Masculinity Icons: Happy Birthday, James Dean

February 8, 2010  |  miscellany

Today, February 8th, James Dean was born in 1931.

I’m working on a piece for Radical Masculinity about masculinity icons, particularly American icons (though I do have some plans to explore masculinity in other places too, in other columns).

James Dean comes up frequently as an icon, both as a traditional icon of American masculinity and as a personal icon. Take a look at the James Dean Lives tumblr for more photos and information about him, if you’d like. Good stuff over there.

I’m gathering ideas and statements for my in-progress (and vastly overdue) column currently, so I have a question for y’all: Who, in your opinion, are traditional icons of masculinity? Who are your personal icons of masculinity? What kind of traits do these icons portray? What kind of traits do you think icons of masculinity should portray? What makes someone (a guy, a cis-gendered guy in particular) a butch icon, or a radical masculinity icon, or a traditional masculinity icon?

I love pondering this stuff.

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11 Comments


  1. I'm a long time reader and lurker and this is making me come out and add my voice, 'cause I love icons of masculinity – the show they put on is so amazing!

    Would fictional icons be good as well? Because the first and best that comes to mind is James Bond (mainly the Connory years and the recent Daniel Craig).

    I'm looking forward to your column!

  2. Since I saw your tweet about this, I've been trying to think who my masculinity icons are. I'm drawing a blank, but the question's really lodged itself in my brain. Guess I've got something to ponder over when I'm walking to and from classes…

  3. I usually think of them as butch icons, and I love them. My personal favorite cis-gendered guy butch icons are:

    Jensen Ackles (as Dean Winchester on the CW masterpiece 'Supernatural'), Leonardo DiCaprio, James Spader, Christian Kane, and Mark Wahlberg.

    When trying to explain to others what I think it takes to make a cis-gendered dude a butch icon, I came up with the following criteria – which, unfortunately, are kind of specific to actors:

    A. His masculinity seems performative, somehow.

    B. There's an element of queerness in career (plays gay and/or appears in gay interest movies/tv shows)

    C. Aesthetic appeal/'prettiness'. (This is my personal aesthetic, I'm sure – but I think butch icons should look either very pretty (like early Leo) or should be almost hyper-masculine, but with some incongruently feminine features, like really full lips or long hair).

    D. His roles emody a butch ideal, or aspects of the roles emody butch ideals

    I can't wait to read your article!

  4. oh, well, i'm terribly old-fashioned – i immediately thought of humphrey bogart, my personal favorite, or perhaps william powell (as i just recently watched the thin man). obviously, i have a thing for dapper gentlemanliness, but i thing the real thing that is so fascinating about bogart is the "i don't give a damn about anything" demeanor coupled with an obvious soft-heartedness. come to think of it, i think nick, in the thin man, is doing much the same, only in that case he is covering the fact that he cares with utter ridiculousness. hmm.

  5. Elvis. Total butch icon.

  6. Cary Grant always does it for me: so calm, so cool, so debonair, a sense of humor, self-effacing, stylish. Oh, and he and I had the same size feet (atleast as measured by the imprint at Grauman's Chinese Theater in LA).

    I think it's the model of traditional masculine traits paired with queer sensibilities. Like he gets to walk in the front door of the party and then disrupt it from within, leaving the hosts bewildered by their unexpected guest.

    Glad to see you are up to so much and such amazing kickass work!! Keep it up.

  7. Cis men who are my butch masculinity icons :

    Johnny Depp as Wade Walker in Cry Baby by John Waters ;

    Henry Fonda as Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath by Tom Ford ;

    Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront by Elia Kazan ;

    George Clooney as Everett in Oh Brother Where Art Thou by the Coen Brothers ;

    River Phoenix as Chris Chambers in Stand by Me by Rob Reiner ;

    Joaquin Phoenix as Bobby Green in We Own the Night by James Gray ;

    James Stewart ;

    Charlie Chaplin ;

    Elvis Presley.

    I pretty much agree with Laura and megan m, and some of the other commenters, on the elements that make a cis guy's masculinity a butch masculinity.

    I would also add some element of working class culture and aesthetics.

