Spider-Man Sews: How the hyper-masculine superhero emerges from the feminine and domestic act of costuming

Superheroes represent a hyper-masculinised stereotype. They are characterised by masculine traits of physical strength and muscular physiques, along with aggressive tendencies (manifested in their physical, combative engagement with villains). An equally important aspect of the superhero genre is the costume. … Continue reading

Kirk’s Ripped Shirt : Undressing the male body in Sci-Fi and Fantasy

Late twentieth century media, the sexual liberation of women, led to the rise of the female spectator. This resulted in a conflict of values: men were not traditionally supposed to be viewed as sexual objects, and yet women wanted to desire them sexually. Hence, Star Trek sought to enhance Kirk’s sex appeal, and to encourage female spectatorship, without overtly presenting Kirk as sexually-motivated.

Captain Kirk's ripped shirt

Captain Kirk and his various ripped shirts. Semi-nudity is imposed on Kirk during acts of violence.

At the time that Star Trek’s original series first aired (1966-1969), there was not much discussion about the meaning of male nudity, nor the female spectator. It is only in more recent decades that theorists such as Laura Mulvey have begun to explore the difference between the meaning of male and female nudity, and the gendered gaze, and how things were shifting as a result of the move towards sexual equality.

There were several key problems facing Star Trek screenwriters who want to give audiences a glimpse of male flesh. Perhaps the most pertinent of these was that the 1960s, and hence the fictional future as depicted in the Star Trek original series, was patriarchal. Peter Lehman argues that  “avoiding the sexual representation of the male body… works to support patriarchy” [1]. Male characters, particularly Kirk (as leader), had to remain authoritative and masculine.  As Laura Mulvey observed, “the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification” [2]. A man who voluntarily disrobes with the intention of displaying himself as the subject of sexual desire can be viewed as vain. Vanity is historically viewed as a feminine trait, and thus the male striptease can compromise masculinity.

Additionally, the naked male body can be viewed as “threatening” to the female audience, since voluntary exhibitionism is closely linked to sexual aggression[3]. It is noteworthy that Kirk was often shown as sexually reluctant – the victim of sexual desire rather than the perpetrator.

James T. Kirk could not, therefore, be seen to exhibit his body intentionally. Rather, nudity had to be imposed upon him. It could be incidental, accidental, or justified for practical (and manly) reasons, but never purposeful.

Kirk wrestles

Even when Kirk has voluntarily removed his shirt, it is often to engage in masculine acts of violence and displays of physical strength.

Kirk’s semi-nudity was made more acceptable by being shown as the consequence of masculine aggression. A violent tussle with enemy foe could be the cause of a ripped shirt, and hence an exposed nipple. Kirk’s toughness could be reinforced by a splatter of blood or sweat on the exposed skin. In hand-to-hand combat, Kirk could progress towards nudity without appearing to voluntarily expose himself to the audience. He satisfied the sexual urges of some audience members, without compromising the masculine values that mattered to the remaining viewers.

Kirk was thus positioned as the heroic nude, or the athletic nude, comparable to the characters depicted in cultural artefacts of Ancient Greece (and, of course, their thinly veiled homoeroticism). His sculptural semi-nudity connotes heroism, strength, and agility.

Pierre Brule, in his observations of Ancient Greek athletic nudes, noted that “nudity was the distinctive mark of being both male and Greek, since neither Barbarians nor women exercised naked” [4]. Parallels can be drawn between Ancient Greek’s approach to Barbarians, and Star Fleet’s approach to uncivilised alien societies. In this context, Kirk’s semi-nudity is a sign not only of his masculinity, but also his humanity. His bare chest, with smooth pink skin, is evidence of his status as human, in contrast to the assorted blues and greens of his alien combatants.

