Beefcake: what it is and what it isn’t [VERY NSFW]

As mentioned in other places on the interbutts, I’ve been hired by Ryan Macklin to assist with art direction for Katanas & Trenchcoats – his love letter to 90’s tabletop roleplaying (“Embrace the dream of ’90s tabletop roleplaying through the darkness-fueled madness of immortals, werebeasts, car wizards, and more!”) – which is down to hours left at the time of writing this post, so really, do go take a look.

Ahem.

Anyhow. Yesterday we put out an artists all-call looking for artists to submit portfolios[1], which contained the following:

Are you interested in drawing beefcake?

Anna and I are in particular looking for two or three artists who are attracted to men and enjoy drawing sexy men to be part of the team. (Note: it takes more than being shirtless to be sexy.)

Being able to draw beefcake is not a requirement for doing K&T art. If this isn’t your thing, say so. You will not be penalized or be taken less seriously. We’re looking for a lot of artists to draw a variety of things.

Ryan and I are very much in agreement that we want there to be sexy men in the book because [ahem] equality.

Importantly, did you catch that we asked for artists who are attracted to men who would be interested in doing beefcake? That’s because we’ve both learned through previous industry experience that a lot of artists do not know the difference between male power fantasy and beefcake. So a lot of the time if you ask an artist (who, if you’re working in the games industry is more likely to be cishet and male than not) to draw you some sexy dudes, what you’ll get is a whole lotta shirtless dudes that… aren’t actually all that sexy.

And certainly, several of the artists who have contacted me so far have said “oh yeah, I’m not into dudes, but I don’t mind doing beefcake”, and then the pieces that are used as examples are emphatically not beefcake.

So! Pull up your chairs and gather round, folks. Because we’re going to take a look at art that gets confused for beefcake versus actual beefcake and break down the difference.

[The rest of this post has been placed behind a jump cut because WOW I found some, uh, empowered dudes to use as examples.]

[Quick note before I go any further: I sourced all of my images using Pinterest and Deviantart. Unfortunately, Pinterest isn’t always the greatest for attribution and I wasn’t able to find credits for all of the pieces being used. Sorry]

Thanks to the recent Marvel movies, most particularly Winter Soldier and the tortured Bucky/Steve bromance subpot, it is ludicrously easy to find sexy art of Captain America as well as more traditional “heroic” Cap art, so let’s start there. (These examples might seem blindingly obvious, but I’m starting slowly to introduce a point.)

Step 1: Extreme beefcake versus extreme not

So! Captain America. ALL of the following images were found on Pinterest using the tags “Captain America” and “beefcake”, which illustrates exactly the confusion that I’m talking about:

Cap-Beefcake
Click through for larger details on all of these pictures

In both of the first two images, Steve is indeed wearing a skin-tight suit that is displaying all of his muscles to great effect. However, those muscles are portrayed in a way that highlights his strength and capability as a fighter, and not his sex appeal. Despite that the image on the left has Cap in a pose that would be rendered for max sexiness for many female superheroes, there is nothing remotely sexual about this rendering. As for the second image, the lighting choice that the artist highlights Steve’s super-manly arms and pecs while emphatically de-emphasizing anything below the belt – basically the artist equivalent of “no homo, bro”[2].

The second two images, obviously, are most definitely beefcake. However, what I’d like to point out is the extreme difference in not just costuming (or lack thereof), but posing. In the third image, Steve’s physique is definitely on display, sure. But what’s important is that Steve is shown in a moment of vulnerability – he’s hiding his bits behind his shield for god’s sake. Further, he doesn’t have the same sort of “ready for violence” or “flexing alpha male” element to his pose that the first two images do, despite obviously higher muscle definition, on account of the no clothes thing. The fourth image, similarly, shows Steve in a moment of openness. His expression is thoughtful, not the sort of blandly constipated “I’m performing masculinity right now, bro” expression you get in just about every comics depiction of male superheroes ever. And again, his pose is relaxed and not performative, even as it highlights his [ahem] attributes to good effect.

