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“What was a little bit harder, what was a little bit more jagged and violent has been made softer.” Image credit: Zwiebackesser / Shutterstock

When journalist Manuel Betancourt started writing his new essay collection it was simply about the writer’s early fixations, from Disney’s 1997 depiction of Hercules to Mario Lopez’s performance of A. C. Slater in Saved by the Bell. As he continued writing, it became obvious to Betancourt that he was hyper-focused on one aspect of these characters: their masculinity. The 10 essays in The Male Gazed: On Hunks, Heartthrobs, and What Pop Culture Taught Me About (Desiring) Men (Catapult, 2023) unpeel Betancourt’s adolescent preoccupations to interrogate how writers, directors, actors, and consumers fashion masculinity—from the grotesqueness of animated muscle to the expansive masculinity of new stars like Billy Porter and Lil Nas X. 

Betancourt chatted with Public Seminar alum Madeleine Janz about The Male Gazed, why Disney villains are more fun, and the masculinities of the future. 

Madeleine Janz: In the early essays, I was really intrigued by your focus on animated Disney characters like Hercules and Gaston from The Beauty and the Beast, especially because we’re having this moment where people are admitting their sexual awakenings through animated characters. What are the implications of having these literally impossible bodies on our screens, especially when we’re really young? 

Manuel Betancourt: Animation is still in many ways considered kid stuff, right? But in that sense these characters become really important to us in our formative years. Growing up seeing someone like Triton, Hercules, or Gaston, I was like, Oh my God, who are these men? And then realizing that they were of course, designed by a gay animator totally makes sense to me now, decades later. We do the same kind of things with women like Betty Boop or Jessica Rabbit. The design really needs to project a lot about who this character is, especially when it comes to their gender presentation. So to me, animation makes encoded masculinity and femininity very legible and very simple.

Janz: Another current cultural moment is readdressing Disney villains as queer-coded characters. In the book, you mention how you created your own villain character in a high school theater production simply with the flourish of a cape. What do you think these queer-coded villains have done either for you—personally or as part of a generation?

Betancourt: Growing up, the villains were the fun parts: I’d rather be Ursula than Ariel and I’d rather be someone like Scar rather than Simba. They were far more interesting and their voice work was a lot more fun. I mean take Maleficent’s character design: it was like, who else are you going to be rooting for, this boring blonde or this prince? Maleficent is horned and beautiful and fabulous, like a true diva. I think the other thing about these villains, which is where they might be more problematic, is they all were intent on destroying family, couples, marriages, and the status quo. That can be very provocative and titillating but also comforting to queer kids who don’t want the status quo or feel alienated by these ideas of nuclear families, couples, and monogamy, all these things that we’re supposed to be enshrining. There’s a lot of imaginative play that comes from those villains especially in the way that they were queer coded. Ursula is modeled after the drag queen Divine and Scar is the uncle who has no kids. There’s a kind of power and an enthralling seductive aspect to them that can feel more fun, but I don’t want to be unquestioning and say that we should take the template of the queer villains and just run with it. 

Janz: Later in the book you write about the politics of consumption through stripper films like Magic Mike which take the traditional structure of woman as object and man as gazer and flips it. What happens when gay men are consuming content made for women? Does that feel like being served leftovers? Do you find similarities and differences between masculinities that are made for women and those made for gay men?

Betancourt: Yes and no. Sometimes when we think of these things that were created for women, they were often created by gay men. So, the Lacoste and Tom Ford advertisements that I mention in the book, were clearly creating an idea of your ideal boyfriend for women, but the idea of that boyfriend is clearly queer coded, and it was clearly created by a gay man in a lab, right? If you look at something like what Ryan Murphy creates in his shows you clearly get the sense that this is not a female gaze and that lustfulness does look very different depending on the creator and I enjoy that we’re getting all these various different masculinities and these different types of gazes because I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. I think they can be mutually complementary. It’s not stripping, it’s porn, but I love in The Kids are All Right, the lesbian couple watches gay male porn, and it disrupts those neat distinctions that we always want to be making. I’m much more fascinated by these moments that seem to be crossing and blending, creating more dialectical relationships with who is gazing and who is being gazed at.

Janz: Your essays on Pedro Almodóvar center the blend of eroticism and violence in the characters he creates for Antonio Banderas, but it seems we’re in a different masculine landscape now. Now, we have Timothée Chalamet, who is at peak lustful popularity, and I don’t think you could have seen that coming even five years ago.

