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

Category: masculinity (page 3 of 23)

The Few, The Proud: A Jarhead memoir of the First Gulf War

The mythology, the rituals, the dogma, the cult of masculinity and most of all the haircut, set US Marines apart. Mark Simpson takes a look at a memoir of the First Gulf War.

(Independent on Sunday 23/03/2003)

It may seem odd that the United States Marine Corps, the elite fourth branch of the US Armed Services, larger and better equipped than the whole British Army, heroic victors of Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal, spearhead of the last and current Gulf War, should be best known for, and most proud of, its hairdo. But then, the USMC is a peculiar institution. Magnificent, but very peculiar.

“Jarhead”, the moniker US marines give one another, derives from the distinctive “high and tight” buzzcut that Marine Corps barbers dispense, leaving perhaps a quarter of an inch of personality on top and plenty of naked, anonymous scalp on the sides. Like circumcision and the Hebrews, the jarhead barnet has historically set US marines apart, marking them as the chosen and the damned: monkish warriors. Or as one of the Corps’ mottos has it: “The Few, The Proud”.

Image is important for US marines, perhaps because of the burden of symbolism – for many, the USMC is America. Or perhaps more particularly because the USMC is John Wayne. Jarheads, or rather, actors in high-and-tight haircuts, are invariably the stars of Hollywood war movies; the other services just don’t have the glamour and the grit of the devildogs. As a result, the mythology, the rituals and the dogtag dogma of the Marine Corps cult of masculinity – boot camp, the DI, sounding-off, cussing and hazing, tearful graduation, test-of-manhood deployment, and that haircut – are probably more familiar to British boys than, say, those of the Royal Marines.

The relationship of real jarheads to their actress impersonators is confusingly close. When 20-year-old Lance Corporal Anthony Swofford and his buddies in a scout/sniper platoon get the order to prepare to ship out to Saudi Arabia in 1990 in response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, they spend three days drinking beer and watching war movies. Ironically, their favourite films, such as Platoon, Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket are ostensibly “anti-war” liberal pleas to “end this madness”, but for fighting men they only serve to get them hot: “Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man,” explains Swofford, “with film you are stroking his cock, tickling his balls with the pink feather of history, getting him ready for his First Fuck.” Take note, Oliver Stone, you pink feather dick-tickler: “As a young man raised on the films of the Vietnam War, I want ammunition and alcohol and dope, I want to screw some whores and kill some Iraqi motherfuckers.”

In fact, Swofford’s ”Jarhead: A Marine’s chronicle of the Gulf War’’ is an avowedly “anti-war” memoir, powerfully written (pink feathers aside) and well-crafted, by someone who was clearly embittered, not to say damaged, by his experience of the USMC and his participation in the First Gulf War. Nevertheless, it isn’t clear whether Swofford, for all his reflectiveness, and of course his authenticity, is much more successful in demystifying war in general or the Corps. Telling us that war is hell (again) is rather counterproductive: hell is after all a rather interesting place, certainly more interesting than heaven, or civilian “normality”. Moreover, the quasi-religious, dramatic tone Swofford strikes of despair and ecstasy, loneliness and camaraderie, and the awful- but-fascinating baseness of war is not so different from that of Stone or Coppola (or for that matter, of Mailer). And while there are not quite so many explosions, there’s no shortage of pornography.

When sweating in Saudi in 1990 waiting for the war to start, Swofford’s unit find themselves being ordered to perform for the media, playing football in rubber NBC suits in 100-degree heat. To sabotage the hated propaganda op, they start a favourite ritual of theirs, a “Field fuck”, a simulated gang rape, “wherein marines violate one member of the unit,” Swofford tells us. “The victim is held fast in the doggie position and his fellow marines take turns from behind.”

Getting into the spirit of things, the jarheads shout out helpful remarks such as: “Get that virgin Texas ass! It’s free!” The victim himself screams: “I’m the prettiest girl any of you has ever had! I’ve seen the whores you’ve bought, you sick bastards!” The press stop taking notes.

Swofford reassures us that this practice “wasn’t sexual” but was instead “communal” – however, even in his own terms it seems that the distinction is almost superfluous: it’s the hallmark of military life that what’s sexual becomes communal. Elsewhere he tells us about the “Wall of Shame” on base: hundreds of photos of ex-girlfriends who proved unfaithful – frequently with other marines.

