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On Feeling Totally Masculine

‘What is most beautiful in virile men is something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine…’

So wrote the late Susan Sontag, in her classic 1964 essay ‘Notes on Camp’.

It’s a great, persuasive line, but of course entirely and deliciously subjective. I tend to agree with the famously stern Sapphic here, but then as an old bugger I would.

Before checking it, I had though mis-remembered the line as ‘All truly beautiful people are a mixture of masculine and feminine’, which waters it down. Ms Sontag seems to be suggesting that what is attractive in a masculine man is some femininity that he or nature has failed to stamp out.

A new survey from YouGov of eleven Western countries (Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, UK, Canada, USA, and Australia) suggests that Poles, Italians, Spaniards, and French men have done the most stamping: men from those countries are most likely to describe themselves as “totally masculine”.

There is no data however on their attractiveness.

And by happy Catholic complementarity, women from these countries are also most likely to see themselves as “totally feminine”.

Polish men are the butchest of the bunch, at least in their own eyes. Three quarters of them considered themselves totally masculine – the highest score of the ten countries surveyed.

Interestingly, 4% of Polish men see themselves as “totally feminine” – also the highest score in this category amongst the nations surveyed. And while only half that proportion (2%) of Polish women saw themselves as totally masculine, 86% of Polish women considered themselves totally feminine, also the highest score. The ‘binary’ is binding.

Germany had the lowest totally masculine men quotient at 33%. And also, the lowest percentage of women describing themselves as totally feminine: 45%. While 0% of German women described themselves as totally masculine.

Denmark had the next lowest male masculinity score at 37% – but also with four times fewer men than in Poland describing themselves as totally feminine: 1%.

The UK was third from, ahem, bottom, at 41%, with 2% of men describing themselves as totally feminine. 46% of British women described themselves as totally feminine (the second lowest score), and 2% as totally masculine.

In all countries save Denmark (37% vs 35%), the percentage of women describing themselves as totally feminine was higher than totally masculine men. In the case of Poland, which had the highest male masculinity rating, by a whopping 11%.

This seems noteworthy. The totally masculine men are easy to make fun of – I have done myself, far too much. As Sontag pointed out, camp dethrones seriousness. But, leaving aside the Freudian point of whether it is possible to be totally masculine (or totally feminine), since we are all, of man and woman born, and all a mixture of ‘active’ and ‘passive’ traits – even Andrew Tate – is there in fact anything wrong with considering yourself totally masculine?

Well, in an era where masculinity has in the most ‘advanced’ (i.e. secular and consumerist) Western countries been relentlessly and officially problematised if not pathologized, even by men’s razor multinationals, the answer is probably ‘yes’. ‘Totally masculine’ men are probably ‘toxic’ as well as laughable. Being ‘totally feminine’ doesn’t carry either of these associations – the ‘opposite’, in fact.

And of course, the more totally masculine the men are in a country the more incentive there is for women to be totally feminine. Or, put the other way, the lower the proportion of totally feminine women, the more incentive there is for men to say they consider themselves less than totally masculine. Women who are not totally feminine are probably not in the market for a totally masculine man.

In other words, in societies which are not as traditionally polarised into masculine and feminine roles, volunteering a certain amount androgyny involves the least risk and the greatest potential benefit.

Britain scores highly on the androgyny scale: more than half of British men admit (or claim) to some femininity, and 16% of British men selected 3 on the 1-7 masculinity-femininity scale (21% for under 40s), in other words the ‘bravest’ option before things start getting really androgynous at the fulcrum of 4.

It’s worth mentioning however that in Australia, once seen – or caricatured – as a bastion of Crocodile Dundee masculinity, 17% of 18-39 males had the balls to select fully androgynous 4, compared to just 7% in the UK, with nearly a third (31%) selecting 4-7, i.e., fully-androgynous or more feminine than masculine.

Generation Metrosexual

As you might expect, there is a marked age effect: younger men and women are less likely to rate themselves as totally masculine or feminine than their elders.

In the UK, only 25% of under 40s males consider themselves totally masculine, compared to 63% of over 60s. (25% to 67% for totally feminine women), one of the largest age gaps in the survey, and matched by the US at 26% to 64%. In fact, for that age group, the former master of a quarter the globe is the least “totally masculine” country after teensy-weeny Denmark (23%).