HOWEVER.

Step 2: Shirtless =/ beefcake

Simply drawing a dude without his shirt DOES NOT make a piece of art beefcake. Case in point, Hercules – who I tried to find beefcake art of and failed:

Hercules-Not-Beefcake

The first of the Hercules images is about as close to beefcake as Hercules gets, as he’s not currently hitting anything, nor is he making awful-constipated-masculinity-face. Still, it is not beefcake because everything about Hercules in this image is focused on displaying him as a male power fantasy. His weapon is covered in blood, his crotch is covered by the title and further obscured by cropping, and the MOST central thing about the picture are his super awesome pecs and ludicrously large biceps. Seriously, Hercules’ pecs are in the direct center of the page – it’s impossible to make them more of a focus.

The middle image does emphasize Herc’s crotch more, thanks to some unfortunate costume choices. However, there’s nothing sexy about this Herc as he does the power-walk toward the viewer, bladed mace in hand, clearly getting ready to engage in a lot of violence. He may be shirtless, but every bit of exposed skin is designed to show how strong he is. Look at those traps! You could build bridges with those things! Similarly, the Herc on the right is still definitely only a male power fantasy. Look at his muscles! Even his muscles have muscles! And he’s punching rocks and his fists aren’t even bleeding a little bit!

Okay. So. Posing is important! And while costume is important, it’s not everything – since nudity does not equate with sexiness; or at least, it doesn’t when you’re talking about art of men.

What else?

Step 3: Beefcake dudes can be wearing clothes

This one’s a bit trickier, so I’m going to go back to using different illustrations of the same character to prove a point. This time I’ll go with The Man of Steel – since depending on how you take it the moniker can either be a reflection of his inhuman strength or a more sexualized appreciation of Supes’ rock-hard physique.

So to start, here are some DEFINITELY NOT BEEFCAKE images of Superman:

Supers-Not-Beefcake

Despite the fact that all three images feature some pretty prominent crotch, in all three of these images what is being portrayed is Superman’s heroic strength and nothing else. In fact, while none of the images exactly give him a Ken doll crotch, all of the artists take pains to minimize the amount of crotchal detail, despite having ludicrous levels of muscle definition in all other parts of Supes’ costume. (Seriously, especially the first and second images, their costumes would have to be vacuum sealed in order to show that much definition.) And all of the poses are chosen such that Supes can flex his super biceps while looking BROODINGLY MASCULINE.

Now contrast those images with THESE images:

Supers-Beefcake

…okay. I’ll admit that I slipped that last one in there because he’s just… so… VERY empowered.

SO-EMPOWERED

[ahem] Where was I?

Right. Note that the first two beefcake… Supermans? Supermen? …Anyway, note that they are both completely covered, and yet are still coming across as very much sexy. And again, it’s all about posing. In the first, Supes is being caught in a moment of getting dressed, which is by definition an unguarded moment. His biceps are flexed, sure, but it’s not performative or in preparation for violence – it’s a moment that is unrehearsed and un-self-conscious.

The second image, isn’t so unguarded, but the pose is still the key factor in what makes it beefcake. Superman’s pose here is decidedly gentle, and the way his head is turned away from the viewer is positively demure.

And of course, the most blindingly obvious factor of all is the huge amounts of dong. The artists who drew the first set of Superman pictures did everything they could do avoid drawing ANY detail of the crotch, because heaven forbid they depict the manliest of men as having a penis! (Despite the fact that many of these same comics artists will fall ALL OVER THEMSELVES to draw camel toe through spandex in grossly loving detail.) Whereas in the second set of images, Superman’s super junk is very much on display, and is rather [ahem] graphically rendered.

So what have we learned?

