The New Normal: Dissecting the Male Ideal

TEXT: Alexander Sauve 

Similar to the female standards of beauty, the male ideal is nearly impossible to achieve and maintain. It’s a standard that continually evolves and is driven by the media and entertainment industry. With Pride month well underway, Novella takes a look at the emerging new standards of male beauty and we find that one size does not necessarily fit all.

1960s: Liberated and Outrageously Sexy

The 1960s was a decade of significant cultural and political upheaval. Before the gay liberation movement, it was absolutely imperative to “pass” as heterosexual. After the Stonewall Riots of 1969, coming out became an act of defiance against the anti-gay establishment. Men in greater numbers would break free from the traditional clean-shaven, perfectly quaffed and overly conservative mold of the ’50s. By the early 1970s, gay men found inspiration in uber-masculine male stereotypes — the lumberjack, the cowboy, the biker, and the construction worker would become the epitome of the masculine ideal.

1970s: A decade of Decadence

In the era of Studio 54 and Bowie and Warhol, a period of decadence and self-expression rolled in. Although the uber-masculine ideal was in full swing, many gay men would begin to defy old-school gender binaries by experimenting with makeup, tight clothes, and longer hairstyles. The look was androgynous, young, and free-spirited. The underground Drag Ball culture of New York was gaining popularity and would eventually become synonymous with the worldwide LGBT community.

1980s: The Athletic Ideal

As the fitness models exercised, sweated, and posed in various states of undress in Olivia Newton-John’s 1981 smash hit Physical, the athletic male ideal was born. Men were muscular, athletic, and tanned to a leathery golden crust. Essentially the “All-American Look” of the 1980s fitness craze would have a tremendous influence on male beauty, fashion, and grooming ideals. A body that is fit, healthy, and lean remains the most sought after body type for both men and women alike.

1990s: The Era of the Supermodel

Arguably the last generation of the true supermodel-models Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, and Kate Moss was the envy of every young woman and gay man in the 1990s. But a crop of top male models — Marcus Schenkenberg, Mark Vanderloo, and Tyson Beckford — would set the standard of male beauty in the era of perfection. With their chiseled features and tall and well-defined physiques, these guys were the new epitome of the masculine ideal.

Early 2000’s: The Metrosexual Man

By the early 2000s, we saw an increase of confident and stylish men taking greater pride in their appearance. In this era, men enjoyed high-quality grooming products, designer threads, and perfectly styled hair. The metrosexual is usually found in urban jungles where grooming and shopping is easy. Most often heterosexual, these stylish and well-groomed men put some of their gay counterparts to shame.

2010: The Casual Hipster

In many ways, the hipster would set a new standard for male grooming and style. From full and thick beards to plaid shirts and oversized frames, their casual and uber-sexy style is one of the most sought after styles for millennials. Noted to be somewhat overly trendy, the hipster loves all things organic, distinctive, and individual. Unfortunately, the individuality thing only goes so far, since the term ‘hipster’ goes as far back as the 1940s and saw an reemergence with a different meaning in the 1990s.

Today: The Bearded Beauty

Today it’s all about lumberjack. The new male archetype is bearded, uber-masculine, and is good with an axe (probably not really though). An ode to the lumbersexual and anti-establishment of the 1960s and 70s, beards give a rugged and enigmatic appearance to even the prettiest of male faces. Think Ryan Reynolds in The Amityville Horror (2005), without the crazy.

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‘Outsiders’ at the AGO

Gordon Parks - Bessie on the morning
Gordon Parks – Bessie and Little Richard the Morning After She Scalded Her Husband, Harlem, New York, (1967)

An Outsider is a person who does not belong to a particular organization or profession.”

An Outsider is a person who is not accepted by or who isolates themselves from society.”

-Oxford English Dictionary-

Outsiders: American Photography and Film, 1950s-1980s at the Art Gallery of Ontario, started last month and will be running until May 29. The exhibition features photography icons such as Gordon Parks, Nan Goldin, Danny Lyon and Diane Arbus among others. Like most photographic stories, they don’t mean to tell a story about photography. But if they do, it’s just a side effect.

Coming from rural poverty, African-American writer, music, and film director, Gordon Parks became prominent within American documentary photojournalism — issues of civil rights, poverty and racism in particular. For Parks, the camera was the “best choice of weapons“.

Known for her work featuring LGBT-related themes, Nan Goldin sees the camera as an extension of her own body. She is definitely an outsider but she is not outside of the reality she captures: “I’m not crashing; this is my party. This is my family, my history“.

Danny Lyon understands that, within new photojournalism, the photographer must become immersed — a participant of the documented subject. That’s why for his collection, The Bikeriders (1968) he not only photographed motorcyclists in the American Midwest from 1963 to 1967, but also became a member of the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club himself to share their lifestyle. He documented the humanity of these subjects, the strength of their relational bonds and the freedom of their existence: “they were not criminals or outlaws” Lyon notes.

Diane Arbus has always been interested in documenting marginalized people: dwarfs, giants, transgender people and other people who was perceived by the general populace as ugly or surreal. She saw the beauty in rareness and understood the importance of an honest connection with the subject: “the act of portraying is a collaboration that demands humility and respect” she notes.

All of the artists involved picked the camera as their tool and the image as their language. Their stories speak to different voices — and yet they all share one message: only by being an outsider, which ultimately means observing from outside, is it possible to take perspective and show what is happening within. For that reason, society has not only accepted them but also admired them.

“An Outsider is a person who is able to observe from the outside and is used as a mirror for people from the inside.”

-Novella Magazine-

Goldin - Cookie
Nan Goldin – Cookie at Tin Pan Alley, New York City (1983)
Danny Lyon – Cal, Elkhorn, Wisconsin (1966)
Diane Arbus_A Young Man and his Pregnant Wife in Washington Square Park
Diane Arbus – A young man and his pregnant wife in Washington Square Park, N.Y.C. (1965).

 Photos courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario.