Austin's powers

Falling in and out of love with the International Man of Mystery.


Lisa Palac
June 11, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

It happened when I least expected it, long after the crowds had thinned out -- but isn't that always how it goes with romantic obsessions? "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery" had been out on video for over a year by the time I finally saw it.

From the moment I first set eyes on his Beatle boots and blue-striped suit, I felt our connection. Austin Powers and I had the same couture aesthetic, the same crazy dance moves, the same overwhelming desire to be both a slutty sex object and gracious subject. I loved the way he defeated those voluptuous Fembot assassins by blasting them with his bare mojo, as well as the sense of decency he displayed by not taking advantage of a drunk Agent Kensington. But the clincher was, of course, his vaguely heart-shaped chest hair, which was so silly and absurd and yet so ... erotic. I knew right then and there that I was hooked.

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That evening I watched the film again, this time with my husband, Andrew.

"Look, honey! It's just like yours!" I said when we got to the Warm Liquid Goo phase where Austin's fur is first revealed.

"His chest hair is fake," he said flatly.

"That's not the point," I said, and hit pause. "Isn't it just a little bit refreshing to see at least one hairy man up there on the big screen? I mean, the reality is that men are by-and-large hairy, but where are their media representatives? Nowhere. Not in GQ or up on the latest Calvin Klein underwear billboard or even in the world of pornography where the ideal, the waxed torso, reigns supreme.

"It's all so oppressive, isn't it?" I said softly, stroking his fuzzy shoulder.

His eyes filled with the kind of wary empathy you'd give a mental patient. "What about Burt Reynolds?"

"Oh, right. Burt Reynolds. Like one hairy icon every 25 years is supposed to be enough."

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Well, things just snowballed from there, and soon I became convinced that Austin Powers was the modern model of romantic masculinity. My thinking was as follows: For years women have been complaining about their on-screen Madonna/whore treatment, but the truth is, Hollywood's current portrayal of men isn't much better. Who is the guy every woman wants and every man wants to be? Is it the depilated, I-can't-draw-my-way-out-of-a-paper bag Jack Dawson (Leo DiCaprio) in "Titanic"? The lying, cheating yet gifted Mama's Boy Blake Allen (Robert Downey Jr.) in "Two Girls and A Guy"? Ben Stiller's erotically retarded, genitally mutilated Ted Stroehmann in "There's Something About Mary"? Certainly not.

As the International Man of Mystery, Austin is brilliant yet vulnerable, witty yet sensitive, unstoppably horny yet respectful. He's a man so secure in his virility that bad teeth and geeky glasses only enhance his erotic appeal. Despite his charisma and secret-agent talents, though, he's still insecure about the size of his penis. A '60s love child defrosted in the '90s, Austin is unsure how to reconcile his insatiable sexual appetite with his desire for love and commitment and, of course, my heart goes out to him. After all, what man isn't struggling with the legacy of the sexual revolution?

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[Insert Space Age bachelor-pad music here.]

So it was settled: Austin Powers was the New Man. Of course, I'd been down this New Man road before. First it was Keanu Reeves. Hairless, pained, asexual -- Christ, what was I thinking? Then there was Fox Mulder from "The X Files," whom, in all fairness, I never considered the New Man. But I was sexually obsessed with him nonetheless. After the episode where the psychic who can predict people's deaths tells Fox, "Autoerotic asphyxiation is a terrible way to go," I knew exactly how I could ease Fox's sense of alienation.

But back to Austin. To celebrate his newfound status, I started sucking up the merchandise. I bought the video, the soundtrack, a copy of "Burt Bacharach Plays His Hits," even a talking Austin Powers key chain that shouted, "Do I make you horny baby, yeah, do I?" And I was out of my mind with anticipation over the premiere of "The Spy Who Shagged Me," which would -- I was sure -- only confirm what I already knew.

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The new movie is side-splitting, even funnier at times than the original. But Austin? I don't know, he's changed. Sure, it's entertaining to see a naked Austin cruising through the hotel lobby, his nether-regions cleverly obfuscated by a beef roast here, an umbrella drink there, but, really, is this any way to behave just minutes after your blissful marriage disintegrates? Where's the heartache? The tremendous sense of loss and devastating betrayal? What happened to the old sensitive Austin, the one who felt so awful after that fight with Agent Kensington that he stayed up all night, driving the deserted Vegas strip and drinking Tab?

It's hard to believe that Mr. "Likes-a-Challenge" Powers actually falls in love with CIA operative Felicity Shagwell, since she's not very developed -- in the character department anyway -- and there's so little romantic intrigue between them. His jealousy over Felicity's shagging another dude, however, is right-on, and I was touched to see Austin reveal a bit of his own sexual hypocrisy: Even swingers get jealous -- an ugly little truth.

Now, maybe I could have forgiven all of his foibles had it not been for this: Through the zany, anything's-possible world of time-travel, Austin Powers finds Felicity in bed with ... SPOILER ALERT!!! ... Austin Powers. What does it mean? Is it an encouraging display of homoeroticism? Does it signify Austin's supreme masculine confidence? That he's so secure that he can share his woman with another man? But wait ... if the other man is himself, then isn't he just a narcissist who wants to lick his own balls? Nothing new about that, baby!

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And I guess that's the trouble with all these modern models of masculinity. At some point, they always come unglued.


Lisa Palac

Lisa Palac is the author of "The Edge of the Bed: How Dirty Pictures Changed My Life" (Little Brown).

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