Swofford’s obsession with the marines had a media origin, beginning in 1984 when the USMC barracks in Lebanon was bombed, killing 241 US servicemen. He recounts watching the news bulletins on the TV and how he “stood at attention and hummed the national anthem as the rough-hewn jarheads… carried their comrades from the rubble. The marines were all sizes and all colours, all dirty and exhausted and hurt, and they were men, and I was a boy falling in love with manhood…”. Manhood in Swofford’s family was intimately linked to the military: his father served in Vietnam, while his grandfather fought in the Second World War. The desirability of manliness was the desirability of war.

It is probably not so strange that his obsession should have begun with an almost masochistic image of suffering and death: taking it like a man is an even more important part of the military experience than giving it. Sure enough, at boot camp Swofford finds his Drill Instructor to be a fully-fledged sadist of the kind that civilian masochists can only fantasise about: “I am your mommy and your daddy! I am your nightmare and your wet dream! I will tell you when to piss and when to shit and how much food to eat and when! I will forge you into part of the iron fist with which our great United States fights oppression and injustice!” Like many recruits, Swofford signed up to get away from a disintegrating home life and the flawed reality of his father and found that he had married his superego made barking, spitting, apoplectic flesh.

The DI’s job, as we all know from the movies, is to humiliate and break down the recruit, shame him, strip away his civilian personality and weaknesses and build him up into a marine. The DI is obsessed with inauthenticity: finding out who is not “really” a marine. He asks Swofford if he’s “a faggot… you sure have pretty blue eyes”. During one of these hazings, Swofford pisses his pants – an understandable reaction, but intriguingly it happens to be the same one that he mentions earlier in the book, when, as a young boy living in Japan (his father had a tour of duty there), he received “confusing and arousing” compliments on his blue eyes from Japanese women.

For good measure the DI also smashes Swofford’s confused shaved head through a chalkboard. Later, when this DI is under investigation for his violent excesses, Swofford shops him. However, he feels guilty about this and daydreams about running into the DI and “letting him beat on me some more”. Like I said, the USMC, God bless it, is a peculiar organisation.

Of course, Swofford isn’t your average jarhead. “I sat in the back of the Humvee and read the Iliad” is a memorable line. Other days might see him buried in The Portable Nietzsche or The Myth of Sisyphus. Swofford also seems a little highly-strung: he attempts suicide, Full Metal Jacket- style, fellating the muzzle of his rifle after receiving a Dear John letter from his girlfriend. He’s saved by his returning roommate, who takes him on a run “that lasts all night”. More physical pain to salve the existential variety. By the book’s end, we are left with an image of Swofford, long discharged, wrestling with despair, not least over the sights he saw in action in Kuwait, but now without the distraction of physical suffering and discipline. Sisyphus without the rock.

Mind you, “jarhead” does suggest something that can be unscrewed: brains that can be easily spooned out. It may be true that some men become soldiers to kill; but it may equally be the case that some join to be killed, or at least escape the burden of consciousness. Swofford appears to feel cheated that life not only went on after the Gulf War (like most U.S. ground combatants he was a largely a spectator of the massacring potency of American air power) but in fact became more complicated and burdensome.

Under these circumstances, I think most of us would miss our DI.

© Mark Simpson

The New Bromanticism: Male Friendship Gets a Makeover

Just over half of British and American men are currently in or have had a ‘bromance’ in the past according to a survey, not by Dr Kinsey, but by Badoo (‘the world’s largest social network for meeting new people’).

The Badoo press release – issued on Valentine’s Day last week – claims that the survey of 2000 men ‘reveals the extent to which British men have embraced the “bromance” phenomenon’. We’ll get to that bit later.

What’s immediately and gratifyingly clear is that the Badoo survey doesn’t insist, as many would and have done, very loudly, that a bromance is a close friendship between two STRAIGHT men – no gayers or gayness allowed, thank you very much.

Instead, Badoo defines bromance as ‘a close platonic relationship with someone of the same sex’. And we all know about that Plato guy and those Greeks….

Badoo’s British respondents listed these famous male friendships in their ‘top ten’:

1. Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson

2. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

3. Ant and Dec

4. Buzz and Woody (Toy Story)

5. Harry Potter and Ron Weasley

6. George Clooney and Brad Pitt (Ocean’s Eleven)

7. Gavin and Smithy (Gavin and Stacey)

8. Joey and Chandler (Friends)

9. Frodo and Sam (Lord of the Rings)

10. Simon and Will (The Inbetweeners)

Some of these male friendships are more platonic than others. You don’t have to be a slash fiction writer to see something slightly erotic in, for example, Frodo and Sam’s smouldering on-screen relationship – or Newman and Redford’s. I have to say I was pleased but a little surprised that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid made it into second place (that movie was released 43 years ago) – I suppose there must have been a lot of respondents as middle-aged as me.

