‘Men in South Korea spend more on skincare per person than men anywhere else in the world.’
Except Essex, of course.
Interesting BBC report on the K-Pop inspired uptake of male make-up by young Korean men.
By Mark Simpson
(Originally appeared in Out magazine, October 2017)
The US had a national nervous breakdown over male beauty in the early noughties.
It seems ridiculous now – and actually it was fairly ridiculous at the time – but it’s simply an objective fact that the US went completely fucking berserk over the metrosexual: my insufferably pretty offspring with the really great, hydrated skin. Not since the Beatles had a British import caused so much screaming – and so much moral panicking.
In 2003 – only a year or so after I’d introduced the him to the US in an essay for Salon.com that went virulently viral – ‘metrosexual’ was proclaimed ‘Word of the Year’ by The American Dialect Society. Handsomely beating SARS.
The same year, the networked animated cable TV series South Park devoted a whole episode to him satirising his stunning popularity, called ‘South Park Is Gay!’. We are told that all the straight men and boys in South Park have turned ‘metrosexual’ – which here seems to mean ‘effeminate’. The ‘Fab Five’ swishy gay male grooming and lifestyle experts from Queer Eye For the Straight Guy – that year’s new, smash-hit makeover show – are blamed for the epidemic of preening. They turn out to be alien monsters and are executed by the men’s angry wives, who explain: ‘men need to be masculine!’.
Strangely, this disturbingly silly cartoon spoof pretty much predicted/incited how America ended up reacting in non-animated real life to the scary sexual ambiguity of metrosexuality.
The uptake of ‘gay’ beauty concerns by men along with the ‘feminine’ desire to be desirable by men in general, was something well underway by the noughties – without an intervention from the Fab Five (I’d originally written about metrosexuality for a British newspaper back in 1994, predicting the future of masculinity was moisturised).
In hindsight, I wonder how many of the straight men in NYC the Fab Five rescued from flaky skin, cheap chinos and TV dinners were just slumming it for the sake of a free facial, some product and plenty of attention.
For my money, Queer Eye For the Straight Guy, which was often described as the ‘metrosexual reality TV show’, had a typo in the title. It should have been ‘Queer Eye OF the Straight Guy’. But then it wouldn’t have been commissioned.
Queer Eye was entertaining, mostly safe fun precisely because it restated the already blurring boundaries in a reassuring way: straight men were hopeless at appreciating male beauty and gay men were fabulous. The queer eye belonged to the queers. Despite this, Queer Eye still managed to outrage some at the time – including apparently the makers of South Park.
My own definition of the metrosexual from my Salon essay had though been carefully inflammatory about the sexual ambiguity of the metrosexual:
‘He might be officially gay, straight or bisexual, but this is utterly immaterial because he has clearly taken himself as his own love object and pleasure as his sexual preference.’
Though of course the US marketers who tried to appropriate – and spay – the metrosexual after my essay went viral, vehemently insisted that the metrosexual was always straight. And never vain. Just ‘well-groomed’. No one really bought this. His ambiguity and out-and-proud vanity was the only reason anyone was interested in him.
And it’s also why America, which really wasn’t ready to face up to this stuff back then, ended up having a full-blown backlash against metrosexuality by 2006, when the full, horrifying implications of metrosexuality began to sink in. Anti-metrosexuality became the 21st Century ‘Disco Sucks!’ campaign, but with even more pronounced gay panic.
The US media now aroused itself talking up hilariously butch reaction-formations such as ‘machosexuals’, ‘retrosexuals’ and a ‘menaissance’. Lots of books with annoying, anal lists of ‘manly’ do’s and don’ts were published. Most of all, the MAN word was hysterically over-deployed, often as a reassuring manly phallic pacifier strapped on the front of something that so wasn’t: MANdates, MANscara etc.
Metrosexuality of course, along with hyper-consumerism and visual culture, continued conquering the world. But in the US it wasn’t polite to mention it: metrosexuality was now on the downlow. As the South Park wives had put it in 2003: Men need to be masculine!
Or at least we needed to pretend they need to be.
All of which was of course way camper than the metrosexual ever was.
