Male Body Ideals in Art: From Ancient Gods to the Modern Day Superhero

Images of the ideal male body have been a recurring theme in art throughout human history. From as far back as Ancient Greece, the sculpture was used to celebrate the peak form of man. This was a more present theme during the Classical Age (from 500-336 BC) when arts and culture achieved new heights in Greece. The "idealised human form" of the Ancient Greek Classical Age can be seen in the art of the time (Keating, 2015). This is still a recurring theme in the art of today, in this article, I will discuss the idealised form of a man in relation to the superhero movie subgenre by comparing and contrasting the expectations put upon men by the ideals of Ancient Gods to the ideals formed as a result of superhero movies of today.

One such example of this occurrence in Ancient Greek history is the Discobolus sculpture, showing the ideal peak form of a male athlete. Famously the Ancient Greek's started the Olympics, a tradition that still continues today. However, this is not without change, in Greece only the finest athletes, with muscles toned like gods could compete. Now the Olympics in a much more inclusive show of talent, now celebrating the talent of Paralympians in the Paralympics.

Other, sculptures of the time also depicted gods from Ancient Greek Mythology. These gods were shown to be in peak human form, often portraying toxically masculine traits such as, aggression and physical toughness in the Ancient Greek tales. Ancient Greeks vanity was so extreme that their armor was crafted with "rippling pecs and muscles" sculpted into their torso. Historians have inferred that this made the "warriors feel more heroic" (Jannuzzi, 2015), showing just how obsessed they were with body image and peak human form.

(Discobolus, Photo by guo fengrui)

Other historical cultures have also depicted their gods to be images of man at their peak. Specifically in Norse Mythology, Thor is often portrayed to be a muscular man who stands as tall as giants. The God of Thunder is also depicted to be responsible for "strength and fertility" (Pajdas, 2022); which are hypermasculine qualities often associated with manhood.

Additionally, Thor's ability to summon thunder could also

be read to be a personification of man's rage, displayed to be Thor's gift within Nordic Mythos. This reading of Thor suggests that he is a man struggling with toxic masculinity, suggesting that this figure is somewhat problematic already.

Thor is still as relevant today, however, within the context of superhero films. Actor and model Chris Hemsworth dons the hammer in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Hemsworth plays a hypermasculine Thor in Avenger Assemble (2012), he is shown to challenge threats to his masculinity with aggression. When Robert Downey Jr's Tony Stark mocks him Thor responds with threats, calling Tony a "little man" before attacking him. These toxically masculine traits are problematic, as this character is portrayed as a hero on screen, someone for children to look up to and idolise.

(Thor, Photo by ANIRUDH on Unsplash)

However, this issue is dealt with in later films, for example, in Avengers Endgame (2019) when Thor is shown to be an emotionally and physically broken man, destroyed by grief. This fictionalised god is shown to be human, no longer struggling with traits of toxic masculinity such as fears to show emotion.

Yet, another issue that presents itself with this character is the unrealistic body ideals that viewers could set upon themselves. Superheroes are often portrayed to have an unrealistic body type of; well-toned abs, a clear six-pack, defined quads and large biceps. Although, achievable for some, for others this is unachievable; due to genetics, budgetary, and/or time constraints, but society is now taking steps to challenge this arguably unachievable standard. One clinical psychologist, Carolyn Yaffe states that "these movies and characters are sending messages of what defines masculinity by encouraging a particular physique – being muscular and strong represent bravery and dependability. The fact is these types of bodies are unattainable and unrealistic" (Yaffe via White, 2021). This shows that it is unrealistic for men to expect such physiques of themselves.

Furthermore, Hemsworth's Thor is shown in Avengers Endgame to struggle with comfort eating as a result of his grief, causing him to become medically obese. This could be seen to be a positive step in the right direction, because the idealised character is shown to be human rather than living up to unrealistic body standards. In spite of that, these struggles are played off as a joke in the film, Thor's struggles with weight gain as a result of deep depression are laughed at by not only his team in the context of the film but also by audiences. Showing that there is still a way to go for superheroes and their effects on men's body ideals.

This is not to say that there are not healthy and realistic representations of men in Hollywood today. Some examples include; David Harbour, who appears in Stranger Things (2016-present) and Black Widow (2021) with a dad bod, and Jack Quaid, who appears in The Boys (2019-present) as a scrawny man who struggles with body dysmorphia. It also should not be forgotten that these films are mainly made to entertain and make money, they are for easy viewing and shouldn't be expected to make ground leaping changes to society. Although these films do inform society, society also informs these films. Films are only an extension of reality, and we cannot expect these issues to be fixed by simply casting actors who are more body positive. This is a deep-rooted issue in society which has been present in humanity as far back as Ancient Greece, meaning it is going to take much more than a wider body positive representation in film to resolve this issue. We must first change society's idealisation of body form and then our art will follow, responding to said societal change.