My attraction to the superhero genre has always been the result of a confluence of many, many elements, but lately it is the men in costume that are interesting me most. Perhaps for some people this is some sort of variation of the old men-in-uniform fetish that so many people have, and I know that a lot of people think of superhero costumes as a sort of military uniform. I do not, to my mind, they have more in common with drag queens or rock stars, who wear flamboyant apparel in order to distract from the job at hand. Unlike the military or police who wear somber uniform in order to blend into their surroundings, their clothing is designed to distract and dazzle onlookers. It is a unusual position for a man to take, and is one of the more interesting characteristics of the male superhero in the context of the male role in our society.
When I lived in San Francisco, male friends would sometimes complain about getting checked out when we were out in the Castro. “I feel like a piece of meat, it’s weird being looked up and down!” they moaned. My girlfriends laughed at them and replied, “Now you know what the rest of the world is like for the rest of us!” Generally speaking, women are looked at, checked out, in a more predatory way than men. The male gaze is just an accepted fact and in order to get on with our lives peacefully, we either learn to ignore it or learn to work with it… Perhaps this is why I’ve always liked men who’re comfortable standing out in a crowd (whether by nature or by design), because, like women, they know what it is like to be looked at by strangers for no reason and they aren’t afraid to play with people’s expectations.
Some men are born more visible than others, perhaps because of their height, their weight, their hair color, or their features. These are the men who nature has made visible in the context of our culture, they always stood out in a crowd and they learned to deal with the world accordingly before it was even conscious, as do many women. Other men choose to make themselves visually distinct, perhaps by wearing different clothing or changing their hair, or body. Hair dye or styling, tattoos, piercing, unusual fashions, massive weight gain or loss, can all make a man stand out every day. When men change the “packaging” that is the way they’re presented to the world, they are making a statement with their appearance, and I always find it interesting to talk to men who’re in this process of transformation as they experience changes in the way the world responds to them.
I’ve always been impressed by my little brother, a pretty mellow, relatively conservative sort of guy, who surprised me by growing up into the kind of man who is happy wearing fluorescent pink sneakers. This should have alerted me to the fact that he’d be interested in dressing up in costume, but I was still surprised when after his first Comic-Con, he became fascinated by people doing Spider-Man and Superman “wrong.” The next year he showed up with a flawless old-school Spider-Man costume, and the following Halloween he was dressing up as a very good Superman. And he wasn’t just dressing in the costumes, he did a pretty good impression with his stance and posture, so much so that our friends accused him of wearing a false chest, which is what happens when you slouch the rest of the time, (thereby proving that it might just be possible for the Clark Kent / Superman disguise to work if he were real… but I’m getting off topic here.)
It is increasingly clear to me that part of my early interest in male superheroes stems from this interest in more visible men. On some level I like the fact that superheroes are so overtly trying to change people’s perception of them. They generally wear skintight clothing, brightly colored, body-conscious suits which aggressively assert that they’re totally aware of the external gaze. Simultaneously they hide their identity, sometimes to the extent of covering their faces. This creates an interesting tension between opposites, where the identity is protected while the body is vulnerable. There is strength in this visible disguise, which echoes the woman in a tight dress and a lot of make-up. Women and male superheroes both display physical assets, while guarding their identity with masks.
There is a kind of role-playing inherent in wearing a superhero costume which (when done right) can be an altering experience for “regular” men in costume at conventions. These men in costume are enjoying their role, playing with people’s expectations of them, by living out the costume and acting like a superhero, they aren’t simply putting on some clothing, but becoming superheroic, and learning what it is to be oddly visible in that way. These “average” men are learning what it is to be strong and posturing, yet simultaneously vulnerable in their visibility. By dressing up, they have an opportunity to experiment with the (usually limited) trappings of male identity.
The fantasy world in which real superheroes exist is one where super-powered men’s fashion sense reveals them to be brave, playful, relaxed, confident, and open to experimentation. These are fantastic qualities for super-powered people to have and it gives me great hope for a future. Similarly, when regular-powered men are brave enough to dress up as superheroes (or in any other form of expressive clothing), they display their own bravery, a healthy sense of humor, and an awareness of a fluid sense of identity. I toyed with calling this column “In Praise of Visible Men”, because I really do feel that the male cosplayer is doing something interesting in terms of changing personal perception about gender roles and fashion possibilities. In the end I went with something more descriptive, but I still want to make sure that I’m acknowledging how much I appreciate men who are willing to dress up, and to play with fashion and people’s expectations of them as men.