Speak softly and carry a big stick

Ah, les garcons.

Time for another confession. The boys–Butler, Gruffudd, Firth, Bean, Northam, et al don’t do a whole lot for me. Furthermore, most men on cover art do even less. (What? And I call myself a romance novelist? Well, I did fail the trad reading challenge, and there’s also the issue of the HEA which I intend to blog about another time.) The whole topic of unwholesome romance cover art is covered elsewhere–check out the Smart Bitches–and I’m glad to see that some publishers are taking out the hero and/or heroine and moving away from the clinch cover. I mean, splutter, some of us have to read this stuff on public transport!

Back to the topic of male eye candy, partly inspired by a discussion on the Beau Monde loop, about how you’d describe your hero, e.g. Alan Rickman in Sense and Sensibility. Pam Rosenthal very sensibly suggested that the hero should be seen through the eyes of the heroine, bringing up the interesting point that the hero in chapter one might–and should–look quite different from the hero of the last chapter.

But without further ado, here is male cheesecake circa 1800, presented by Ingres. And yes, he did end the painting right there. Now, I think this guy is interesting. Quite apart from the issue of rethinking the sideburns (and, honey, that’s a fabulous highlight job–who does your hair?), he doesn’t have the overly broad shoulders, six-pack abs, and narrow waist/hips of the historical-set hero. He is, in fact, quite muscular but a bit chunky around the middle–all that vin ordinaire, I guess, considering the model is almost definitely French–and his equivalent on the other side of the Channel would attribute it to the beer (as would a modern-day Englishman). One gets the impression that once he resumes his normal posture he’d go bluh-uh-uh (happens to me all the time). He would, probably, have a great butt and legs to compensate, though, from all that walking and riding and athletic pursuits (my daughter also told me he might have a big right leg if he did a lot of fencing). Regency gentlemen might frequent Gentleman Jackson’s, but they would not find a Nautilus there, nor keep a Bowflex handcrafted by Hepplewhite in their study.

And here’s an example of a guy with great legs and the full monty as shown in a nude study of 1816–yes, he carries a big stick, a rope, sword, something, who cares, but this is not that sort of blog, thank you very much. But to me the most interesting thing (honestly) about this study is the position of his arm, strategically placed to cover the flab, something I’m quite familiar with. I also suspect he’s a working boy (no, not that sort of working boy–go wash your mouth out with soap!)–see how tanned his hands are.

I’m not the first person to be puzzled by romance’s insistence on physical perfection for the hero and frequently, in contrast, physical imperfection in the heroine. It’s fantasy, but of the “oh, come on…” sort. If a hero’s looks/build are not as important as his other qualities–loyalty, kindness, sense of humor, perhaps even literacy, then why is so much emphasis placed on his appearance? Or is romance the only place a woman can admit to appreciating a man for more than his mind? And what do you really find sexy in a man?


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Kalen Hughes
16 years ago

I find it funny that you mention the promise of a gut on both these men when the clear line of the Polykleitos girdle (that lovely little cut some men have where the torso and hips meet) on both models suggests that these are very fit men. Solid, athletic, healthy sort of men.

I’ll agree wholeheartedly with you though about the cover models they use, though. That Desalvo guy does more than leave me cold. He repulses me. And I was never big on Fabio (though I’ve developed a soft spot for him since he appeared BUBBLE BOY and the video for “I kissed a girl”).

I think I like men a little dirtier than they tend to be portrayed on the covers of novels. High Jackman as Wolverine? MmMmMm. Hugh Jackman all clean-cut in that stupid time travel movie with Meg Ryan? Blah. Same for most of the guys I find hot. Give me Sean Bean as Sharpe. Johnny Depp as Rochester (before the syphilis set in!). Val Kilmer as Doc Holiday. Muss ‘em up. Rough ‘em up. Let me know that they’re capable of being bad.

Janet Mullany
16 years ago

the Polykleitos girdle???? Live and learn! Right, solid, athletic, healthy guys who drink beer.

And in answer to my own question of what I find sexy in a man (following collaboration with colleagues at work):
1. Rolling up sleeves
2. Loosening tie
3. Faded jeans and bare feet
4. Leather toolbelts.

I’m not sure quite how I’d work those into a regency-set tho.

Kalen Hughes
16 years ago

Well that’s what they call it in art school, and I’ve never heard any other term for it. It comes from the Greek sculptor who first figured out how to accurately sculpt that portion of the torso. It’s still an area a lot of artists have trouble with. I happen to find it SUPER sexy.

Sadly, it’s one of those things you’re born with (like the dimples some people have at the top of their hips on either side of their spine; again lovely). No amount to working out will give you a Polykleitos girdle if you don’t already have the basic structure in you (but being in great shape WILL make it more defined).

