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The Surprising Origins of the Hunky Fireman Calendar

Setting your agenda on fire since the late 19th century

On Christmas Eve 2015, Derek Jones posted a two-and-a-half-minute YouTube video in which his grandmother, Mary Ann Davis, can’t contain her delight at receiving a calendar featuring shirtless Indiana firefighters — a fundraiser for a fallen firefighter charity.

The video went viral enough that Davis was featured on The Today Show. It also inspired a host of imitators, including a South Carolina animal rescue that tested its own calendar hunks on thirsty senior citizens.

In the last 30 or so years, the bulging pecs of beefcake calendars have become a go-to holiday gift for grandmas and younger women alike. Calendars featuring sexy priests, Australian firefighters cuddling koalas or shirtless French farmers bring a lot of iron-jawed smolder to the world, but they’re also campy and funny. Even better, the proceeds often go to a charity like Pompier Sans Frontières (Firefighters Without Borders) or the Movember Foundation.

It’s an odd thing for us to latch on to, culturally speaking. While Sports Illustrated swimsuit calendars outsell beefcakes every year, they haven’t been embraced in the same way. If men have calendars featuring scantily clad women, they’re typically reserved for garages and workshops and are hardly treated as a source of humor or a subject of family conversation. Some evidence: On Amazon, bikini and lingerie calendars usually show up in the Sport or Office Supplies categories, while beefcake calendars are far more likely to be found in the Humor and Comedy or Entertainment sections.

So what’s going on here? Is our love of beefcake calendars a product of late-20th and early-21st-century feminism, another example of the equal-opportunity-objectification vision of women’s empowerment that brought us Magic Mike and its XXL sequel in all their eye-popping glory? Why is it so much more acceptable when men lose their clothes? Why do we tend to sexualize working-class guys? And who originally paired charitable giving with washboard abs?

The answers are more revealing than you’d think.

The Sexiest Story Never Told

The term “beefcake” emerged in the 1940s as a masculine counterpart to “cheesecake,” the word used to describe photos of partially clothed women that emphasized the seductive lines of their breasts or legs. Unlike male or female erotica, which features “an explicit appeal to sexuality” designed to “arouse,” beefcake and cheesecake photos are part of the more playful pinup tradition that aims to “amuse and titillate” according to the “Pinup Photography” essay in the Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Photography by David Haberstich, curator of photographs at the National Museum of American History.

“Beefcake” was popularized by gossip writer Sidney Skolsky in a 1944 Photoplay column featuring chisel-jawed, shirtless sailor-cum-rising-star Guy Madison (see Robert Hofler’s The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson for a popular retelling). But while the term and the popular explosion of beefcake images date to the mid-20th century, the history of beefcake photography and male bodies on display goes back another 50 to 75 years.

Sandow’s Magazine of Physical Culture

The rises of body building, mass-reproduced photography and movies were simultaneous and linked in the late 19th century. Prussian bodybuilder Eugen Sandow was basically King George V’s personal trainer, and when he toured the U.S. with Florenz Ziegfeld’s Trocadero Follies in the 1890s, he caused a ruckus with his feats of strength, his surprisingly ordinary body proportions and his physical beauty. He had what historian David Waller describes in the Rogue Legends documentary series as a nearly “universal appeal,” offering the promise of physical perfection through “discipline, through exercise [and] through physical culture.” And he was dead sexy to boot.

The legends of Sandow’s showmanship — wrestling a lion, supporting the weight of horses and their riders on his abdomen and the like — were spread through newspaper stories and cartoons; the sale of collectible “cabinet cards” featuring his nude or nearly nude image; Thomas Edison’s early Kinetoscope moving pictures; and publication of Sandow’s Magazine of Physical Culture.

According to David L. Chapman, author of Universal Hunks, Sandow titillated audiences with his near-nudity but avoided accusations of indecency by imitating classical statues with his poses. These “allusions to classical art and statuary” made it acceptable for wealthy women to display Sandow’s cabinet cards in their homes. They were art, not porn.

This winking emphasis on physical fitness rather than sex is a theme that runs through the history of the 20th-century celebrity beefcake as well. Madison was hardly the first actor to show off his impressively large lats to attract viewers. Stars like Rudolph Valentino and screen-Tarzan Buster Crabbe had been flexing in fan magazine spreads and publicity shorts like “The Sheik’s Physique” since the 1920s. But in the hyper-patriotic war years, Madison’s potent combination of musculature, corn-fed good looks and military service made him the “fan magazines’ World War II poster boy” and the male counterpart to best-selling pinup girl Betty Grable, as Hofler describes it.

