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English 103: Definitions of Success and Appeal

December 20, 2017

Style, sensuality, and toughness tend to take on different meanings as they travel through culture, gender, class and time, although in advertising each are meant to signify success and appeal. Whether it is a rapper snarling his hundred thousand dollar “grill” on an album cover, an Italian with neatly trimmed and lacquered nails, a woman in a pantsuit, or a white man with semi-combed hair in jeans and a t-shirt heading into a factory, these depictions are meant to symbolize the social standings and aspirations of race, gender, and class. I do believe that success and appeal differ between individuals, but there are also societal expectations of what success and appeal are which the dominant industries and marketers portray with suave persuasion of who we ought to be in order to resemble these definitions.

Men, specifically working-class white men, have been celebrated as inept when it comes to style and fashion, but their virility, according to American culture, has been enough to make them appear successful and appealing. For example, I can think of several commercials depicting rich and famous individuals, such as actors and athletes, off-roading big trucks or driving fast cars down the open road, and whether they are dressed in jeans or a suit there is a present attitude of, “I own these streets;” portraying the reckless boy in every man that makes them a man, balanced out by their fame and success, or social standing. It is not necessarily what they are wearing or what they are driving that makes them a man, but what they are able to do with it. This coincides with John Berger’s formula of male beauty: “A man’s presence,” Berger wrote, “is dependent upon the promise of power which he embodies …what he is capable of doing to you or for you.” (154) So why can’t these strong and attractive men sell trucks by standing agains them and flexing their muscles? Because “even in this era of postmodern pastiche cliches and gender taboos persist; among them, we don’t want grown men to appear too much the passive objects of another’s sexual gaze, another’s desires… Men must still be in command.” (151)

Conversely, a woman’s “youth and beauty” seem to be decisive factors of her success and appeal in society. Consider the myriad dieting advertisements that put looks before health, or the anti-aging wrinkle cream made for middle-aged women, as well as plastic surgery commercials which are shown more and more often. Being “decorative” and fashionably sensitive is meant for women…but, wait, is this an over generalization? Calvin Klein seems to think so. He knew “sex sells,” (140) whether heterosexual or homosexual, and Klein was savvy enough to advertise to both by avoiding stereotypes about heterosexuality and homosexuality. Women have long been treated as sex objects, and Calvin Klein has leveled the playing field by using men, to a certain degree, the same way. According to Susan Bordo, “Feminists might like to imagine that Madison Avenue heard our pleas for sexual equality and finally gave us men as ‘sex objects,’ but what’s really happening is that women have been the beneficiaries of what might be described as the triumph of pure consumerism, and with it, a burgeoning male fitness and beauty culture.” (139) Still, I do not think that the idea of women who “like to look” was lost on Calvin Klein.

If you drive the same car that Matthew McConaughey is shown driving in a magazine ad or put on a certain piece of underwear will you suddenly be successful and appealing? Marketers would love to have you think so, and they use both the female and male body as studies; not purely as “sex objects” but to portray certain ideas through sexuality. In her essay “Beauty (Re)discovers the Male Body,” Bordo writes:

“There is something anti-sensual to me about current esthetics. There’s so much that my young friends go “uhh” over. Fat-yecch! Wrinkles-yuck! They live in a constant state of squeamishness about the flesh. I find that finely muscled young Calvin Klein model beautiful and sexy, sure. But I also was moved by Clint Eastwood’s sagging chest in “The Bridges of Madison County.” Deflated, skin loose around the waistband, not a washboard ridge in sight—for me, they signaled Eastwood (at least for this role) had put Dirty Harry away for good, become a real, warm penetrable, vulnerable human being instead of a make my day machine. Call me old fashioned, but I find that very sexy.” (176)

Would I like to look like a Calvin Klein model? Sure, but as long as my woman loves and appreciates me, and I’m able to protect and be there for her and my family, I will consider myself a happy, successful, and appealing man. Like I said, society might have its ideas of who we are supposed to be, but I’m comfortable simply knowing who I am.

Works Cited:
Bordo Susan. “Beauty (Re)discovers the Male Body.” Ways of Reading, An Anthology for Writers, Eighth Edition. Ed. David Bartholomae, Anthony Petrosky. Bedford/St. Martin’s, Boston/New York, 2009.

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