If you're a young up-and-coming actor, whether you're vying for an action film or not, you'd better get used to being shirtless.
Logan Hill begins a piece for Men's Journal reminding us that Marlon Brando didn't do crunches and Cary Grant never even heard of burpees. Sixties' James Bond was a weakling compared to Daniel Craig's muscle-bound version of the spy. But the times, they are a-changing, Hill writes: "Today's actors spend more time in the gym than they do rehearsing, more time with their trainers than with their directors."
Hill delves deep into the Hollywood ab-building machine, talking with various actors, movie executives, and, of course, trainers. Like Gunnar Peterson, who has molded the physiques of guys like Bruce Willis and Matthew McConaughey.
Peterson works with big stars fighting to stay relevant as well as young guys clawing their way into the business. I ask him what he would say to a young actor who thinks he can make it on natural good looks and talent.
"Great, you're a good-looking dude and you can act," he says. "Now take off your shirt." Peterson frowns. "All of a sudden you go, 'Oh, maybe you can be the friend.' Or: 'We'll do an indie film.' "
Right now, action and comic-book-based properties are hot, and the actors have to go where the getting is good. It doesn't matter if they don't actually care about working out; being ripped is part of the deal. TV shows like Arrow and Teen Wolf feature bare-chested scenes that border on the gratuitous. "If I wasn't playing some young hero who can swing a sword, I wouldn't care what my upper body looked like," Kit Harington — who plays Jon Snow on Game of Thrones and bares chiseled abs in Pompeii — tells Hill. The piece also gets into a lot of specifics, like the "lean out" — in which you drop to a minimum BMI and 3% body fat so that you look like you have more muscle definition — as well as the use of hormone therapy and steroids.
And a lot of these actors find they're suddenly required to get jacked at the drop of a hat.
Michael B. Jordan, who got his break as The Wire's sensitive kid Wallace and raised his profile in last year's Fruitvale Station, knows he needs to be able to bulk up on command if he wants to break into the A-list. "You've gotta be ready to take off your shirt," he says, and he will as the Human Torch in next year's Fantastic Four movie. "They want to blow you up and put you in a superhero action film. Being fit is so important. . . . The bar has been raised."
But what's really interesting is the fact that for decades in the entertainment industry, women were the ones expected to be the eye candy. Years and years and years of young, thin but curvy starlets draped over leading men. Somehow, though we've made progress in terms of using ladies for window dressing, instead of arriving in a place where it's less about aesthetics, it's men who are being held to new, unrealistic standards. Hill says that recently, "a major production was pushed back several weeks when the star told producers he needed more time before he could go shirtless." He adds:
For much of Hollywood history, only women's bodies were objectified to such absurd degrees. Now objectification makes no gender distinctions: Male actors' bare asses are more likely to be shot in sex scenes; their vacation guts and poolside man boobs are as likely to command a sneering full-page photo in a celebrity weekly's worst-bodies feature, or go viral as a source of Web ridicule. A sharply defined inguinal crease – the twin ligaments hovering above the hips that point toward a man's junk – is as coveted as double-D cleavage. Muscle matters more than ever, as comic-book franchises swallow up the box office, in the increasingly critical global market. (Hot bodies and explosions don't need subtitles.) Thor-like biceps and Captain America pecs are simply a job requirement; even "serious" actors who never aspired to mega-stardom are being told they need a global franchise to prove their bankability and land Oscar-caliber parts.
And these guys are competitive, comparing themselves to the competition's bulging biceps and defined delts. Back in the late '90s and early aughts, the women of Ally McBeal tried to out-skinny each other. Fast forward to the making of beefcakefest 300: Trainer Mark Twight tells Hill the dudes spurred each other on. Think swole-spo instead of thinspo.
"Male vanity," he says. "Fuck – nothing more powerful. Thirty guys in a room, all vying to be alphas. Everyone had on leather underpants and a cape. Nobody wanted to be remembered as the Spartan with the muffin top."
But it's not just the comic book heroes and Magic Mike strippers expected to wow audiences with six-packs. Consider Zac Efron. Over the last two years, he's been doing tons of promotion for two comedies: That Awkward Moment, released in January, and Neighbors, which comes out in May. And he's been doing it with his body.
Here's the thing: It's really hard to be outraged about these men going to great lengths to bulk up and lean down, even while reading about the dangerous health risks and blatant exploitation and objectification, because I LOVE IT. I LOVE IT SO MUCH.
I love the way it looks. I love looking. A shapely form is actual eye candy: A sweet, delicious, fleeting morsel to devour with your pupils. There's a reason the ancient Greeks sculpted sinewy arms, well-formed shoulders and flat abs, there's a reason Michaelangelo's David — whose lean torso insures he would definitely be cast today as a Calvin Klein underwear model — is one of the most famous works of art in the world, and there's a reason I started watching Arrow, and it's because humans are visual creatures who delight in pretty things. (And honestly, I sincerely believe there is beauty in all bodies, from Venus de Milo to Venus of Willendorf.)
But the objectification of men is a false equivalency to the objectification of women, because what's being fetishized is strength. Virility, capability, vigor, fortitude. Power. In a world where men actually do have power. You can't say the same about the standard objectification of women, which usually revolves around sexually-charged parts like breasts and buttocks, not biceps. In addition, "sexy" images of women generally involve us being relaxed, lying down, finger in the mouth like a child. Submissive, pliant, docile.
Do I hate the idea that sculpted torsos might cause insecurity in boys and young men? Absolutely. I remember a scene in Darryl Roberts' documentary America the Beautiful, in which a teenage kid says, "I'm missing a six-pack." Roberts asks, "What's the importance of a six-pack?" The kid pauses, then eventually replies, "Um… I don't know." Sad. Not ideal. As the old saying goes, comparison is the thief of joy.
But it's not like muscles are everything. It's not like I — we — don't appreciate and celebrate all kinds of men, like Seth Rogen, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston, Daniel Day-Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio, Chiwetel Ejiofor or other actors not known for baring their abs. It is possible to embrace both eye candy and mind candy. It's not an either/or situation.
But when it comes to the ones who strip down and show off, I say bring it on. Basically, I'm pro-shirtlessness, pro-abs, pro-bursting biceps and definitely on Team Inguinal Crease. I enjoy gawking and admiring the architecture of the male form. Sue me. Women have spent centuries living in atmospheres in which female sexual desire was repressed, denied or self-suppressed, and the time has come to salivate over rippled abdominals, pulsing pecs and veiny forearms. Let's do it. Let's enjoy it while it lasts. As Hill writes, the reality is that hot is what's hot: "Given the choice between acting chops and physique, producers and directors will often choose the better body."