marksimpsoncom

The 'Daddy' of the Metrosexual, the Retrosexual, & spawner of the Spornosexual

Menu Close

Tag: USA

Metrosexmania: How America Lost Its Mind Over Metrosexuality

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.

Winsome, Losesome, Mansome

It’s always tricky as a writer talking to a researcher for a TV or film documentary. On the one hand you want your ideas to be taken seriously and the historical record to be as accurate as possible. And of course we all like attention. Especially from a visual medium we probably don’t belong in.

On the other hand, you don’t want to give everything away for nowt.

But you can hardly blame researchers for trying. For every ‘expert’ who appears on-screen in a doc, probably a dozen or more had their brains picked.

I don’t recall much of what I gabbled down the phone when I was contacted a couple of years ago by a female associate of the indie documentary maker Morgan Spurlock about a documentary she was helping him develop about the ‘male-grooming industry’. But I do remember that after speaking to her for about an hour I politely wound up the call – after getting that familiar brain-pick feeling. Or maybe I was just embarrassed at how talkative I’d been.

And that was the last I heard from Spurlock & Co. Which didn’t surprise me as I live in the UK, and it’s an American doc (with an Indie budget). True, I’m credited/blamed not just for coining the ‘metrosexual’ back in 1994 but also introducing him to the US ten years ago this Summer, kicking off the national nervous breakdown America had over masculinity in the Noughties and from which it is yet to fully recover. (Sorry ‘bout that, guys!)

But if there’s one thing the USA has no need to import from Blighty it’s talking big heads. They produce even more of those themselves than they do male beauty products.

Last April Mansome as it is now officially dubbed, emerged glistening and groomed at the TriBeCa film festival. With the publicity poseur: ‘In the age of manscaping, metrosexuals, and grooming products galore – what does it mean to be a man?’ And of course they found plenty of States-side experts, plus several celebs, such as Paul Rudd, Judd Apatow and John Waters to answer that question – along with Jason Bateman and Will Arnett, both executive producers of the doc and unashamed pedicurists.

I haven’t seen Mansome myself yet (an enquiry to the distributor’s press office some weeks ago has yet to produce a response), but going by the trailers, the advance reviews – and the title – I have a hunch that even if I’d lived within eyebrow-plucking distance of Spurlock and had been interviewed on camera for days I still wouldn’t have made the final nip and tuck of Mansome.

That ‘ironic’ music in the trailer, reminiscent of Desperate Housewives, seems to be there as a reassurance that none of this is to be taken seriously. That – relax dudes! – Mansome won’t goose you with any pointy ideas or insights. After all, even an indie film costs actual money to make and you have to get bums – waxed or just clenched – on seats to have a hope of getting any of it back. Mansome is selling itself as light entertainment not heavy enquiry. Or as Jessica Bennett at the Daily Beast put it in her review: ‘pseudo-documentary’.

So probably the last thing poor Spurlock would have wanted was the English and queer Metrodaddy insisting that metrosexuality is not only male vanity swishing triumphantly out of the closet, but tarty male passivity flaunting itself everywhere too. How men’s now flagrant-fragrant desire to be desired means that modern masculinity is quite literally asking for it.

But I wonder a bit how many bums, male or female, clenched or otherwise Mansome will actually lure into the multiplex. Arnett and Bateman are very droll in their towelling dressing gowns, but really, in 2012 who genuinely finds the notion of Hollywood actors visiting spas or shaving their backs remarkable? Or terribly snigger some? Even in America?

What’s more, the trailers, the credits and the hairlines suggest the masculinity being spotlighted here is mostly middle-aged. (It takes one to know one.)

One reviewer complained Mansome is ‘cute’ but has ‘nothing to say’. I doubt anyone would have bothered to make that complaint if we were talking Mikey Sorrentino’s abs. Or Channing Tatum’s buttocks. Or Justin Bieber’s dimples (Bieber, by the way, was born the very same year as the metrosexual). I certainly wouldn’t.

In the UK many if not most of the younger generation of males have taken metrosexuality as a given and literally fashioned their own bodies into a desirable, marketable product – and facial hair into less of a secondary sexual characteristic, or fetish of manhood, than just another sweet male accessory. Rather than try to define ‘what makes a man’ most would rather visit the gym or the tanning salon. Again.

Or show Metrodaddy their depilated pubes, balls and pierced John-Thomases in the pub. While their girlfriends look on, rolling their eyes. (No, really, this happens to me ALL the time. It’s just one of the many crosses I have to bear….)

Despite all this carping I’m still keen to see Mansome. America – or maybe just America of a certain age – does still need to talk this stuff through, honestly and openly. Especially after the mendacious ‘menaissance’ anti-metro backlash of the late Noughties that shut down the (admittedly rather skin-deep) conversation by shouting: ‘MAN-UP!!’.

Or the retreat into a slightly creepy if meticulously observed hipster waxwork version of Madison Avenue in the 1960s.

And there are some encouraging signs that Mansome might have something to say after all. Executive producer Bateman was quoted saying something rather refreshing in the WSJ the other day, cutting through much of the marketing froth around ‘male grooming’ – i.e. male beauty:

‘What this film confirmed for me was that men are not allergic to the mirror at all, We want to be as pretty as females. Body-hair removal, skin care—men basically do the same things, but are more secretive about them.’

Mind you, in the same article Spurlock himself was quoted as blaming Adam’s vanity on Eve again – in a very familiar and fruitless attempt to straighten out male narcissism:

“Men do crazy things for women, to get them and to keep them,” he said. “If all women were like, I want to have sex with a big, hairy Neanderthal, next thing you know one of the most popular products would be stuff that grows hair on your back and forearms.”

Not so sure about that, darling. (Though I do know a few bears who are already hot for hairy backs.)

And then there’s the manly strap-on euphemism chosen as the title for his doc. The Wiki page for Mansome includes this helpful paragraph about it:

‘Mansome’ is a relatively new word in pop culture. It is defined by UrbanDictionary.com as ‘an adjective that describes a man who is both manly and handsome.’ Mansome, the documentary, attempts to clarify exactly what makes a man “mansome”.

Obviously this is intended as a clever, ironic deconstruction of the way the ‘man’ word is too often stuck on a ‘girly’ product so that unadventurous fellows don’t think their nads are going to fall off if they buy it.

After all, ‘handsome’ is a traditional, acceptable ‘manly’ euphemism for ‘masculine beauty’. Or ‘attractive male’. One that a chap can use to describe another chap without calling into question one’s own whopping manhood.

So, needlessly strapping ‘man’ on an already essentially ‘male’ word would be something you would only ever do to point up the ridiculously camp and self-defeating nature of all these ‘man’ words, wouldn’t it?

I mean, effectively calling your documentary about male beauty Handsome (No Homo) is something you could only be doing to satirise the juvenile homophobia of American culture.

Isn’t it?

 Mansome goes on general release in the US later this month.

Mark Simpson’s Metrosexy: a 21st Century Self-Love Story is available now.

 

Postscript

I’d forgotten about this hilarious clip of Dean Martin Orson Welles gossiping under hairdryers at a ‘male hairdressing salon’. It puts Bateman and Arnett to shame. And it aired c. forty years ago.

Copyright © 1994 - 2018 Mark Simpson All Rights Reserved.