Wednesday 13 May 2015


Matthew Macfadyen as a smouldering Mr Darcy
For some weeks now we've been bombarded with images of a sultry Aidan Turner, topless, with a tanned and rippling six pack. Now personally, enjoyable though Poldark has been on a Sunday evening, I'm not one of those multitudes who finds Mr Turner's phwoar factor off the scale. So I was rather pleased to find Matthew Macfadyen, a regular costume drama hero, speaking out about the narcissism and the inaccuracy of the historical drama six-pack.

'But all those men from the past were doing manual work, even the posh ones were riding and generally doing manly things, weren't they?' I hear you say. But Macfadyen rightly points out that a character in a period drama wouldn't have done crunches. A six-pack is something that can only be achieved in the gym with specific exercises – it is a modern phenomenon.

He talks of being expected to sculpt his torso for his role as Mr Darcy and also having acted in a series about soldiers in the former Yugoslavia and working with the Royal Greenjackets –  some of the fittest men he had ever encountered and none of them sporting a six-pack. Macfadyen is taking a stand against the vanity of it all and I thoroughly approve.

Some gratuitous nudity – not a sculpted calf in sight!
The ideal body changes over the years, but filmmakers are hamstrung in needing their heroes to appeal to modern audiences. We know that Henry VIII was inordinately proud of his manly calves but I can't imagine the people who produced The Tudors requesting lingering shots of Jonathan Rhys-Meyer's lower legs instead of his ripped abs.

It is the female body that has been scrutinised for centuries and wilfully shaped to meet the desires of  men and now our inherently narcissistic culture is forcing a similar set of expectations on men. It's tempting to say as women that we have been subject to the male gaze for long enough and now its our turn to shift the gaze onto men. But this makes me uncomfortable; I feel it is something we should resist as it is reductive and shallow.

If Macfadyen can manage to be a sex symbol and remain fully clothed then more power to him and, if truth be told, I'd take him over Turner any day.

Elizabeth Fremantle's novel WATCH THE LADY will be published in June.
To find out about her Tudor trilogy go to
Twitter – @lizfremantle
Facebook – Elizabeth Fremantle Author


Susan Price said...

The male nude statues of the Ancient Greeks all had six-packs - though you could argue that the Greek gymnasium produced them and - like the modern six-pack - it was a mark of privilege.

But I'd also imagine that any labouring job which involved a lot of bending, hauling and twisting on a regular basis - say, sailors hauling rope aboard ship - would naturally produce ripped abs, since it's equivalent to crunches in the gym. Miners, too, spent a lot of time on their knees, bending and twisting as they hacked at coal seams in confined spaces. Orwell remarks, in Road To Wigan Pier, on how the bodies of the miners he met were like the sculptures of the Greeks. He doesn't mention six-packs, but it's arguably what he meant, since he said 'bodies' not 'arms' or 'shoulders.'

Only in the past, the ripped abs of working-men would have been a mark of a lower-class labourer, not necessarily something to be admired or aspired to.

The body as class-signifier... Interesting.

michelle lovric said...

The only ripples that turn me on are the wrinkles around Mark Rylance's eyes ...

Anonymous said...

Oh, seconded, Michelle...thirded, fouthed, fifthed!!! What all that experience could offer :-) - though I am not averse, either, to a nice boy to look at that. When did a little shallowness ever harm anyone? (Just a little, you understand!)

Anonymous said...

...which should have read a nice BODY to look at..

Andrea Zuvich said...

I couldn't agree with you more, Elizabeth, and Mr. Macfadyen's right. Someone asked me if the Duke of Monmouth (1649-1685) was 'ripped' because he was athletic, and I replied, "Probably not."

You only need to look at old Hollywood films to see how much the ideal male physique has changed. I watched Ben-Hur again recently, and Charlton Heston was gorgeous but certainly didn't have a six-pack! I like men all the more when they don't spend hours on achieving the trendy low-fat/high-muscle look. I enjoyed Poldark, but I honestly didn't care about Turner being topless - I cared about his character.

Unknown said...

Rhys-Meyers gets me every time. I've re-watched his Henry VIII so many times I can practically quote it.

Exile on Peachtree Street said...

Where's the pic of Aidan Turner? :)