Richard Cohen’s Daniel Craig Anxiety, Male Body Image, And What James Bond Teaches Us About Pleasure

At Gawker this morning, Max Read did a thorough job of explaining why Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, who appears to have shown considerable disappointment in real life that he’s not attractive to some of his very young colleagues, is perhaps not the person best fit to decry Daniel Craig’s chiseled physique and to praise retro, older sex symbols like Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant as Cohen did his column yesterday. But reading through Cohen’s lament that ladies of roughly my age seem to dig Craig more than we do grizzled syndicated columnists, I think that Cohen, without intending to, is expressing an anxiety that’s worth examining. James Bond’s being treated like a Bond girl. The ascendance of young adult literature means that pop culture has more and more gorgeous young men who are offered up like a dessert tray for heroines’ pleasures. And as images of what makes a man attractive and successful as determined by female desires and standards proliferate in our culture, it makes sense that the guys watching at home would start to worry if they measure up, and to think about what would happen to them if they started facing ideals as rigid as those imposed on women.

That Cohen, whether he recognizes it or not, is not alone in his anxiety doesn’t exactly make his critique of James Bond in comparison to older, less athletic, but still super-rich and super-white guys thoughtful or incisive. Desirable masculinity, as Cohen outlines it, is a pretty great deal for men, or at least, men of a certain financial position and class upbringing. A world in which men can take the things they learned when they were young about how to “handle a maitre d’ as well as a commie assassin,” or about how to be the kind of man who “knows his martinis, but he also knows how to send out a suit for swift hotel cleaning,” buy some style along the way, and have beautiful women fall into their laps is one that doesn’t force those men to suffer much in the way of anxiety or upkeep. There’s no female gaze or female judgement here—nor any concern for female pleasure, the question of what those male bodies might be good for. Men present the standards for manhood, and women effortlessly—gratefully, really—accept them.

Cohen dismisses the current crop of sculpted hunks that Daniel Craig represents as “some marbleized man, an ersatz creation of some trainer,” but the standards for what makes a man sexy that he’s describing are no more natural or objective. And I’m curious if he’d identify the beauty of the women he cites in his column, like Ingrid Bergman and Mary Astor, as effortless and natural, rather than the product of beauty standards and the punishing regimes and restrictive clothes that helped women accomplish them. One of the earliest contradictions I understood as a young teenage girl reading fashion magazines was that I was supposed to look “natural” and “effortless,” but that it took an enormous amount of work and money to recreate the looks that I was told embodied those standards. I learned that my own lip color and texture was less natural than a glossy pink, that the blush of my unadorned cheek looked less vital than a layer of foundation, powder, and blush. I’m glad I had that education so I could see the distance and the contradiction, enjoy wearing bright red lipstick for its artificiality and sense of performance, not because I believed that my own hue was an error or imperfection. But it’s not an easy education to acquire, or to shake off in favor of truly discerning what I want to look like and feel, and I don’t envy someone like Cohen coming to his own version of it later in life, or reckoning with the work he’d have to do to meet the standards laid out for him. I feel a lot more concern, however, for teenage boys who are turning to steroids or working out more than is actually healthy to meet those standards

In a way, I think we’re at an interesting tipping point in our culture, but one that still involves men and women (when those are the parties to the conversation) talking past each other. What’s interesting to me about Daniel Craig’s body is less how it looks than in what he does with it as James Bond. The contrast between the force he’s able to exercise (as James Poulos put it on Twitter, “Soooo to be clear, CraigBond’s muscles are things you have to have if you are a blunt instrument. Get the causal arrows right.”) and the tenderness and sensuality Craig in particular shows women is what’s attractive about him. Watching him curl up under a running shower with Vesper or bowl her, laughing, over a hospital bed, the delicacy of the way he unbuttons Eve Moneypenny’s blouse, or the rough hurry with which he pushes his unnamed paramour up against a wall in their lean-to on the beach—these all speak to an attentiveness to and experience with women’s bodies that’s far more relevant to the question at hand than Bond’s ability to deal with a formally trained waiter, though in Casino Royale, he seems to navigate fancy restaurants just fine. While neither Edward Cullen nor Christian Grey does it for me, I can understand why those archetypes are so attractive to some of the women who consume them, and not just because they’re described as very handsome: these are men who are bringing considerable physical power or substantial sexual experience to bear in service of their partners’ pleasure*.

The question of how we want our bodies to look, and how we want other people to react to them, has long stood in for how we want them to feel, how we want them to be touched, and treated. This isn’t to say that looks don’t matter, but they’re intertwined with a set of issues we’re much less capable of having productive public conversations about. I’m glad, to a certain extent, that more men are coming to an understanding of how culture contributes to this nasty bit of sleight-of-hand for women, particularly after what’s felt like a particularly intense decade of Beauty And The Slob pairings. But this is a case when turnabout isn’t fair play for people on either end of the equation.

*More thoughts on this tomorrow.