You Should Be Reading: Fragmenting the Black Male Body: Will Smith, Masculinity, Clothing, and Desire

Image credit: New York Times

This week, Worn Through would like to highlight Fragmenting the Black Male Body: Will Smith, Masculinity, Clothing, and Desire and encourage you to add it to your reading list.

Gilligan, Sarah. “Fragmenting the Black Male Body: Will Smith, Masculinity, Clothing, and Desire.” Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture vol. 16, no.2 (2012): 171-192.

About the author: Sarah Gilligan holds a PhD in Media Arts from Royal Holloway, University of London. Her research interests and publications centre on clothing, the body and identities in contemporary popular culture – particularly film and TV drama and their intersections with magazines, advertising, photography and new media. Sarah is currently writing a monograph entitled: Fashion & Film: Gender, Costume and Stardom in Contemporary Cinema (Berg) and in the early stages of developing a co-edited interdisciplinary collection on Fashioning Transmedia Television: Designers, Texts and Audiences (academia.edu).

Abstract: This article examines the ways in which the representation of Will Smith in I am Legend and I, Robot constructs postcolonial performative visual narratives that both follow and disrupt existing discourses of sexualized black masculinity within visual culture. Through comparative analysis with examples drawn from photography, I will argue that Smith’s representation enables the black body to be rendered as fashionable and aspirational, rather than simply objectified via sexualized visual discourses.

Building on existing critical work on costume, identity and cinema (Bruzzi, Church Gibson, Gilligan), the article forms part of my wider research project, that responds to calls for further interdisciplinary work exploring the new nexus of film, fashion, and consumption that has emerged as cinema ever increasingly bleeds across“ different media. Despite Smith’s popularity with audiences, the intersection of Smith, black masculinity, and fashion does not appear to have been the subject of extended academic attention. In starting to readdress this absence, I will argue that whilst Smith’s body initially appears to be fetishized, his representation is characterized by performance and fragmentation that renders the body and blackness a construction, rather than a naturalized/essentialist object of desire. Mythic phallic power and desire is displaced onto clothes and accessories that function to construct Smith’s on-screen personas as a new male hero with crossover appeal in order to maximize his celebrity commodity status. Although such commodification is offered up as aspirational, it is potentially highly problematic in the ways that it attempts to further render Smith’s blackness safe for audiences.

Image credit: New York Times

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