It’s a crying shame that Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin didn’t make the list – but then the era that they reigned supreme as the world’s favourite ‘platonic’ male lovers was well over half a century ago. And they were probably too explicit for today’s tastes.

It’s also a shame also that the great, passionate early twentieth century psychology male double act of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung was ignored. But I suppose that the recently-released A Dangerous Method didn’t pull in quite as many punters as Sherlock Holmes 2. And besides, it has a unhappy ending: Freud and Jung have a very messy divorce.

But Freud and Jung personify in an oddly neurotic fashion the way no ‘bromance’ is ever quite ‘pure’ of libidinal impulses: Freud famously fainted more than once in the presence of his anointed successor the young Jung, blaming it on some ‘unresolved homosexual attachment’ – the cigar aficionado considered homoerotic attraction the basis of all male bonding. And although the split occurred because Jung rejected Freud’s all-embracing libido-theory, emphasising instead ‘spirituality’, it was Jung who had the major nervous breakdown after they parted.

It was the non-Freudian Michel Foucault who, as I recall, attributed the emergence of ‘the homosexual’ to the decline in the institution of male friendship. Foucault was immensely interested in friendship:

‘As far back as I remember, to want guys was to want relations with guys. That has always been important for me. Not necessarily in the form of a couple but as a matter of existence: how is it possible for men to be together? To live together, to share their time, their meals, their room, their leisure, their grief, their knowledge, their confidences? What is it to be “naked” among men, outside of institutional relations, family, profession, and obligatory camaraderie?’

(Michel Foucault, ‘Friendship as a Way of Life’)

For Foucault, experimental friendship and ‘new relations’ was what male homosexuality was for. Or at least the bit of it that he was interested in that wasn’t about leather and whips.

The arrival of companionate marriage in the early twentieth century left increasingly little room for close male friendships – friendships which, along with greater physical affection such as kissing and holding hands, occassional passionate declarations of love, and also the custom of chums sharing bed (see Abe Lincoln), had meant that the difference between a sexual relationship and a non sexual one was largely invisible to the world. Close male friendships cover the pre-gay past with a blanket of discretion.

Perhaps the popularity of ‘bromance’ even just as a buzzword represents a resurgence of interest in close male friendship, as the medical, legal and social force of ‘the homosexual’ and for that matter ‘the heterosexual’ declines. A quarter of the Badoo respondents admit to having ‘the most fun they have with anyone’ with their bromance partner, and ‘just like Holmes and Watson’ over one in ten are ‘often mistaken to be more than friends’, while 10% of them claim to get stick from their partner for it.

Marriage is also now in steep decline, of course. Fewer and fewer people are getting hitched and if and when they do it’s usually much later than their parents or grandparents. (According to Badoo, 28% of single British men are currently in a bromance, with this figure dropping to 10% for marrieds and 15% for co-habiters.)

Before the Second World War, when working class men tended to get married in their late twenties and early thirties, the now-defunct institution of ‘trade’ gloriously filled the gap between adolescence and domesticity. And despite the name, the traffic between ‘normal’ working class lads and queer gentlemen was not always commercial or hedonistic – surprisingly often it developed into a long term and emotionally close friendship.

After being initially rather sceptical, I’ve begun to re-evaluate my attitude towards ‘bromance’. Over time it seems that the ‘romance’ part of ‘bromance’ is becoming less irritatingly ironic – and the ‘bro’ part less annoyingly fratty. And also less insistently hetty. In this Badoo survey at least, ‘bromance’ cuts right across ‘sexuality’.

Like that other annoying word ‘metrosexual’, ‘bromance’ seems to be potentially acting as a solvent of gay/straight boundaries, giving men whatever their sexuality permission to express stuff that they otherwise might not. Facilitating and encouraging close, emotional friendships between two straight men. Or between gay and straight men. Or straight and bi men. Or maybe even between – one day, in the far distant Utopian future – gay men.

The recently launched ‘Bromance’ app, a location-based network ‘that helps you organize activities with friends and nearby people with shared interests’ was mocked by many (including me until I found out more about it). The people behind the app, like Badoo, don’t insist on the heterosexuality of their ‘bros’ – and go one step further in suggesting that ‘bros’ don’t have to be male, either.