The key factor in what defines beefcake isn’t lack of clothes or a muscular physique. Beefcake art is at the very least art which is intended to portray the subject in a way that is sexually appealing to a male-attracted viewer, and most commonly that art is drawn by artists who are also attracted to the dudes that they are portraying. (TBH, drawing sexy art is always more fun if you’re drawing something that you personally enjoy.) And it’s damn near impossible for a guy to be seen as sexy when he’s making scowly-constipated-masculinity-face or looking like he’s about to murder a room full of dudes.

And it’s especially difficult for dudes to look sexy when the artist is doing their damndest to pretend that their subject doesn’t have any junk at all, because – speaking as a cishet woman here – people who are attracted to dudes tend to think that junk is a feature, not a bug.

Does that mean that in order to draw good beefcake that you have to be attracted to dudes? No, of course not. But at the very least you have to be capable of understanding the difference between male power fantasies and a genuine depiction of male sexual appeal.

[1] Seriously, tho. If you are a woman, PoC, LGBT, or outside NATO countries, and you’re an artist, go check out that all-call!!

[2] I have an entirely different rant about the grossness of cishet male artists being willing to objectify women in their art by serving them up as collections of sexy body parts rather than people but being totally unwilling to draw even so much as a dick-bulge because THAT WOULD BE GAY, BRUH. Suffice to say, my use of “no homo” is ironic here.

16 thoughts on “Beefcake: what it is and what it isn’t [VERY NSFW]

  1. You are certainly a lot more diplomatic about this subject than I tend to be. Whenever a (inevitably) cishet guy argues with me about male power fantasy images being sexually objectifying, I just pull out some Tom of Finland artwork, stick it in their face and yell, “HOW DOES THIS MAKE YOU FEEL?” If that doesn’t get the point across, I assume that they are beyond hope.🙂

  2. OK, I’m a hetero guy, so I’m not the target audience here, but a casual reading of this article leaves me with a question, which I admit might be stupid.

    So a casual reading of the article leads me to think that the you are fairly negative about pictures of men being portrayed as “masculine”. Is this because “masculine” and “beefcake” don’t mesh well or at all (and hence is not the art you are looking for here), or because “masculine” is generally done so poorly (bulgy muscles, clenched teeth, “urrrrr!” face)? Can a picture of, for instance, Hercules fighting a monster be drawn so as to be beefcake, or does the fact that it is a scene of activity and violence make it automatically not beefcake?

    As an aside, everytime I hear someone complain that Superman wears his underwear outside his tights I tell them they should be thankful, otherwise we’ld be looking at super penis all day long.

    Second aside to Leslee above, I’ve seen a bit of Tom Of Finland’s art and I think he is a good artist, even though I’m not homosexual.

    Anyway, please don’t take this as an attack on your statements above. I agree with a lot of them. Just what you said raised an adjacent question in my mind.

    • (Sorry for the slow response. I have had this flagged to respond to)

      So the thing about art is that I’m never going to say speak in absolutes, because art is incredibly subjective. What I am doing is speaking from my experience as someone who pays close attention to artwork in nerd products like comics and games, and I can say that the intent of the artists who draw scenes of violence and monster fighting, as you describe, generally is not compatible with being actual beefcake. When the artist is focused on making the character HYPER MASCULINE URRRR, that’s not the same headspace as ” oh yeah, the readers are going to think this is so hot”.

      That said, that doesn’t mean that some people don’t find these HYPER MASCULINE characters attractive anyway. Some people find the male power fantasies attractive. However, that still doesn’t make that artwork beefcake.

      • I would also note that in our society, “feminine” is mapped onto “sex object” in a way that is not true for “masculine.” So you get all these art discussions about how, well, you had to put the female character in a miniskirt and a boob window because otherwise you’re taking away her femininity . . . but you’re not taking away Superman’s masculinity by giving him a Ken doll crotch. Insofar as he’s viewed as sexy, the actual train of thought tends to be “masculine = powerful = sexy,” whereas the art we so often get of women goes “feminine = sexy = powerful sometimes maybe.”