Betancourt: Absolutely, we are living in the age of the twink. There was a 2018 New York Times piece on this that says we’ve moved past the Marvel buff super bulked up and 0 percent fat look of Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, all the Chris-es. They seem to show the pinnacle of what masculinity in the early twenty-first century was and now we’ve turned to liking these tender, waifish men. What was a little bit harder, what was a little bit more jagged and violent has been made softer. A friend of mine read my book and he said. Oh, you’ve written an entire book about violent men. I realized I’m fascinated with these men who are aggressive, who we are both encouraged to lust after and also to become. Eventually, the book does start to imagine different possibilities like the playfulness of Lil Nas X or even the gender performance of Billy Porter. It’s been so heartening to see these different masculinities reach popularity: a lot of us are trying to rethink what it means to be a man, what it means to be masculine, and that those things may not always be synonymous and don’t need to be mutually exclusive with things like femininity, softness, tenderness, and gentleness.

Janz: You say, in the book, that Almodóvar has created some of the most layered female characters in film. And, although we’re in a moment demanding that women write women, gay men play gay men, et cetera, we also have women writing straight men who are played by gay men. Are we creating new masculinities that way? Are we misrepresenting masculinity?

Betancourt: The way to think about it is that we’re excavating different masculinities—we’re chipping away at layers that have been hidden. I’m one of those people who relishes those palimpsestuous moments of creation, like when Phoebe Waller-Bridge creates a hot priest who’s played by Andrew Scott. Those of us who know that the actor is gay have an added layer in this story about unruly desires. And in a way, the hot priest becomes a queer figure. I think it’s the same thing with Jonathan Bailey in Bridgerton: it opens up his character in the way that we read him and regency romances. I will never subscribe completely to only gay men can write gay men. I think that’s really a labor issue. If trans folks are not getting the chance to play trans roles, that is a labor problem, it’s not really an artistic problem. We’ve created a system where many people are being excluded so of course we’re going to be forced to then make the argument that we need gay characters to be played by gay actors, but I think that there is a beauty in layering of identities when it comes to these characters that can be quite generative when they’re being created with curiosity, generosity, and care.

Janz: In the first chapter, you ask: Do I want to be him, or do I want to be with him? Do you find, through pop culture, answers to this question?

Betancourt: I think it’s a question that I’m going to be continually asking and answering differently. When I was a teenager, whenever I thought I wanted to be someone, what I actually meant was that I wanted to be with them, and I just would never allow myself to make that second jump. I was meant to aspire to look like Gaston, not actually want him. Sometimes the answers that we give to those questions reveal more about our state of mind, our comfort with ourselves, with our bodies and with our peers, families, and communities. As a closeted teenager, I said I really wanted to be with Julia Roberts but it actually meant, I want to be as powerful, charismatic, attractive and confident as Julia. Even while it feels like a quintessentially queer question, I think there are ways in which we can think of it as having more porosity.

Janz: You’ve contributed a children’s book series, The Cardboard Kingdom. How do your reflections on masculinity shape how you build characters for a children’s book?

Betancourt: The story I pitched is about a young boy named Miguel who is obsessed with animated fairy tales, but he finds that whenever he’s playacting with his friends, he doesn’t want to play the prince because he wants to have a prince. So his friend, who he has this crush on, ends up playing the prince and Miguel plays a sidekick role. With the creator and illustrator, Chad Sell, we do talk a lot about what kind of boys we want to be modeling. We want them to be comfortable in their own skin but show how difficult that can be. We don’t want to present it like kids these days know all about gender and there’s no internal wrestling for this generation. Chad created this other boy character who plays at being a sorceress and is very confident, then my character is a little bit more shy, but he is really loyal. We wanted to showcase a range of attitudes and personalities.

Janz: If you could create an ideal masculinity, which characters would you turn to?

Betancourt: The one thing I would amend is that I would want to imagine ideal masculinities. We could never actually build one kind of ideal masculinity. I want to think of plurality, I want to think of generative ideas, I want to think of play and possibility. Drag, queer spaces, and ballroom are perfect places in which to see what folks are imagining and what kinds of way they’re harnessing cultural imagination and costumes and gender presentation.

Janz: Is there a character who has made you feel seen or free in the way they present their masculinity?

Betancourt: Elio in Call Me By Your Name. I read the book before the movie came out. Seeing the movie, it felt like finding in my thirties what I had always wanted in my teens: a portrait of a very nerdy intellectual who is shy but brazen and tender. He’s an avatar for a kind of teenage hood that I never had and that I was never given the chance to have. It was also kind of painful to see there are a lot of kids who are having this now and I get to witness this as a phantom nostalgia. It hit a chord and I treasure him still.

Click here to read an excerpt from The Male Gazed: On Hunks, Heartthrobs, and What Pop Culture Taught Me About (Desiring) Men, courtesy of Manuel Betancourt and Catapult.

Manuel Betancourt is a queer Colombian culture writer and film critic. He is the author of Judy Garland’s Judy at Carnegie Hall (Bloomsbury Press, 2020), and a contributing writer to the Eisner Award-nominated graphic novel series The Cardboard Kingdom (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2018 & 2021).

Madeleine Janz holds an MA from the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism Program at The New School.