Sexiness: Good for America (but not the key to a post-racial nation)

When Old Spice first brought Isaiah Mustafa on board for what are, totally objectively, the best commercials ever made, I was really confused. REALLY confused. Blending in with Superbowl Commercials, Mustafa and his Old Spice writers created such an accurate, mocking picture of masculinity in football ads that I didn’t catch the irony. Yeah, whoops.

Since I’ve figured out what was going on, though, all I’ve wanted is two tickets to that thing I love.

I’m on a horse!

In case you were curious, the Old Spice caption text on the video on YouTube reads:

We’re not saying this body wash will make your man smell into a romantic millionaire jet fighter pilot, but we are insinuating it.

Sort of makes you want to ram a Dodge Charger into a brick wall.

Tricia Romano at The Daily Beast seems to think that Isaish Mustafa’s “inherent sex appeal” is good for America. Well duh it’s good for America. That man is HOT. Who DOESN’T need more sexy men?

But Ms. Romano also seems to think that “The choice of a black man as the desired sex object for a national advertising spot aimed at mainstream America, which is to say white America, is particularly perfect right now.” She goes on to imply that a sexy black spokesman will bring about a post-racial America.

After the break: good for America? DUH. Ending the racial divide? Er. No.

Basically, Ms. Romano is saying that because a bunch of women and men think that Isaiah Mustafa is the most attractive man on planet earth, “other ad agencies, casting agents, film and TV directors, will be open to the idea that their lead character or spokesperson can be of any race, and don’t just cast a de facto white guy.”

Congratulations, ladies and gentleman. You picked a black guy as someone hot, and now the world’s problems are solved!

Alright, maybe I’m just too young to really know anything about this. But there seem to be a lot of problems in Ms. Romano’s article.

First she says, “Mustafa is being judged purely on his talent, his good looks, and yes, his immaculate abs.” Okay so he’s being judged on his talent AND OH MY GOD HE IS SEXY. Also talent: “The former NFL player possesses an electric charisma and a self-deprecating sense of humor that only serves to make him even more likable.” In fact. Ms. Romano is SO focused on talent that she follows up that paragraph with this little diatribe:

He’s not “hot for a black guy,” he’s just hot. He’s hot enough to make celebrity lesbian Ellen DeGeneres giggle like a school girl when he visited her set, causing her to beg him to recite his Old Spice lines.

Ellen isn’t alone—gay men love the Old Spice Man, as much as straight women apparently do. An staffer picked Mustafa as one of his 10 hottest men, writing, that Mustafa “almost makes me want to buy some Old Spice. Almost.”

He’s hot enough to make Tyler Perry—who, after telling him that he got the part in an upcoming movie, Colored Girls, on Oprah—nervously beg Mustafa to put his shirt back on.

He’s hot enough to be named by, the Bonnie Fuller-helmed mainstream gossip site, as their official “Fourth of July Holly-Hunk.” (He gratefully accepted that honor in a YouTube clip, while awarding himself the world’s giant trophy, and sweet talking the writer, Lindsay).

He’s hot enough that a California-based producer/director Johannes S. Beals asked him to propose to his girlfriend for him in the Twitter stream, without worrying she’d leave him for the pitchman. (She said yes.)


I’m just not sure why she thinks that sexiness suddenly means that we’re going to have a “domino effect,” and suddenly black men are going to get cast everywhere.

It’s not like sexiness has ever equaled respect. Check out all these sexy women who we think are sluts mostly because we just feel like calling them that.

OH WAIT, I’M SORRY. Those were women. Right. So now we have this SUPER SEXY MAN. And he gets way more respect when he exercises his sexuality.

I guess I’m just interested in the fact that Ms. Romano thinks that a hot man is going to lead to progress. A hot woman, meanwhile? Pshh. “Perez Hilton didn’t put a skimpy outfit on Miley Cyrus,” she says. Therefore, it’s totally Hilton’s prerogative to post pictures of Miley’s crotch online, she argues. Sure, Ms. Romano acknowledges that any normal 17 year old might be a sexual being, but she’s sure as hell judging her for it.

Even if Ms. Romano’s iffy sex logic doesn’t bother you, consider how many sexy black men are already famous in American society. We’ve got sexy black soccer players (Tim Howard is technically half and I’m not sure how he identifies), sexy black actorssexy black college athletes (his eyes in the Verizon Center at Georgetown Hoyas basketball games were a highlight of the ’08-’09 season, given the mediocre basketball), sexy black platinum recording artists, and, oh yeah, a sexy black president.

