November 21, 2003
The Social Construction of Sexy
by David A. Zimmerman
Brad Pitt, Richard Gere, George Clooney and Benjamin Bratt should, by all rights, be dead.
I do not draw this conclusion because my wife nearly loses consciousness when the camera settles on their faces. I’m not so petty. Nevertheless, they should be dead. After all, they were each (at least once) voted “sexiest man alive” by People magazine. And since being voted “sexiest man alive,” each has been tossed to the curb to make way for another “sexy” man’s ascendancy. And with the possible exception of Brad Pitt, these guys don’t look much different now from how they looked the day before the “sexiest ballots alive” were cast.
Maybe I don’t have an eye for that sort of thing, but I still find it alarming that the world is, apparently, swarming with superlatively sexy men—one of which I, sadly, am not. These men don’t look much like one another, nor do they look much like the sexy interlopers who have taken their place—Sean Connery, for example, or Johnny Depp. What is sexy in America is a moving target, and no sooner have you received guidance on the “sexiest haircut alive” or the “sexiest use of chest hair alive” than some sexy-come-lately turns the national head, and you have to start over again.
No, sexiness is linked to newness in America; it’s difficult to be familiar and sexy at the same time. And our ability to come to widespread agreement about what is temporarily sexy on a consistent basis is testimony to the social construction of sexiness. It’s not so much that we become aware of, say, Ben Affleck’s sexiness; it’s more so that we agree to think of Ben Affleck and not, say, Ben Franklin as sexy.
Issues can be as sexy as humans, which is to say that our infatuation with issues can be as fickle and fleeting as our infatuation with Pierce Brosnan’s rock-hard abs. This poses a problem for book publishers, even magazine publishers, even increasingly Internet publishers, since the time it takes to fully address an issue from every angle often exceeds the time it takes to get distracted by some other, more flashy topic. It’s the same kind of group decision making as the knowing glances between women when, say, Freddie Prinze Jr. walks into a room, followed shortly thereafter by, say, Denzel Washington.
But maybe it’s good that our answer to the question “What is sexy?” is so fleeting and temporary. After all, it’s hardly all that important. My relationship with George Clooney didn’t change all that much once he was voted “sexiest man alive,” nor did it change when his reign as “sexiest man alive” ended just 365 sexy days later. If once a year we can settle the “Who is the sexiest man of all?” question, I will waste less time asking it of my magic mirror and get back to work making the world a better place for everyone, sexy or not.