Bend it like Beckham: the challenges of reading gender and visual culture
Introduction It is now nearly 25 years since – on TV screens across the UK – Nick Kamen was seen strolling into a retro-looking launderette and slowly and suggestively removing his clothes, to the soulful soundtrack of Marvin Gaye singing ‘I heard it through the grapevine’. This advert for Levis 501s was so successful that – according to legend – the factories producing the jeans struggled to keep up with the resulting 700 per cent increase in demand. For cultural analysts, however, it was the impact of this advert on representations of men that made it so significant. It inaugurated – or at least became the iconic example of – an ongoing transformation in depictions of the male body, a shift that seemed to overturn the unwritten rule of visual culture in which, as John Berger famously put it, ‘men look and women appear’. Since that moment back in 1985, men’s bodies have been ‘on display’ in the mediascape as never before: oiled ‘sixpacks’ stare back at us from magazine covers, superwaifs mince along the fashion catwalk, and beautiful young male bodies are offered up for our consumption in any number of advertising campaigns on billboards, television or the cinema screen. Rather than men being simply ‘bearers of the look’ (Mulvey 1975) as an earlier generation of feminist film scholars argued (Kaplan 1987; Doane 1992), men’s bodies are now regularly and routinely portrayed as objects of the gaze, visually depicted for their ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ (in a manner previously reserved for women).