hulk isn’t gay, so he’s a safe man for other men to be around.

    And romance covers take / took their cue from that, just as much of publishing does, particularly in design and perception.


    • I like your concept that the hulky guy as handsome is a male attitude. I wonder how much of that is the glorification of certain kinds of sports — the bulked up guy goes well with U.S. football. But I can understand wanting to build muscles, because I like developing my muscles, too (though not to the extent that either male or female bodybuilders aspire to).

      That said, I would never pick up a book with a half-naked bulked-up guy on the cover, unless I already knew I liked the author’s work. Likewise any book with a helpless-looking woman on the cover, whatever she might be wearing.

  3. For decades, Hollywood has presented a narrow definition of female beauty–early 20s, fair hair, blue eyes, thin waist, big boobs, thin arms and legs, low voice. In the 90s, Hollywood started in with a narrow definition of male beauty–over 6′, dark hair, carefully-defined, LARGE muscles, long jaw, a bit of scruff (to show he isn’t a pretty boy), intense eye color (green or blue are allowed), age preferably around 30, though exceptions can be made for grizzled veterans like Hugh Jackman.

    Hollywood transformed a doughy, comedic Chris Pratt into a testosterone-laden, muscled action hero, for example.

    Muscles need to be big, Big, BIG. However, the muscles you see on screen are usually faked. Actors who appear shirtless do hurried crunches or pushups and shout, “Okay, get the shot now! Quick!” before their muscles stop standing out. Why? Because almost no one has 1) looks; 2) acting talent; and 3) the ability to build impossible-looking muscle.

    • I have remembered for years Emma Thompson’s comment, when making Junior with Arnold Schwarzenegger, that he literally could not tie his tie himself, because–even years after he stopped the really aggressive Mr. Universe body-building–he was too muscle-bound to be able to get his hands on the tie itself. (I hasten to add that Schwarzenegger, whatever one can say of his personal behavior and politics, has some real comic chops. I much prefer him doing funny than doing Grizzled Action roles.)

    • Brad Pitt! Dude! Our former neighbors were actors and were in an acting studio with Brad Pitt pre-Angelina (i.e. with Brad & Jennifer Aniston). They told stories about how he was by far the best actor, really smart, and a great script-reader.

  4. A book cover that is attractive to thee and me, hmm. You could get my current hero up — a bookish man. He would be sitting there, in his period costume, holding a leatherbound volume and peering over his steel-rimmed glasses at the viewer, smiling that come-hither smile.

  5. I particularly dislike it under circumstances where there is no excuse for him to go around like that, or the excuse is clearly manufactured.

  6. I’m with you on the type of body that appeals to me, and being more attracted to the brain, the personality, etc.

    As for what to put on that cover?

    Google: jeremy irons donna karan

    You’re welcome.

  7. Admiring some of the shirtless guys is like looking at a lovely hothouse flower. I can admire everything that went into its creation, and appreciate its beauty, but I can’t picture it outside of that photo, or actually in my home/life. I am also more of the gymnast/runner physical type, and it’s always personality/sense of humor/is he kind when he doesn’t need to be? that first grabs my interest.

    A third thing that does intrude into the fantasy. A man who lives in the gym might expect me to live in the gym. (A friend dealt with that pressure.) I’d rather do ballroom dancing or martial arts, not life weights.

    But the cover Brenda describes is more of a cover that Dave Smeds describes as having value added–you click, and then you see the detail, the smile that makes you want to talk to that man, find out if he’s worth exploring.

    Making that a selling cover is a hard trick. I have ideas of how to present a different romance cover, but apparently they don’t go with the current romance reader’s expectations. I understand Mindy’s point. I could not attract attention with a quieter cover for my Night Calls books, and her Diamond Brides books need to show that they are sexy little romances. The cover both entices the right reader and warns the wrong one.

    And, for Pooks:

  8. OTOH, Hollywood obviously believes too that women also find ungroomed, badly dressed , doughy-faced, talentless, social skill-less, jobless, eternally non-grown-up males of great attractiveness to women. Woody Allan certainly does ….


    Love, C.

  9. I’m totally with you on this one. I do not find muscle-bound men to be attractive at all. I find men with brains, intelligence, and humor to be attractive — and if they’ve done some living and aren’t completely into themselves, I’m all for that, too.

    The way I see it is simple: I am not a thin woman, nor do I ever wish to be. (Thinner, sure. But I know I’ll always be a curvy woman and I’m perfectly fine with that — I work on health and fitness, not to try to get six-pack abs or whatever the equivalent is for women.) I don’t think I could attract a muscle-bound guy anyway, but even if I could, why would I want him unless he had the brains and sense of humor to go along with it?

    Really, a guy who has that much muscle would be someone I’d actually turn away from, not turn toward. And while I understand what the romance market demands with regards to contemporary covers, I think I’m glad that I get more leeway with a SFnal contemporary romance.

  10. I’m totally with you on this. If anything, I prefer the type like David Duchovny on The X-Files…whenever Mulder puts on his glasses, my heart goes pitter-pat.

    But oiled torsos with a six-pack? Meh.

  11. So with you. Shirtless guys are no turn-on to me, and the headless ones are actively repellent. But mileage obviously varies. Maybe it’s my age, but I find guys in dishabille infinitely more sexy than half-naked ones. Ditto women, for that matter (naked women only throws me back to the showers during gym class. Ugh!!!)