Men without chests -- that was C. S. Lewis's striking description of graduates of the postwar English schools, with their faculties trained to dismiss the virtues of patriotism and piety. These Englishmen, Lewis worried, would become lifelong enemies of the sublime, unable and unwilling, when push came to shove, to defend themselves or their countrymen. American men, I am happy to report -- even the sensitive new age guys -- still have something of a chest, thanks to our enduring fitness mania. But have you noticed how bare those chests are? Late twentieth-century America is increasingly a land not of men without chests but of men without chest hair.
I first realized this a couple of years ago while watching the otherwise forgettable B-movie romance Picture Perfect, starring Jennifer Aniston and Kevin Bacon, who was then just under 40. As the two characters get ready to, well, put the 13 in PG-13, Bacon takes off his shirt and his chest is completely hairless. Okay, Kevin Bacon may not prove much. But not long after that, I saw Al Pacino, whose fuzzy talent has graced the screen in such classics as Scarface and Serpico, appearing as hairless as an angel in The Devil's Advocate. (Once you're aware of the hairless-man phenomenon, by the way, you can no longer see a movie without noticing it. Sorry.)
Now, only 20 percent or so of adult white males are totally without what's technically referred to as "terminal pigmented chest hair." And yet, in the last few years, practically every Hollywood male sex symbol, when standing half-dressed for his more intimate scenes, looks as if he has absolutely no chest hair. Tom Cruise. Matt Damon. Keanu Reeves. Brad Pitt. All of them look like boys. One even sees older actors depilated to look like the boy-man stars who now capture every significant romantic role. The traditional Hollywood aesthetic in which old was never sexy has been carried to a new extreme: Now only the immature is sexy. Forget heroin chic, the hip aesthetic of the early '90s; say hello to permanent adolescence. And this new look trickles down. A big-city cop of my acquaintance confided not long ago that he shaves his chest. For several years now waxing salons have not been for women only. One of these days, no doubt, a cosmetic surgeon will come up with the philosopher's stone of our age -- how to transplant hair from men's chests to their heads -- and make a fortune.
But the hairless man represents more than just a simple change in cosmetic fashions, like the widening and narrowing of ties. These men without chest hair carry on, knowingly or not, quite a tradition. In ancient Rome and Greece, the romantic associations of men and boys were jeopardized by the appearance of facial and bodily hair. It meant the boy was now a man, which meant he was no longer available. The Roman epigrammatist Martial lampooned men who plucked their hair to stay boyish.
Why pluck the hairs from your gray fanny?
That's a chic touch which men admire
In girls, not in a flagrant granny.
Martial also took issue with a man who insisted on calling him brother (fratere), a term that also meant lover:
I'm shaggy-legged and bristle-cheeked
Daily you depilate
Your silky skin. Your voice is light;
You lisp in a charming way --
My voice, as my loins can testify,
Is gruff, and so, I'll say:
We're less alike than eagles and doves
Or lions and does, so Mister
Don't call me "brother," or
I'll have to call you sister.
Obviously today, as ever, the phenomenon cannot be disentangled from the romantic ideals of male homosexuals. As Salon columnist Camille Paglia authoritatively noted in a recent piece, "depilation has become highly fashionable in the gay male world. . . . Not since Greek athletes scraped their oiled, sandy bodies with the strigil . . . have men had such a fetish for girl-smooth skin."
But what is most interesting about the hairless man is that he is no longer exclusively gay; he is, rather, the American male ideal.
Last decade's gay "clone" has become this decade's hetero stud. The subject of countless overwrought academic "queer theory" treatises, the gay "clone" was usually defined as an archetypal boy cruising men on the street-corners and in the clubs of big cities. Boyish and neatly dressed (jeans and T-shirt ironed), he displayed a vanity and sense of style that were a "perfect" representation of manliness. And then, somewhere along the line, the straight male began to imitate him. To see the gay clone today, one need only flip through magazines like Men's Fitness or Men's Health, two glossies that have made vanity a lifestyle.
