A masculinity meze: face men

(This has turned out to be quite a large meze, but it’s only about one idiomatic slang expression. Well, men and masculinity come into the thing, and you know what can happen then.)

Reflecting a couple days ago on my Princeton days (1958-62) and the tangle of the attitudes of the (all-male) students at the time towards (among things) masculinity, male affiliation (as systematized in a pervasive system of male bands, the eating clubs of the time), women, homosexuals, race, and social class. The topic is vast, also deeply distressing to me personally, and I suspect that I’ll never manage to write about the bad parts of it in any detail — note: there were some stunningly good parts — but in all of that I retrieved one lexical item of some sociolinguistic interest (and entertainment value), one slang nugget: the idiomatic N1 + N2 compound noun face man / faceman / face-man.

A common noun frequently used among my friends, which was then also deployed as a proper noun nicknaming one of our classmates, a young man notable for his facial male beauty: everybody had to have a nickname (mine was Zot, for the Z of my name and the cartoon anteater), so we called him Face Man because he was a face man.

Images and links on male-beauty face man. In a posting yesterday (“Gallery: five beautiful male faces”): five images of facial male beauty from the movies and tv (Eastwood, Redford, Belmondo, Pitt, Ackles), along with links to some notable discussions of such beauty on this blog.

These five were chosen as auxiliary visuals to the posting you are now reading, not, omigod, as a photographic survey of the world of facial male beauty. They’re a tiny (though varied) sample of what’s out there, very much in line with the biases of elite men’s universities in the 1960s (which is where the current posting is focused): all Euro white guys.

In the dictionaries. From GDoS:

noun face-man [AZ: also face man, faceman] an attractive man, a ‘pretty boy’. [1st cite 1967-8 College Undergradate Slang Study: Face man A sexually attractive person, male. A socially adept person. 1980 Jamaican cite from the movie The Harder They Come. 1991 British cite, in the Guardian.]

The compound is certainly idiomatic (but subsective: a face man is a type of man), highly specialized from the generalized sense ‘man having to do with a face or faces’; a face man is a man notable for (the beauty of) his face. The subsective compound face man (with body-part N1 face) is available for ad hoc uses, for innovation in various senses: in particular, ‘portraitist, man who draws faces’ and ‘man attracted to, aroused by notable faces’ (vs., say, ass man).

Those three cites are all the ones that GDoS has, and their sources are so extraordinarily diverse that they suggest the idiom was independently innovated several times (my American college usage belongs with the first of the sources). But establishing the actual histories would require searches of Jamaican and British texts over (at least) the 1970s and 1980s.

What, then says the OED? Astonishingly, as far as I can tell, zero. OED3 (Sept. 2009) has this irrelevant entry:

noun face-man: a miner who works at the face of a mine.

but appears to have nothing for the male-beauty lexical item. It’s also not in NOAD or AHD5 — gaps that might suggest that the American (originally collegiate) male-beauty item fizzled out in general usage. But very much not so. Thanks to more or less constant reruns, we all have available to us male-beauty face man from the 1980s. From Wikipedia:

(#1) Dirk Benedict as Faceman

Lieutenant Templeton Arthur Peck, played by Dirk Benedict, is a fictional character and one of the four protagonists of the 1980s action-adventure television series The A-Team. A recognized war hero, he is often referred to as (The) Faceman, or simply Face. [AZ: he’s the really good-looking one.]

On to the idiom dictionaries. Here we immediately find a quite different idiom face man — also subsective, but with an entirely different N1, not body-part face, but a conventionally metaphorical face. This is entry 2 for face man in the Farlex Dictionary of Idioms (2022):

Someone who is used to represent something, such as a campaign or organization, favorably to the public. That guy is gorgeous — he should definitely be the face man for this ad campaign.

