Did Joseph Gordon-Levitt die? Has Matt Bomer spontaneously combusted under the pressure of his own sex appeal? Did Frank Ocean drown in the dreamy depths of his own eyes? Have Michael Fassbender and Daniel Craig fought each other to mutual severe facial disfigurement?
These are the questions we’ve all been asking ourselves since yesterday, when People anointed Channing Tatum the “Sexiest Man Alive.”
I’m sure many people consider Channing Tatum to be a sexy man. I hear some women are very into neck. But the man People has declared The Sexiest should not simply have a pulse. He should have a pulse on the sexual-political climate of the time in which he is living. He will be forever remembered as the embodiment of female desire in the year 2012. Future generations will hold us to account for our choice. “Harry Hamlin, Grandma?” they will ask. “What was going on in 1987?”
And what is going on in 2012? Our Sexiest Man is white. Straight. Ginormous. Frequently goateed. Wearing a white tank top in his cover photo. Yes, he can dance. But as a nation, we must ask: What is left of Channing Tatum’s sex appeal after the final strains of Ginuwine’s “Pony” recede? Buzzfeed has described Tatum as “a thumb” and “a gyrating human potato.” His sexy is bland. Traditional. Republican in a Democratic year.
It was not always this way. The Sexiest Man Alive has been black (Denzel Washington, 1996) and weird (Johnny Depp, 2003 and 2009). He is foreign, sometimes (Hugh Jackman, 2008). We’ve practically had a female Sexiest Man Alive (Richard Gere and Cindy Crawford, “Sexiest Couple,” 1993). Then, we entered this decade of Sexiest Men with Ryan Reynolds giving some Dane Cook realness on People’s cover. Last year brought us Bradley Cooper, the guy who plays the skeevy guy who thinks he’s the sexy guy. And now Tatum. A trifecta of bros.
Page through the magazine’s also-rans, and you’ll see some nods at the editorial staff’s evolving conceptions of sexy, like Tatum’s Magic Mike co-star Bomer, who is gay. But you’ll find many more tired choices that serve only to reinforce People’s hegemony over the media’s definition of sexy, a power it has wielded for more than a quarter of a century. Ben Affleck, 2002’s Sexiest Man Alive, has been resurrected this year (he approves of the choice of Tatum—I rest my case). Bradley Cooper appears yet again. People is still trying to make Richard Gere happen. And Denzel looks great, but his constant inclusion in People’s list serves only as a reminder that no other nonwhite heartthrob has been awarded the title since he snagged it 16 years ago.
This is not simply an issue of demographics. The Sexiest Man Alive ought also to reflect our developing understanding of the sexual desires of women and gays. Channing Tatum is the guy that the guy who doesn’t understand women thinks that all women would like. A straight, white pick like Ryan Gosling would at least communicate an understanding of the modern heartthrob, in addition to honoring his abdominal work. Bonds Sean Connery and Pierce Brosnan have both been deemed Sexiest, but not Daniel Craig, who’s turned in the series’ most complicated performance. In 2012, our understanding of male attractiveness is broad, deep, and complex. Man dancing can take you only so far.
Observe as People attempts to cut through Tatum’s beefy exterior to reveal the depths below. Tatum, People reports, “is also a sculptor who quotes Edgar Allan Poe, loves to give [his wife] massages and can't wait to start their family.” This is not the female fantasy of 2012. It is the parody.