Troye Sivan Twink
Can Men Be Objectified? A Response to the “Twink” Controversy
05.25.18

Not since the dawn of the so-called “dadbod” has there been so much online discourse surrounding the male torso. When The New York Times published “Welcome to the Age of the Twink” by Nick Haramis earlier this month, it provoked a pretty strong reaction, ranging from derision from gay men who felt the term “twink” had been appropriated, to those who questioned the author’s assertion that a slender frame somehow defies traditional masculinity.

It’s not uncommon for straight people to go on safari in LGBTQ culture and come back with a souvenir, but what made this take especially lukewarm was the fact that Vulture writer Kyle Buchanan essentially wrote the same piece in June 2017. It almost goes without saying, too, that slender white guys have carried cultural and sexual currency in the west for centuries.

“Aside from the obvious – a straight twink can’t exist – the conflation of slimness and, for the most part, whiteness to success is problematic,” writes Dazed’s Dominic Cadogan, “not least because that is the way it has been for what feels like forever.”

Still, it’s relatively rare for the media to apply this kind of scrutiny to white male bodies in pop culture, an activity usually aimed at women. In fact, this kind of dissection often picks up speed the further you get from cisgender white men; black, queer and trans women, for example, seem to face exponential judgment and punishment compared to their majority counterparts. In a recent piece for Allure, writer Katelyn Burns described the constant societal policing of trans women’s looks as an “impossible balancing act.”

That isn’t to say cishet men in the public eye have been immune to increasingly unrealistic body standards. When Hugh Jackman first donned those adamantium claws to play Wolverine in 2000’s X-Men, he looked tough as hell, sure, but still kinda cuddly. Cut to more than a decade later, and his torso in The Wolverine and Days of Future Past was hulking and vascular, presumably all the better to make this immortal character seem invincible. That uber-muscular ideal — which writer Mark Simpson, the creator of the term “metrosexual,” named “spornosexual” — can be seen in the majority of leading men today (the internet still mourns the loss of Chris Pratt’s pre-Guardians of the Galaxy tummy), which is perhaps why the Tom Hollands and Timothée Chalamets of Hollywood are making such a stir.

Superheroes and their rippling physiques are a power fantasy, and so this kind of onscreen imagery only serves to further entrench the idea that men’s bodies are totems of power

Of course, showing a man’s bulging pectorals in an action movie isn’t quite the same as the camera lingering on a woman’s breasts or buttocks. Superheroes and their rippling physiques are a power fantasy, and so this kind of onscreen imagery only serves to further entrench the idea that men’s bodies are totems of power, even if the internet sets about making thirsty GIF-sets of Chris Hemsworth’s torso at the same time.

Can there ever be such a thing as equal-opportunity objectification, then, when traditional gender dynamics carry such a historic power imbalance? I asked that question to Man Repeller’s Deputy Editor, Haley Nahman.

“Some guy once told me that he thought the solution to neutralizing the male gaze was for women to simply objectify men,” she says. “It was an annoying comment for multiple reasons, not least of which was his implication that it was women’s responsibility to even the playing field. I told him that seemed like spreading the harm more than supplanting it. I’d always been put off by the idea that, to use a cheap example, women whooping at male strippers in Magic Mike somehow subverted the patriarchy. It never felt like that to me. After all, these men weren’t truly disempowered by the whooping … Most men will never truly understand the all-encompassing female experience of objectification.”

Alice is a social media professional, writer and DJ with a slightly different perspective on the female lens and how Magic Mike XXL, rippling flesh and all, can actually be read as an empowering feminist film. She points to the interiority granted to each beefcake character, and the way the narrative privileges women and their needs, as refreshing and necessary alternatives to what audiences have been conditioned to expect from media.

“The film writes a new blueprint for who a jacked-up male entertainer can be — these are emotionally literate gentle giants who vocally support each other’s dreams,” says Alice. “Magic Mike XXL depicts a feminist utopia which works for women and men. It celebrates women of color, fat women, queer women, older women. Utopian art gives us comfort and hope, allowing us to draw a path from our world to a better one.”

As might be said of any subculture, these tribes emerged at least partially out of an innate need for belonging and evolved over time into entire communities of their own

The fact that twinkhood is being so widely discussed could be seen as similarly encouraging — a new era wherein all forms are celebrated. After all, the gay community has proliferated seemingly inclusive terminology for all kinds of body types, such as bears and otters. As might be said of any subculture, these groups emerged at least partially out of an innate need for belonging and evolved over time into entire communities of their own. And yet, the most common kind of LGBTQ representation to be found in pop culture is still the conventionally handsome cisgender white man, evidently the form most palatable to mainstream audiences. It’s unlikely we’ll be seeing a New York Times article heralding the age of the bear any time soon.

“If we are going to make queer culture more diverse, we need to seriously interrogate the language and tribes we have built up over the years,” writes i-D’s André-Naquian Wheeler in a piece titled, “Why Can’t Black Men Be Twinks?” He points out that Jaden Smith is the only non-white person mentioned in Haramis’ original piece, despite there being a plethora of examples (he cites Pharrell as being “peak twink,” and I can’t say I disagree).

“Opening up twinkdom to black people also requires opening up the qualifiers,” Wheeler continues. “Because black men and white men have very different standard physical features. Twinks, bears, otters — what are these words actually describing? I don’t have the answer, and maybe none of us do, but it’s important we ask the question.”

When we ogle male bodies, and adopt and perpetuate new, seemingly arbitrary criteria for male desirability à la “the age of the twink,” are we really pushing the boundaries of traditional muscle-bound hyper-masculinity? Or simply enacting the same objectification that has oppressed women for so long?

It can only be a good thing that we are examining the complex issue of masculinity as it pertains to and shapes pop culture. But taking the pressure off men to be uber-muscular Men’s Health cover models, only to replace that with another unrealistic ideal, is not conducive to productive discourse. As Spencer Kornhaber of The Atlantic writes: “[M]aybe someday, men and women, straight and queer alike, might come to know how it feels to be more coherently discussed as people, rather than as meat.”

Philip Ellis is a freelance writer and journalist from the U.K. You can follow him on Twitter @Philip_Ellis

Feature photo by Taylor Hill/Getty Images.

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