A typical article from Men's Health tells readers how to decrease calories and stress ("Assign numerical values to the major parts of your life, such as work, marriage, and family; this can help you better apportion your time") while increasing earnings, physical strength, and sex drive. And "if Jane Goodall's research assistants have been creeping around your backyard, perhaps it's time to ask a dermatologist about hair removal with lasers. . . . A typical back treatment takes four hours and costs $ 500 to $ 2,000. Nose and ear procedures cost around $ 200. Backside denuding is at the doctor's discretion." After which, you can turn over and be made to look like the hairless man on the magazine cover. These magazines are an education in how to look exactly like a '90s man without having to think about what it means to be one.
Nor is this simply another case of gay fashion being a trendsetter for straights. The newly prominent hairless man is a sign of the convergence of gay and straight culture. Male vanity and the desire to prolong adolescence are becoming mainstream traits, no longer the markers of a subculture. Just two years after Ellen DeGeneres's "coming out" scored a ratings bonanza for her then-declining, now-off-the-air TV show, the arguments between gay activists and their critics over how visible homosexuality should be on prime time TV are already seeming quaint. Such arguments presume that there is a dominant, hostile majority culture. But there isn't. There are only tiny protest groups that get laughed at when they count the number of gay characters in TV shows and movies. The mainstream culture is the culture of the hairless man, at best indifferent to old-fashioned, grown-up male traits.
Here is a mainstream cultural moment. Cinematic stud Mark Wahlberg was interviewed earlier this year by Matt Lauer on the Today show. By the admittedly bland standards of morning television, the contrast in personalities should have made it an interesting conversation: Strong silent type who recently played an outsized porn star in the movie Boogie Nights confronts Sensitive New Age Guy, the kind of softy Americans want to see first thing in the morning. Instead, the only contrast in the interview was that of a regular SNAG versus a post-macho SNAG. It took Wahlberg, the post-macho SNAG, only seconds to reveal his vulnerable side: "It's kind of hard, you know, because the whole macho thing, you know, it's -- coming from Boston, it's -- it's also an -- an athletic place, you know, and there's not too much opportunity there. So being the tough guy is the thing to do. . . . It was -- it was difficult to -- to accept the role in Boogie Nights only because I was -- and it's stupid now to think about it, but I was worried about what my friends would think, you know, and -- and stuff like that . . ."
Machismo is never so talked about as when it is absent. But there was a worthwhile question answered by the interview: What do you get when you put two SNAGS together? Answer: a conversation about being gay.
LAUER: You said in an article in Premiere magazine that when you were growing up, it was tough to repress the fact that you were . . . creative. It was a little bit like being gay and not being able to tell your parents.
LAUER: How does it feel to be in a place right now where it's cool to be gay -- sorry, it's cool to be creative? You know what, it could be either way.
WAHLBERG: It's cool to be gay, too. It's cool to be gay.
LAUER: I loved your look when I said it. You kind of looked at me and said 'What?'
WAHLBERG: It's cool to be gay, too.
In fact, there is nothing ironic in Wahlberg's playing spokesman for the gay community. The rapper formerly known as Marky Mark was central to one of the most important sightings of the hairless man. Before his success in Boogie Nights had him making appearances on Charlie Rose and other talk shows, Wahlberg was a model for the famous Calvin Klein ad that appeared in countless magazines, but nowhere more prominently than on that humongous billboard above Times Square. Striking a pose in his skivvies, Wahlberg looked like a bit of rough trade freshly showered for a special occasion. But more important, he was, except for a butchy hairdo, as smooth skinned as the day he was born.
