"Not only do the media shape our vision of the contemporary world, determining what most people can and cannot see and hear, but the very images of our own body, our own selves, our own personal self worth (or lack of it) is mediated by the omnipresent images of mass culture..."
From the fervent explosion that saw the birth of the gay liberation movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s there emerged a period of amazing freedom and growth for many gay people. Sexualities that were previously hidden behind a veil of secrecy were now being expressed and fought for out on the streets. Sex, especially the desire of gay men for casual sex, was now out in the open. A new body image emerged from this revolution, one that was neither male nor female, but androgynous. This new androgynous body image can be seen as a reflection of societal changes that were happening during the swinging Sixties, the era of "free love." The joining together of male and female, gay men and lesbians was a very positive force in the formation and acceptance of new identities.
But the honeymoon was soon over.
The idealism and political correctness of the early gay liberation movement did not last long. Gay men, long persecuted for their camp and feminine ways sought out images to combat the long held stereotype of the limp-wristed pansy who had abdicated his male power to others through his effeminacy. Manliness came out of the closet of the physique magazines to express the longed for power of patriarchy that gay men sought. There was an enormous surge in the production of homoerotic imagery and gay men responded by imitating heterosexual masculinity in an ironic way; the 'clone' image was born: boots, tight fitting jeans, check shirts, short hair and usually a moustache to top off the image. Anybody could go out and purchase such an outfit. It did not discriminate along class or social boundary lines and the 'look' was relatively ageless. This clone image extended to other identities that included the leather man, the sailor, the construction worker & the cowboy (aka 'The Village People'). But the image was still 'butch'; skinny or fat guys really need not apply.
The pop group 'The Village People' are a perfect example of the camp irony that infused the gay scene at this time. Their song "Macho Man" echoes the desire for gay men to be seen as butch: "I wanna be a macho, macho man - I wanna be, a macho man," they sing parading around in their tight fitting and revealing outfits. By making their stereotypical cloned images of the cowboy, construction worker, cop, etc., ... incredibly camp they undermined the credibility of traditional masculinity. But this camp ironic comment was soon devoured by the dichotomy of existing sex and gender differences. As Dennis Altman has said,
"In the early days of the movement, both women and men saw the process of gay liberation as intimately related to the blurring of sexual and gender boundaries, a move toward androgyny ... Our biggest failure was an inability to foresee the extent to which the opposite would happen and a new gay culture/identity would emerge that would build on existing male/female differences."
The body and its visibility has become increasingly important as a site of identity construction that is crucial to a person's sense of self-esteem. Appearance is a critical element in this construction. I suggest that in contemporary gay culture the muscular body of the gay male has stopped being a 'camp' ironic comment on 'normal' masculinity and instead the body and photographic images of it have become a marketable asset, a commodity in a selling and surveillance exercise. Men advertise for sex by displaying their body for admiration and desire by others and observe themselves and others reactions to it. Identity is now mediated by acceptance of their image and by 'measuring up' to a perceived image ideal, usually predicated on that of the muscular mesomorphic body type. In order to make money, business and media started to make more use of the availability of the male body as an objectified image of desire as it opened up new markets. It encouraged men to undertake face lifts, tummy tucks, pectoral implants and hair removal, to purchase underwear, toiletries, clothes and all manner of goods so that they too could approach the archetypal 'ideal' of the masculine male.
The muscular Billy Doll, complete with huge "anatomically correct penis," (for anatomically read 'scientifically' correct or how big a gay man's penis should be) is the contemporary idealisation of earlier stereotypical gay fantasy images, a kind of male Barbie doll on steroids for gay men.
In today's incarnation the camp ironic comment present in the fantasy images of an earlier generation has disappeared. It has been replaced by a 'desiring' consumerism, in this case the desire for a muscular form complete with jaw dropping penis, the envy of every gay man. After all, consumerism is a form of self-obsession. Does Billy make you feel a little insecure? Billy doesn't have an inch of fat or any body hair, is perfectly proportioned (particularly his huge endowment) and is made of plastic. No fear of infection or degeneration here! Women have been fighting this kind of body stereotyping with the Barbie Doll for years and now the gay male has his own equivalent.
Oh but Billy - he's born to love you!!