Columnist lays bare our fascination with men in uniform

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Columnist lays bare our fascination with men in uniform

By Andrew Barnhill

In recent pilferings through the internet's vast and varied collection in the genre of men in uniform, seeing the fetishized and erotic portrayals of men - and women, as well - who give life and honor to the uniform, one could say there's as much emphasis on the challenge and triumph of getting them out of one.

In a military or law enforcement sense, the uniform represents discipline and dedicated service to a greater cause, to country, and to the brotherhood that Baden-Powell spoke of. That's quite an easy ideal to admire, even worship, and one in which most can find the appeal of belonging themselves. Brotherhood is rather beautiful. I was “pledge of the year” at a fraternity I never joined … I never joined because I got so caught up with university Greek life I lost the scholarship that put me there. Brotherhood is beautiful, and belonging is bliss. Something else is bliss as well, though, and not such a welcome thing at a university as belonging is.

An understandable appeal, both physical and otherwise

But there exists a raw power and physical appeal, no matter the era, of a hero in his armor. Who wouldn't, after all, wish to conquer their own warrior, to unleash that training, that fiery nature of war, unbridle that raw power and feel it for themselves? That's not quite a rhetorical question; personally, it's not my thing. I can see why it is for many, though. Soldiers, by design and by training, are rather fit, and not at all unappealing subjects of a more carnal appreciation. Honor is, of course, both rare and gorgeous when found in real life. Those two qualities together are all but impossible to resist.

It would be an easy thing, defaulting to cliché simplicity here, to post some soldiered-up beefcake and say, "oh that's a good one," then look around cautiously together, click Find Similar Images and, well, honor the troops in our own way. Perhaps more than a yellow ribbon car magnet ever could, but I've been kind-heartedly warned off my trusty soapbox as it is.

That said, I'll gladly stifle a rant on contemporary gestures of support for the sake of Mizer’s contributions, and to pay tribute to the work still being done to ensure its survival. It would be an easier thing still to celebrate Mizer's work as just the visual spectacle it is, but it was in reading about his struggles, scandals, and dedication to the controversial that drew me to the man as an artist.

The more I looked into Bob Mizer, the more I felt he truly had changed the world, maybe even saved it - certainly for someone like me. I like to think, despite the constant scandal that pursued him, his determination to continue lived in that same vein. That others would come along, even a generation or two later, lost in a fog of hormones and rural religious doubts and disapproval and find hope. And Jim Paris, of course … reason enough in my mind to keep the possibility of time travel in our lifetime kicking around a few hallowed academic halls.

Two legends, compared

But it doesn't take a time machine to see our military heroes celebrated in similar erotic fashion, and it would be a disservice to Mizer and those men and women as well to leave Michael Stokes unmentioned, though he's appeared in this blog before. One can't mention him, nor praise his work, enough, though, as well as the charities those controversial images have supported over the years.

Stokes, like Mizer, has weathered multiple censorship scandals, despite his models’ outspoken support of his cause, and their noteworthy lack of shame for what many, past and present alike, would rather avoid - the visible scars and painful reminders of war. And yet, no less if not actually more beautiful for it, they are the unrivaled reminders of strength and resilience we need. All in the face of a stigma and willful blindness that persists, somehow, whether through a general human aversion to trauma of all kinds, or just the misguided physical ideal that, when it comes to beauty, all that isn't completely whole is broken.

Stokes acknowledges that his work, once released, is left to be defined and its meaning found by each viewer in their own way. Maybe I'm overthinking it; I do that a lot, but hopefully not here. Beauty and the Ideal aren't mutually exclusive. But they aren't the same thing either. Nothing in life is ever simple. Bob Mizer wasn't, his work - certainly not - something of a mess, to be honest, and yet here we are today and will be awhile - uncovering, cataloging, admiring, discussing, finding hope and inspiration and all those other less savory, but just as necessary, desires fulfilled. Even Physique Pictorial is back, and there just aren't sufficient words (or uniforms) for the heroes that have made that happen.