Queer Eye itself was axed in 2007 – the same year that the legendary cable TV drama series Mad Men first aired. But the star of the show, and the apple of the camera’s eye, the very dapper Don Draper (John Hamm) was essentially a late noughties metrosexual daydream of what a 1960s retrosexual looked like.
Either way, he certainly didn’t need the Fab Five to pick out his shirts.
Mark Simpson on how metrosexuality is now part of masculinity’s ‘gayish DNA’
The lights have gone off at Instagram and YouTube. Men’s Health has folded. The male grooming market valued at $50B globally until just last week has imploded. Those reports about how men are now spending more time and money clothes shopping than women can be binned. Tumbleweed is blowing around the 272 new gyms that opened in the UK last year. Tinder is totally toast.
Most apocalyptically of all, young men are putting their shirts back on and Love Island has been cancelled.
Or so you might be forgiven for thinking if you read Martin Daubney’s piece last week in Telegraph Men about the findings of a study into masculinity he helped organise. ‘We can say confidently’, he said, confidently, ‘that British men in 2017 are increasingly abandoning narcissism, the perfect body and promiscuity’.
Apparently, instead of being selfie-admiring, ‘vain’, ‘shallow’, ‘dopey metrosexuals’, today’s men are now looking for ‘greater depth and meaning’ and emphasising ‘traditional’ and ‘moral values’, including marriage.
In other words, men have – finally! – stopped being so bloody gay.
Male vanity’s death sentence was supposedly delivered in Harry’s Masculinity Report, sponsored by and named after an American male grooming company that is, well, muscling in on the lucrative UK male vanity market. But Harry’s you see is a straight-acting all-American grooming company. On their website they boast that they make ‘a high-quality shave that’s made by real guys for real guys’. Sweet!
Of course, as a big ol’ homo and the ‘daddy’ of the metrosexual and his ‘shredded’, under-dressed younger ‘bro’, the spornosexual, I’m a tad over-invested in male prettiness – even if I don’t always invest enough in my own. But I really don’t see much evidence for the demise of male self-reflexivity and image-consciousness. Except perhaps in the popularity of man-buns. (No one could wear one of those and own a mirror.)
I suspect what we have here is more a case of wishful/murderous thinking. The report seems to me to have found the ‘traditional’ values and morality it was looking for.
Were the guys surveyed ‘real guys’, like the guys at Harry? Well it seems they were simply the first 2000 men aged between 18-85 living in the British Isles who completed a lengthy online questionnaire. It was promoted in male-related online forums and ‘to ensure broad UK reach across all demographics, the survey was also promoted by Martin Daubney.’
Martin, a high-profile, right-of-centre, white, male, heterosexual, married journalist, indefatigable campaigner around men’s issues and ‘porn addiction’ – and infuriatingly likeable chap – has 17K followers on Twitter. It would be unfair to call this Daubney’s Masculinity Report, but we should at least wonder how much Martin is inadvertently admiring his own reflection in it.
It’s difficult to tell though – the ‘men’ in this study are rather opaque. Monolithic, even. There’s an age and marital status breakdown, which seems fairly representative, but no information about their ethnicity, their sexuality, political affiliation or their class/occupation. Though the fact that nearly half of them were from London and the South East (there is a regional breakdown) might be a bit of a clue as to the latter.
There are 35 ‘core values’ options listed in the questionnaire. The first four are: ‘Dependable, ‘Reliable’, ‘Loyal’, ‘Committed’, and the 7th is ‘Honest’.
The top five rated by respondents were, in order: ‘Honest’, ‘Reliable’, ‘Dependable’, ‘Loyal’, ‘Committed’.
‘Helpful’ isn’t in the list, but I suppose that’s implicit in the answers.
‘Fit’ and ‘athletic’, the only two options in the list of ‘core values’ that aren’t moral values appear at 21 and 22 and were rated by respondents at 31 and 35. Though perhaps the ratings for them should have been added together, as I’m not sure what the difference is between ‘fit’ and ‘athletic’. Both arouse me.
It’s great that men want to be, as they say in their online dating profiles, ‘100% gen’. Or seen as that. But I’m not sure how that shows they’ve abandoned the gym and their own reflection.