Yet, there are still more African American men in prisons than white men or women. There have been two African Americans on the Supreme Court, ever. And there have only ever been SIX African Americans in the 100 body U.S. Senate – including Pres. Obama and fucking Roland Burris, who, in case anyone forgot, will no longer be a Senator once he is replaced by IL Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias or Rep. Mark Kirk in January.

Yeah, clearly, sexiness has led to great things.

I don’t want to undermine how great it is that all of us are looking past race and able to appreciate all the sexiness in front of us. I think that’s awesome. The World Cup, in particular, was a chance to appreciate multi-cultural sexiness. But I just don’t think it’s enough anymore.

Again, maybe I’m too young to really get it. Maybe I’m just thinking this because I don’t know what it was like before it was standard for a white Jewish girl to think a black former football player is gorgeous.

And sure, “It would have been just as easy for Old Spice to hire some blonde no-name actor with a chiseled chin and a nice tan.” But I think if Isaiah Mustafa’s viral attractiveness were going to create any substantive changes in the entertainment industry – or anywhere, really – Usher would have gotten there first. He has three (I think) multiplatinum albums, a good voice, a gorgeous body, and tremendous talent for dancing. But as Ms. Romano reminds us, “roles for minorities in general had decreased 2 percent from a high in 2007,” despite the fact that “minorities” are decreasing in actual “minority” status. Apparently, “The statistics showed minority performers play a mere 27.5 percent of parts in film and on television,” which doesn’t really seem sufficient, given the breakdown of this country and the “minority”-related narratives we haven’t even bothered to explore yet (I’m waiting for someone to really tackle illegal immigration in a move).

SO YES: let’s celebrate Isaiah Mustafa because he’s hot, has drop-dead timing, and is using his assets to make fun of sexist Superbowl commercials. But lets not overreact here: sexiness is not the key to a post-racial America.

    • Eileen
    • July 20th, 2010

    1) That is the awesomest ad ever. It almost makes me want to buy Old Spice just for myself.

    2) I don’t think it bridges a gap for black men’s being represented in casting, in politics, or in anything really important – but I do think there are important racial connotations. Namely, that a handsome black man is being used to sell sex (I mean body wash…via sex) to women who aren’t black. To many of us, that’s no big deal – sexy is sexy. To some of us, that’s really no big deal – it’s hard enough to find a man you want to date, damned near impossible to find one if you limit yourself to your own race. But there are enough people in this country who think that interracial dating is wrong – remember that one judge last year who wouldn’t issue a marriage license to an interracial couple? – that I think that every non-white man held up as a sex object – and more importantly, a positive, romantic sex object – for white women is a good thing. It probably won’t win over as many people as I’d like, but the more that pop culture asserts the idea that it’s okay to be attracted to and even to want to date people of a different race, the more accustomed we may be to interracial dating, which, as it becomes widespread, can, I think, lend itself to the cause of post-racialism.

    3) I’m going to go watch that commercial again now.

    • Meg
    • July 20th, 2010

    Black men have always been portrayed as hypersexual, and objectified. That’s nothing new. The idea that straight white men might not be threatened by that is, but I’m unconvinced. This isn’t a new script, it’s just an old script redone with an air of self-awareness.

    This hypersexualization functions, culturally, in much the same way the hypersexualization of women does. See also this post about the kid from The Karate Kid’s abs:

    I don’t think the commercial would work the same way with a white man. It’s a lot harder to actually objectify white men in a way that makes other men not identify with them, which is my definition of “sex object”, because unlike women and black men, white men are considered fully “people”. It’s easy to not identify with Paris Hilton as a woman, for example, which somehow makes it cognitively acceptable that she is portrayed as something to be consumed.

    It doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the deconstruction of masculinity going on here and think he’s attractive and the commercials are funny, but I still think the commercial is the opposite of post-racial.

      • Mara Alyse
      • July 20th, 2010

      I think you’re right, and I probably should have picked up on the hypersexualization of black men as well as women in general, given the ever common stereotype.

      One more reason this ad is just not what she says it is.

  1. Actually, I think part of the reason why so many people love Mustafah and the ads is exactly because he is black. It clashes with the upper class images of old spice. I mean, when I first saw him with a shirt tied around his neck on a yacht, I think some of the humor was in seeing a muscular black man in a position of ‘high class’ and wealth, where usually those two images are not coupled together. Buff sexy black men are normally portrayed as football players or working class or maybe entertainers….but rich yacht owners that buy you tickets to that thing you love? Not so much.

    Overall the ads are satirical enough that I think it’s bringing to our attention the stereotypes we assign to masculinity, class, and race. Mustafah might help us get to a more post racial position, but we certainly don’t love him because we are post racial. The fact that we want to pat ourselves on the back for finding him hot and ‘not just for a black guy’ is proof enough of that.

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