The N1 here, from NOAD:

noun face: 1 … [c] a manifestation or outward aspect of something: the unacceptable face of social drinking. [AZ: metaphorical; also in use further specialized to refer to someone (occasionally, something) serving as the representative of something: Camila Cabello is the new face of the Victoria’s Secret Bombshell fragrance.]

And we find a narrowing of male-beauty face man to incorporate an implicature that such a man is nothing more than a male beauty. Entry 1 in the Farlex Dictionary:

An attractive man who is otherwise dull or boring. Sure, he’s cute, but have you tried talking to him? He’s just a face man.

And the only entry in McGraw-Hill’s Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions (2006)

a good-looking young man with no personality. (Collegiate.) Harry is just a face man and as dull as dishwater.

(These entries are, of course, further evidence that male-beauty face man is alive and well.)

The categorization and vocabulary of male beauty. In current American mainstream culture (and in some much larger swath of cultures), there are at least three distinguishable conceptual categories of male beauty, each with an associated personal quality (and stage of life, though the men displaying these qualities can be of any age). I’ll start by giving the categories letter names (which in themselves have no content and call up no actual labels in English):

— C (suggesting Cupid), associated with playfulness (and childhood)

— A (suggesting Apollo or Adonis), associated with artistry (and youth)

— D (suggesting Dionysus, with Priapus lurking in the background), associated with power (and maturity)

Face men are men with facial beauty in category D. As we’ll see, male facial beauty in categories C and A tends to be devalued in current American culture, because it bears the twin stenches of femininity and homosexuality, which are seen not only as antithetical to true masculinity, but as undermining it; further discussion to come, later in this posting.

For an example of an adult man with facial beauty of category C, I offer this model and actor:

(#2) Matthew Gray Gubler, best known for his acting in the tv series Criminal Minds (see my 11/10/15 posting “Movies and tv: Matthew Gray Gubler”)

And, still in category C, an example of puckish, playful male beauty in an adult man (who is, by the way, a friend of mine):

(#3) Literary scholar and occasional nude model Richard Vytniorgu (see my 9/27/21 posting “Carnival for catamites”) in a 2021 self-portrait; my caption: “Adorably pixyish, with Romantic hair and faggy hands”

Then in category A, male beauty of a sort sometimes described as sensitive or delicate:

(#4) Sean Ford, a model and gay porn actor and observer of the worlds of homosexuality, sex work, love between men, and identities and personas (see my 6/4/21 posting “Fox and Friends I”)

And, still in category A male beauty of a sort sometimes described as feminine and pretty:

(#5) The Daily Jocks “party-wear poster boy, Jacob, aka DJ Debbie” (see my 4/6/22 posting “How do I look?”)

Often-used labels in English for referring to the three categories (bear in mind that these labels have a variety of other uses in the language, impinging in complex ways on these uses; in particular, American girls and women freely use cute to describe good-looking and sexy high-masculinity men who are, however, amiable and unthreatening — roughly, good-guy hot hunks):

— for C: cute, adorable, twinkish, boyish, pixyish

— for A: pretty, adorable, delicate, sensitive, feminine, twinkish, beautiful

— for D: handsome, good-looking, beautiful

Sociolinguistics. The sociolinguistic question is: who uses these labels, in what circumstances, about whom? And the answer is that it’s mind-bogglingly complex. But a significant part of the answer lies in the fact that the usages of (straight) females and (straight) males differ strikingly.

From my observations of female usage and the querying of several female informants, it seems clear that the females were entirely comfortable with using all of handsome, good-looking, and beautiful for facial male beauty in category D: in particular, they used beautiful with some frequency, found it unremarkable.

In a lifetime of experience with straight guys, I don’t think I’ve encountered a single one who was comfortable with these adjectives in this function, in particular with beautiful, which is pretty much unimaginable for them. You just cannot call another guy beautiful. Certainly in the context of an all-male college in 1958-62, no guy would have uttered the adjective in this sense in public. It would totally violate the Guy Code.

