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What Does It Take to Be "The Sexiest Man Alive"?

What are the criteria and who decides what's appealing?

Key points

  • It’s not clear what criteria are used to choose winners, besides the person needing to be a man and alive.
  • Very few men of color have won the title, only one Black and practically no men of Asian descent.
  • Nearly all of the winners have been Hollywood actors—no medical doctors, engineers, or other scientists.
 Red Carpet Report on Mingle Media TV from Culver City, USA, downloaded from Wikimedia Commons. From the World Premiere of Marvel's Ant-Man #AntMan #AntManPremiere - DSC_0081
PEOPLE, the weekly magazine and not all people, has named actor Paul Rudd as its “2021 Sexiest Man Alive.”
Source: Red Carpet Report on Mingle Media TV from Culver City, USA, downloaded from Wikimedia Commons. From the World Premiere of Marvel's Ant-Man #AntMan #AntManPremiere - DSC_0081

To every man who has been training so hard, lifting weights, perfecting your “how you doings,” and doing whatever you can to be "sexy", the competition is over. Put away your abs, your one liners, your offers to do the dishes, and anything else that may score you points. Paul Rudd, the 52-year-old star of the movie Ant-Man, has beaten all of you.

It’s not clear what criteria People Magazine uses to determine the "Sexiest Man Alive" each year. Are there essays involved? Does being on Tinder automatically qualify or disqualify you from consideration? A writer for People did cite Rudd's gorgeous green eyes and easy grin.

Don’t get me wrong. Rudd is not necessarily a bad choice for “2021 Sexiest Man Alive.” He was great in Ant-Man, Ant-Man and The Wasp, and Avengers: End Game. At no point, did you say, “this guy’s not an ant.” He was that convincing as an actor. He’s appeared in other hit movies ranging from Clueless to The 40-Year-Old Virgin. His appearances on talk shows have been frequently entertaining. He’s supported some good causes such as the Stuttering Association for the Young (SAY). All told, he seems just as qualified as previous winners, who have ranged from Mel Gibson to Pierce Brosnan to Brad Pitt.

The issue, though, is who has not won the title since its inception in 1985. The list has been dominated by a certain type of guy.

First of all, until maybe the past few years, there hasn’t been much demographic diversity such as racial and ethnic diversity. For example, how many men of East Asian descent have won the title? Sure, the winner from 1994, Keanu Reeves, has a father of Native Hawaiian, Chinese, English, Irish and Portuguese descent. But that's a fraction of one of 36 different winners.

Additionally, through the first 32 years of the award, Denzel Washington in 1996 was the only Black American winner. There haven’t really been any men of South Asian descent. And you don’t see much in the lines of Latino descent. Plus, most of the winners have been White American with Australian and British folks thrown in there.

This sort of sends the message that certain facial features and skin colors are more valued than others. This in turn can be long-lasting effects among many people. For example, I still remember being one of only a few Asian Americans in my high school and often going dateless. Back then, a female high school classmate once told me, “you really help me with my homework and are fun to be around but are so, so, so ugly.”

I did ask her if she found any Asian American men to be attractive and she answered, "no." Hearing such responses over and over again reinforced that while I may be useful like a vacuum cleaner or a Cuisinart, I was considered by others the direct opposite of being sexy. It impacted dating and career selection, such as avoiding careers that don't depend heavily on more objective skills and criteria.

Such a self-image was aligned with what was being portrayed in broader society at the time. For the longest time, very few males of Asian-descent appeared on TV or in movies in roles that didn’t involve delivering Chinese food, working in a laundry service, being mocked, or ironically (compared to the other roles) using martial arts. Of course, while things have improved somewhat since then, there still have been more beasts (e.g., Beauty and the Beast and Shrek) as leads in Hollywood rom-coms than Asian American men.

Looks can be very subjective, and entertainment can play a major role in shaping what should be considered sexy. This lack of representation in entertainment can leave many men of color wondering about their own physical attractiveness deep into their adulthoods.

Secondly, practically all of the winners have been actors. Maybe the name of the award should be “Sexiest Male Actors Alive” instead. Or perhaps “Sexiest Male Hollywood Actors Alive” since the list doesn't really include folks from Bollywood, Korean dramas, and other acting communities. Aside from actors, a handful of musicians such as Adam Levine, Black Shelton, and John Legend have been honored. Perhaps the award should be renamed “Sexiest Male Hollywood Actors Along With Some Musicians in Recent Years Alive” Interestingly, no professional athletes have won over the years.

There has been a definite lack of doctors, engineers, and other scientists on the awardees list. In this case, the word "lack" means "zero." This is true regardless of what statistical analyses you may perform. And, no, 2006 winner George Clooney, who played a medical doctor on the TV show ER doesn’t count.

This lack of science representation may perpetuate the whole “oh, those are nerds” stereotypes of guys who like science. This could be having a broader impact as well. It doesn't make science very attractive. When people say "hot abs," they typically don't mean "hot abacuses." It may be contributing to the anti-science attitude that has pervaded our society and very much hindered the response to the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Scientists aren’t the only ones missing. Architects, actuaries, activists, and accountants are just some of the A-listers absent from the awardees list. Again this is not to say that Jake from State Farm should have been the “2021 Sexiest Man Alive.” But the history of the award continues to suggest that White male Hollywood actors are the ideal to which everyone else aspires. Or desires.

Certainly, People's “Sexiest Man Alive” is not like an Olympic Gold medal. People, meaning other human beings and not the magazine, won't be checking instant replay to confirm that Rudd indeed finished first rather than some other actor. It's not clear what specific benefits will arise from the award such as being first in line when toilet paper inventory runs low. Nevertheless, like it or not, the winners of the award do portray to the rest of society what should be considered "sexy." And if the winners of the award don't reflect the true diversity in society, what does that say?

It would be helpful to know more specifically what the criteria will be for “2022's Sexiest Man Alive,” besides being a man and alive. Presumably men around the world are going to be spending day and night training for it. They will be toning their abs, deflecting everything humbly, and practicing lines such as "Jean-Claude Van Damme you are good looking." Because after all, every man will be under consideration, right?