Not only has the mainstream gone gay -- remember the quaintly controversial IKEA commercial featuring two thoroughly domesticated gay men picking out items for their home? -- but gay life has gone mainstream. The course of this change can be seen in Hollywood movies. It was just a few years ago that the gay hit The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, a bawdy and occasionally hilarious movie from Australia, inspired a mediocre American imitation starring tough-guys Wesley Snipes and Patrick Swayze -- hairless men both. In 1997's My Best Friend's Wedding, Julia Roberts's gay pal, who is her cover date for the wedding, seems to be the only character capable of romance; a faux-heterosexual tic has him stealing all the scenes he is in. Amidst so many public displays of friendship to support the comedy's bland premise (the possibility of good friends' getting married) the gay character refreshes the movie by leading the rehearsal dinner in a round of "I Say a Little Prayer." It's a weird throwback moment in which the movie's greatest display of devotion -- a scene that could have been stolen from an old Gene Kelly musical -- is romantically meaningless. It's also a reflection of the question at the center of the movie: Is love just an intense form of friendship?
Well, yes, according to various pop-culture trends of the '90s. The super-successful girl pop band the Spice Girls were practically a propaganda squad detached by the friends of friendship to demote eros to the status of a lower passion. Two of the most popular sitcoms of the decade Seinfeld and Friends were both predicated on the elevation of platonic love, one cynically and the other in a way that was painfully cute. Ross from Friends, the show's one regular male character of serious romantic intent, doesn't even merit being called a SNAG. His whiny boyish mannerisms suggest he can barely live up to the guy part. Men who really do love women have been, if not written out of television and Hollywood, playing second fiddle to their emasculated brothers.
In her famous 1964 essay "Notes on Camp," Susan Sontag, the voice of New York's then cultural vanguard, felt compelled to explain the obvious overlap between the self-consciously theatrical style described in her essay and homosexual taste, which, she wrote, constitutes "the vanguard of camp": "The camp insistence on not being 'serious,' on playing, also connects with the homosexual's desire to remain youthful." In September 1996, New York magazine published a prescient article describing the decline of the other defining characteristic of gay life: militancy. Referring to the "'Hallmarkization' of gay sensibility," the author, Daniel Mendelsohn, argued, "If you take away the edge and the kitsch, there's not much left -- and what remains isn't all that different from what you find in straight culture."
This seems to already overstate the difference between the sometimes campy and sometimes edgy singles culture of gays and the less campy and less edgy singles culture of straights. Traditionally, big cities are magnets for both gays and young people who are looking for careers first and spouses later. In places like New York, the romantic lives of a young straight and a young gay -- both divisible into units of temporary attachments -- aren't really that different. The difference between young married people and young unmarried people is far greater. If an icon of gay sexuality like the hairless male has gone mainstream over the last decade, it is because mainstream America wasn't intrinsically hostile to gay visibility to begin with.
What has been lost as the hairless man, an eternal boy, has become our male ideal? Real romance, for one significant thing. The hairless man is perhaps searching for romance, but only insofar as it supplies self-fulfillment and steers him clear of the burdens of love and family. Which is a pity. In order for real romance to occur, there must be some connection with matrimony. The hairless man would have to be robbed of his adolescent affectations and forced to mature. Defenders of a traditional culture have been overly fixated on gay characters, openly gay actors, and gay love stories. Such entertainment will succeed or fail on its merits as entertainment. Yet, it is the embarrassment of heterosexual love that should concern us.
Manliness cannot, after all, be reduced to a hard body, high income, and regular exercise. And yet, a pretty boy, the hairless man, has become the signature of American romance, thus mistaking the acorn for the tree, potential for the final product, leaving us with too many suitors and too few fathers, and stories about sex and love that never end in marriage and family. The problem, to paraphrase C. S. Lewis, is that we cannot raise geldings and expect them to be fruitful. We cannot turn middle-aged men back into boys and expect them to be leaders, elders, the carriers of what wisdom that comes with age. We cannot erase general notions of manliness from popular culture and expect today's boys to be tomorrow's protectors and providers. Where can one find reflections of manliness, if everywhere you turn, the American male seems boyish, hairless, shorn of any sign that he is an adult?
David Skinner is an associate editor at The Weekly Standard
Volume 4, Number 38; June 21, 1999