A cover is all about disclosure. A cover may encase a book but its purpose is to encourage readers to pry open its pages. A cover is as much an invitation as it is a revelation. This I’ve long understood in the abstract, but it wasn’t until the design proofs for my own came in that I realized just how literal that would feel. With its warm orange-yellow hue staring back at me, The Male Gazed cover was an arresting reminder that I’d written an entire book about desire and masculinity (there was a male torso on full display asking you to lust after it) filtered through my own experience (there was that “taught me” line in the magenta-colored subtitle right atop my own bolded name). All of this gave me pause: if every cover is a promise, I realized that what I’d be asking of my readers was precisely the kind of welcome ogling my prose dissected through its many chapters. On a more frivolous note, that image of a shirtless man wearing only a chain around his neck made me uneasy for a wholly different reason: I knew close friends would inquire whether, narcissist that I can sometimes be, I had posed for my own cover.
The reason such a question wouldn’t feel unwarranted (and hasn’t, for I’ve fielded it several times already) is that one of my more unorthodox long term hobbies has been collaborating with photographers. I’ve dropped trou in New York City office spaces on sunlit weekends and on sun-kissed mornings in my Hollywood apartment in a jockstrap; I’ve attended a World Naked Gardening Party where images that were of me and a Monstera leaf still give me pause, and a naked games night where a photo of me playing Twister wearing nothing but the shame of a second place finish. Some are striking in their simplicity (atop a stripped bed with a sheet serving as a makeshift prop to barely cover my so-called privates), others in their artistic ambition (against a pink furry backdrop mirroring a famous Playboy cover). Many have been taken with digital cameras and iPhones at the ready, their candid nature capturing me at my most unguarded, laughing gleefully at some already forgotten quip. But others have found me posing for polaroids and decades’ old cameras that required me to sit still for minutes at a time, revealing how rarely I smile unprompted when faced with such a lens.
To open that Google Drive folder (“Photographs: Manuel” ) is to run through the gamut of my amateur modeling career. I began that journey as a way to see myself anew; to find others who would gaze at me through their lens the way I’d gazed at men in underwear ads, sexy magazine photo shoots, and increasingly thirst-trappy Instagram posts. In hopes, I guess, of being able to wield whatever confidence boost I’d get from them in my day to day life. I yearned to find ways of feeling wanted and to find power in letting myself be so desired—you know, the very thing my book is all about. Then again, it would have been too on the nose, perhaps, to have fed the amazing creative team over at Catapult any one of the many tasteful nudes I’ve taken over the years and have it adorn a book that became, in its writing, a begrudging autobiography of sorts.
The working title for this cultural criticism-cum-personal-essay collection was “Thirst for Men.” I thought it playfully centered the elusive if titillating concept of “thirst” in a project about what it means to desire men, all while spoofing that needless “for men” branding that so litters beauty product marketing and which reinforces the idea that vanity is inherently a decidedly not-for-men practice. My partner at the time hated this title, groaning quite accurately that it was much too clumsy. It required too much explanation, he pointed out; the last thing a title needs. My agent similarly found it wanting. He encouraged me to find an alternative, one that would capture the key question at the heart of the book: Do I want him or do I want to be him? That’s how The Male Gazed came to be. Even without the cheeky nod to that famed Julia Mulvey essay, I enjoyed landing on an expression that used the elasticity of tenses to anchor the wordplay I so love deploying all throughout the book.
