2:22 PM EDT, August 24, 2012
They're commanding, confident.
Well-coiffed. Their jaw lines are sturdy, anvil-shaped; their chins, cleft. They could stand on wedding cakes. They could date Barbie. They look presidential. Alongside their calm, straightforward charms, the world appears baroque, curlicued and undisciplined. They are earnestness personified: When Moliere wrote of men who respond to sincerity with sincerity, "return offer for offer, and vow for vow," he anticipated them. Decades ago, when television sought out images of truth and stability, advertisers instinctively reached for their likenesses.
Their iconic look is such an everyday part of the visual vocabulary that what it represented could have appeared on a traffic sign — a silhouette of a square jaw beneath a thick wave of swept-back hair.
But that was a long time ago and, during the interval, institutions buckled, tastes changed and their look is now a kind of cultural Rorschach test. Where some see command and control, others now see conformity. What once read as earnestness is read now disingenuousness. And that jaw line: It might be solid, or it might be bloodless, a mark of men so opaque and unimaginative that they don't even know themselves.
I am describing, of course, the "Expendables."
But really, any cultural figure in 2012 blessed and cursed with a strong, square jaw and a certain look would understand the mixed signals that, at least superficially speaking, we read into their physical appearance:
Don Draper, Mitt Romney, Tom Brady, David Beckham, Terry Crews, Brian Urlacher, Brian Williams. Superman. Let's call them Captains of Industry.
"Yes, I know this look," said Milos Marinkovic of Esquire Barber Shop in Andersonville. I asked if he gets many requests for the Draper, the Beckham, the Captain of Industry. He said, yes, the Draper. He said yes with great gravity. Several times a day, he cuts a Draper, he said. Some like this anvil jaw, Captain-of-Industry thing, he said. As for him?
"It is a sign of testosterone, I understand. But I have mixed feelings. Particularly with the hair," he said. "I see why some don't like it. People want people to identify with. It could be elitist."
How has this happened? How did a cultural image once shorthand for solidity and reassurance become injected with ambivalence?
Here, at summer's end, with square-jawed Romney about to star on TV coverage of the Republican National Convention, square-jawed "Expendables" perched atop the box office, square-jawed Draper following "Mad Men" to the Emmys on Sept. 23 and a new square-jawed Superman flying into theaters next summer, these mixed feelings are worth a ponder. For instance: "The Expendables 2," starring almost every action star with a square jaw of the past few decades — Stallone, Willis, Schwarzenegger — is considered something of a goof. "The Bourne Legacy," starring the relatively boyish chin of Jeremy Renner, is delivered (and received) with a presumption of dead seriousness.
Tone matters, of course.
But don't discount the quiet signals those jaws send out. For instance, to complicate matters, this summer Christian Bale played a Captain of Industry. The only extremity jutting from his batsuit was his modest jaw. He had no problem soliciting compassion in "The Dark Knight Rises." Conversely, each time I've seen the "Man of Steel" trailer, the granite chin of Henry Cavill's Superman is welcomed with palpable indifference. As Larry Tye's new biography, "Superman: The High Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero," explains: Superman, our square-jawed uber-type, has gone from symbolizing truth, justice and the American Way to also calling to mind feelings of alienation, even fascism. The Man of Steel suffers from infallibility fatigue.
Which is among the leading causes of ambivalence raised by in square-jawed men.
We simply don't relate to them the way we once did.
Captains of Industry are often queasy reminders of a certainty that many feel is lost. I called Dieter Roelstraete, senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Years ago he was the editor of a European art magazine that dedicated an issue to masculinity.
"Even if we still feel images like this are reassuring to us," he told me, "nostalgia usually gets wrapped into them now, a yearning for an era of certainty. We read a prodigious wink into them. Because we know that we can't turn back the clock, we can only take images of men who look this confident with a degree of irony attached — or maybe a half-irony."
This ambivalence, though, began much earlier.
Scholar R. Jay Magill Jr., whose new book, "Sincerity: How a Moral Ideal Born Five Hundred Years Ago Inspired Religious Wars, Modern Art, Hipster Chic and the Curious Notion That We All Have Something to Say (No Matter How Dull)," dates our break with "the model of manliness" to the 17th century, when "the ideal of 'courtesy' had taken hold of the European imagination and the role of the nobleman changed forever." Even Rousseau, that figurehead of certainty, turned out to be laughably hypocritical, abandoning five children yet writing a book on how to raise children.
Picture any confident, reassuring, square-jawed man floating around our culture, and caricature comes as readily to mind as sincerity: jut-jawed "Seinfeld" actor Patrick Warburton; the FX network's obliviously obnoxious animated superspy Archer; the ramrod-straight Professor Utonium, all right angles, from "The Powerpuff Girls" cartoon, an ultraprocessed, boiled-down schematic of the kind of iconic Captains of Industry whose faces were once synonymous with the '50s. The exaggerated jaw line of the dad on "American Dad" could almost be a tumor.
"Truthfully, I can only picture guys like this as caricatures," said J.J. Sedelmaier, the Chicago-born animator whose "TV Funhouse" shorts for "Saturday Night Live" (such as "The Ambiguously Gay Duo") played with images of masculinity. Deconstruction was in his blood: His father, Chicago ad legend Joe Sedelmaier (the guy behind Wendy's "Where's the Beef?" spots), partly reacting to decades of Captain of Industry-ish TV commercials, was a forerunner in casting "normal-looking" actors in commercials. (Ironically, Joe looked like a prototypical Captain of Industry. Marty Kohr, an advertising lecturer at Northwestern University, said more of the Mad Men credited with creating 20th-century advertising icons were themselves "fat and dumpy.")
That said, there is an ironic fix:
Captains of Industry, embrace the ambivalence.
Pure of heart or full of you-know-what, your look adds layers. The genius of casting Jon Hamm as the complex, morally-layered Draper on "Mad Men" was that he resembles Superman, the Brylcreem Man, the Marlboro Man. He embodies the contradictions of Draper while embracing the contradictions we feel toward square jaws and everything we prescribe to them. After all, it's not their fault they have great genes. Al Gore, the pressure of campaigning off, began acknowledging his Captain of Industry stiffness. Romney, who then-rival Mike Huckabee once quipped "looks like the guy who fired you," will eventually. Even Superman, reportedly less certain and more conflicted in "Man of Steel," finally got the memo about his jaw:
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