Objectifying Prince Charming
“The Male Gazed” offers an imperfect reflection on pop culture’s queer influence.
To me, Disney and durian are one in the same: nauseatingly sweet. The first essay in Manuel Betancourt’s The Male Gazed: On Hunks, Heartthrobs, and What Pop Culture Taught Me About (Desiring) Men, a collection of essays about the author’s coming out and of age, is similarly saccharine. Betancourt is not only partial to Disney but grants it unbridled weight in his adult life, arguing that he has “smuggled” some sort of queer ontology out of its “oppressively heterosexual fairy tales.”
Unremarkably aroused by Disney’s gambit of meatheads, Betancourt foregrounds his nascent sexual proclivities to stake an ambitious claim: “As Disney gave its female heroines agency in their desire, it also allowed audiences to objectify its male characters.” Apparently, the pressures of heterosexual love are incidental to personal freedom, and patent displays of male musculature are a radical inversion of the male gaze. Betancourt is all too aware that neither of these statements is true—he explores dress codes and body policing in the next essay. His myopia is selective insofar as it serves his argument.
Betancourt portends my skepticism until he doesn’t: “[I]t’s unclear if these childhood moments … predicted the gay man I would become, or if I have simply warped them to do so in my mind. The result, I guess, is no different either way.” Um… isn’t it? Betancourt subbing personal experience for analysis echoes Kay Gabriel’s argument in a 2022 article for The Yale Review: Queer memoirists who satiate nonqueer readers with snapshots of personal hardship rather than illuminate shared social forms—like, say, joy—effectively neuter themselves. Betancourt’s Disney nostalgia, precisely: Furiously hard in the tenebrous recesses of the theater, his boner works itself out, as Gabriel puts it, “in powerful but highly limited ways on some strange people over there.”
Granted, Betancourt’s childhood, piddled away in front of the TV, seems lonely. And horny—so much so that, by his own admission, it hampers his analytical faculties: “I can’t deny that sometimes my shallowness (or my horniness, more like) gets the best of me.” For example, the “hairy,” “rippling,” and “lovingly defined” pecs of Hercules; the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air; Buffy’s Xander; and, in the real world, Ricky Martin inundate the pages with a dull libidinal yearning. Saved by the Bell’s A.C. Slater—all-star wrestler and general harbinger of Jersey Shore’s later grip on millennial sexuality—is, in particular, “a revelation.”
Reflections on Slater metastasize into lascivious musings on how wrestling garb and related imagery can “rewire the markers of masculine ideals as inherently homoerotic.” These ideas are both fantastical and heavy-handed; allusion is not our Slater-satyr’s forte. “[T]ight asses aren’t mere by-products of arduous training but open invitations (in ways more literal than you can imagine).” Surely any self-described gay man and the most cursorily adventurous heterosexual could’ve gleaned the anal reference without the parenthetical appendage; if not, why do they need to? Clamoring for readership, Betancourt casts a wide net, letting slip lithe catches for the clumsier philistines mucking about.
Stylistic issues aside, Betancourt acknowledges that desire and self-expression are “hard to disentangle,” yet he doesn’t recognize that this very entanglement may be confining his own view. As a gay man, I see little of my own urges in Betancourt’s. “To explicitly deny the sexual pull such images [of shirtless amateur wrestlers] can have … is to feed into a toxicity that refuses to let men be unwittingly desired (by other men).” This leaves me sexually and theoretically marooned. I do deny it (wrestling doesn’t turn me on!) and regardless: How would my lust anchor my masculinity? Despite acknowledging that “what men want and what men look like aren’t questions to be asked in a vacuum,” Betancourt doesn’t make context central to his analysis. I am all for finding teleological value in desire, but Betancourt is thinking with the wrong head.
Betancourt does, at times, escape his cognitive cul-de-sac. In “Hombres,” Betancourt explores the titular Colombian telenovela as a “glimpse into a possible future and a rare window into an alien present.” Hombres’ seemingly “progressive” male characters were facsimiles for the professional class of men Betancourt’s classmates would become, boys whose masculinity relied on his torment. Marshaled against the show’s larger, systemic pitfalls—such as its infinite forgiveness of male fragility and total inability to pass the Bechdel test—we learn that Hombres was essentialist down to its title, its denotations of masculinity contingent on who was and wasn’t meant to watch. Here, Betancourt’s personal experience is couched in a clear exploration of Colombian masculinity, augmenting close analysis of Hombres and its social mores rather than the other way around.
Betancourt’s final essay, “A Cock in a Frock,” proves the limitations of those preceding if only by showing that, done right, personal experience can pose some epistemic value. Taking a RuPaul tagline (“we’re all born naked and the rest is drag”) as an ontological launchpad, Betancourt weaves between cross-dressers, women in pantsuits, straight men, and queers to make a simple but convincing point: Sex and gender are irreducible from desire. It’s here where his writing is at its best. Building solidarity across disparate experiences rather than leveraging them for intellectual cachet, Betancourt’s analytical power rests precisely in the space between what he and other queer men do and don’t share.
Promulgating one’s trauma is increasingly necessary to “legitimate” subjectivity, conveniently obfuscating the various shapes power can take. This compromise reduces bodies into messages, or masculinity into culture, rather than seeing either as a multi-operable tool of violence, oppression, or liberation. Such is my issue with The Male Gazed: Betancourt’s trauma stalls his analytical propulsion. Victimhood is no stand-in for culture, less still an engine for hot takes. As glimmers in the final pages, Betancourt is capable of cultural critique that weds his life to larger observations about masculinity and queerness. To this end, being called a “faggot” is ancillary—if only he would realize that.