Brad Pitt. The haircut (any haircut), the jawline, the body, the effortlessly asseverated charisma, the uninsistently commanding aura that cemented his being-in-charge-ness as the natural order of things. Brad Pitt, the brand. Brad Pitt, the guy. Brad Pitt, the gold standard of mainstream masculine desirability, is dead. Mortui Vivos Docent.
I’ve been an attendee at his ongoing funeral for years without even knowing it. It wasn’t until a spontaneous conversation over a panoramic array of social lubricants took a whimsically contemplative turn – the kind that involves your female partners in conversation pondering over which male celebrity slakes their (loudly and willingly articulated) thirst – that I realised how out of favour (dead) Pitt, People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive in 1995 and 2000 was. I couldn’t and can’t believe it. This perverse – sacrilegious – revelation was Nietzschean in its levelling, usurping thrust. It wasn’t meant to be, but it felt that way: I imagined being amongst the rabble in the marketplace as his Zarathustra spread his course-altering gospel: “God is dead”.
Blasphemy. Heresy. But there was something in there that lit a fuse to further detonations. I did what I normally tend do when I experience the kind of metaphysical rupture that pop cultural vibrations correspond to: Ask myself the truth-seeking question, “What does it all mean?” Then, the dam truly burst.
And it opened my eyes to just how much I’d not only taken a particular iteration – moment – of desirable masculinity for granted, but to how diffuse and fragmentary perceptions of masculinity are these days, and to how little of a consistent, or even ‘prevailing’ idea of masculinity there presently is. I want to be clear that this isn’t a lament but an exploratory trek towards understanding just why and to what extent the old rules have been thrown out. It’s always been a jungle out there but, now, the tangle of weeds is a lot thicker.
I will never stop giving Pitt his roses but I also want to know what Ariana Grande, Kate Beckinsale, Cazzie David, Phoebe Dynevor, Kaia Gerber, Margaret Qualley, Olivia O’Brien and Kim Kardashian saw/see in Pete Davidson.
As I said, this is not a lament.
THE EYE: ALL-SEEING BUT SPORADICALLY BLINKING
The obvious is the seed of profundity. The expanse of pop culture is proof of that. Pop culture is also proof that desire’s most potent veneer is visual. It starts with what the eye ‘sees’ and how what registers on the retina reverberates philosophically, socially and culturally. Desire begins at the visual stage, which is itself the confluence of the ideologies that attend to how people understand their milieu. Against all allegations of overthinking, I’m going to quote Alexis L. Boylan, Professor in the Art and Art History Department at the University of Connecticut, who articulated the following:
“Visual culture is never neutral, and is thus never without value. Visual culture is power”.
That makes it a little easier to understand why Harry Styles wearing a dress is such a monumental moment in time, and, as crucially, why that has elevated him to a further apex of desirability.
Masculinity has always been a fluid concept. The fact that art, as a geography of meaning(s) has concerned itself with presenting male embodiment and male bodies in various and contradictory ways, is also old news. Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, Leo Burnett’s Marlboro Man, David Bowie’s Starman and Vin Diesel’s Vin Diesel are all points on an ongoing, long-running trajectory. As is the entire corpus of depictions of Hindu deities, the males of whom are rendered as androgynous figures, sites of both conventionally masculine and feminine attributes. So, it’s not that much of a rude shock that masculinity has been deconstructed, literally de-constructed from anything that can be called ‘typical’.
What’s interesting about where we’re at now is that the signifiers and signals of masculinity aren’t just mixed but totally scrambled. This makes the proposition of desirability radically free and almost, in comparison to the days when archetypes ruled our cultural consciousness, anarchic and free.
TALK ABOUT FIGHT CLUB
Fight Club, both the Chuck Palahniuk novel and the David Fincher-captained film (so effectively faithful to the former is the latter that they can be referred to interchangeably and totalisingly), is one of the reasons why Brad Pitt should never be forgotten.
In the diegetic world of both/each, a particular vision of masculinity is posited, valorised for a while, and then, emphatically destroyed. Both novel and film are a cautionary tale of the kind masculinity that is now easily decried as ‘toxic’. Three of the most formidable points they make are that 1) Capitalism confounds identity, and, by extension, desire 2) Conformity is a death sentence 3) But if you change who you are for the wrong reasons, you are guilty of bad faith. In the page and on the screen, the characters and their filmic avatars Edward Norton (the narrator) and Brad Pitt (Tyler Durden) are totems of those truths.
Though the novel published in 1996 and the film released three years later, those concerns are especially relevant today. For those who value clarity and consistency and a hard-and-fast way of going about things, the existence of social media is pure nightmare fuel.
Everywhere we look, we’re given/sold/force-fed opinions on what women find desirable in men. And nowhere is there a reliable answer. In the aughts, Don Draper was an inescapable target. I refuse(d) to watch Mad Men simply because of his annoying – and, to me, puzzling – ubiquity as a locus of desire. After that, a brawny, protein shake-laced charm was elevated as the flavour of the moment in the form of The Rock, Idris Elba and Michael B. Jordan. On my online and IRL feeds, they were kings luxuriating in the most picturesque sections of the roost. Then, in 2021, Paul Rudd, got the crown: People – the publication with the biggest audience in the United States in the year leading to December 2020, with an average monthly reach of 91 million people – deemed him the sexiest man alive.