The big boom in beefcake came after World War II, however, when thousands of formerly isolated gay men came home from the war and out of the closet, newly empowered by their exposure to the other gay men and the wider world. According to cultural historian Petra Mason — who’s edited a trilogy of books on vintage imagery and pinup photography from the ’40s and 1950s, including Beefcake: 100% Rare, All Natural — in the late 1940s, “physique magazines” exploded onto the periodical scene. Women might have admired them, but they were overtly marketed to straight men (at the time, the only socially acceptable audience for images of mostly nude men), and they were created and consumed mainly by gay men.

Beefcake, edited by Petra Mason

Magazines like Mr. America, Young Physique (which included centerfolds of male models in posing straps, early versions of the g-string) and Bob Mizer’s famous pocket-sized Physique Pictorial published page after page of nearly nude, well-oiled and -muscled smiling young men under the guise of providing health and fitness tips and other editorial content. The models posed in a series of all-male scenarios, according to Gilad Padva, writing in the Winter 2005–06 issue of Film Criticism: “wardens having fun with prisoners, well-built policemen having a good time with muscular convicts… lusty doctors giving giant injections to smiling patients.” As Padva notes, these “camp parod[ies]” blurred the boundaries of traditional, institutional power relationships in ways that ridiculed and satirized them while also celebrating gay sexuality.

Physique magazines offered gay photographers and models unprecedented chances to make art that appealed to them, and gay readers unprecedented chances to ogle men’s bodies. But unlike cheesecake magazines, which were behind the counter in brown paper, physique magazines’ wholesome fitness content meant they could be sold right on the newsstand.

Even so, many men who made beefcake content were deeply and sometimes tragically closeted. In a sexually repressive era when Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his HUAC counterparts were cracking down on “immorality” in government and the arts, even a rumor of homosexuality could wreck a career or a life.

Draconian obscenity laws dictating which kinds of images could be sent through the mail and which kinds of sexual activities were legal added to the risks. Mizer’s 1960s conviction for running a male prostitution ring made this eminently clear, as did legal punishments like “chemical castration and lobotomization” for those who “dared to go against societal norms,” as documentary filmmaker Thom Fitzgerald tells Out magazine.

Beefcake photographs and magazines were doubly important in this context because they gave gay men a chance to inhabit “wonderful safe spaces” and “an artful way of approaching [their] actual interest in the men rather than the lighting technique,” as Mason describes it. Private camera clubs where models posed for multiple photographers in single sessions offered physical spaces, but the magazines also created virtual communities. In the Fitzgerald docudrama Beefcake, historian Valentine Hooven III recalls surreptitiously buying his first Physique Pictorial as a pre-teen and realizing for the first time, “I was not alone.”

There was also an important shift in these magazines away from celebrities and toward blue-collar models, Mason says — a shift that’s mirrored in contemporary beefcake calendars. Most models were recruited from gyms, college campuses, bus stations and the streets. The photographer known as Bruce of Los Angeles shot “desert scenes, on the roads” and would “literally drive around, pick up hitchhikers and give them a couple bucks” to pose, according to Mason.

The similarly named Dave of San Francisco was known for photographing firefighters, police officers and soldiers looking for some extra cash, as Mason notes. Dave of San Francisco also photographed the most diverse collection of models of the major beefcake photographers, including men of color when other photographers were focusing mainly on white men.

With the rise of pornography in the 1960s and 1970s (especially after a 1962 Supreme Court ruling made male full-frontal nudity legal) and the growth of second-wave feminism came another key shift in beefcake history: A focus on women as a target audience for male smut. In 1972, Cosmopolitan published a three-page spread of an all-nude Burt Reynolds, a first for a major women’s magazine. And the first issue of Playgirl hit newsstands in June 1973 and sold 600,000 copies in four days. It was supposed to offer a female version of Playboy, complete with progressive, woman-focused journalism on topics like “abortion and breast cancer,” according to Esquire’s oral history of the magazine.

That might have been the press release version of the story (Playgirl boasted of a 94 percent female readership in 1973), but this is what former special editions editor Neil Fineman describes as “massive denial” on the part of management. While there was plenty of gay porn to go around, Playgirl still offered closeted men a less risky opportunity to get risque, and they took it in large numbers.

