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Aesthetics Without Action: Queer bodies, Marvel movies, and the 2023 Yankees

On appearance vs. real action, regarding both Yankees baseball and the world beyond.

H/T Dan Brink

Two men, sculpted, stand in a bedroom together. They exchange their weights and compliment each other’s discipline and diet, each one’s hands run over the other’s pecs and delts. They know, and the audience knows, what they came here to do, but they really can’t do it. They fumble awkwardly together; there’s so little passion or excitement in the way they clutch at each other it makes you want to look away from the screen. For these two who have spent so much time and energy achieving a form of physical perfection, they don’t know what their bodies are good for. They can’t even bring themselves to kiss.

It’s a landmark scene in a German film called Drifter, and it’s stuck with me in a way that I can’t shake. The fetishization of fitness itself has been a feature of some queer communities for a long time, and modern access to testosterone therapy, silicone injections, and appetite suppressants like Ozempic have only encouraged the museum-piece commodification of the body. As this has gone on, dysmorphia in male bodies has only grown, and while cross tabs on specifically queer men are hard to find, it doesn’t take more than a couple Instagram searches to reasonably assume that this problem is more prevalent in that community.

We have lost touch with what our bodies are for.

We weren’t meant to be at Barry’s five days a week, we were meant to paddle down rivers and swim in the ocean. We weren’t meant to run on a treadmill, we were meant to run. We weren’t meant to clutch and scrabble our hands over each other’s bodies, we were meant to embrace and entangle, and yeah, to be a little soft and a little goofy.

This is an article about queer body politics, and it is an article about the New York Yankees.

This disconnect with our bodies extends beyond the queer community. RS Benedict’s landmark article, “Everyone is Beautiful and No One is Horny” dives into the obsession with the desexed body in film, the medium that has replaced the tales of the Olympians as the backbone of modern mythmaking. The stars of our tentpole legends have never looked better — Tom Cruise in back-to-back summer blockbusters has the body of a man a third his age — but there’s an awkwardness around the body, that it’s meant to simply be displayed, that seeps through the screen.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence then that the two biggest films of the year have been films with their own particular body politics. The impact, good and bad, of Barbie dolls on our expectations for women’s bodies has filled journals, and is a major theme in the film itself. That the only male bodies in both the toy line and film exist as accessories of the female characters has caused consternation in some less-fun circles of the culture, but nobody seems to take issue with the fact that Weird Barbie is known exactly for being, well, weird. She doesn’t fit the mold of what a Barbie should look like (and yes, that is kind of the point). Stereotypical Barbie’s journey and development only begins once she develops bad breath and cellulite.

Oppenheimer, meanwhile, comes with its own odd entanglement of the body. You would be forgiven for not finding the rather emaciated Cillian Murphy conventionally beautiful — the real Oppy was just 110 pounds while at Los Alamos — but he sure is horny. Even as we see how Oppenheimer’s dalliances impact his professional and personal lives, the navigations around the human body in the film are disquieting and even grotesque. From an explicit hallucination in the middle of a hearing to the imagined corpses of the victims of Little Boy and Fat Man, the body as depicted by Christopher Nolan is always just a little bit off.

The core of the film also deals with the triumph of the mind over the body. What good is a division of 10,000 armed men against the atom gone mad? The most perfect, sculpted super soldier would be outdone by a couple PhDs in New Mexico.

I think that audiences are clamoring for different works on screen. I don’t think most people who have stopped going to DC or Marvel films but went to see a three-hour, dialogue-heavy movie about quantum mechanics did so because of body politics. I do think, however, that people are realizing there’s something very wrong with this cultural wave of form and appearance always over function, that something is only worth being consumed if the manufacture of it is flawless and standardized. I think people want something with a little more passion, a little less plastic, and frankly just a little bit weird.

This is an article about major films, and it is an article about the New York Yankees.

New York Yankees v Colorado Rockies Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

The Yankees aren’t really a physical entity; they’re a logo on someone’s chest and a series of legal documents filed in both New York and Florida. Yet in their own way, they underscore this cultural shift of aesthetic over action. They are THE NEW YORK YANKEES, and you better shave your beard if you want to be on this ballclub. They boast the second-highest ticket price in the league, with only the Dodgers charging more on the primary market. Joe DiMaggio’s gratitude to the Good Lord still hangs in the tunnel leading to the field.

So much of the value proposition for the Yankees hearkens to an aesthetic no longer backed up by the actual product. Yes, they invest the second-most money of any club into the payroll, but how many of those investments have been fruitful? Just to name a few, Josh Donaldson, Frankie Montas, and Luis Severino have been disasters — even if the last deal made sense at the time — and there’s a general air of impotence on the player development side.

Moritz, our protagonist in Drifter, puts his body on display in many of the same ways that the Yankees self-worship their own aesthetics. He may not have the legacy the baseball team does, but the attitude is the same. This is How You Are Supposed to Look, and maintaining that image is what matters. The times that he actually uses his body for what it’s supposed to be used for — intimate moments with other Adonis folks lacking personality, or hours in Berlin’s warehouses — he ranges from impotent, awkward, uninteresting or in need of various substances to proceed.

As we wind down a season that’s been as disappointing as any in my lifetime, I’m worried the Yankees have become the twunk in a K-hole at the end of the night, Kumail Nanjiani reciting canned Marvel scripts and insisting that his sudden 12-pack is due to a good diet. There’s a façade of what a baseball team should look like, and there’s a premium charged based on that, but it’s all surface level. There’s so little that’s exciting or fun about the entire experience — the team is aging and slow, the farm system is mediocre, and the chief administrators of the whole organization seem disinterested in course corrections.

By the end of Drifter, your favorite character is likely to be Stefan, the piano player who Moritz rejects because, despite a flirtatious chemistry, Stefan’s just too damn short. Everything we see about Stefan throughout the film makes him out to be more fun, more desirable, and more well-rounded than our hunkish lead character, but in Mortiz’s own eyes, not being six feet makes you just not good enough to match aesthetics.

It’s hard not to be a little bit jealous of teams like the Blue Jays or Diamondbacks, or other teams that are, well, more fun, more desirable, and more well-rounded than the boys we cover at PSA. Not only are these teams performing better this year, they’re set up for more success in future years, and they’re just more fun to be around. They understand, in a way that neither the Yankees, Mortiz, or MCU czar Kevin Feige seem to be able to, that form must follow function. The pursuit of the aesthetic alone inevitably leads to burnout — it’s OK to just have fun with it all.