Con­grats, Idris Elba: but next year, let’s have a less ma­cho sex­i­est man alive

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - Cas­par Salmon

The US mag­a­zine Peo­ple has crowned Idris Elba the sex­i­est man alive, bring­ing an end to the reign of 2017’s win­ner, the coun­try singer Blake Shel­ton, and mark­ing a sad con­clu­sion to a year when every­body in the world could justly claim to be both more intelligent than the pres­i­dent of the United States and sex­ier than the sex­i­est man alive.

With the award­ing of this con­sum­mate hon­our, Elba be­comes only the third man of colour to hold the ti­tle in the 33 years since it be­gan. He fol­lows in the steps of Den­zel Wash­ing­ton (1996) and Dwayne “The Rock” John­son two years ago.

This is fun, and even in­ter­est­ing, news to keen fol­low­ers of this most bizarre award. For one thing, it’s heart­en­ing that Elba, long held to be a favourite to be­come the next James Bond, has cracked an­other pre­dom­i­nantly white in­sti­tu­tion.

The Peo­ple award for sex­i­est man alive is so white that Nick Nolte has won it (tagline: “Strong, sen­si­tive and squared-away at last, he’s a man’s man that women can’t re­sist”). It is so white that Richard Gere has won it twice. When Shel­ton clinched it last year, the good peo­ple of Twit­ter duly lost their col­lec­tive rag, which may be what in­duced Peo­ple to course-cor­rect with the in­con­tro­vert­ibly loin-tug­ging Elba for their lat­est pick.

In an­other sense, Elba fits squarely into an amus­ing pat­tern that Peo­ple has been build­ing up over the years, which sees them plump for de­cid­edly mas­cu­line, es­tab­lished, pa­tri­ar­chal fig­ures. The award, in other words, is re­lent­lessly straight: this makes it feel weirdly de­tached from con­tem­po­rary pub­lic dis­course, which has clearly cross-pol­li­nated with queer cul­ture where the at­trac­tive­ness of men is con­cerned.

Peo­ple mag­a­zine tra­di­tion­ally favours the lantern-jawed het­ero – when they call Nolte a man’s man, they don’t mean he’s a man’s man – who eats well, stinks of money and con­jures up the word “ranch” when pic­tured.

The mag­a­zine’s most beau­ti­ful peo­ple award, which usu­ally goes to women, has tra­di­tion­ally crowned a sim­i­larly easy­go­ing white gal who oozes straight fem­i­nin­ity (Julia Roberts has won it five times, Jen­nifer Anis­ton twice). This fits in with Peo­ple’s ori­gins as a mag­a­zine associated in its in­fancy with your Glo­ria Van­der­bilts and your Kennedys, but it has left its choice of the pin­na­cle of at­trac­tive­ness feel­ing de­li­ciously at odds with mod­ern times – some­thing the Elba se­lec­tion has reme­died, up to a point.

The prize tells us a good deal about the cult of mas­culin­ity still preva­lent in the world, which equates male looks with “sex­i­ness” rather than beauty. This em­pha­sis on sex­ual at­trac­tion brings power and dom­i­nance into con­sid­er­a­tion along­side mere aes­thetic qual­i­ties.

The ages of the win­ner at­test to this: Elba is the fourth man in his 40s in a row to win the award. The last man in his 20s to win the award was Tom Cruise, who is now 56; the only other twen­tysome­things to win it are John F Kennedy Jr (but of course!) and Mel Gib­son in 1985. The av­er­age age of win­ners is 38.7 years old.

In this, the list echoes the Os­cars: the last man to win best ac­tor while in his 20s was Adrien Brody (the youngest win­ner at 29) 16 years ago. Con­versely, four out of the last 10 best ac­tress win­ners have been in their 20s. This shows, I think, that the cul­ture prizes sta­tus and power in men above all – while in women it cel­e­brates fresh­ness, in­no­cence, even vul­ner­a­bil­ity.

This can feel sur­pris­ing in the era of the in­ter­net, when gay twink cul­ture has fed into straight de­sire, with men such as Ti­mothée Cha­la­met (age 22) hit­ting the scene. This sort of de­sire, which ab­stracts men from sta­tus up to a point, and priv­i­leges a gaze that is un­afraid to ob­jec­tify, is nowhere to be seen in the Peo­ple list. Not that Peo­ple has a duty to re­flect all sorts of beauty, but its mu­seum-like dis­play of strong, mostly white, straight-act­ing men does tell us some­thing about the dom­i­nant cul­ture, and is, let’s face it, funny.

Whether Peo­ple will choose to go with the flow at some point or just keep adorably se­lect­ing Clive Owen un­til king­dom come, only time will at­test. For now we cel­e­brate Idris Elba as their least ter­ri­ble pick in mem­ory, and ea­gerly await sexy de­vel­op­ments.

Pho­to­graph: John Phillips/Getty Images

‘It’s heart­en­ing that Idris Elba, long held to be a favourite to be­come the next James Bond, hascracked an­other pre­dom­i­nantly white in­sti­tu­tion.’

Pho­to­graph: John Si­mon/AP

‘The Peo­ple award for sex­i­est man alive isso white that Nick Nolte has won it.’

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