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The naked truth about bare male flesh Add to ...

In terms of sheer acreage, more of David Beckham is covered in tattoos than underwear in a new H&M ad unveiled during the Super Bowl. The camera circles and caresses his nakedness, all in service of a pair of tight white undies that he claims to have designed himself. (Commenting on his fashion qualifications, Becks helpfully explained, “I love underwear. I love wearing it.”)

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“And now, a little something for the ladies!” trumpeted the Los Angeles Times, which was immediately chastised by gay male commentators: “That ad was aimed at BOTH straight women and gay men.” Perhaps straight men go commando?

In pop culture, penises have been mostly tucked away since the Ewan McGregor epoch of the mid-nineties. Lately, though, the male crotch has been newly prominent. At the Golden Globes, George Clooney made ribald jokes about Michael Fassbender’s member in Shame. HBO’s Game of Thrones and the comedy Your Highness were both penis-forward (the latter’s was half-bull, but it still counts).

GQ columnist Julieanne Smolinski posits a connection between the new male nudity and the female gross-out comedy: If women are now permitted to be guy-style pigs, crapping in their wedding dresses, then men get to be bare-bummed vampire sexpots. Yet Smolinski isn’t impressed. “[I]remain unaroused, spending the nude scenes contemplating whether that old trope about the camera adding ten pounds has finally been to someone’s advantage.” Maybe women share Smolinski’s blahs: In the days post-Super Bowl, the all-clothed Ferris Bueller Honda ad had 13 million YouTube hits while Beckham’s had fewer than two million.

If one does deign to watch the Beckham ad, however, it proves surprisingly bulge-free. The focus is the wondrous athletic body on its invisible pedestal, cut into pieces via close-ups of arms, feet, hips, back of the neck – the definition of titillation without the money shot. And this is often the case: Male nudity may be more prevalent, but it is usually – arty Fassbender performances excepted – fleeting. When Jason Segel went nude in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, for instance, the moments were fast and comedic, barely adequate for an ogle or a screen grab.

The female body, meanwhile, remains caught by the long, lingering frame. In this year’s Super Bowl ads, an Italian woman spreading milk froth on her cleavage turned into a Fiat, while Adriana Lima, backed by a porn soundtrack, informed men that buying flowers will get them sex.

No matter that the Super Bowl audience is approximately 46-per-cent female now. The assumption at play is that all audiences are male or at least that the “gaze” – if I may dust off the word – is always male, even when there are women in the room. But what’s the difference between how men and women react to Beckham or the bare female torso in a Go Daddy ad?

A 2003 study by Beth Eck at James Madison University investigated the attitudes of heterosexual men and women toward the nude body. Shown images such as a Rolling Stone cover of a mostly naked Cindy Crawford, almost all men saw the pictures as there for their pleasure: “I like that. That’s what we dream about” and “She’s a good-lookin’ girl.” By contrast, many women looking at naked Cindy immediately expressed their own inadequacies: “I get depressed” and “I wish I had a body like that.”

But there was little evidence that men tear themselves apart when viewing a naked man. Instead, most were likely to assert their heterosexuality – “I like to look at women” – or to claim indifference. Looking at the same images of male nudes, women had a complicated range of responses, from welcoming to guilt to flatout rejection.

Women, of course, aren’t experienced voyeurs. We don’t grow up surrounded by images that feed, or remind us of, our sexual yearnings. The nude male body is usually the stuff of comedy, as Sacha Baron Cohen knows. Louis CK and Will Ferrell have no hesitation about using their muffin tops and hairy backs as grist for comedy. Often, it’s not the penis but its absence that’s the joke: Think the well-placed balloon in Austin Powers or Steve Carell’s face blocking Ryan Gosling’s privates in Crazy Stupid Love. (A quick glimpse of the swinging, silly penis can be comic gold, too.)

I suspect that young women growing up today will have an entirely different experience of male nudity; its electronic prevalence may be part of what’s prompting male nudity to float into the mainstream. The question is whether the next generation will welcome the chance to have their desires tickled or see male nudity in ads as boring reverse sexism.

Either way, marketers should take note: USA Today released its annual Ad Meter readings of the most successful Super Bowl ads and consumers voted overwhelmingly for the Doritos commercial featuring a baby in a slingshot. Year after year, the most winning Super Bowl ads aren’t the ones that sell sex, but the ones that are funny, goofy, creative and crotch-free.

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