June 6, 2023

THE MAN STANDS: On hunks, heart palpitations, and what pop culture has taught me about (desirous) menby Manuel Betancourt

Toxic masculinity. Fragile masculinity. Like most pop sociological truisms gaining popularity on social media, these are great buzzwords, but they fail to handle nuance. A slogan isn’t a statement, of course, but I’ve always found these terms to be simplistic substitutes for more interesting conversation. Yes, masculinity, which is often a patriarchal institution delivering seemingly impossible social expectations for men and boys, has no shortage of issues. But what about its appeal? What is so captivating about it for so many people, including many who are victims of the overbearing norms?

“The Male Gazed,” by queer Colombian writer and film critic Manuel Betancourt, is a clever, refreshing collection of essays on the subject, addressing directly and honestly the paradoxes surrounding the subject of men.

Masculinity, says Betancourt, is a concept that is currently at war with itself. It is both a display of strength and a delicate dance at the same time – it is a construction with narrow, rigid rules and also great potential for the romantic and, of course, for the homoerotic. Betancourt understands these contradictions and offers insight from the trenches as a queer person who is both a victim of the strict conventions of masculinity and a connoisseur of the erotic pleasures of masculinity.

Each essay in “The Male Gazed” interweaves stories from Betancourt’s own life with a consideration of a facet of masculinity, battling the idea’s enduring appeal and its suffocating anxieties. Take one of the collection’s most compelling essays, “Wrestling Heartthrobs,” in which the author “struggles” with his attraction to the high school jock archetype, specifically Mario Lopez’s shirt-clad character, A.C. Slater , in ‘Saved by the Bell’. “The image of the wrestler, even one as charming and unassuming as Slater’s, cannot fail to evoke both aggression and eroticism; the male body thus revealed is both a come-on and a threat,” writes Betancourt. “It’s masculinity distilled.”