In hand-to-hand combat, there is also a descent into savagery. In times of foreign exploration, explorers who have encountered tribes who wear little or no clothing have often been assumed to be primitive “savages” [5]. Their nakedness was thought to be a reliable indicator that such groups of people were under-developed, having not yet developed the intellectual capacity for morality, and hence for the ideas that nakedness is shameful. Among European and American slave traders, nudity was enforced to keep perceived savages in their place; as a sign of their status as possessions – equivalent to animals such as cattle – rather than humans. In Kirk’s own descent towards savagery, he must abandon the civilised negotiation techniques of Starfleet. As the uniform is ripped, Starfleet’s regulations and values and tossed aside. Kirk becomes a beast that cannot be tamed by the authority and civility of his employers.

Star Trek was by no means pioneering in its use of the ripped shirt. There are numerous films and TV series that depicted men in similar semi-nude states, always imposed by masculine acts of action or violence. Take, for example, The Most Dangerous Man Alive (1961), in which Eddie’s shirt is ripped to shreds in an explosion. Here, though the shirt is torn and Eddi’e chest is fully exposed, his tie remains intact to retain some sense of respectability and civility.

most Dangerous Man Alive Eddie

In The Most Dangerous Man Alive (1961), Eddie’s shirt is shredded in an explosion.

As if his skintight superhero costume wasn't enough to please flesh-hungry audiences, Captain America 2: Death Too Soon (1979) depicts Steve Rogers with a ripped shirt.

As if his skintight superhero costume wasn’t enough to please flesh-hungry audiences, Captain America 2: Death Too Soon (1979) depicts Steve Rogers with a ripped shirt.

Other sci-fi and fantasy tales find similar excuses to expose the bodies of their male heroes. For characters including The Hulk (aka Bruce Banner), or numerous werewolf tales (Buffy’s Oz, Being Human’s George Sands, etc.) the loss of a shirt is a clear indicator of descent into savagery. The civilised human identity transforms into the primal/animal identity, and during this descent vestiges of civility and advancement are destroyed. With these werewolf tales, as with Kirk, the nudity is imposed, not performed. It is a consequence of the violent transformation that characterises the curse. The male body becomes the victim of nudity.

beinghumanUSA

In the US remake of Being Human, werewolf Josh Levison wakes naked, next to the deer that he has slaughtered as a wolf. The bloodstains on his naked body, and the similarity between his state and the dead deer that lies beside him, suggest that he is both perpetrator and victim of violence. While naked, he is both savage and vulnerable.

Nudity gives these characters a particular vulnerability when they transform back into human form. The human alter-ago is often meek: the polar opposite of his beastly counterpart. This is particularly true of Buffy’s Oz, and the Hulk in Joss Whedon’s Avengers Assemble. As Bruce Banner has lost his clothes in his transformation from human to beast, when he reverts to his human form he is left without protection from cold or the prying eyes of curious onlookers. He is forced to hide, or make do with borrowed or stolen coverings. Nudity thus reinforces the vulnerability of man, in contrast to beast.

teenwolf shirt

Promos depict the latest incarnation of ‘Teen Wolf’ with his shirt ripped during transformation.

Though Kirk’s imposed nudity was a fairly regular occurrence, more recent sub-genres of sci-fi and fantasy have exploited it to such an extent that it has become a defining feature. Promotional materials for MTV’s Teen Wolf unashamedly permit voyeurism in their teenage audience, with images depicting a naked torso beneath ripped shirt: an image that has come to signify a recent transition from man to beast, and vice versa.

References:
[1] Lehman, Peter, Running Scared: Masculinity and the Representation of the Male Body, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1993, p. 6.
[2] Mulvey, laura, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Screen Vol. 16. Issue 3 (Autumn 1975) p. 12.
[3] Cooper, Emmanuel, Fully Exposed: The Male Nude in Photography, Oxon: Routledge, 1990, p. 8; and Tejirian, Edward Male to Male: Sexual Feeling Across the Boundaries of Identity, New York: Routledge, 2000.
[4] cited in Moss, Rachel E., ‘An Orchard, A Love Letter and Three Bastards: The Formation of Adult male Identity in Fifteenth Century Family’, in What is Masculinity? John H. Arnold, Sean Brady (eds), New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2001, p. 231.
[5] Perniola, Mario, ‘Between Clothing and Nudity’, 1989, as cited in Barcan, Ruth, Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy2009. 