What’s the point of a lighthouse when the light is blinding?
At one point in Fight Club, Norton gestures at a shredded male lower body in a Gucci underwear ad and asks, “Is that what a man looks like?” Pitt, just scoffs, (un)intentionally affirming how fascinating and bewildering the culture around male objectification is.
What makes it such a fantastic and piercing moment is that Norton’s question can be taken literally: Is that what a man looks like? Which, in turn, can be expanded into Is that what women like? Is that an accurate and definitive snapshot of the fancies and values of the presiding age? In the film, the answer was ‘maybe’. Now, it’s more likely, ‘who knows?” Get a gym membership; wear a dress – all bets are off.
So much ink has been spilled on the male gaze as it lands on women but not enough has been unpacked on its effect on its own, on patriarchy’s rabid cannibalism. That exchange between Norton and Pitt is elliptical and unfinished for that reason. And a big part of why men hesitate to scratch away at that surface is because there’s a deluge of advertised bodies telling them they’re not man enough, yet. All of this is cosmically frustrated by the female gaze, and, in an incredibly emphatic way, in Fight Club, that comes in the form of Marla Singer, a figment of Norton’s fractured psyche. It’s only after he meets her – forces her into existence – that Norton assumes a different, more bold, more conventionally attractive masculine guise. Simply put, it’s only after meeting her that Ed Norton becomes Brad Pitt.
The irony here is brutal: Even in a world premised on iconoclasm, we still want to look like icons. But, as we’re constantly reminded, what’s considered ‘icon’-worthy doesn’t last long/meaningfully enough to matter.
THE GUN SHOW
I remember how it felt the first time a gun was placed in my hand. It was an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. I was 19 and in the first days of my mandatory National Service. When I held it, I felt…triumphant. Not patriotic – triumphant. Almost as if I had passed some unconscious initiation into a new level of manhood. It was stupidly primal but it was real. And it lasted all of two minutes.
Men in uniforms carrying guns is a much-weathered trope of masculinity. I don’t know if it even counts anymore. We’ve become woke, distrustful of the power imbalance we see inscribed in uniforms. Everything associated with the military, one of the oldest founts of manhood, has lost its lustre. Enforced discipline, a sense of decorum and the physical and mental strength a solider is meant to show in times of duress, those things are still favoured – but in an unmoored way, as abstractions.There was a time when Hollywood was one of the most effective and efficient recruitment systems for armed forces all over the world. Now, people enjoy Top Gun: Maverick for the nostalgia, for the vibes.
As I watched the film, I could see the starched-uniform-and-buzz-cut-coiffed idea of masculinity recede in the rearview. And I get it: Self-serious guys wearing the flags of their country on their camo sleeves are just corny now. We, as a society, have to come to like our men on a mission with a layer of critical distance, whether it’s Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool, Harry Styles as Starfox, or Tom Holland as Spider-Man. The men of the hour have literally traded in their fatigues for capes and costumes.
A FULL-CIRCLE VIEW OF HOW VAST THE CIRCLE IS
None of this is bad. None of this is regrettable. None of this is grim.
It’s just so tremendously interesting that there is such a multiplicity of narratives, such an overflowing of views, stories and possibilities that nothing and no one is binding. There is no one way – and for all the right reasons, that’s a good thing. It means we’ve reached a point in our evolution where we can say we’ve, at least to a certain extent, defeated the tyranny inherent in the bias that ‘real’ men do/wear/act only one thing, only one way. We’re free from the tyranny inherent of only.
If you read lyrics as an extension of their writers’ lived experiences (unless they’re Drake’s), as I do, you probably view what’s happening in pop culture as a representation of the codes of conduct for the present moment. Those codes are absolutely teeming with directions now. Whether it’s to and from from K-pop, the gym, the military, the fintech world, the Stoics, the blueprints are there. There’s something for everyone – someone for everyone.
Confusion is the new profusion and profusion is the new consistency.
IT’S FUNNY BUT IT’S TRUE
“Our fathers were models for God. If our fathers bailed, what does that tell you about God?” – This is Tyler Durden grilling the first batch of Fight Club’s recruits.
Pete Davidson never passes up the chance to make light of how his father, a fireman, lost his life in the line of duty during the September 11 attacks. Losing his father is one of the two most defining aspects of the entity that has come to be Pete Davidson. The other is the fact that he is intensively attractive to some of the most thirsted-upon women of the day.
Is it because he’s not ‘like the other guys’, that he’s special? Maybe. Maybe, that’s what it takes: Throwing the rule book so far away none of its instructions stick. Maybe, that’s the only rule that counts. Maybe, being ‘yourself’ is the only way to navigate this new modernity. Maybe, the best way to come out on top is to not be hung up about coming out on top.
Maybe, the best way to avoid being blindsided by the vagaries of the moment is to stand your ground – but make sure it’s firm in the way that’s true to you.
Mortui Vivos Docent.