This shouldn’t be so surprising, since the UK is the home of metrosexuality, and metrosexual poster boy David Beckham famously described himself at the height of his footballing-and-fashion-shoot fame – twenty years ago – as being ‘in touch with my feminine side’. UK men under the age of 40 have spent at least half their lives in world in which metrosexuality and the male ‘passivity’ of desiring to be desired, is the new normal.

‘Real men’ nowadays aren’t supposed to be afraid of quiche, thongs, or pegging. Sontag’s beauty formula – or my misremembered version of it – has been thoroughly mainstreamed. (UK offspring Australia btw was almost the second home of metrosexuality, with a plethora of Ozzie Beckhams in Australian sport.)

Another YouGov survey from 2016 found that only 2% of UK young men aged 18-24 define themselves as “completely masculine”, compared to 56% of men over 65. Unfortunately, and annoyingly, like the question formulation (“completely” instead of “totally”) the age grouping doesn’t match the recent survey, which divides 18-39, 40-59 and 60+.

However, the percentage of men of all ages identifying as “completely masculine” then was 28%, compared to 41% “totally masculine” now – suggesting that either men have become considerably more masculine or masculine-identified in those six years or that these surveys are rather unreliable. (YouGov became notorious in the last few years for producing polls that said everyone wanted to be locked down forever, and that they always meticulously observed all restrictions – strongly suggesting that when it comes to social behaviour and attitudes people tend to tell opinion pollsters the ‘right’ and ‘good’ answer.)

Then again, the same survey from 2016 found that 42% of US men considered themselves completely masculine, compared to the new survey’s finding of 41% totally masculine.

The age effect in the latest survey, whatever its merits, is apparent even in uber butch Poland, where 64% of 18-39s describe themselves as totally masculine compared to 90% of over 60s. (77% to 95% for women.) The Polish age gap is bigger than in other butch countries such as Italy, Spain, or France.

(Sweden is mentioned in the YouGov summary as having the widest male generational gap, 27% to 71%, but Sweden doesn’t appear in the data or the graphical presentation, so I am not discussing it. Also, YouGov uses ‘men’ and ‘women’ in its summary and charts, and ‘male’ and ‘female’ in its stats – so I have used them interchangeably as well.)

‘Don’t Knows’ & Deutschland

The most masculine (and feminine) countries have the lowest number of men choosing a ‘don’t know’ response: 1-3%. In Britain 4% of males (3% of females) tick that box. While Germany has by far the largest number of DKs at 13% (10% for females), rising to nearly a quarter (22%) of 18-39 males – three times the number of females DKs in the same age group (7%), and only 5% less than the number of totally masculine males in Germany.

I have some sympathy with the don’t knows. If I was asked to rate myself on a 1-7 scale of masculinity-femininity I would probably also end up ticking the ‘don’t know’ box. Partly out of pique at the presumption that my unique and incredibly complex personality could be summed up by such a dull scale, but mostly because it would be too tedious to think about it for more than a few seconds.

Unless I was provided with a comfortable couch and a good, attentive – and free – therapist.

Why would don’t-knowism be so much more pronounced in Germany than anywhere else? Being English I can’t help but mention ‘The War’ and wonder if it has something to do with Germany’s anti-militaristic post-war culture: 7% of 60+ German males selected ‘don’t know’, compared to just 1% of 60+ Brit males.

Also – and this is really remarkable – only 41% of the 60+ German males selected totally masculine, compared to 63% in the UK. The lowest percentage for that age group in any of the countries surveyed, and the only one that is under 50% – even Denmark comes in at 51%. (And Germany is 27% Catholic.)

Germany is the only country surveyed where most 60+ males regard themselves as a mixture of masculine and feminine, and by some margin. Which is why the ‘generational gap’ is smallest in Germany, and less than half that of the UK.

Perhaps it isn’t entirely unrelated that the ‘mother tongue’ of Sigmund Freud, the man who spent much of his life grappling with the ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ of the human condition – and what we might actually mean by these terms – was German.

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