I’ve posted about the Codes repeatedly, but here’s a pastiche of Michael Kimmel on the Boy Code and Guy Code in modern American culture:

The first rule is that “masculinity is the relentless repudiation of the feminine”, and the central precept of the first rule is “No Sissy Stuff!”: avoid anything that might suggest homosexuality. Men subscribe to these ideals not because they want to impress women, let alone any inner drive or desire to test themselves against some abstract standards. They do it because they want to be positively evaluated by other men. Masculinity is largely a “homosocial” experience: performed for, and judged by, other men.

Now, here’s the thing. Pretty much everybody recognizes facial (and bodily) male beauty when they see it, and that includes young men in all-male living spaces. We recognize handsomeness in face and body because (among other things) it is highly valued and rewarded socially — so that you’d expect young men in those spaces to be keenly attuned to handsomeness.

If you are a man handsome in body and face, if you are tall (and, maybe, if you sport a big package), then you get more of the good things in our culture. You are much more likely to be selected as a leader, to be hired for jobs, promoted, and paid well. People are more inclined to listen to what you say and to defer to you. It’s a big fucking thing, and it has nothing to do with your qualities as a person; all of this comes from what nature gave you.

Because these things are prominent symbols of masculinity. And we value masculinity. In some contexts — like those all-male enclaves of young men in close quarters — we value masculinity a whole hell of a lot.

This is a fact, and you can legitimately view it as appallingly problematic, as I do. I am, after all, a small-boned 5ʹ 7ʺ guy with a dick on the small side and a face widely considered to be sweet, but on the feminine side, and culturally of rather marginal masculinity, with many close female non-sexual friends, tons of artistic interests, deep indifference to sports, and on and on — plus I actually am a faggot (and a feminist, too). So I am affronted by the sociocultural valuing of things that are basically flukes of nature, without actual intrinsic value to society. (I am also affronted, big time, by the sociocultural valuing of inherited privilege, but that plaint will have to wait for another day.)

In a cleft stick. Back to the guys at Princeton 60+ years ago. On the one hand, male facial beauty is in fact a big thing in our little community. On the other hand, the Guy Code rules in our world, exquisitely, and the existing vocabulary for male facial beauty all smacks of femininity, or worse.

So there’s this thing we want to talk about, in fact want to celebrate in some of our number, but the vocabulary we have would subject us to ridicule or worse. We are in a cleft stick.

The obvious solution is linguistic innovation. College kids, both sexes (but guys do it a lot for show), are given to inventing slang, lots of it, and passing it around. There are good reasons why they do it — affirming group identity is a powerful one — but somewhere down on the list of reasons is the actual need for an expression that will fill a gap in the available vocabulary.

English has rich resources for fresh expressions, among them the recruitment of an N + N compound from the essentially inexhaustible resource of possible but hitherto unused compounds. Somewhere in the American college world in the 1950s, some guy ventured on face + man ‘man having something to do with the bodypart the face’ specialized to refer to a man with a notably handsome face, an expression that would be free of the stigmas associated with Adj + N expressions that have adjectives like beautiful, or handsome, or even good-looking or attractive.

(In case you missed this, the problem was not adjectives like beautiful in themselves. These guys were entirely comfortable with talking about beautiful stuff in arts contexts (Eduard Hanslick’s The Beautiful in Music struck no one as feminine or queer, even if Hanslick did come down on the side of the lyrical Verdi rather than the muscular Wagner, whose music he detested), about handsome thoroughbreds or furniture, or of course about good-looking or attractive women. The problem arose only with references to male beauty.)

In any case, the innovation was inspired (it’s short and easy, just two very familiar syllables, and it makes some kind of sense on first hearing), it spread fast, and it’s lasted for 70 or so years. (If you’re a word person like me, it’s also entertaining. I mean, face man could be referring to a man who was nothing but a face, no body, no limbs, just a huge face.)

I am, however, left with the puzzle of why none of the standard general dictionaries has this compound in it. I know, I know, lexicography is hard.

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