Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 3, September 20, 2000


Book Review

The Male Body. A New Look At Men In Public And In Private

By Susan Bordo

To purchase this book, click here

Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, First editions: hardcover (1999), paperback
(2000) ISBN: 0-374-52732-6 (pbk.); 358 pages, US$ 15.00, CAN$ 24.95
Reviewed by Annette Fuglsang Owens, MD PhD

The Author
Susan Bordo holds the Otis A. Singletary Chair in the Humanities at the University of Kentucky, where she is also a professor of English and Women's Studies. She has written and edited several books, including Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and Twilight Zones: The Hidden Life of Cultural Images from Plato to O.J.

What This Book Is About
I read Susan Bordo's book The Male Body during my recent summer vacation. It proved to be a perfect combination of entertainment and mental challenges. On my flight overseas I noticed interested glances from across the aisle, whenever the page turned to one of the photographs and reprints of fashion ads displaying beautiful male bodies, more or less dressed. One young man, completely naked, is getting ready to put a pair of underwear on, or maybe he just disrobed? Other illustrations show Susan Bordo's cigar smoking father sitting at a table at a convention, or an apron-clad Jim Backus in a scene from the movie Rebel Without a Cause, or G. I. Jane pumping muscles. My seatmates on the plane clearly were confused. What is this book about?

As the title indicates, the book is about men's bodies and changing cultural perceptions over time. Susan Bordo not only takes a close look at men in public, including past and present presidents; she also shares some of her private experiences with us. Many of the illustrations from the book have been scrutinized and discussed in a class setting, and Susan Bordo offers in-depth interpretations: however, she does so without imposing her view on the reader: "…You may not see the same things in this ad that I do. Representations of the body have a history, but so too do viewers, and they bring that history - both personal and cultural – to their perception and interpretation. Different viewers may see different things. In pointing to certain elements in ads, or movies, or fashion, I'm not ignoring the differences in how people may see things, but deliberately trying to direct your attention to what I see as significant (page 29)." I found many of her interpretations thought provoking and refreshing.

One section of the book is devoted to men's genitals in various contexts, including phallus worship, penile sizes and augmentation. Having grown up in the 50's, Susan Bordo's humorous recollection of her first encounters with penises reflects cultural morals at the time, but also demonstrates a level of consistency. I think many young women today can relate to her experiences: "…. Bobby Cohen, lying on top of me, humping away, was just a little boy masturbating with my body (Page 96)." As a mature scholar looking back on her first sexual encounters with men, Susan Bordo has some honest, surprising, and
refreshing statements to make.

The book also deals with sexual harassment. Using the example of a female welder who feels harassed by her male co-workers, Susan Bordo emphasizes that the focus should be on the difference between sexes – and not so much on the act of sex. "…."Sex" can refer to two different things: the classification of people into beings that are "male" or "female" or the performance of certain acts. Sexual harassment law has been focused on the latter sense of "sex" when it ought to be focused on the former (Page 267)."

Having been an avid moviegoer since childhood, Susan Bordo offers her female perspective on the representation of male bodies in Hollywood films throughout the past 50 years. Her opinions and insights are inspiring. By the time I finished The Male Body, I had a list of ten movies that I want to either revisit or see for the first time.

I very much enjoyed Susan Bordo's The Male Body. Covering changing perceptions of this broad topic over time, her views are current, refreshing and thought provoking.