As for the evidence of men ‘abandoning promiscuity’ – the questionnaire doesn’t have anything to say, or ask, about ‘promiscuity’, or for that matter, monogamy. Unless of course you think that valuing honesty, reliability, dependability, loyalty and commitment is necessarily incompatible with having sex with more than one person. Or rather, sex with more people than you – probably the most accurate definition of ‘promiscuous’.
The trad-dad moralising thrust of all this becomes evident in the ‘main lessons from this survey’ section we are told the factors found to be associated with men’s ‘mental positivity’ are ‘good job satisfaction’, ‘stable relationship’, ‘living up to their roles as men’, ‘more connected to a sense of spirituality’ and ‘engage in sports’ – that’s manly team sports, I’m guessing, not posing around the gym like a tart.
I’m sure this is all well-intentioned. But it does sound a shade School Speech Day, c.1956. Especially the ‘living up to their roles as men’ bit.
I can understand why report’s authors want to ‘detoxify’ the ‘brand’ of masculinity (this ‘core values’ shtick is mostly used in a corporate context) and offer some ‘good news’ about men that goes against the bad news grain. And think it’s great that the oft-neglected issue of men’s mental health is being addressed and men’s intimate preoccupations are being probed.
But re-stigmatising the hard won right of men of whatever sexuality to be pretty and ‘gay’ isn’t going to help. I mean, really? No gym. No porn. No Tinder. No preening. This is supposed to reduce male suicide?
Male narcissism has added enormously to the gaiety of the nation. It should be celebrated as a Great British tradition, from Byron to Bowie to Beckham to Bromans. Puritanical Yankee grooming go home. What’s more the acceptance of it has made homophobia less acceptable. Non-gay men today, particularly younger men for whom metrosexuality is just ‘normal’, are much less hard on The Gays than their fathers were because they are less hard on themselves.
Being soft on yourself is surely the key to being soft on others.
Most men are not going to dedicate themselves to becoming a Men’s Health cover model, thank the baby Jesu. Apart from anything else, if they did I’d never be able to get on the squat rack at 5pm. But metrosexuality, love it or loathe it, is part of masculinity’s gayish DNA now. It’s far too late to straighten it out.
And even if you could, you’d just cause a global economic catastrophe, like the terrifying End of Days one envisioned at the beginning of this article.
by Mark Simpson
1991’s big, busty novelty hit ‘I’m Too Sexy’ was as zeitgeisty and bitchily funny as it was ear-wormingly annoying.
I remember it playing everywhere in London that summer: builders’ vans, barber’s shops, caffs, pubs, nightclubs, funeral parlours. OK, I didn’t actually hear it in funeral parlours but I’m sure that even the dead didn’t escape it’s strutting beat and croaking vocal. A perfect trashy radio song for a then still trashy London that was, back then, all mouth and no trousers. Of course, today it’s all oligarch trousers and hipster mouth.
Cruelly, Right Said Fred – who were all leather trousers – saw their cheeky, giggly song about self-love cheated of the No.1 spot in the UK. They were pinned down at No.2 for six weeks by Bryan Adam’s heavyweight paean to his own altruism: ‘Everything I Do I Do It For You’. A ballad to end all ballads which selflessly hogged the top spot for sixteen weeks that felt like years of Canadian winter.
‘I’m Too Sexy’ was the camp, saucy music-hall dance pop counterpoint to the naff north American mawkishness of EIDIDIFY. Though in truth we Brits deserved Mr Adam as much as anyone could deserve that fate: the UK pop music scene, like the UK economy, was in a right post-80s, post acid-house state. Right Said Fred were the only living British act in the top five top-selling UK singles that year. At No.1 was EIDIDIFY (natch), No.2 a reissue of Queen’s 1975 hit ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (after Freddie Mercury’s death that year from Aids-related illness), at No.3 Cher’s ‘It’s in His Kiss (The Shoop Shoop Song)’, at No.4 ‘I’m Too Sexy’, and at No.5 ‘Do The Bartman’ by The Simpsons.
Even a cartoon American managed to sell sold more records in the UK that year than any British act that wasn’t wearing just leather trousers. Britpop, which got underway a couple of years later, in large part as a reaction to a US-dominated UK hit parade, was of course all about cartoon Mancunians.
