Two days before the much hyped Floyd Mayweather vs. Conor McGregor fight in Las Vegas, August 24, 2017, saw the release of a teaser shot depicting a fully nude Miley Cyrus. From the cover of controversial photographer David LaChapelle’s forthcoming book “Lost + Found,” Cyrus appears as a Technicolor butterfly covered only by a few strategically placed sequins. Then, during the ceremonial weigh-in, the heavily-inked McGregor flexes and howls like Mel Gibson from “Braveheart” before the cameras of the world – a swelling symbol of uncontrollable masculinity.
The work of David LaChapelle, focused far more on female subjects than male, depicts an overwrought-feminine caricature that draws inspiration from such diverse sources as pop-culture kitsch, the glamour pin-up shots of 1940s and 50s Hollywood, and traditional Catholic religious imagery. Oftentimes, his pictures are evocative of the candy-coated boudoir paintings made famous by Francois Boucher and Jean-Honore Fragonard. But there is also something decadent and disturbing about his work. His style could be summarized as Andy Warhol meets Jessica Rabbit at the Movieland Wax Museum. In this often garish world of oversaturated primary colors, which evoke the bright and overpowering flesh-tones favored by porn photographers such as Suze Randall, LaChapelle presents an image of the eternal feminine as conforming to the most stereotypical gender paradigms. For this reason, LaChapelle is often attracted to over-the-top celebrities such as Pamela Anderson, Paris Hilton, and Britney Spears. But as in pornography itself, his work exhibits a hyper-realism and a hard-focus which looks increasingly artificial. His female subjects, which includes not only Cyrus, but such other Millennial icons such as Katy Perry, Niki Minaj, and Lady Gaga, sometimes appear like they are men in drag, as if femininity consists simply of laying heavy make-up. The current popularity of transgender men, notably Jeffree Star, giving YouTube tutorial make-up classes to women indicates that a highly glamorous archetype of femininity survives inside gay male culture. Yet, there is also this odd attempt by LaChapelle to encounter the sublime most vividly realized with his photograph of Courtney Love in the guise of the Madonna from Michelangelo’s Pieta.” But the art never moves beyond the limits of the its own excesses and self-absorption.
The highly exaggerated aesthetics of LaChapelle largely reflect the chaotic and desperate character of our times. Born into a Catholic family, LaChapelle once said:
My mother found God in nature; that was her Cathedral. She is very much a loner, she didn’t have lots of girlfriends. She worked hard jobs, raising her kids. She really taught me about love, respect, and empathy for animals and plants, and the joy and peace of nature. And my father was a Catholic, so I have this duality of influence. There is beauty in both places.
In another interview, LaChapelle recalled his difficult years spent in high-school:
I was attacked and bullied. My locker had f*ggot spray-painted on it—out of a movie…someone painted f*ggot at the bottom of my driveway, which was so f*cking humiliating…I wasn’t a preppy kid. There were two groups. Preppy rich kids and the kids whose parents worked in blue-collar jobs. I didn’t fit in either group. It got bad, and I started coming to New York when I was 14, where I went to Studio 54 with friends…
Therefore, its not usual for young men such as LaChapelle to seek a refuge in the fantasyland of the arts, entertainment, night-clubs, and homosexuality. Here, there remains a devoted adulation of such curvy female stars such as Mae West, Elizabeth Taylor, and Marilyn Monroe. Like the ultra-masculine image of the male, the female at the opposite end of the spectrum becomes idolized. Because a number of gay men grew up with domineering mothers, the sexy and soft feminine characteristics are highly prized while the domineering woman is lampooned and mocked by the female impersonator – this materializes in the continued fascination among gay men for Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. But the definitive homage from the gay male community to the feminine mystique occurs in the guise of drag performances. Hence, it’s not a coincidence that a frequent subject of LaChapelle’s photographs is the cartoonish appearing transsexual Amanda Lepore who seems to combine into one individual every inflated female physical attribute. Therefore, it’s somewhat disconcerting that women, such as Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, and Paris Jackson, who have been very vocal in their support for transgressive gender identities, with Miley Cyrus going as far as to claim her own gender-fluidity, nevertheless, employ the assistance of LaChapelle in order to assume and promote a clearly heteronormative and highly sexualized form of femininity in their public persona.
