Apr 18 2012: The “Mr Universe” Magazine Giant Body Beautiful Issue Featuring Clarence Ross (1950s)
American masculinity has always been a curious creature, with its more regressive manifestations generally among the nation’s most blatantly homoerotic cultural forms: perhaps it’s a submerged consciousness of this blurring between extreme machismo and ‘lavender leanings’ that underlies much of the anti-gay discourse that surrounds images like the one above, a 1950s portrait of bodybuilder Clarence Ross posed naked, part Greek or Roman statue, part comic book hero, part sexually available body portrayed in a manner very like that deployed for female pin-ups of the same era. It’s an image that arouses (and I use that particular word advisedly) complex responses: its primary purpose, judging by the extensive advertising and feature copy on the inside pages of Mr Universe magazine, was to sell bodybuilding systems and equipment to insecure 1950s youth, worried about having sand kicked in its collective face on the beach, with a powerful subtext about reinvention of the self and the triumph of individual will over natural body-shape. It’s a story that finds its American exemplar in Arnold Schwarzenegger and its broader aesthetic in the films and photography of Leni Riefenstal: the antithesis of the Surrealist body, reconfigured by its unconscious urges, as Hal Foster has argued. For his own part, Clarence Ross here turns towards the viewer as the iconic warrior body, perfected and invulnerable, the embodiment of a kind of neo-Classical kitsch that always seems to find favour with authoritarian and right-wing sensibilities (witness Frank Miller, author of the decidedly homo-erotic Spartan comic book ‘300’ and his recent outbusts against ‘protesting scum’, or Vladimir Putin posing for pictures bare-chested and musclebound while hunting in Russia’s forests). Its a trope that tends to surface during eras when such ideologies are in the political ascendant, as they were in the McCarthyite 1950s or Ronald Reagan’s 1980s. Perhaps, as Susan Sontag suggested in ‘Notes On Camp’, the appropriation of these fascistic tropes within gay subcultures serves a deeply subversive and very necessary political purpose. By the same token, it seems clear, when we look at this cover, that Clarence Ross himself was conscious of the knife’s edge between humourless perfection and absurdity on which he rested those perfectly toned bronzed buttocks. It’s fair to assume that these 1950s muscle magazines knew perfectly well that they served a dual function, and the images they contain project decidedly mixed messages as a result.