by Hakim Faiz Baloch
Trevante Rhodes’ Calvin Klein underwear photos were released the day after Moonlight’s surprise win at the Oscars – and though the Internet’s responses to it soon became rather PG-13, the pictures and advertisement campaign speak on a much wider platform.
CK has a reputation for making men’s underwear erotic and acceptably desirable again, but has, since the crotch-grabbing storm unleashed by Wahlberg, coupled such images with heavier meaning, thereby creating a space where race, masculinity and sexuality collide and coexist. The ghost of a smile, the positioning of the thighs, the reclining figure and unmistakable framing of the bulge, all promote and immortalize an image of strength, ease, simplicity and a hint of mystery. Wahlberg’s set was attacked for the clear alluding to black hip-hop gestures, with a healthy serving of white, boyish innocence, while Rhodes’ set encapsulates the timorous relationship America has with black male sexuality – feared and desired in equal capacities.
I mean, to be fair, it’s the same underwear CK has been trying to sell for more than a decade. There are only so many ways you can advertise it – but CK has gotten quite proficient and creative over the years, using cultural appropriation and blatant and unapologetic sexuality to shock and provoke. But soon enough the novelty of such an approach wears off, and then the return to normalcy begins with the ‘I _________ in #mycalvins’ campaign. The aim here seems to be to acquaint the general populace with the everyday happenings of the rich and famous as they lounge around in their Calvins like no big deal. Move over Timberland boots and Gucci belts, CK bras are the new street style – a surefire way to boost street cred in the big bad suburbs. Not that the trend took off all over the world – my conservative Pakistani mother would have a fit if she saw me sprawl around in extortionately priced underwear that no one need see. A sports bra should be a sports bra – doing its job of keeping the girls in their place, absorbing runaway sweat droplets and making sporting activities possible without major casualties. But the moment you spend that kind of money on a rather flimsy excuse of a bra you best justify it by showing it off every opportunity you get. Don’t act like you haven’t yawned and stretched as far as you could, while your underwear detail comes into view, preciously unaware and abashedly apologetic.
And while we’re on topic, CK hasn’t exactly been the world leader in promoting a male body positive image, anti-sexism or modesty. The backlash for placing the Klara Kristin and Fetty Wap ads side by side on a billboard was enormous, illustrating the harsh reality of women seducing and men making money. While this is blatant sexism, it is authentic and quite with the times – just another clever marketing gimmick to ensure the realities aren’t forgotten and neither are the yet-to-be-revamped CK underwear lines. Allegations of child pornography, glamourizing drug use and promoting violence have all come and gone, with Bill Clinton being a major opponent too, un-ironically. This aside, such veneration of the male form, regardless of race or colour, comes hot on the heels of the male body positivity campaign. Women have already embraced stomach rolls, mermaid thighs, stretch marks and the like, with men sorely lacking in representation of their gendered problems. Historically women’s bodies have been submitted to more scrutiny than those of men, and much wrong has to be undone, but the pressures that men face have not been discussed or alleviated. Fashion blogs like Notoriously Dapper, Chubstr and other quaintly named delights, provide resources and a sense of community for men. In an age when retouching, Photoshop, eating disorders and all the grisly unforgivables we are forced into by negative body stereotypes, are being denied, fought and campaigned against, women and men should stand shoulder to shoulder in a struggle to protect their own. IMG Models has just signed a plus-size male model to their ‘brawn’ division, paving the way for more men to embrace their natural selves.
Boys have it hard too, believe it or not. All those years of being told that they are infinitely better than an entire gender can be quite reassuring and lead to inescapable and intrinsically damaging misogynistic stereotypes. To be built up so high and mighty must sure be nice, but the fall back to reality is harsh and unforgiving. Any deviations from the norm, be it in the weight category, appearance, intellectual or physical ability, hurt and wound in often invisible but deeply difficult ways. All humans are vulnerable, and in an attempt to come to terms with said problem, they seek dominance over another race, gender or species. Any slight difference is mocked and looked down upon. But can you really blame those with the power to belittle and mock? They have been awarded the power to do so by those who too are vulnerable but without a community to support them through thick and thin. And that supremacy is now being taken back, bit by bit, debunked stereotype by stereotype.
Boys don’t cry. Boys are good at sports. Boys will be boys. Girls don’t sit like that. Girls don’t talk back. Boys must take care of the family. Eat like a lady. Don’t throw like a girl.