In the meantime, as Bryan Petroff writes in Out, the beefcake magazine was “all but forgotten.” Yet it’s still a cherished part of gay history, as Mason discovered when she was researching her pictorial edition. Most of the collectors she encountered in New York and L.A. acquired their collections at New York’s Christopher Street Flea Market in the 1970s and 1980s, when AIDS was killing gay men in staggering numbers and distraught friends and family were “selling off their possessions in the street.” Those collectors who remain are fiercely protective of the artwork, and of the period of gay history it documents — understandably so.

In the 1980s, beefcake calendars grew in popularity — including calendars featuring college students, the now-ubiquitous firefighters, and for the first time in 1985, Latino models. While gay men unquestionably enjoyed them, women did too and weren’t afraid to show it. “Bravo” calendar model Mike Garcia met “throngs of women” at local calendar signings, and they offered up themselves and their motel rooms. “Bravo” producer Larry Gomez expected Latina women to be conservative in their tastes, but was surprised to find that “the most reaction I got was that the guys had too many clothes on.”

Beefcake Today, Beefcake Tomorrow, Beefcake Forever

In November 2016, Anne Helen Petersen concluded that after a century of male shirtlessness, “we see … men’s chests offered for us and feel boredom.” But the happy hordes of mostly female moviegoers who crowded into theaters to see Magic Mike in 2012 and Magic Mike XXL in 2015 — and the Magic Mike Live Las Vegas show that opened earlier this year — suggest anything but boredom.

So does the proliferation of the beefcake calendar. In 2018, calendars full of sexy men abound. They’re sold in a range of options for every possible desire: Men in knitwear. Hot librarians. Senior citizens. Men holding baby animals. Calendars and images are produced and distributed nationally and internationally, by local senior centers and humane societies, by enterprising admirers of New York City taxi drivers and the athletic departments of major college football programs.

Even classical midcentury beefcake is enjoying a bit of a revival, with books, documentaries, exhibitions and the relaunch of Physique Pictorial earlier this year (for the interested, Mason suggests the photos of Chicago’s Chuck Renslow as the most appealing to both men and women).

Some (including Magic Mike star Channing Tatum) see this as part of a broader move toward equal opportunity objectification: Women finally get their chance to eyeball men for purely aesthetic or sexual reasons, similar to how they’ve been objects of this eyeballing for eons. There’s certainly a larger cultural shift toward the sexualization of men, as researchers Erin Hatton and Mary Nell Trautner found in their study of 42 years of Rolling Stone covers.

But some of the calendars’ acceptability has to do with the fact that we still don’t seem to take these calendars — or men as sex objects — seriously. Some calendars are purely for profit, but most are connected to a relevant charity. Surely this is part of what makes them more broadly palatable. If buying beefcake helps abandoned animals or the families of soldiers killed in action, we can karmically balance our lust for male flesh, the carbon-footprint-offsetting of the carnal world.

Then, too, there are the comedic and playful aspects of beefcake, which suggest something less overtly lustful than coy and flirtatious. Especially now, Mason suggests, when the male body is often presented in porn as “threatening or aggressive,” the beefcake calendar offers an “innocent naughtiness” and “way of appreciating the male form” in all its beauty. Beefcake doesn’t promote the fulfillment of sex, after all — only the allure.

You could argue that given the history and contradictions involved, beefcake offers the illusion of letting loose women’s and gay men’s illicit sexual desires only to contain them, to set their boundaries well inside the line where these desires would have to be reckoned with on a large scale. These calendars can be funny and ironic, but not too sexy, because men still aren’t supposed to be passive objects of desire.

But as with most attempts to corral such things, the broader effects of these calendars can’t be dictated by the culture that produced and popularized them. Long after the baby oil has been wiped from every crevice of every muscle-bound model’s sixpack, beefcake still gives people attracted to men more space to own their sexual desires unashamedly.

This doesn’t mean that beefcake calendars are automatically liberatory or revolutionary. But think of it this way: Today, your 80-year-old grandmother can be famous and even beloved for her pleasure in the beauty of rock-hard… biceps. That’s not something her grandmother could do or likely even dream of, no matter how horny she was. If that doesn’t make you smile, well, I’d wager my 2014 collector’s-item Liquid Plumr calendar that not even a sexy firefighter holding a puppy could warm your cold, cold heart.