The last of the book reviews! Actual content shall commence forthwith!
Ecce Homo: The Male-Body-In-Pain As Redemptive Figure is Gender Theory. It has that trait Gender Theory generally has, where about half the time you’re glaring at it going “okay, what the fuck are you even talking about, that makes no sense whatsoever” and half the time you have to make off with their ideas and mate them with other people’s and end up coming up with a horrific idea hybrid no one involved would actually recognize.
Also, fair warning: there is Freud. Honestly, fuck Freud. People who are generally sensible discuss Freud and instantly become idiots; people who are already somewhat disconnected from reality become completely incoherent. I kind of skipped over the Freud chapter, but as far as I can tell it was about Oedipal complexes and castration and sadomasochism and fetishism, although it seems to me Freud ought to have consulted some actual sadomasochists or fetishists before he came up with unwarranted and inaccurate generalizations about our experiences. (Raise your hand, shoe fetishists, if you like shoes because you’re freaked out that cis women don’t have penises! Thought so.)
You know, if Freud was right re: the whole men freaked out that most women have vaginas thing, you’d think that you’d see trans women being considered as universally the most sexysex and all those frat boys instead of making stupid “trap” jokes would be like “fuck yeah! It is a woman, AND I don’t have to cope with my castration anxiety!”
Anyway! This is not a review of Freud, mostly because I would refuse to read that book, because Freud sucks. Seriously, I have dropped classes because Freud was on the syllabus.
The recurring motif of the book is the theme of the crucifixion and different perspectives on Jesus’s sacrifice. Hence the title: Ecce Homo, or Behold the Man, is the Latin translation of Pontius Pilate’s words when he presented Jesus, scourged and crowned with thorns, to the crowd. The author’s thesis is, as far as I can tell, that the male-body-in-pain, as depicted in art and myth, serves as an almost religious, erotic sacrifice that elevates the viewer. Throughout the book, they negotiate the complications of eroticism, sacrifice, and transcendence in discussing All Of The Art.
My favorite bit of the book was the first chapter, which discussed the action movie (and The Passion of the Christ, which it argues fairly convincingly is an action movie in structure). Their thesis is that the action movie lingers over the conventionally attractive male body– arms and legs and zero-body-fat chests, youth and hairlessness and muscles, muscles, muscles. Certainly, action movie heroes quite often tend to lose their shirts; the plotlines generally highlight the male body’s ability to cope with pain, suffering, and violence. The overarching question of most action movies is “will the hero prove his manhood by surviving?”– that is, through his ability to endure pain.
Male pain in the action movie is also fundamentally redemptive: the men endure pain, which enables them not only to defeat the villains but to take revenge on them. In exchange for surviving an increasingly ludicrous number of henchpeople, robots, explosions, and mysteriously nuclear-bomb-proof fridges, the action hero is able to mow down his enemies, thus not simply winning but also destroying the root of evil in the fictional world. (Or at least until the sequel, anyway.)
I think a weakness in this section is that it ignores the reality of female desire. I mean, Hugh Jackman’s propensity to lose his shirt is pretty clearly directed at the heterosexual female demographic. A lot of more modern action movies are fairly clearly directed at the female gaze; in fact, I was a little uncomfortable at some points in (say) X-Men First Class, because of how obviously the film was made out of Fangirl Id. (Look, even that asshole Freud made up some good words sometimes.) I think there’s a somewhat distressing tendency to assume that shirtless men are necessarily homoerotic, which just isn’t true.
Speaking of homoeroticism, my other favorite chapter was about the works of Robert Mapplethorpe, a photographer who concentrated heavily on gay male BDSM. I’m a fan of Mapplethorpe, even if I usually think of him as That Dude Patti Smith Was In Love With Once: his pictures of kinky men are well-shot, well-composed, often hot, and quite human; the people in them strike me as real people, and not objectified kinky people who are OMG SO TRANSGRESSIVE. (You can see a very, very NSFW sample of his works here.)
The author theorizes that Mapplethorpe’s big thing is being honest: a fuckton of Great Art is masochistic and erotic (ask any Catholic teenager who got off on St. Sebastian), Mapplethorpe is just the one who is willing not to draw a veil over it. He confronts the viewer by depicting the male body as attractive (which is extremely challenging to the male gaze and the Myth of Men Not Being Hot) and pain as being pleasurable (which is challenging to pretty much everyone except masochists, and even us sometimes). His artwork exaggerates to the point of parody racial and gender fantasies and shows that they are, well, fantasies. Through the emphasized masculinity and emphasized pain of his subjects, Mapplethorpe points out that masculinity is fundamentally artificial.
The male-body-in-pain challenges ideas of hegemonic masculinity: where hegemonic masculinity requires that a man eternally have power, the male-body-in-pain is, by definition, weak. Paradoxically, that’s the source of its strength. Ecce Homo examines how various artworks negotiate the male-body-in-pain and cope with both making it masculine and highlighting the fundamental unmasculinity of it all. It’s cool. If you like gender theory and don’t mind Freud, check it out.