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Do we still need sexy men?

The People's Sexiest Man Alive opens a reflection on what it means to be desirable men in 2023

Do we still need sexy men? The People's Sexiest Man Alive opens a reflection on what it means to be desirable men in 2023

As we grew up, regardless of our gender identity, we all had our favorite famous men to admire or look up to. They stood out to us, maybe because they were different from our fathers, or perhaps because we wanted to be like them or dreamt of being their date to the coolest party of the year. Who were yours? Personally, I consider myself eclectic. Over the years, I went from admiring Jared Leto during his emo phase (which I now cringe at) to having a crush on Raoul Bova (which I still cringe at, maybe a bit less), and on to Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day, Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys, Fabri Fibra, and so on. I can't even remember them all. What I'm fairly certain of, though, is that my perception of these men rarely aligned with the traditional ideal of masculinity embodied by movie stars like George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Hugh Jackman.

People's Sexiest Man Alive

This ideal isn't just a standalone concept. It's also shaped by the collective imagination through narratives. A prominent example is People Magazine, a leading authority in the world of gossip magazines across the ocean, which has been electing "The Sexiest Man Alive" every year since 1986. The first one was a young Mel Gibson. In recent years, this honor has been bestowed upon Ryan Reynolds, Chris Hemsworth, Johnny Depp, David Beckham, Chris Evans, Idris Elba, Paul Rudd, in no particular order. Some have even claimed the title twice, individually and in pairs (like Richard Gere). What do these men have in common? They are handsome, muscular, reassuring, moms like them, they have with perfectly aligned teeth and hardly any visible tattoos. The election is usually accompanied by a cheerful and smiling cover, where the protagonist appears strong yet approachable, preferably in some kind of denim attire, ready to rescue you from a dragon while also willingly accompanying you to the supermarket and carrying the grocery bags - and generally a bit damp. This year, Patrick Dempsey was the cherry on top.

Public Discourse on Male Bodies: Jeremy Allen White

This eagerly anticipated news from the 90s, and perhaps even the early 2000s, is now met with increasing perplexity. These men represent an old, rock-solid concept of masculinity that young people are distancing themselves from more and more, preferring a less traditional and more open-minded one, championed by figures like Harry Styles, Timothée Chalamet, Andy Samberg, Jacob Elordi, Asap Rocky, Steven Yeun, and Jeremy Allen White. But it's not that simple. Jeremy Allen White, in particular, the star of "Shameless" and "The Bear," gives us the opportunity to discuss another aspect of being men online, often underestimated: how we all talk about men's bodies.

An Everyone Problem

Allen White, riding high, quickly became the focus of various authoritative photo shoots, which increased his desirability and sex appeal. However, there is a world of difference between observing photos or videos and making insistent and sexualized comments about their bodies. There are deep-rooted, often unconscious habits related to examining others' bodies that should be abolished, regardless of the direction. It's not the fault of individual comments, but rather a society that portrays men as strong and valorous, preferably muscular or at least physically fit, and women as damsels to be rescued, helpless and submissive, and that normalize discourses about body to a non-healthy degree. These are sticky mechanisms that blur the lines between the male and female gaze, influenced by gym culture, the language used by entertainment media, and incel forums, projecting onto women a desire for perfect, wealthy, and attractive men that doesn't always align with reality.

The Case of Zac Efron: What Does Sexy Mean?

These habits, influenced by all these pressures and variables (too many to analyze here), plunged Zac Efron post-"Baywatch" into a dark crisis. The actor, who also happens to be Allen White's comrade in "The Iron Claw", had subjected himself to a strict diet and an extreme workout regimen for the role, which had suppressed his appetite and zest for life. To make matters worse, when he reappeared in public he looked different, and articles about what was thought to be plastic surgery abuse circulated around the world. Some time later, the rumors became so persistent that Zac was forced to explain that he had undergone surgery due to a serious accident. So, the answer to the question "do we still need sexy men?" gets complicated. The most obvious answer would be no, but there's something deeper. What does it mean to be sexy? Will we ever detach this overused word from external appearance?

The Man of the Future

If the traditionally understood concept of a man no longer appeals to us, perhaps it's time to work together towards a new kind of man. One who doesn't feel obligated to hit the gym and strive for impossible standards, but is willing to embrace his complexities and depths. A man who looks beyond the smiling, perfectly fit movie stars and comic book superheroes to connect with his emotions and acknowledge the harm these ideals do to his self-perception and body image. The fact that research indicates that men on average live less, getting sick and engaging in risky behaviors, in places where they have to constantly demonstrate their masculinity is not surprising and underscores the urgency of this change in which we women also (but not only) have a responsibility that should not be underestimated. And maybe, in a few years, we'll see a new and different face on the cover of People, definitively marking this shift in perspective.