On Thursday we waited with bated breath in front of our computers, watching the screen anxiously: Who would People name their "Sexiest Man Alive"? OK, well, maybe that was only me, but now we know the answer. A giant-necked, blue-eyed muscle mountain named Channing Tatum walked off with the title. While many celebrities were left licking their wounds and vowing to use more hair product next year, I was left wondering: Why such a safe choice? In 26 years of awarding the sexiest man alive title, People has bestowed the title only once to a man of color (Denzel Washington in 1996) and never to an out gay man.
True, this is not exactly the Nobel Prize, and the choice of recipient will not unlikely to change the lives of many. But the consistent designation of white, muscular, heterosexually presenting (and often vacant-looking) men as "sexiest alive" says something important about the media portrayal of sexiness. Images of sexiness and beauty in the media provide benchmarks of aspiration; they tell us how we are supposed to look to be considered beautiful or sexy. Channing Tatum is another in a long line of similar-looking white guys whom the media has decided represent sexiness. Why is there such a lack of representation of minorities -- both racial and sexual -- in our annual designation of what is sexy?
Dr. Noam Shpancer, writing in Psychology Today, notes that "[i]n its rush to appeal to the broadest common denominator, American sexiness often amounts to a caricature; it is to true sexiness what Hallmark greeting cards are to deep human emotion and interaction." Looking through the past 26 years of People title winners, it seems that this is true: George, Mel, Ryan and Matt are just a few names in the long list of safe, straight white guys awarded the title.
According to Larry Hackett, managing editor of People, when choosing the sexiest man, "a lot comes down to the photo: this person looking at you, literally looking at you, making eye contact... At that moment of transaction, conception, the buyer, the woman, has to say, 'Yeah, that's it.'" But surely men of color or gay men could equally fit this description? In the spirit of research, I googled "sexiest men of color" and spent a few hours looking at Idris Elba, Taye Diggs and Shemar Moore: I found each of them making eye contact with me, and as a gay male I was able to say, "Yeah, that's it."
The lack of men of color on People's list reflects a larger problem with how the sexuality of African-American men is portrayed in the media. Diuguid and Rivers, in their paper on "The Media and the Black Response," note that the media often present black male sexuality as animalistic and dangerous. Could the folks at People be worried that a mainstream image of a sexy black male would scare their readers? True, Denzel did win the title 16 years ago, but Jessica Coen, editor-in-chief of Jezebel, argues, "Denzel is the lazy choice. He's obligatory. And that's because whenever there's a discussion of race in Hollywood and a dearth of black leading men, someone always argues that Denzel Washington is 'proof' that there's no race problem. But here's this one guy!'"
Equally problematic is the lack of an out gay "sexiest man alive." Homosexuality is widely portrayed in the media as a negative symbol of masculine identity: Homosexuals on television are often promiscuous (Queer as Folk) or serve as the asexual comic character (Will & Grace), but rarely are they presented as masculine men who just happen to be sexually and emotionally interested in other men. As often portrayed in the media, gay men present an affront to masculinity. Is People worried that if they awarded the title of "sexiest man alive" to an out gay man, it would no longer be taken seriously as the symbol of masculinity it so obviously represents?
OK, so I admit that the debate over who should be the "sexiest man alive" seems unimportant. But the barrage of media attention surrounding the crowning of Channing underscores a well-known truth: Sex sells. In selling sex to the public, we are also writing scripts about what defines sexiness and what are acceptable forms of masculinity, and we are telling young people what to aspire to be. Constantly designating one type of man as the epitome of sexiness sends a dangerous message: You, or people like you, are not sexy, and you are not accepted. If People's focus on white straightness comes from a fear of alienating readers, then it also acts to alienate and perpetuate stereotypes. Be braver in 2013, People. I am making my Elba 2013 pins now and sending one your way.
Rob Stephenson is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project. He is also an Associate Professor of Global Health at Emory University and an expert in HIV and sexual behavior among gay men.
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