If LaChapelle espouses an unrealistic vision of the erotic beautiful woman, Conor McGregor is the living incarnation of the masculine extreme. A star in the highly competitive world of The Ultimate Fighting Championship, a sport which resurrected the bloody and brutal spectacle of the Roman gladiatorial games, McGregor displays far less physical bulk than 1980s blood and guts icons Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, but he makes up for it with sheer bravado and swagger. McGregor’s father remembers a largely uneventful upbringing for his son except for a few clashes during Conor’s teenage years:
That happens in all houses, where there’s an alpha male and then a young buck comes along. The home has to evolve and I had to realize that too. We had a few clashes over the years all right, but not enough to mention and you learn to back down. Thankfully we have a great relationship now.
This type of alpha-male mentality described by the older McGregor is now widely regarded as the preeminent example of “toxic masculinity.” Depending upon the demographic and the self-professed identity and political leanings of the viewer, McGregor is regarded as either revolting or revolutionary. His appeal remains strongest among young males. He is a CGI superhero brought to life. The pre-fight weigh-in with McGregor and Maryweather almost made the upcoming action in the ring completely superfluous. Not since Bruce Willis appeared in the intriguing but decadent and bloated film “The Fifth Element” has one man been able to dominate a crowded and tumultuous scene. In an era when there are radical attempts to nullify the differences between the sexes, men and women are more different than ever. Instead, especially with children and teenagers, a group most deeply affected by the current non-binary gender theories, there has been a conspicuous manifestation of gender-specific traits that swerve to the excessive; in young prepubescent girls, this is evident in the popularity of the sickly sweet Disney “Princess” culture: Miley Cyrus was cool and calculating in her continued appropriation of this imagery when she transferred from Hannah Montana into a pedo-chic superstar by dancing nearly naked with stuffed teddy-bears during the notorious 2013 MTV Awards. As for the Millennial generation, the continued fascination with Kim Kardashian, and now her younger sister Kendall Jenner, reveals a preoccupation with the pouty cheese-cake shot and an obsession for the rounded female form; it’s a rejection of androgyny and a return to the 1950s reverence for the full-figured calendar girl. Even in those who wish to “transition” from one gender to another, they do so by embracing conventional concepts of feminine and masculine beauty. However, like the photographs of LaChapelle, there is a distorted artificiality present; there is also something wildly unreal about McGregor. Even his father admitted some of the artifice:
We didn’t see much of the personality he has now when he was growing up. That developed with age and is a sports persona that goes with the package. I find it very entertaining.
Therefore, are these outward manifestations of masculinity and femininity a true representation of gender?
As a young gay man, I too idolized the image of the perfect masculine male. Back then, I found this type oddly embodied in the collective sweaty manliness exuded by “The Village People.” For many years, I put my faith in the theory that by grasping the masculine ideal, I too could make the prodigious jump into manhood; in the homosexual mind, the quickest and surest way to achieve this feat is through sexual contact. After numerous encounters, I remained unfulfilled; some heterosexual men are arriving at the same lonely realization after years of pornography addiction. But similar to gay men who become a caricature of women through drag, these macho-men were a parody of male heterosexuality when they took on the accoutrements of masculinity. It didn’t make them men; it just made them look desperate and foolish. And this is the danger with the modern pop-culture icons of masculinity and femininity – where the man slips into buffoonery and the woman into vulgarity.
Recently, I find completely compelling the rise in popularity of several male intellectuals, conservative commentators, and politicians who do not fit into a stereotypical meme of masculinity; namely, Professor Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro, and Governor Greg Abbott. These men are redefining the meaning of masculinity. Like that of McGregor, their admirers are often young men. But these men elicit immediate respect not for their bluster or biceps, but in their strict allegiance to the truth. These are men of deep personal integrity. They are certainly biologically male, but their masculinity is clearly defined through personal courage, confident determination, and steady fortitude.