    But I guess that's just my personal taste – I tend to fall for the "rough trades" more than for the dandy types.

    Definately some kind of performativity, as Laura says. I've listed movie characters rather than just actors, for a reason.

    It seems to me a cis man's butch masculinity would be exaggerated, pushed to the extreme, which is what makes it seem conscious of itself. It would be self-reflexive, self-referential. His masculinity would be like a meta-masculinity, a masculinity that says "look, I'm acting masculine, I'm BEING masculine."

    He would have a sense of humor, a playfulness around his masculinity : he would be aware of it and not take it too seriously.

    And then, but that's more about my preferences, maybe he would also have a little bit of cockyness, a little bit of boyishness. He'd be the tough guy who feels he has to act tough, but deep inside has some vulnerability, that society has forced him to subdue, and that he will end up accepting at the end of the movie. He would also have very endearing bromance with other men. Ok now that's just me writing about my fantasies.

    It's funny because even before I knew I was attracted to butches, when I was still having relationships and sex with cisgendered dudes, I was specifically looking for guys who seemed to be performing their masculinity, who seemed to be aware as much as I was that their masculinity was a game they had to play.

    Or maybe these men had no idea of the story I was telling myself in order to make having sex with them more enjoyable for me, of the Hollywood movies I was making up in my head, as the drama queen that I am and will always be. Actually, it's very likely that some of them were very serious about their masculinity, and were not conscious of its being a set of norms, and were just blindly complying to it. Maybe I was just telling myself that the guys were also acting, because it felt better that way. Either way, I often chose guys who over-acted it, whether they knew it or not.

  8. fun and fascinating topic!
    may i nominate:
    colin firth in Pride & Prejudice : something about brooding in a ruffled collar is tres queer; and also it’s clear he’s a sensitive, sensitive man imprisoned by rigid societal gender constraints.
    david bowie and johnny depp : very playful and queer in their gender presentation, both in style/costume and in mannerisms
    i guess for me, masculinity icons are always queer in some way and are playing with the artifice of their gender. i suppose i privilege The Dandy as an alternative to more traditional masculinity types.

  9. Humphrey Bogart, Humphrey Bogart, Humphrey Bogart.

    His masculinity was so tough, and so understated, and so performed, and so vulnerable, in character and (as I understand) in real life. He had this quiet sensitivity that, while not exactly hidden, didn't announce itself too loudly, and a reserve of strength to deal with pain.

    He's also the definition of "handsome" instead of "pretty," while still having incredible style.

  10. aaaaaahhhhhh my god, i'm gonna be thinking about this all night now (loooong after i finally post this comment).

    the james dean character, first and foremost, because for me, cisgendered masculinity is the embodiment of accepting one's 'societal weaknesses' and integrating them into your personality. and by that i mean, james dean had a SOUL inside of him. he was stoic, but only because he didn't want his emotions to get the best of him. there's that gentleness, the willingness to show a soft side.

    with that out of the way, i must say i am quite the dandy at heart, but i've got a little rough and tumble in me too. my icons of masculinity would have to be (in terms of general presence and presentation) cis-men like:

    Paul Newman (his gentleness)

    Cary Grant (his style)

    Kevin Kline (his effortlessness)

    Tom Hanks (his humor)

    David Bowie (his attacks on gender norms)

    Brad Pitt (his sincerity)

    Ian McKellan (his grace)

    Gore Vidal (minus the crazy) (his intelligence)

    Charlie Rose (his presence)

    Hugh Laurie (just being awesome)

    Stephen Fry (his wit)

    and so on and so forth. most of these men probably wouldn't be thought of as 'masculine' in the traditional sense, with the probable exception of mr. pitt, mr. grant, and mr. newman, but for me masculinity is the polished perfection of the presentation of self. it's that in between space that both men and women fill, just like both men and women fill femininity, where one is unafraid of one's flaws and strengths.

    ironically enough, even though i present as a butch (and pretty much think androgynously), most of my butch cues have come from women. i react to how i think a woman should be treated and act as such. cis-men kind of take a backseat, but i guess i was taking the lessons with me all along.

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