        There’s nothing wrong with having masculine-and-not-sexualized art. It just isn’t what this particular call for artists is looking for, and the real problem is the imbalance where all the women get sexed up (even when they’re underage or goblins or freakin’ dead), and the men never get treated the same way.

  3. One of the things I appreciate about Fred Perry’s art is his equal-opportunity ‘cake. He has other issues (I don’t think there’s a single legit non-hetero character in his entire 300+ character cast), but he certainly isn’t afraid to draw some dong, or put his male characters in compromising positions.

  4. One of the key markers for “is this intended to be beefcake?” for me (cishet female, Australian working class/middle class socialisation) is the expression of the man portrayed. To put it bluntly, beefcake is about sexual objectification – it’s about making the person in the image appear sexually available for the viewer’s desires. Most people don’t find being the focus of anger sexy (yes, yes, I know there are kinksters who do – this is why I said “most”). So a guy who’s scowling at the viewer is automatically not beefcake, no matter how damn naked he is, or how much of his (powerful) anatomy the artist is depicting with loving care.

    In the first set of pictures (Captain America), therefore the breakdown is as follows. The first (leftmost) one isn’t beefcake for very obvious reasons – the viewer is being approached by the leading edge of the shield. We’re being put in the position of someone who is about to be hit with a disc of a vibranium alloy thrown by a very strong meta-human, and unless you have some very specific kinks indeed, that just isn’t sexy. The second from the left has Steve Rogers standing in a posture which implies his next move is going to be to charge the viewer – his head is down, his chin is tucked, his arms are tensed, and his expression isn’t friendly. Again, for this to be considered sexy, you’d need a rather specific set of kinks. Now, possibly some of his more regular opponents in the various comics do have those particular kinks (it would explain one hell of a lot about them, really), but the average male-attracted viewer? Not so much.

    By contrast, in the pictures which are beefcake, the expressions are open, and the postures aren’t speaking of either active or potential violence. In the third image from the left, the posture is open, his throat is exposed (chin up, not tucked), and the facial expression is neutral-to-pleasant. He isn’t exactly looking at the viewer (from the direction his eyes are pointing, he’s more likely to be looking at the junction of the ceiling and the cornice at the back of the room), which takes away a couple of beefcake points, but there isn’t the threat of violence in his posture. From the way he’s standing, his next move is more likely to be an embarrassed grin-and-blush and a shuffle off stage than a full-on attack on the viewer. For the rightmost picture, not only is the posture not indicative of potential violence (he’s leaning on the shield in a relaxed manner, in a posture which implies his next move, if he makes one, will simply be to stand up and ease his back a bit), but the expression is open (no scowl, no frown – his expression, by contrast, is that of someone listening attentively to what the viewer is saying) and he’s looking directly at the viewer – and these last two make the whole image so much more sexy than the lack of shirt, and the tight-fitting pants.

    Again, with the first Hercules image – the expression is the thing. The viewer is not being invited to see Hercules the way they want to see him, but rather to admire Hercules in the way he wants to be admired – we’re meant to be in awe of his strength, and we’re only supposed to consider that quality. Hercules isn’t available for my desires – although his expression implies I could be used for his if I looked like the standard woman you see in superhero comics (which I don’t). Which means, despite the lack of outright aggressive posturing, that picture isn’t beefcake – it basically excludes me as the viewer from any potential action, and that’s not sexy either.

    With the Beefcake Supermen, the first of the three pictures (the leftmost one) is the one I find most appealing, simply because of the vulnerability it implies. (I’m cishet female, men being willing to be vulnerable around me, to drop the mask of masculinity, is a big turn-on). The second one I’m a bit so-so on – the posture is a lot more open, but it would be a lot more sexy if Clark were looking at the viewer – as it is, I tend to regard it as more of an invitation to aesthetic appreciation rather than sexual. The third one really hits me more as a sort of “Lord Flashheart” thing – “girls, get a load of THIS!!!!” (again, it’s the expression, which is cocky, rather than vulnerable) – and for me, that sort of arrogant masculinity isn’t a turn-on.

