A Filmmaker Reflects on Gay Men’s Pursuit of Physical Perfection
If Jane Austen were around, she might have started a story: It is a truth universally acknowledged that a gay man in possession of a ticket to a major dance party must be in want of a great body.
As I pointed out in my review of The Adonis Factor, the vast majority of gay men do not have the kind of body that will get them into the photo pages of the local bar guide, let alone on top of a go-go platform or in an underwear ad.
Nevertheless, we are all affected by the images that come upon us from all directions (yes, yes, some from this website). Although all men, straight and gay, are falling under the pressures to look good, gay men are particularly subject to bouts of panic if not downright depression at the first sign of a paunch, a laugh line or undefined bicep. And heaven knows, for many of us, going out dancing or to a bar can unleash a nightmare of insecurities.
Filmmaker Christopher Hines has seen the issue from opposite sides. His earlier documentary, The Butch Factor, looked at gay men who considered themselves to be living and working outside the generally accepted norms of gay life.
But these guys weren't defined by, nor did they define themselves, by body image. In contrast, The Adonis Factor is about nothing but body image. Interviewing men from the West Coast (with a brief detour to Atlanta), Hines listens to personal trainers and plastic surgeons explain why it's so important to one's sense of self to develop chiseled physiques.
Basically, it's a case of the old saw that being gay is like being stuck in your sophomore year of high school; along with that other old saw that adult gay men are still reliving the humiliations of high school -- only this time, they're the top dogs. The men in this movie want to fit in, to be popular, be admired, maybe even get laid at the most important events on the gay calendar, the major dances known as Circuit parties.
Hines takes detours to examine other ways gay men relate to their bodies -- bears; those who suffer from eating disorders; and those who seem to have transcended the issue (or at least made it a good deal less important). But the core of the film are the men who diet and work out religiously; take very good care of their skin; and put lots and lots of product in their hair.
EDGE sat down and asked Hines about what inspired him to make the film and his own views on the subject.
EDGE: The Butch Factor is about how gay men choosing to live outside the mainstream of what is considered gay life; The Adonis Factor, how men pursue fitting in as much as possible. Did the former inspire the latter or were they planned as a duology?
Christopher Hines: I kind of had them both in mind. They're both aspects of issues prevalent in gay culture. Masculinity. That's a subject never explored in depth in a feature-length documentary before. The second issue may be even more driving: looks and body image. To some extent, that defines us. We're men but we're also very visual.
EDGE: Were you aware of the book about the subject of body image and all men (not just gay) called The Adonis Complex when you named the film?
C.H.: Actually, I came up The Butch Factor -- and straight don't say that. I said, 'Why not continue the "factors"'?
EDGE: That book and others, such as Looking Good: Male Body Image in Modern America, argue that, in the post-metrosexual age, this is no longer a gay-only problem.
C.H.: We have a couple of straight guys in the movie. It's true: Men are objectified as never before. It is a reflection of our overall culture.
We live in such an image-driven culture. Looks are important. Look at the way TV shows are cast now; everybody's beautiful. In the '70s or '80s there were more average-looking people. Given the science of cosmetic and the nonstop culture we live in, there's never been a time when beauty was so revered. Gay men respond even more.
EDGE: Your own film gives examples of male ideal forms in classical statuary. And museums are filled with Apollo, Hercules and Narcissus, not only Adonis. Haven't men -- all men -- yearned to be gorgeous?
C.H.: Funny you mention the Greeks and Romans, because that was the last time you saw this many naked bodies. In the documentary we talk to guys who do steroids. We never had that kind of pressure before. Sports stars like Babe Ruth were doughy. Athletes today are so huge; that trickles down.
Look at the size of G.I. Joe dolls. They keep getting bigger and bigger. Men always get driven by things -- we often go directly from A to B. But now it's gotten to the point where we have blinders on. Whatever happened to natural beauty?
EDGE: Do you feel the men in the film, nearly all of whom lived in San Francisco, West Los Angeles or Palm Springs, are representative of gay men across the country?
C.H.: I wanted to go where the competition is the most intense, to show what happens when you get all these gay men together. We're told men by nature are very competitive. Men are bent on survival -- looks is one quantity we use to survive.
EDGE: I've often heard that the muscular-but-thin 'clone' look of the '70s gave way to the bodybuilder aesthetic partly as a reaction to the wasting that accompanied AIDS. Being built meant you were healthy.
C.H.: There is that aspect to it. There used be body hair, beards. Once the AIDS crisis hit, the look was pristine, clean. There's a backlash against that with the bear movement. Of course, they can be pretty hierarchical as well. (Manscaped) body hair is making a comeback!
EDGE: One aspect of the film that bothered me a little is the automatic link between working and going to the gym and a quest for physical beauty. You're not trying to discourage people from going to the gym, are you?
C.H.: I do have the naked yoga class. Look, I didn't mean to de-emphasize the importance of staying in shape. I'm not saying people shouldn't work out, just that the focus should not just be on the visual.
The point of the film is that we're men. We're not going to hold hands and sing 'Kumbaya' and just all be nice to each other. I've got no problem with looking good.
EDGE: You do drive home the point that in social settings, we tend to be pretty merciless about sizing up each other.
C.H.: Guys who want to look good often have the attitude that a lot of guys are talking to them just because of the way they look. Some of them complain about guys grabbing their asses on the dance floor.
If you find somebody attractive, just grabbing his ass is not the best way to say hello. It just objectifies the guy. People get so gaga around good-looking men!
EDGE: What do you want gay men to take away from this film?
C.H.: What I'm saying is that there's nothing wrong with looking your best and doing what you can, but just that people look a lot of different ways. Don't just hang out with people who look like you. Fill your life with different people.
I can appreciate a pretty painting and hang it on the wall, but I don't want validation from it. We have to step back from the power we give looks. Sometimes in gay culture it's too easy to forget that the years are flipping by -- and what have you done with your life? Looks don't necessarily mean happiness.
EDGE: What's your next project? The Fem Factor?
C.H.: No more factors! I'm working on a new one: Man to Man: A Gay Man's Guide to Finding Love. So the next one is one relationships. Only one-third of adult gay men are in longterm relationships but over 80 percent want to be in one.