A few weeks ago, Bill Maher joked that it was time for the Bravo Network to come out of the closet. With the addition its newest show, Manhunt, Bravo has become the closest thing to an all-gay cable channel on the air. In recent years, Bravo’s programming (Boy Meets Boy, Gay Weddings, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy) has targeted a desirable demographic, gay men, with more disposable income than their heterosexual counterparts.
As its title suggests, Manhunt: The Search for America’s Most Gorgeous Male Model features 20 beautiful men competing to win a $100,000 a year contract from modeling agency IMG. Like the contestants on UPN’s America’s Next Top Model, the contestants on Manhunt have “regular” jobs, as students, trainers, servers, and construction workers. The world of high fashion is like another dimension for most of them, where men wear makeup, prettiness is more important than muscularity, and pretentious fashion mavens dictate how you walk, talk, stand, sit, and eat. While the series’ hook is the perpetual parade of pumped pecs and six-pack abs, the guys’ adjustments to this new environment makes it worth watching even after the initial ogling.
Still, Manhunt aims to provoke ogling. In every episode, the men participate in some type of photo shoot designed to push their comfort boundaries. Their first assignment was to sky-dive wearing boots and white boxer-briefs. Later, they wore androgynous make-up and clothing, so that several of them looked like ravers who’d been dressed by a dominatrix. They also had a 4am shoot in a cold swimming pool with model Marissa Miller, and had to hawk a product of their choice while posing half-naked.
Intercut with such displays are brief glimpses of the contestants in their free time, when they offer their opinions on their awkward situations. In these moments, their insecurities become clear. Most noticeable is the “I’m not gay” refrain; despite its open appeal to gay men, the show features only two gay contestants, Ron (eliminated early) and Rob (who didn’t out himself until the fourth week).
The others might as well be wearing “Hi! I’m Straight” nametags. At no time was their anxiety more evident than in the “gender-bending” episode, when several contestants lamented that parents, friends, and relatives might see them in drag. Apparently, jumping out of a plane wearing only underwear or straddling a motorcycle while caressing your crotch is okay for Mom and Dad to see, but heaven forbid they see you wearing mascara.
If these men are competing for a shot at supermodel status, then it is safe to assume that they won’t be modeling for the Sears catalogue. Modeling high fashion involves wearing androgynous clothing, feminine cuts of traditional man suits, and fabrics not associated with the construction site. It also involves interacting with men who are decidedly feminine. For those unfamiliar with this environment, it takes time to adjust. Despite coming from traditionally “masculine” work backgrounds, the contestants on Manhunt aren’t given this time. They’re too often caught off-guard by the circumstances and people they encounter.
While no one on the show comes across as homophobic, some are overtly uncomfortable in an industry where their sexual orientation will be frequently questioned. When Rob came out to his fellow competitors, many expressed immediate shock, followed by a quick, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” Only Hunter, the aw-shucks Southern boy, was upfront about his initial alarm, and he then struggled with how to respond to the first openly gay man he had met. His conclusion — that he admires Rob for his social confidence — even seems sincere. By contrast, Tate isn’t bothered by Rob because he doesn’t care about anything that doesn’t involve Tate. He’s immature, self-centered, unreliable, and far too fond of partying.
By the end of the first episode, he was almost thrown off the show for having towel-clad women in his hotel room at 2am. Caught with their forbidden guests, Tate and another contestant did the mature thing: they locked themselves in the bathroom and refused to come out until model handler Bruce Hulse threatened to leave them out of the next photo shoot. When the other contestants expressed their displeasure that he had jeopardized their future with the show, Tate remained indifferent.
While this late night adventure identified Tate as a troublemaker, it also introduced another key player, Kevin P., the embedded spy. Kevin is the only one of the contestants who already works as a model; he’s supposed to report to the judges on the backstage behavior of the other players. Still, Kevin was Tate’s partner in the sexcapades; one would hope the official “spy” would have the sense to discourage behavior that could lead to lawsuits, but Kevin explained his inappropriate behavior as “poor judgment.” If his judgment is lacking, then why should judges or viewers trust his assessment of the contestants’ skills? More important, why were Tate and Kevin allowed to remain on the show after exposing the producers to potential sexual harassment suits? The answer is that they were both too attractive to eliminate.
Manhunt spends no time on “personal” information; I couldn’t tell you who is married, in a relationship, or has kids (except Tate, who talked about his son nonstop), and I had to go to the show’s website to learn what they do for a living. Though we might assume the men discuss such details among one another and have developed friendships, such scenes never appear on screen. Instead, we endure their appraisals of outfits they have to wear, concerns over weight gain and bad hair, and gab sessions during which they share workout tips. Viewers are privy to the fact that a contestant is going to shave his testicles, but not his hopes for life after the contest. For decades, models have fought the stereotype that they are stupid and superficial. Unfortunately, Manhunt reinforces that stereotype.
There’s nothing wrong with a series that displays men as objects. Women have been paraded across stages and runways for years. But viewers might be more inclined to fantasize about these men if we knew something about them.