  5. Great article, very thought-provoking.

    I’m intrigued by the first picture of Hercules, because although I think your analysis of it as a male power fantasy is dead on, it still seems beefcake-ish to me. That may partly be because Herc’s outfits tend to be fetishy (remember the leather strap leggings from his classic costume?), and partly because he’s usually protrayed as being constantly sexually active in a way that Cap and Superman aren’t. To me, Herc in that pose with that expression gives off a hey-ladies-you-like-what-you-see vibe that wouldn’t be there if it was Cap or Superman.

    Which leads me to wonder whether something can be a male power fantasy and beefcake at the same time.

    Anyway, best of luck with K&T!

  6. Not really into heavily defined abs, but still nice to see sexy men (especially the first Superman, because butt). That last Supes is absolutely ridiculous, though. Also, empowered horse is best horse

  7. I am going to apologize in advance if this is the wrong place to post this. I did not see any way to send you a private message. So on to what i actual wanted to talk about. I discovered this website about two days ago and have been reading through the blogs that are posted and find myself agreeing with you. The only problem i have is that most of your blog are negative. I almost positive that you have not published a single blog on how the gaming industry and society as a whole improved over the years in how women are treated and viewed. As i was reading your blog i started getting depressed and beginning to hate myself for being born a male. Making me think that maybe if put a bullet through my or take knife from my kitchen and slashed my throat maybe i would make the world a better place.

    • Okay. So. I left this for a while because it honestly took me a while to decide how I was going to respond. But before I get to anything else…

      Please consider seeking serious help. Thoughts of suicide are a big fucking deal, and if ANYTHING makes you feel like that the best thing you could do for everyone around you is to kill yourself – that’s not healthy. I understand that coming to the realization that you have privilege and have been guilty of unconsciously using that privilege to perpetuate injustice is painful. As someone who has a boatload of privilege myself, it’s something I still wrestle with. But reacting to that by saying “well I should just kill myself” is a big deal.

      That said…

      While I have sympathy for your feelings, choosing to air them here in this manner is in itself THE HEIGHT OF PRIVILEGE. If you have been reading that much of my blog, you’ll know that while I do use this blog to do education and analysis, it’s also MY PERSONAL BLOG where I write honestly about my feelings and my ACTUAL FUCKING LIVED EXPERIENCES. So by coming into the comments on one of my posts and going on about how my writing is making you feel SO BAD about yourself because I never write about anything good (which is a lie, by the way – I’ve written about things that I absolutely love about games – like recently, with Life is Strange, or about games like The Last of Us, or about my love of awesome female characters like Yuna or FemShep)… That’s basically the equivalent of walking up to a strange woman and telling her to smile, because you don’t like it when women don’t smile.

      In other words. Even after reading everything that I have said about the real, actual, quantifiable injustice that exists in the gaming community and my real, actual lived experiences, what you decide to share with me isn’t “I wasn’t aware of these things, thank you for bringing this to my attention” or “I wasn’t aware of these things, I’m sorry that people like me can’t behave themselves” but “I wasn’t aware of these things, why can’t you write about happy stuff sometimes, it’s your fault that I feel terrible now”. In other words, you’re telling me that my honesty about how I feel is the reason that you feel TERRIBLE. But in so doing, you’re attempting to center to conversation on yourself and your feelings, and you’re attempting to tell me how I should express MY feelings.

      And. Look. I promise you that however shitty it felt for you to read what I was writing, it felt twice as shitty to actually LIVE it. So coming here and basically telling me that I should make sure to write about “good things” in the industry in addition to writing about the bad things? That is some grade A privileged entitlement.

  8. Thank you for this article. This is the best argument I have read for why just being in various states of undress does not make for a, “sexy,” drawing/picture/etc when it comes to males. Each post of yours has expanded my understanding of aspects of comic and gaming culture that have bothered me, but I didn’t have the framework to express. Much appreciated.

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