Such a shift in tone had an added benefit; it stressed how much more personal the overall pieces had become since I first scribbled essay ideas in a notebook back in the summer of 2019. When I first dreamed up what became The Male Gazed, true to my academic roots, my voice was rather impersonal. I moved through my prose like a hidden puppeteer of my own thoughts and arguments. You could see it was me behind the many discussions around how masculinity was an armor that trafficked in its own invisibility. But you didn’t really get much sense of who I was or why this topic so fascinated me. At the urging (or, really, encouragement) of my agent and editor alike, the essays began to feel more memoiristic. Childhood memories of going to the movies became cornerstones in discussions around Disney princes; angered tantrums led the way to a chapter about how I grew up on a steady diet of Japanese anime—even my own coming out story makes a cameo amid a meditation on the queer and queered futures that movies like The Fifth Element help us imagine. Such personal disclosures, I told myself while writing them out, were a means to an end. They were necessary anchors in what I still wanted to consider a work of cultural criticism. It was only when I stepped back and examined them together that I saw just how much of myself I’d poured into those pages. The title ended up being even more revealing than the cover: I am the male who gazed, but also the man who is and has been gazed.
A central tenet of the book is the paradoxical power found in the demand to be looked at. The looker, we’re often told, is the one who wields control: they’re the ones who figure out the frame, who structure the shot, who bring in cultural strictures that strip agency of those who are ogled. They are active, and thus, in charge. But such a simplistic scheme erases the gravitational pull of those who beg to be watched, seen, looked at. What can sometimes be understood as a passive endeavor can, in fact, be quite empowering. In 2023 such a lesson feels obvious. We live in a world so guided by self-curated imagery that it may be hard to remember there was a time when we could all grow up without needing to think of ourselves as personal branding managers, where digital “walls” and “grids” didn’t double as surprisingly non-ephemeral photo albums and online vision boards cataloging our every move (and mood). It’s hard to disentangle who we present ourselves to be in our writing and how we offer ourselves to the (digital) world via candid pics or more carefully curated photos. Who among us, these days, doesn’t want to be seen? To be liked? To be favorited?
I struggled a bit when first deciding to post one of the nudes a photographer in New York City had taken of me. Back then I was a graduate student. Though I was already imagining off-ramps to a life in academia, posting that photo (in black and white, naturally), melancholy and tasteful as it was, meant forfeiting a professional kind of authority I was supposed to be nurturing in all aspects of my life. But what I’d learned from that photo session, and this is something that continues to be the case in the many that have followed (all with queer photographers, it must be noted) was the freeing sensation I felt once I let go of any shame and any embarrassment over being nude and having it so simply and unassumingly be so celebrated. That came from who and in what context I was being looked at. There was comfort, not to mention a level of titillation, to know that a fellow queer guy was the one letting me finally feel so at home in my own body. I’d say it was revelatory if such an expression didn’t feel so painfully cliché.
Realizing just how self-revealing The Male Gazed’s title and cover are, I can’t help but feel ill-equipped about inviting such a readerly gaze. And how much anxiety I’m experiencing as I muster up the courage to allow myself to be so emotionally vulnerable—so naked on the page, if you will. Perhaps this would have been different if I’d decided to write an autobiographical project from the start. I’d have known what to expect, of myself and of my readers. Instead, I find the prospect of having shown so much of myself rather daunting, embarrassing, even. Therein lies, perhaps, the most personal revelation of the entire project: I’ve long armed and hid myself in criticism. In pop culture, even. It was easier to dissect the way telenovelas spoke to my sense of self as a teenager than to really evaluate what such prime time lessons taught me about my own frail grasp on socially-sanctioned masculinities, the kind I coveted and feared in equal measure. The Male Gazed ended up being a call to finally strip down.
As writers we offer up our work in hopes it’ll find an audience. Or, at the very least (or, most, as the case may be) a generous attentive reader who’ll savor our sentences with gusto and turn our ideas over in their heads with grace. My chastely erotic scenario—where I’ve come to think of my book as a naked version of myself, a nude in prose that makes me sound like an acolyte of Frank O’Hara’s “Personism”—is ultimately a humbling prospect. To ask to be read, after all, is to ask to be seen. An ask as emboldening as it is terrifying. Best then, to see it as freeing as I found those nude photoshoots; a chance to let others see me as I am, as I was, as I could still be.