Women rarely have definition there, but I have seen a few who do (I think the singer Pink has a faint Polykleitos girdle). Just as the dimples on the back are more common on women (though you do see them on men, Owen Wilson has them).

Diane Perkins
16 years ago

I saw that Fund painting last week when I was in NYC! And I also saw a lot of sculpture that showed the male physique (I was merely observing art, ladies. Trying to improve myself…)It struck me that male beauty was not that much different 200 years ago or even in antiquity.
Janet, you and I differ on this topic. I’m all for the total fantasy. I want my hero and heroine to be physically beautiful–and I also want them to be smart and ethical and strong, kind to children, the whole bit!
And I do not mind the clinch cover. In my meeting with Warner, my editor said they plan to make my covers sexier. Today she emailed me that they are thinking of showing the hero with his shirt open. I’m all for it!
I think the cover model on my A Reputable Rake is very appealing (in that bad boy way you like, Kalen). I knew when I first saw him that he would sell lots of books and get talked about on message boards and such.

Diane Perkins
16 years ago

I’m still thinking of this. I agree about DeSalvo, Kalen, but it is because his face is too pretty. Fabio’s long hair always bothered me and I did not think he was that handsome.
But the guy on A Reputable Rake…he’s the type who appeals to me!

16 years ago

Comparing the manly men from old movies to the movies of today, you can definitely see the modern influence of weightlifting and body building. While heroic types have always been muscular, large pectorals and massive upper arms are very much a modern thing. There is certainly nothing natural about them. Nowadays, it’s hard to cast convincing nerds in American movies and TV shows–all the nerds look like they spend two hours a day pumping iron! (Because they probably do.) Fifty years ago they didn’t–and I’m sure they didn’t two hundred years ago, either.

That said, I don’t find it suprising that Regency heroes tend to be gorgeous and buff–hey, they’re female fantasies! But it is occasionally a bit much for we mere mortals to live up to. Oh, well! Looks ain’t everything! Or so I tell myself…


Cara King
16 years ago

I agree with Kalen — neither man looks to me like he has a pot belly. Odd, Janet, that you are complaining that romances require men to be too perfect, when you find these two examples of handsome men to be too flawed for your taste!

As to romances all having uniformly gorgeous men — you must be reading very different books than I do. (But that’s no surprise.) I’ve read an awful lot of romance heroes who aren’t conventionally handsome, but are attractive to the heroine. (And what sort of romance would it be if she found him physically repulsive?)

And yes, I think Todd makes a good point about bodybuilding. It’s easy to be deluded as to what a man naturally looks like. If a man does physical labour, he does not look like these guys in the magazines and movies — that comes from a weight-lifting regime specifically geared to make the muscles large, but not necessarily strong. And just like modern magazines and movies can make a woman feel bad because she’ll never be a size 0 with large breasts (which I don’t believe occurs in nature, BTW), they can also deceive us as to what men are supposed to look like! I hear teen guys are pretty keen on weights nowadays so they don’t look “wimpy” — wimpy not meaning lacking strength, but lacking the unnatural muscle definition movie actors all have now. (Well, American movie actors, anyway.)


Janet Mullany
16 years ago

Odd, Janet, that you are complaining that romances require men to be too perfect, when you find these two examples of handsome men to be too flawed for your taste!
Did I say they were unattractive? They look like human beings, not fantasy boys. Would either of them ever make it on a cover? Nope.

I want my hero and heroine to be physically beautiful–and I also want them to be smart and ethical and strong, kind to children, the whole bit!
But you don’t want your readers to fall asleep either. If they’re both perfect in every way I guess they deserve each other as there’s no one else in the world who could match them. What about all that, uh, conflict stuff? The dark, tortured hero?

Slightly dirtier men, Kalen–I’m with you all the way!


Elena Greene
16 years ago

Personally, I like the hero and heroine to be be basically attractive but not necessarily perfect. Also think they should be what they need to be for the story–I’ve written some flat-out gorgeous characters and some that are not conventionally gorgeous but attractive to one another. Looks do matter as they affect how everyone else deals with them–and that affects the story.

Re cover art–the male torso ones don’t do anything for me. Like the clinch covers they usually suggest the story inside is shallow (not that it necessarily is, of course). Not that I don’t admire male beauty but I also find intelligence and character big turn-ons.

I love some of Jo Beverley’s covers featuring heroes that are not only gorgeous men but have really interesting faces.

I also like quirks like Loretta Chase’s big-nosed hero in LORD OF SCOUNDRELS, for instance (a good example of a great book with a ridiculous clinch cover).