The Masculinisation of Dressing Up

Perhaps because it is seen as an extension of the frivolities and vanity of fashion, or perhaps because it is associated with children, dressing-up is a niche activity for men. Very few adult men engage in dressing-up, even on sanctioned occasions such as Halloween. However, a new generation of men are becoming more engaged with costume. ‘Costume play’ is seeing an increase in popularity, largely in the virtual world.

In multiplayer online games (RPGs such as World of Warcraft) the dressing and preparation of the avatar is a significant part of the player’s gaming experience. Janine Fron et. al observe that male gamers devote a lot of time and effort into developing their costume, justified by their use of terminology such as ‘gear’ rather than ‘costume’. Such terminology suggests that the avatar’s wardrobe is primarily a matter of function rather than style. Moreover, it is quantifiable. One choice of armour may offer more effective defence than another, enabling players to “treat the costume as a statistic more than a decoration or form of personal expression”[1].

dungeontwofivethunders

These gaming experiences “may also serve as an entry-point for men into dress-up, for whom its convergence with technology may dispel some of its more feminine  connotations”[2]. If costume can be justified as a functional object, particularly in that is associated with the very masculine act of combat, it can be distanced from feminine acts of vanity, and childish acts of play.

The notion of costume as functional object has also made the practice of dressing-up more acceptable to mainstream cinema audiences. Contemporary audiences find that the lycra unitard of Adam West’s TV Batman lacks masculinity (to the extent that articles point to homosexual overtones)[3]. Christopher Nolan took great pains to justify Bruce Wayne’s costume in his more recent cinema incarnation. The Dark Knight (2008) depicts the Batman costume as “pseudo-utilitarian”[4]. Lucius Fox, Batman’s equivalent to Bond’s ‘Q’, is employed in technical development. His role as innovator and curator of Wayne Enterprises’ vast collection of military technologies ensures the feasibility of an endless supply of new gadgets, many of which form part of the costume.

The Dark Knight Rises

In the real-world too, association with battle gives dressing up a masculine purpose. Battle re-enactment provides men with the freedom to dress-up, combined with the restrictions imposed by authenticity[5]. Such strictly regulated scenarios avoid the free improvisation of childsplay. There are sets of rules governing how the costume may be worn, dictated by the demand for historical accuracy. The act of dressing-up takes on mature and masculine associations with war and rule-making.

battle reenactment

References:
[1] Fron, Janine, Fullerton, Tracy, Ford Morie, Jaquelyn, and Pearce, Celia, Playing Dress-Up: Costumes, roleplay and imagination, paper presented at Philosophy of Computer Games’, University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, 24-27 January 2004, http://egg.lmc.gatech.edu/publications/LudicaDress_Up.pdf (accessed 10 February 2013)
[2] Ibid.
[3] Daniels, Les, Batman: The Complete History. Chronicle Books, 1999, p. 84.
[4] Chabon, Michael, ‘Secret Skin: An Essay in Unitard Theory,’ in Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy, New York: Yale University Press, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2010, p.18.
[5] Fron et al., Op. Cit.

Images:
World of Warcraft armour: http://www.blogcdn.com/wow.joystiq.com/media/2010/09/dungeontwofivethunders.jpg
Batman costume from The Dark Knight Rises: http://clothesonfilm.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/The-Dark-Knight-Rises_Christian-Bale-suit-light-mid_Image-credit-Warner-Bros.-Pictures-001.jpg
Battle re-enactment: http://cache.boston.com/bonzai-fba/Globe_Photo/2008/04/21/1208780080_9801-1.jpg