there's no space for the male image online anymore
Communication happens through images now, so why is obsessing over one’s image still thought of as unmanly? Dean Kissick explores the male selfie complex.
If Instagram was a country, with its 300 million inhabitants it would be the third largest in the world. Of its ten most followed accounts, nine are from women -- young, attractive women -- and indeed four are from the same family: the Jenner-Kardashians. In Ancient Greek mythology there was a princess, Cassandra, so beautiful that she could see into the future but today's American pop stars and personalities are so powerful that they can shape the future, they are the popular image-makers that form our view of ourselves and the world surrounding us. All of which shows the enduring importance of dynasties, the rising influence of individuals over organisations, and also the emergence of a new ideal of beauty; one that is very feminine, usually portrayed in self-portraiture, square-cropped, artfully posed, passed through filters of colour and light, sometimes retouched. With this the dominant form of communication, there is no space for a man on the internet today. Or at least no space for the male body. "Cry me a river," you might roll your eyes.
While in Ancient Greece the adolescent male body -- impossible, idealised in its form as sculpted out of marbles by the artists of the time -- was exalted as the summit of beauty, today to be a man is to be profoundly unfashionable. It is boring, old hat, and belongs in the history books. More and more, communication happens through images rather than words -- through emojis and animated cartoon animals signifying vague emotional states, through selfies and sexts -- and with this one must understand how to express oneself through one's own body, and it appears that women understand this so much better than men. Discussing the recent publication of Kim Kardashian's coffee-table-tome of selfies, art critic Jerry Saltz suggested: "Selfish is a kind of American My Struggle - that's Karl Ove Knausgaard's epic, not Hitler's. I mean, a chorus of one, written in a personal language of compassion, infinite theatre, stage sets, set-pieces, ceremony, shallowness, despairs, self-awareness, sexuality, unable to curtail one's selfishness and obsession with one's own image. Extras enter and leave the stage, but photography, rather than writing, as homeopathic medicament, remedy, used to relieve and express painful malaise." If this is correct, then making these pictures is an act of literature, of transcendence and therapy, it is a universal language that all of us should speak if we're not to lose our minds in the age of information with its round-the-clock avalanches of illuminated imagery. I had a friend who was heartbroken and she would say, "A selfie a day keeps the sadness away." Of course there is an entire history of self-portraiture against melancholy, of Vincent Van Gogh sat in his bedroom in Arles thinking of cutting off some of his ear and painting self-portraits of his chair, instead of his face.
But most men don't possess this mastery, this lightness of touch in the presentation of their own image, and some are afraid, as if capturing one's own image -- without cloaking it in irony -- might chomp away at one's soul, or else the resulting picture might turn out so hideous that it turns children to stone. According to the old way of thinking, to obsess over one's image is somehow unmanly. But it is important to reconcile oneself with the man in the mirror, to understand what is looking back at you. Surely a lot of selfies come from a dark moment of insecurity -- ok -- so where is the modern man to channel his insecurity, or seek reassurance? Who are the role models with which to make a self-image? As portrayed in the popular media, men are idiots, misogynists, dinosaurs, they are pilots-thinking-of-crashing, terrorists, best friends with a drunken teddy bear. Often to be a man is somehow to be a moron. There is little sense that masculinity might be something to be proud of rather than a source of ambivalence and shame.
But of course men are creatures of intense, throbbing vanity and crave attention too, and desire to be liked, perhaps they're tired of the constant feeling of rejection as they scroll through Tinder, or the yawning indifference with which their Instagram posts are received. Today's dominant aesthetic is overwhelmingly feminine and there are many examples of male artists absorbing that, chameleon-like, in widely varying ways; for instance PC Music producers A. G. Cook and Sophie have constructed an imaginary pop star -- QT -- a living avatar who is played by a female performance artist at their live shows, striking poses and miming along. Arca and Jesse Kanda have constructed together a grotesque female Frankenstein's monster -- Xen -- as a sort of muse to inspire their music and star in their videos; her otherworldly computer-generated vagina has even had them thrown off Instagram for obscenity. Kanye West started wearing high-end womenswear, and eventually opened his own atelier in Paris. Of course the fashion industry is in thrall to a new wave of explicitly feminised menswear: Gucci under Alessandro Michele, everything under J.W. Anderson. In the art world Richard Prince is making million-upon-controversial-million from his appropriations of (mostly) girls' Instagrams. Throughout his career Prince has observed what's popular and reproduced it, usurped its alchemical power to his own means; but while in 1980 he thought cowboys from Marlboro billboards were the great American heroes -- the best representations of their time -- today he thinks that role is filled by attractive young women on the internet, many of them stars of the creative industries.
While these have been enlightened times for attitudes towards trans-sexuality -- recently, Hari Nef signing to IMG and Caitlyn Jenner starring on the cover of Vanity Fair -- again things are orientated towards a feminine ideal of beauty; in the fashion industry there are no leading female-to-male transsexual models. In the disembodied spaces of the net, where one can float free of the weight of our physicality, the world has chosen to make idols of female forms, like goddesses. Why? Perhaps it is only a matter of redressing the balance; masculinity is unpopular, understandably so, having driven our economy to despair, our ecosystem beyond the brink, started apocalyptic wars, torn apart families and countries and whole areas of the planet. Or perhaps, as somebody told me, it might just be that a lot of men are using the internet in a more cynical way -- a linking-in -- which is not about self-expression but rather about accumulating contacts, building up one's influence and status, and eventually using all that in the pursuit of the beauty of others. Or possibly it is because of the triumph of visual culture, as most men are less possessed of the necessary skills to shine in a photograph… yet; although maybe the world will soon witness a grand flourishing of dandy-ish male beauty as has not been seen since late-18th-century England. Or it might be that in today's competitive circus of likes you need to have an image, or an avatar that can flourish within that system, and perhaps the female form is just much more suited to performing that role than the male.
Text Dean Kissick
Photography Harry Carr, Versace spring/summer 15