October 2001

From University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Historian: interest in white male bodies helped men relieve anxiety of modern life

CHAPEL HILL – Society’s interest in male bodies has burgeoned over the past three decades, as racy advertising, movies and television attest, but that’s really nothing new from a cultural standpoint, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill American history expert says.

The ancient Greeks and Romans idealized men’s bodies in their statuary, of course, and Renaissance artists managed to fit almost jaybird-naked figures of men as well as women into many religious and classical paintings. Even during the height of the Victorian Age, the male form attracted widespread attention, although few people discussed it in polite company.

"Questions arose beginning in the late 19th century about manliness and the authority of individual white males in modern society as a reaction to the rise of industrialism, among other developments," said Dr. John F. Kasson. "In the past, male authority seemed more clear-cut, but that changed as the individual man appeared to become less important."

Something similar has happened more recently with the rise of multinationalism and global companies, Kasson said. Also, both a century ago and today, feminism, immigration and racial ideologies have deeply affected questions about manliness and boosted anxiety. Identifying with popular icons of male strength, freedom and wildness has helped many men cope with that anxiety.

An American culture expert, Kasson is author of "Houdini, Tarzan and the Perfect Man," subtitled "The White Male Body and the Challenge of Modernity in America." Hill and Wang recently published the book, which describes the nation’s interest in white male bodies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and offers parallels to the present.

Kasson focuses on two real men, both Vaudeville headliners -- Eugen Sandow, a Prussian-born athlete who inspired Charles Atlas and became the Arnold Schwarzenegger of his day, and the world’s best-known escape artist, Budapest-born Harry Houdini. He also explores the cultural meanings of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ fictional creation, "Tarzan of the Apes," one of the most famous characters of all time.

“Interest in these three figures expressed different aspects of attempts to reclaim notions of masculinity and the desire to see the white male body triumph over various challenges,” Kasson said.

Sandow, dubbed “the Perfect Man,” was to many of his time the epitome of male strength and beauty. He enjoyed a highly successful career displaying his lightly clad body at a time when millions toiled as extensions of factory machinery, he said.

"Houdini repeatedly escaped fantastic structures that might be seen symbolically as imprisoning modern man," Kasson said. "He was the little guy fighting off impossible odds and saying that nothing could keep him prisoner."

Tarzan, the alter ego of the frustrated Burroughs, was the son of an English lord and was raised by an ape distraught over the death of her own baby, the historian said. For Burroughs and for many of his readers, the Lord of the Jungle represented the ultimate product of noble heritage and savage environment -- the supreme embodiment of virility, courage, strength and independence.

"Tarzan was the ultimate Outward Bound kid and the ultimate self-made man," Kasson said.

"Burroughs’ books appealed to adolescent fantasies, but also were read by many adults and still are," he said. "Understanding these three icons of masculinity in historical perspective can help us reassess the fantasies and anxieties surrounding manliness in our own time."

Note: Kasson can be reached at (919) 962-5004. Contact: David Williamson, 962-8596

UNC News Services

This article comes from Science Blog. Copyright © 2004

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