Right Said Fred are back in the news after Taylor Swift’s recent acknowledged use of ‘I’m Too Sexy’ baseline in her latest single ‘Look What You Made Me Do’. Everyone it seems likes a bit of ‘I’m Too Sexy’: the Guardian, along with many others, recently ran an interview with Richard Fairbrass, lead singer (middle in photo) about the hit.
There’s some interesting background: I didn’t realise that it got to No.1 in the US (in 1992). I also enjoyed the anecdote Richard Fairbrass relates: ‘In Texas, there was a fight in a bar because some girls played the video for eight hours, and when a guy tried to turn it off, they attacked him.’ I wonder though whether after eight hours of ‘I’m Too Sexy’ anyone would have been capable of doing much more than drooling insensately. I also didn’t realise Right Said Fred were still performing and recording.
But it was the (slightly edited) pull-quote at the top of the article that grabbed my attention.
‘Everyone thought we were sad gym queens… but we were proper musicians’
Now, I have nothing to say about the Fairbrass brothers’ musical prowess. But I do want to mention that out bisexual Richard and his slightly shorter straight brother Fred (left in the pic and on guitar in the vid) were gym queens, and as Richard mentions in the article, actually owned one – which is where part of the inspiration for the song apparently came from: watching people interact with the gym mirrors.
Their own gym queeniness though was very much part of the novelty of their very gay looking novelty act – you had to hire muscle by the hour in London in 1991: pub culture not gym culture ruled back then, even in the gay world. London had not yet turned into a rainy version of Southern California with no parking spaces. Everyone smoked. Everyone drank like fishes. No one ate anything except crisps and chips and the occasional kebab. And no one had seen the inside of a gym since school – except for escorts and bouncers. The Fairbrass brothers looked like both, but even gayer. It’s why if they wore anything on stage apart from leather trousers it was just waistcoats. Really awful waistcoats.
And why I’m pretty sure I tried chatting one of them up in a gay pub in West London not long before their hit. The straight one of course. Fred or someone the spitting, salivating image of him actually was a bouncer back then, working on the door of the Penny Farthing in Hammersmith at the time. As I recall he was very patient and indulgent with me. And soon he would have a much bigger fan-base, some of whom would be even more annoying than me. I think he may have told me about being in a band and having recorded a single, but I can’t be sure because of the passage of time – and because I was anyway mightily distracted by his biceps.
The early nineties was an era when metropolitan male vanity – something celebrated and mocked but mostly, in spite of the lyrics, celebrated with ‘I’m Too Sexy’ – was just beginning to get into its stride in the UK. It was almost a soundtrack to my book about male narcissism and homoeroticism in a mediated world, Male Impersonators (which I wrote 92-93). ‘I’m Too Sexy’ was probably still ear-worming in my head in 1994 when I predicted, after attending an exhibition organised by GQ magazine called ‘It’s a Man’s World’, that the future was metrosexual.
True, the model of the song (‘I’m a model, you know what I mean’) and their little tush they shake on the catwalk, who is ‘too sexy for Milan’, their car, their cat, their hat, their love, their shirt and even the song, is gender non-specific at a time when models were generally assumed to be women. And the official story about the lyrics is that my short-lived imaginary boyfriend Fred was dating an American female model when the song was written. But the song was performed by the Fairbrass brothers. In leather trousers (sorry, I can’t stop mentioning them). And in 1991 London’s idea of a Chippendale body that was too sexy for their shirts.
In the promo the boys sashay topless on the catwalk and down the street followed by female pappers – a reversal of Duran Duran’s early 80s ‘Girls On Film’ moment, and also of course the usual clichés about the ‘male gaze’ (which wasn’t entirely new then, but a quarter of a century on some still think they are the first to subvert).
‘I’m Too Sexy’ started out satirising the fashion industry, but ended up massaging the muscles of male exhibitionism and narcissism – a noble cause the boy band Take That were to eagerly further evangelise later in the 1990s with their leather harness rent boy aesthetic. But ‘I’m Too Sexy’ for all its apparent silliness also turned out to be strangely prophetic about our 21st Century shirtless selfie-obsessed culture and the e-catwalk of Instagram – before most people even had a mobile phone, let alone one that could take really cool, app-filtered photos of their favourite gym changing room mirror. We’re all now way too sexy for not just our shirts but real life.
