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The Uses of Male Flesh: Three Versions of Spartacus

Classical cinema wary of too much male flesh. Or at least it was wary of the way male flesh as represented on screen could elicit male or female desire. Clearly you can’t stop audiences from being fascinated, and in a way that was the point: people see it, people want it. Therefore, the representation of male flesh within the restrictions of classicism was always subject to limitations, call them alibis.

Classical flesh

The male body had to be active, male muscles had a function, they were signs of strength (which might come handy to advance the plot) or health. If audiences found something attractive in them, that was fine, the films did as little as they could to encourage that.

Nobody, certainly no men, neither women, could gaze at male flesh thinking they could “use it” and conversely male flesh was not supposed to convey the idea that it was being offered to the gaze of desire. Male flesh was something “in itself”, not something that could be offered or appropriated. All of this suggested certain kind of bodies in certain kind of movies: Johnny Weissmuller was fine, but cute boys were not supposed to display their flesh in ways that remotely reminded one of objectified traditions (mostly homoerotic). Looking at three versions of the Spartacus story will help us focus our ideas on the evolution of such premises on the naked male body: yes, cinema makes it somewhat desirable, but then, in terms of male flesh, classical cinema needs to concentrate on plot and character, not spectacle.

Although there are other versions to tell the Spartacus story, the most famous is Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 film based on the 1951 Howard Fast novel. Plots set in the antiquity (along with boxing movies and adventure films) are one of the key types of film that act as alibies for the display of flesh. But even when  given leave to display attractive male muscles, it is interesting to see how restrained this film is. Kirk Douglas is briefly objectified as a player in a gladatorial show, but when he is set up to be sexually objectified (sex with Simmons being watched by Ustinov and the guards), he refrains, suggesting objectification is not something to be accepted.

The main impulse in Fast’s version of the story was political (he intended a critique on colonialism, which Douglas as a producer shifted slightly to focus on American slavery) and therefore the slave had to resist being treated as an animal or an object, as discussed by Irina Rae Hark. Otherwise, the film follows the pattern of classical male nakedness: for the good guys, flesh is not necessarily beauty, muscles are a tool for rebellion. Once Spartacus rebels, displays of male flesh are restricted to the Romans, particularly John Gavin as Julius Caesar. Somehow the film allows us to treat Gavin as an object of beauty in a way that it does not with Douglas as Spartaus. Forget about leading Rome, Douglas has more important things to do.

Spectacular flesh in the peplum

However, the temptations of the classical alibi to go all out in the display of male flesh were not being resisted all the time. In spite of anti-pornography laws, a small underground industry actually made business out of exploiting and objectifying male flesh. From the late forties, the business of gay male pornographic images had been thriving. One of the key centers of production of (mostly soft) gay porn was the Athletic Model Guild, owned and managed by Bob Mizner. The images featured young, mostly white men in several states of undress. They did use genre as alibi and the classical imagery was the most frequent. They had to be pictured as “doing something” (for instance building a pyramid or fencing), but the point of the image was always men’s muscles, the way they show strength, but also the way they caught light. The production of the Athletic Model Guild (as well as by artists who were occasional contributors, such as George Quaintance and Bruce of Los Angeles) did objectify male flesh within the context of the homoerotic gaze, although it was hard to pin it down as “pornography” as long as no sexual activity was obvious in the images. Which shows limited understanding of the way voyeurism and fantasy works.

Some of the models were gay hustlers, some weren’t. Steve Reeves, a body builder was a model for the AMG before being featured in a series of Italian “peplums”, cheap productions set in classical antiquitiy featured slightly clad men and women. With very few other attractions and limited budget to create convincing action scenes, male muscles are very much the focus of spectacle in these films. Robert Rushing has written a fascinating study on the genre, suggesting that the display of muscles was one of the key points of the films: he talks about how the slowness of the action and the recreation on situations where muscles were shown in tension (lifting rocks, breaking chains, for instance) were recurring in these films, forcing the flow of classical narration and being closer to cinema of attractions. The alibis were there, but the intention was still transparent. Stopping short of sex or homoeroticism, the truth is male flesh was available to the eye of the spectator, no matter how sexless the plots themselves were. Male nudity was spectacularized and therefore blatantly objectified.

The Son of Spartacus (aka The Slave) made in 1962 is an example of this. Steve Reeves plays a Roman officer sent by Caesar as a spy to a Roman outpost. It is interesting that the film is quite restrained in the display of Reeves’ flesh until he discovers he is the son of the legendary Spartacus and therefore somehow makes it his mission to end corruption and slavery. The flesh is used in the film as a signifier of heroism with political connotations. As Rushing has explained, the body builder’s spectacular body fantasmatically furthered certain political ideologies on the healthy nation.

Spartacus in the Age of Sean Cody

Flash forward about fifty years to Spartacus. Blood and Sand an American TV series produced by Starz. The first season covers basically the first hour of the Kubrick film, whereas the third season, Spartacus Revenge covers the film’s second hour and a half more or less, featuring the group of ex-gladiators seeking freedom. In the Age of Sean Cody, as we might call the current context of popularization and easy access to gay male pornography and guiltless display of the objectified male body, it seems alibis were not necessary anymore. The series displays male flesh shamelessly, and it is aware of the pleasures it produces. These are not the bodies of body builders, but they resemble the bodies of underwear models.

Although the gladiators show all the signs of homosocial dynamics, one notices that homophobia is, at least, restrained, sometimes oddly absent. It is as if the series was actually encouraging a homoerotic gaze. Clearly it does encourage female desiring gaze. Although one could argue against labeling it “feminist”, the truth is at least women are allowed to use male flesh following their desire, objectifying men in the process. Yes, the men are also active, and brutal, and sexual, so there is never feminization; and it seems that not even when they are the object of sexual voyeurism they give up their masculine mistique (Spartacus is not less masculine because he is used). But the series seems to fulfill the narcissistic impulse of young men to became defined through their muscles, which we find in so many internet sites. These bodies don’t have the restraint of classical flesh nor the excess of the peplum: they are muscled but also elegant, closer to the imaginery of classical male nudity. Voyeurism is both diegetic (characters appreciate the beauty of the flesh) and extra diegetic (the camera seems to work towards emphasizing it). And even more: tight male flesh is not just looked at, it is also touched, pierced, caressed, bitten. The male body has stopped being inviolable.

In this sense it is not irrelevant that one of the taboos in the representations of masculinity, the display of the penis,  seems to have been broken. Bulges are not only in the arms and chests, but very obvious in crutches. And both during orgies and even moments of leisure audiences can expect a lingering appearance of a penis.  It was through the concealment of the penis that the phallus could keep its mistique, in the same way that it was through homophobia that homosocial relationships kept theirs. This series does not seem too sure about either. Yes, these men are violent, yes they are butch, strong, patriarchal. But somehow the lines are drawn in different ways. Whether this is an exception or a clear sign in a trend on the reconfiguration of masculinities, only the future will tell.

And here are some points I will be considering in future posts on the male body, which all derive of a consideration of the line of evolution described here.

  • Mainstreaming of objectified male flesh through narcissism
  • Men show more flesh than they need to
  • Parallels between young male audiences and body fantasies
  • The ripped body: a new media talking point
  • Underwear model replacing body builder
  • Playing down political message (cf. Rushing’s point)
  • Integration of female gaze
  • Not completely race blind, but integrated
  • Homoerotic gaze not perceived as a threat
  • Is the penis taboo a thing of the past?
  • The haptic element: male nipples and buttocks touched, bitten and caressed