Entertainment :: Books

American Hunks: The Muscular Male Body in Popular Culture

by Steve Weinstein
Contributor
Thursday Oct 1, 2009
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Wow! This terrific trade paperback photo book proves that male hotness is in line with Michel Foucalt’s theories about sexuality being historically determined.

Starting with the post-Civil War health craze that made names like Graham (of the cracker), Post and Kellogg (they, of cereal) household names, just the first few daguerrotypes of muscle men is worth the price of this book alone. American Hunks is encyclopedic in its accommodation of what society--and, not incidentally, the burgeoning consumer culture--considered hot.

In his introductory essay, Brett Josef Grubisic discusses at some length the interrelationship between marketing and stripped-down men. If you think Calvin Klein and Cinc2 boxes are anything new, take a look at the packages for Samson Wallboard, Hercules Blasting Caps, Atlas Shoe Polish, Hubbard’s Flour or Samson Razor Blades.

Many of the photos are from private or family collections. David Chapman, a specialist on the subject of male erotic photography, has done real yeoman’s work tracking down these photos.

The iconic portraits are here, too, such as Lewis HIne’s beautiful study of a workman with a wrench framed by a machine, like an Industrial Age halo. Charles Atlas is in here, of course, as are many Hollywood stars--the very well-written liner notes point out that beefcake was at least as popular as cheesecake from the days of silent film.

What really surprised is how downright hot a lot of these ancient photos are. It’s a real tribute to the near-platonic idealism of male physical perfection that a photo of a man taken 100 years ago can still turn me on. That, or my nasty libido.

Whichever, it works. This book is totally fun, because it educates (really--don’t scoff) as it titillates. Look at the photo on page 135 of the back of a naked man walking from 1935. His superbly built and carved muscularity would look completely at home in the latest issue of Men’s Health or Muscle & Fitness.

By 1934, America was already enthralled by bodybuilding. Sandow had a great build, but he wasn’t a bodybuilder in the truly modern sense. With his super-carved muscles, wide shoulders, narrow waist and massive thighs, John Grimek provided the look that still predominates.

World War II used muscular servicemen in posters that make any Black Party ad look tame. Take a look at the sailor thrusting the phallic shell on page 191. Or gaze longingly at the shirtless pecs, tris and bis surrounded by a military uniform in an ad for a railroad.

The ’50s were probably the Golden Age of male hunkdom. Precisely because gender conformity (along with every type of conformity) reigned, muscular men became the standard by which other men were measured. Like women being compared to Marilyn Monroe or Sophia Loren, they were usually found wanting.

The ’50s also saw the rise and fall, thanks to government pissy-pants, of openly homoerotic physical culture magazines. A hilarious cover from a 1958 pulp novel shows a bodybuilder about to whip a woman; the book purports to expose the world of men "leered at in glossy photos by thrill seekers of every sex and taste." Some things just never change!

Even kids got into the act. I’ll probably go to Hell for this, but the photos of Tony Dow--Beaver’s brother--are sexy, as are Ricky and (especially) David Nelson, of "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet."

By the early ’60s, Italian gladiator epics, Marlon Brando and Muscle Beach had solidified hunks as an indelible part of the American scene. The book appropriately ends with early photos of a young Austrian bodybuilder named Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The first muscleman superstar since Sandow, Schwarzenegger became a marquee Hollywood actor with minimal talent and used his fame to become governor of the most populous and important state in the union.

Anyone who doesn’t believe that this book doesn’t cover a vital subject need only look at his career. But you won’t be thinking of politics when you gaze at these objects of beauty.

by David L. Chapman

$33, paperback
Arsenal Pulp Press
arsenalpulp.com

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early ’80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).

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