Which reminds me. Although they were kind of proto-spornos, the Fairbrass brothers’ bodies, which were glad-handled and devoured by the great British public’s eyes at the time as if we’d only just come off the meat ration, don’t look terribly ‘shredded’ to our much more jaded and judgey 2017 eyes. After all those back issues of Men’s Health/Fitness, and the ever-increasing refinement of what is supposed to be a ‘sexy’ male body, they look somewhat ‘watery’ – to use a technical term that only a handful of keen bodybuilders knew back then but probably your granny knows now. Were they eating clean? Were they doing enough cardio? Planking? And where’s the ink, bro?
But then, as someone who used to spend too much time hanging around gyms in London then, ‘watery’ was very much the look. I channelled it myself.
And yes, I did work as a bouncer for a while – just one of the so many things Fred and I had to talk about.
This month also happens to be the 20th anniversary of the surprise 1997 hit UK movie The Full Monty, about laid-off working class men in the (largely former) steel-making city of Sheffield, South Yorkshire, who decide to put together a male strip troupe to entertain the women that they used to provide for.
It was a serious (possibly overly-didactic) ‘crisis of masculinity’ movie which used male stripping as a visual metaphor for changing gender roles, particularly in the wake of 80s de-industrialisation. But it was also about male ‘sexiness’ as a kind of salvation. The whole point is that most of the guys are not vain, or conventionally sexy, or much wanted at all – and in fact have been dumped on the scrapheap of the late 20th Century.
But in learning how to act as if they were ‘too sexy’ – and move their hips to Donna Summer’s ‘Hot Stuff’ – they have somehow re-skilled themselves for the brazen new world and century bearing down on them.
Mark Simpson on a new study that shows how much young men – and masculinity – have changed.
(Daily Telegraph, 30 May 2017)
When I was a teenager attending an all-boys school back in the 1980s, one of the most popular games we used to play in the common room was, ‘Let’s Pretend We’re Queer To Prove We’re Not’. And quite simply, if you didn’t play it you were definitely a poof. (So I played it lots).
Someone simulating coitus behind you while you were potting a tricky black on the pool table was a popular part of the game. Grabbing one another’s lunchboxes as a form of greeting was another. Often this was accompanied with a loud John Inman/Dick Emery ‘OOOOH!!’ noise, which somehow proved that what you were doing was, in fact, totally and utterly straight.
Pretending to be a ‘poof’ was pretty much the only way we were allowed to touch one another when sober. Except for fights. And rugby, which was a major obsession at my school. But then, rugby was perhaps the biggest ‘Let’s Pretend We’re Queer To Prove We’re Not’ game going.
Oh boy, have things changed! Though lots of people seem to be in even more denial about that today than we lads were about our ‘bumming’ on the green baize back in the 1980s.
Here is a ‘touching’ scene documented in a remarkable new study of how sixth form males relate to one another: “Simon was greeted by six boys at the entrance to the common room who then engaged in a large group hug with him that lasted ten seconds.” Simon had not scored a winning try. No one was drunk. It was just his birthday.
The male-on-male love-bombing didn’t stop there. Again from the study: “Another boy, Kyle, entered the common room and proceeded to kiss Simon on the cheek, hug him, and wish him a happy birthday. Kyle and Simon then shared a seat together for ten minutes, with Kyle’s arm placed around Simon’s shoulders the whole time.”
Hugging was “an almost hourly occurrence.” During an IT lesson “Logan sat with his legs across Ian’s lap for a ten-minute period as they worked together on a project… Ian massaged Logan’s leg as he had complained about how he was sore from athletics training.”
None of these touchy-feely displays were seen as gay by the other students, nor did the boys assert their heterosexuality by imitating Graham Norton or making homophobic remarks. Kids today don’t know they’re born.
