Society embraces the male form as ornament
When the Spartan warriors of the film “300” stormed to the top of the box office, it was mostly a male audience that assured them victory.
But it wasn’t only the gleefully graphic violence in the film — the piles of severed heads, the fountains of gore- – that captured the male imagination. No guy worth his weight in poker chips and beer could help but be impressed by the magnificent physiques of the actors who portrayed the Spartans. Those corrugated abs. Those tree-trunk thighs. Those soccer-ball biceps.
When the Pittsburgh Opera presents “Billy Budd,” the title role will be sung by Nathan Gunn, who will perform shirtless in at least one scene. Gunn’s physique seems more appropriate to a gym than an art form whose best-known male star, Luciano Pavoratti, has been known to tip the scale at more than 300 pounds.
Or consider “Casino Royale,” a James Bond prequel. Instead of a scantily clad Ursula Andress or Halle Berry emerging from the sea, the film gave audiences a no-less-stunning Daniel Craig in swim trunks. Craig’s brawny Bond marked a departure from the more slightly built 007 models.
The notion of the male physique as ornamental dates back to the ancient Greeks and their Roman successors, who often made copies of Greek statues.
In the modern world, however, it’s been confined mostly to the male corps in ballet and modern dance, Calvin Klein ads, action movies, or the oiled and preening goliaths of WWF wrestling.
While Greek sculptures usually represented the ideal form rather than a documented portrait, that didn’t mean they were just eye candy, says art historian Josie Piller, director the University Art Gallery at Pitt. Even non-athletes had to stay in shape in order to perform the physical labor required in a pre-industrial world, she says.
“Most of the guys in the ancient world were athletes and so on, but there was a reason for them to be very physically fit. In the 20th and 21st century, there’s not that imperative.”
The workout culture that has emerged in the past 20 years suggests that a new imperative has emerged: to have one’s male physique admired by both sexes.
“It’s connected to the push to get your body into shape,” says Geoffrey Greif, author of a forthcoming book on male friendship, “Guys Will Be Guys.” “People are getting married now at a later date, meaning that men and women are spending more time in the gym. They’re trying to parade around in a preening way because obviously, the more buff you are as a man, the more buff of a woman you’re able to get.”
But if guys pumping iron at Alexander’s Athletic Club, in Harmar, aspire to the build of the Spartan warriors or Craig’s 007, they evidently keep it to themselves. A guy who wants to take his workouts to the Spartan level might use the services of personal trainer Tim Schilcher, whose Myofitness Personal Training partners with the club.
Schilcher puts both male and female clients through strengthening and sculpting regimens that can range from rigorous to brutal.
Unlike their female counterparts, men don’t cite a specific male role model whose body they want, so to speak.
“They just come in saying ‘I want to lose the gut. I want the six pack,” Schilcher says. “Women usually say whose body they want. Men just say ‘I want to go for the ripped abs. I’ve never had one guy say ‘I want abs like this guy.’ ”
Women sometimes put photos of their ideal on the refrigerator, he says. Guys don’t. But they do encourage each other.
“Guys definitely compliment each other at the gym,” Schilcher says. “I just got one today. A buddy I hadn’t seen in a while said I was looking pretty good, like I’d beefed up a bit over the winter. I just told him, ‘Thanks but, well, I just got done doing biceps so I’m just pumped right now.'”
Iconic moments of male physique
- A young Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalksi in a ripped T-shirt in 1951’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” and also sporting a shocking-at-the-time leather biker jacket in 1953’s “The Wild One”
- Michelanglo creates his statue “David,” circa 1501-04, a classic masterpiece of the male form.
- Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy emerging from the lake in his drenched white shirt in the 1995 BBC version of “Pride and Prejudice”
- Burt Lancaster on the beach with Deborah Kerr in the 1953 film “From Here to Eternity”
- An exultant Muhammad Ali postures over a defeated Sonny Liston in 1965.
- Kirk Douglas declaring in 1960: “I am Spartacus.”
- Russell Crowe declaring in 2000: “I am gladiator.”
- Olympian Mark Spitz in his red, white and blue swimsuit and a chest covered with gold medals in 1972
- A shirtless William Holden in the 1955 film “Picnic”
- Sean Connery as James Bond in 1962’s “Dr. No,” wearing swim trunks and an open shirt playing opposite Ursula Andress
- Paul Newman on the chain gang in the 1967’s “Cool Hand Luke”
- Daniel Craig as James Bond emerging from the ocean in the 2006’s “Casino Royale”
- Daniel Day Lewis running shirtless through the woods in “The Last of the Mohicans” in 1992
- Gerard Butler as King Leonidas, leading the Spartan warriors in this year’s “300”