Look at him: Why can’t straight guys acknowledge male beauty without freaking out?

Straight guys have a hard time when women evaluate men’s appearance.

I’m all for directing an eye roll at the rich-old-dude-lands-much-younger-woman currency exchange, which Rhonda Garelick explores in her recent New York Times piece on 92-year-old Rupert Murdoch‘s bartering of his wealth and power for the (relative) youth and beauty of a woman 26 years his junior, Ann Lesley Smith. (Nothing against Smith, but as 66-year-old women go, I’m not sure how one could improve on recent Murdoch dumpee Jerry Hall.) Garelick points out that reversing the genders in this equation would be fairly unthinkable. But there’s another, related double standard lurking just outside the frame. It’s not just that men’s appearance isn’t weighted as heavily as women’s; it’s that the subject of men’s looks is so often off the table.

Some months back, while I was noodling around at YouTube indulging a long overdue (I’m in my 50s) obsession with Pink Floyd, I came across this year-old exchange in the comments section of a video about the David Gilmour-Roger Waters battle royal.

Reese Morgan: Waters got much better looking the older he got. Gilmour aged OK, but it’s kind of odd that Waters now looks much more appealing. Years ago Gilmour was the pretty one. I’m a shallow person.

Professor K: Yeah seems like it . . . it’s not going to get you very far in life. I bet your [sic] alone now . . [.] if not, you will be. Being like the way you are . . . smh.

Blade: Who the f**k is talking about looks and who cares.

Tony B: Definitely agree with that last part.

After I read this exchange, my first thought was, Wow: I’d been thinking the same exact thing as Reese Morgan! (Possibly shallow remark: How is it that I hadn’t noticed until recently how beautiful the young David Gilmour was? And how unfair is it that rancorous Roger is the one who got to keep his hair?) My second thought was, Hey, Professor K: Isn’t your level of righteous indignation a little out of balance with the matter at hand? I mean, why cut Reese Morgan to the quick when she already self-deprecated herself (“I’m a shallow person”) out of a reprimand?

I’m going to assume that Reese Morgan is a woman based on her Witherspoon-conjuring first name and her inclination to self-deprecate, and I’m going to assume that Professor K is a straight man based on his radioactive overreaction to Reese Morgan’s comment. If I’m right, this reinforces something that I’ve long suspected: generally speaking, straight guys have a hard time when women evaluate men’s appearance.

Evan DandoEvan Dando (Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty Images)

Maybe you’re old enough to remember how much grief Evan Dando – the Lemonhead with the young-Gilmourian looks and locks – got from men during his brief cheesecake period in the 1990s. Jeff Fox, who created the zine “Die Evan Dando, Die,” recalls in his 1994 essay “I Accidentally Made a Popular Zine” that in its pages, “I quipped that ‘Come on Feel the Lemonheads’ was actually a milestone for the music industry, ‘as it marked the first time that an album had been marketed exclusively on the merit’s [sic] of a band member’s cheekbones.'” Oh, I think albums had previously been marketed exclusively on the merit’s merits of a band member’s cheekbones, provided the band member was female.

The sudden achievement of female beauty isn’t the punch line; it’s the money shot. 

Aside from the odd scene filmed in a girls’ school bathroom for a teen movie, I count no examples of straight young women pillorying beautiful women for their looks. Why not? Because at the dawn of time, it was apparently decided that there’s poignancy, not yuks, to be found in a woman’s sincere attempt to make herself more attractive. Think of every female-centered fairy tale, makeover show and sitcom in which a skittish librarian type finally ditches her glasses and lets her hair down. The sudden achievement of female beauty isn’t the punch line; it’s the money shot. 

This just isn’t so with men. I was recently in New Orleans, where I was on a walking tour with a woman and her husband; he was wearing a T-shirt that read, “It’s not easy being my wife’s arm candy.” He was actually a pretty good-looking guy, but the joke worked because of the implicit humor in a man having a purely decorative function. If an equally attractive woman had worn a shirt that read, “It’s not easy being my husband’s arm candy,” it would have come across as bragging, no?

Likewise, a year or so back Stephen Colbert did a skit with Paul Rudd — People’s Sexiest Man Alive of 2021 — about what it takes to make it to No. 1. The bit was funny enough, but I was aware while watching it that it wouldn’t have worked at all if Colbert had been putting a comely actress through the paces. This time the implicit humor was the prospect of a guy (Rudd) auditioning for the sexiest-man job with a straight face — the face of someone fighting for a distinction that he believed had meaning. When women win beauty contests, it’s not considered amusing; it’s considered, you know, normal.

Actor Paul RuddActor Paul Rudd (Mike Pont/WireImage/Getty Images)

Well, of course straight men are going to want to laugh at the prospect of fetching actors like Paul Rudd and Chris Evans, People’s most recently crowned Sexiest Man Alive, being sex magnets for women: if Rudd’s and Evans’s quest for beauty is declared risible, then they’re not a threat, right? I suspect this is why Reese Morgan’s comment rankled Professor K so much: he couldn’t laugh at Gilmour and Waters – they weren’t posing for dips**t People magazine; they were just going about their lives – so he was forced to face the truth, which is that straight women, like straight men, register beauty in the opposite sex, and like men, we usually do it without cracking up.

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It’s hard to imagine a woman belittlingly decorating her office with pictures of a nonagenarian Rupert Murdoch in a bathing suit, as Garelick reports that Tucker Carlson has allegedly done with pictures of a swimsuit-clad House Speaker-era Nancy Pelosi. But let’s suppose, in a different approach to demolishing the double standard surrounding male and female appearance, we could get straight men, like gay men, to confront male beauty without smirking (while also somehow reassuring them that this won’t make everyone think they’re gay). Might this be their path to understanding the female experience of being eternally physically compared? Until that happens, here’s what I most want to say to Professor K and anyone else who is appalled when women share their thoughts on a man’s appearance: Make like a woman and toughen the f**k up. As for you, Reese Morgan: Keep the comments coming. It’s going to get you very far in life, being like the way you are. Also: Your You’re not alone.

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