by Mark Simpson
‘What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! in apprehension how like a god!… And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?’ – Hamlet
There has been a lot of soul-searching about what it means to ‘be a man’ nowadays. Because no one really knows the answer. Defining ‘man’ and ‘masculine’ in a world in which phallic certainties have dramatically deflated like a dirigible disaster is an endless and probably pointless task. It is the philosopher’s stone of marketing. The quintessence of dust.
Coach, a weekly free UK men’s fitness/lifestyle magazine produced by Dennis publishing (also behind the stalwart spornosexual monthly Men’s Fitness), recently produced some research on the elusive nature of the modern male that defined him by un-defining him. It claimed to show that the ‘alpha male’ stereotype is largely a thing of the past, replaced by an ‘alta male’ who is less interested in money and career than in a healthy work/life balance, self-improvement and personal relationships – ‘higher’ things.
Most of all, he prefers to follow his own lights, rather than compare himself to traditional models of masculinity which are now seen as largely obsolete. Modern man is defined, in other words, by his lack of definition.
Last month I was invited by Coach to appear on a panel in Soho, London discussing the findings. As I said at the time, what most interested me about the research was that, in addition to proving me, in my humble opinion, completely and absolutely right about everything – which is always gratifying – it seemed to finally dispel the over-hyped, almost hysterical, notion that men are undergoing a ‘crisis of masculinity’. Though I’m sure many of the people in crisis about this ‘crisis’ will continue to have a cow about it.
Masculinity has always been in crisis. This has been its ‘natural’, anxious, paranoid, Hamletian state. It’s why it always had something to prove. But probably less so now than ever before.
As I’ve argued for some time, instead of a crisis, what we’re really going through is a revolution. A revolution against mostly restrictive, repressive ideas of what being a man is. A metrosexual revolution – or ‘male lib’. In fact, this revolution has been going on for the last few decades and for most of the younger generation its achievements are largely taken for granted.
Hence the Coach found that: ‘Friendliness, intelligence, being funny, caring are all attributes man wants to be seen possessing – in contrast with toughness and strength of the man of yesteryear.’
This is underlined by how ‘masculine’ is the No.2 quality today’s men attribute to ‘man of yesteryear’ (48%) – but doesn’t make it into the top 12 attributes he likes others to see in him (23%).
This sentiment is loudly echoed in a recent YouGov survey (cited in the Coach research) that found only 2% of 18-24 year olds see themselves as ‘completely masculine’ – compared with 56% of 65+ men.
A whopping 47% (the largest segment) see themselves as 2s on a scale of 0-6, where 0 = completely masculine 6 = completely feminine, while a sizeable 17% see themselves as 3s, i.e. somewhere in the middle. (This is similar to a previous YouGov survey on sexuality which found that most young people in the UK now consider themselves something other than ‘100% heterosexual’.)
For comparison, 14% of 18-24 women see themselves as ‘completely feminine’, which is seven times as many men of the same age who see themselves as completely masculine. While 12% see themselves as 3s.
The remarkably low figures for young men seeing themselves as ‘masculine’ may be influenced by the way that masculinity has had a bad press lately – and indeed the majority of 18-24 men have a negative impression of masculinity, with 42% perceiving it negatively compared to 39% positively. Interestingly, 18-24 women mostly don’t share young men’s critical view of masculinity and are as positive about it as young men are negative (42% positive to 27% negative). In this regard, young men seem to be more ‘feminist’ than young women.
By the way, YouGov’s figures for the US show that American men are much more likely than UK ones to think of themselves as ‘completely masculine’, 42% overall compared to 28%. As I’ve pointed out before, despite being very much involved in its creation, the US has been resistant to metrosexuality and the revolution it represents – or at least terribly conflicted about it. The US is of course the home of ‘manning up’, bearism, ‘bro-nuts‘, and IT professionals who think they’re lumberjacks.
Back in the effete UK, while discussing its findings on men’s attitudes towards masculinity, the Coach report concludes: ‘But even though man is more comfortable with who he is on the inside, there’s a struggle to define ‘masculinity’. (61% find it ‘hard to define exactly what masculinity means’.)
I think this statement is phrased wrongly. There’s no ‘but’ about it. And not much of a ‘struggle’. I don’t think many if not most young men can be bothered. Which is a good thing. It’s precisely because masculinity can’t be easily defined nowadays that men have much more freedom than their forefathers – and can thus be ‘more comfortable with who he is on the inside’. In the past, really only a couple of decades ago, everyone knew what being a man was – and what a ‘regular bloke’ looked like. And who wasn’t.
Although trad masculinity had many admirable qualities, such as self-sacrifice, stoicism and DIY – they were largely based on repudiation. Most of trad masculinity was defined by what men were not – not soft, not tender, not nurturing, not passive, not feminine, not good with colours, not gay. As a result, most young men today don’t ‘struggle’ to define masculinity – rather, they get on with living their lives how they want to live them.
Finally, a slightly tedious word about demographics. The Coach research was based on a focus group of 21 men aged between 22-59 in London, and a survey of 1000 men and women across Britain. Although the focus group apparently included many men originally from around the UK (and some who still lived outside London), it’s probably true that the research – like the magazine itself – had a metropolitan bias.
It also seems to have had, unsurprisingly, a middle class one – 79% of the respondents were ABC1 (compared to c.54% nationally according to 2015 figures). However, I don’t think this invalidates their findings, especially since the aspects of their research which most interested me seem to be backed up by the more demographically representative YouGov research – which when you drill down into their C2DE/ABC1 breakdown, mostly shows no great differences between them in regard to attitudes towards masculinity.
It’s one of the hallmarks of the metrosexual revolution that it cuts across all classes, with working class men often on the coalface of change.