THE MALE GAZED: On Hunks, Heartthrobs, and What Pop Culture Taught Me About (Desiring) Men, by Manuel Betancourt
Toxic masculinity. Fragile masculinity. Like most pop-sociological truisms that gain traction on social media, these are great buzzwords but they fail to grapple with nuance. A slogan isn’t a thesis, of course, but I’ve always found these terms to be simplistic substitutions for more interesting conversations. Yes, masculinity, which is often a patriarchal institution that metes out seemingly impossible social expectations for men and boys, has no shortage of problems. But what about its appeal? What’s so captivating about it to so many people, including many who are victims of its overbearing norms?
“The Male Gazed,” by the queer Colombian writer and film critic Manuel Betancourt, is a smart, refreshing essay collection on the subject, and deals directly and honestly with the paradoxes surrounding the topic of men.
Masculinity, Betancourt says, is a concept currently at war with itself. It is simultaneously a display of force and also a delicate dance — it’s a construct that has stuffy, rigid rules and also great potential for the romantic and, of course, for the homoerotic. Betancourt understands these contradictions and offers insight from the trenches as a queer person who is both a casualty of masculinity’s stringent conventions and a connoisseur of masculinity’s erotic delights.
Each essay in “The Male Gazed” intertwines stories from Betancourt’s own life with a consideration of a facet of masculinity, contending with the idea’s enduring allure and its suffocating anxieties. Take one of the collection’s most compelling essays, “Wrestling Heartthrobs,” which shows the author “wrestling” with his attraction to the high school jock archetype, especially Mario Lopez’s singlet-clad character, A.C. Slater, in “Saved by the Bell.” “The image of the wrestler, even one as charming and unassuming as that of Slater, can’t help but conjure up both aggression and eroticism; the male body so revealed is both a come-on and a threat,” Betancourt writes. “It is manhood distilled.”