Note: 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.
The 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.