In fact, homophobia is now as frowned-upon as homosexuality was in my day. Said one boy: “Who am I to judge? Who is anyone to judge? When people are homophobic it really upsets me.” Two male students at the college were openly gay, reported no overt homophobia, and were fully integrated into their hugging peer groups.
Out of a total of 100 male students aged 16-18 the vast majority, 87, were reported to espouse ‘tolerant to positive’ (and most of them positive) attitudes towards homosexuality and engaged in physical tactility and emotional intimacy, offering each other support. Sexism and misogyny were not generally tolerated.
Obviously, I can hear you snort, this was an upper middle class, non-binary sixth form college in Hampstead.
Actually, it was a working class sixth form Christian (mixed) college in a small town in the North East of England, located 25 miles from the nearest city – and considerably further from the nearest Waitrose.
‘Inclusive Masculinities in a Working-Class Sixth Form in Northeast England’, by Callum Blanchard, Mark McCormack, and Grant Peterson makes for eye-opening reading. The result of six weeks observation by Blanchard (who attended the same college himself a few years ago), hanging out in common rooms and class-rooms, combined with in-depth interviews, the results indicate just how radically different modern north eastern masculinity is from the hard-bitten, phobic stereotypes.
You may recall C4 despatching cross-dressing artist Grayson Perry to County Durham last year as part of his TV series on contemporary masculinity All Man, to save north-eastern young working class men from their self-harming, emotionally-blocked ways with his colourful tapestries, outrageous pottery and male feminism.
I wrote in The Telegraph at the time about some of the patronising southern assumptions behind the documentary and London-based media in general. How in fact the region has been in many at the cutting edge of changing masculinity in the UK – a post-industrial laboratory for both metrosexuality and spornosexuality. And while it’s true that the NE has some of the highest levels of male suicide in the UK, I have a hunch this probably has something do with the fact the NE also has the highest levels of male unemployment.
In addition to Blanchard’s research, a larger pioneering study of several working class sixth form colleges in the south of England by McCormack a few years ago found similar touchy-feely anti-homophobic behaviour amongst the majority of male students.
There’s abundant evidence, if you want to see it, that most of the younger generation of males are much more at ease with themselves – and with other males – than previous generations. Including Perry’s generation, who despite or maybe because of his cross dressing and feminism, often comes across as possibly the most heterosexual man in the world.
Or this old bugger, for that matter: I still struggle putting an ‘x’ at the end of text messages – young straight men today can’t stop with them.
As an example of emotional openness, the study cites a student, Jayden, whose offer of a date has been knocked back by a girl. ‘“I’m gutted to be honest. I mean, I really care about her. We’re good friends, but I wanted to be more than that, and she doesn’t. Honest, I’m proper gutted.” Instead of telling him to ‘man up’, his chums offered their support and sympathised with him. “I know mate, you’ll be gutted. We’re here for you, though.”
The masculinity that many middle-aged commentators blithely bang on about as being ‘toxic’ or ‘in crisis’ or ‘default’ – and somehow universal and monolithic – is probably the masculinity of their own youth, projected blithely onto today’s youth, whether or not it has any relevance.
Even in what many in the south would see as the ‘butch’ and ‘backwards’ north east, traditional masculinity is increasingly a ‘niche’, almost lonely affair. Only thirteen of the one hundred male students were categorised as embodying an ‘orthodox’ form of masculinity. These boys disliked ‘out there gays’, and what they saw as feminine behaviour in boys, distancing themselves from the gay students.
In fact, they distanced themselves from most of the college – completely avoiding the touchy-feely common room and secluding themselves in a classroom on the other side of the school. They also distanced themselves from one another – no hugging, or touching, except for play fights.
But as further evidence of how much has changed, even this ‘orthodox’, retrosexual masculinity thought overt homophobia ‘mean’. Their use of anti-gay terms was strictly saved for one another, to police their ‘soppy’ behaviour: “I called Ross a ‘poof’ cause we were talking about girls and he said he loved someone.”
Of these 13 ‘trad’ boys, nine were members of the college’s rugby team – perhaps because then they did at least get to touch one another on the pitch. The rugby coach seemed to be an old skool guy himself, over-fond of the phrase ‘man up’, telling one injured player: “You’ll just have to man up and get on with it. We’re a man down here.”
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