Many commenters on gay blogs seemed to think the Bromance app would be only used by ‘closeted gay men’ seeking sex on the ‘downlow’ – while the Brobible agreed, ‘aggressively opposing’ this ‘men seeking men’ app for polluting the heterosexual purity of their bro-ness.

I’ve no idea whether it will be popular or not, but the gayist and bro-ist scorn which greeted the Bromance app seems to be precisely down to the way it might facilitate new kinds of platonic friendships. And new kinds of sexual relationships. Under a blanket of smart-phone discretion. And we won’t know which is which.

Despite all the name-calling, it’s precisely the inability to define what’s going on or the people taking part that is the ‘problem’. I suspect Foucault would have been one of the first to download the Bromance app, in his  fervid search for ‘experimental friendships’. I get the feeling Michel was quite a lonely guy. (Or ‘FUCKING LOSER’ as the Brobible would put it.)

The new technology of information and communication and the new social networks it has spawned seem to be enabling new kinds of relations and experimentation away from judging eyes – and exploiting it, of course. At the same time as perhaps making us all lonelier.

A Badoo spokesperson explained why they commissioned their survey:

‘Everyone always talks about relationships and dating – but actually a bromance buddy is also really important to men. For the 44% of British men that have never had a bromance – Badoo.com offers them the chance to meet someone that’s like minded – whether that’s for bromance or romance.’

It’s not clear where Badoo found their respondents from, and I’m not sure their findings are terribly scientific. I’m not even sure what Badoo is, to be honest. But something is definitely afoot with male friendship.

Another survey published this week should certainly be taken very seriously indeed for what it says about the yearning of British men for close, intimate friendship. According to Travelodge, half of the men they asked admitted they still have a teddy bear from their childhood. A quarter admitted to sleeping with their teddy bear when ‘on business trips’. While 15% confessed they ‘treat their teddy as their best friend’ and ‘share their intimate secrets with their bear’.

Does bearmance stand in for bromance with British men? Or t’other way round?

 Tip: Lee Kynaston & Topak

Let me Hear Your Body Talk

Are men the new women? I’ve always avoided using that line until now. As the (hetero)sexual division of labour and loving and looking continues to fall apart, men are the new everything. Just as women are.

But in the last few months we’ve been told men now take longer getting ready than women, mercifully deleting at a stroke most of the material of stand-ups like John Bishop. We’ve also been told that gents are more likely to take travel irons, hairdryers and straighteners on holiday than ladies. Now there’s new evidence they may be as body-conscious as women too. In fact, according to a widely-reported study of 394 British men published last week, lads are now more concerned with their body image than lasses.

A third said they think about their appearance more than five times a day, 18% were on a high-protein diet to increase muscle mass, and 16% on a calorie-controlled diet to slim down. While a Faustian 15% claimed they would happily trade 2-5 years of their life if they could have their ideal body weight and shape. (Probably because they hoped the years would be sliced off the end of their lives — when they’re old and crumbly and not very likely to go on Big Brother anyway).

Some we’re told were undertaking compulsive exercise, strict diets, using laxatives or making themselves sick in an attempt to lose weight or achieve a more toned physique. And although the survey didn’t cover this, other data suggests a surprisingly large number of men are also taking steroids, growth hormones and other prescription drugs to achieve a more aesthetically pleasing appearance.

Which generally means tits and abs. Men’s main preoccupation, the survey found, was their ‘beer belly’ and lack of muscles, with a whopping 63% saying they thought their arms or chests were not muscular enough. And people never believe me when I tell them that while some women are size queens, all men are.

‘Geordie Shore’s Jay knows what you want

Clearly a lot of men are gazing avariciously at the flaunted porno pecs and abs of hit TV shows like Jersey/Geordie Shore (Geordie Shore is back for a second season on MTVUK at the end of this month). We already know they’re buying Men’s Health magazine as it became the biggest-selling men’s mag recently. All those tarty, shouty Men’s Health front covers promising BIGGER ARMS! PUMPED PECS! and RIPPED ABS! in a fortnight may be as laughable as they are repetitive, but they’re clearly, lucratively tapping into 21st Century man’s deepest, darkest and beefiest desires.

Men may or may not be the new women, but men’s tits and abs are the new eye candy. Men have become their own High Street Honeys.

They’re also rather bitchy. Apparently 80.7% of the survey respondents talked about their own or others’ appearance in ways that draw attention to weight, lack of hair or slim frame. It also confirms that men of whatever sexual orientation look rather a lot at each other’s bodies, comparing and contrasting, desiring and detracting.

Dr Philippa Diedrichs of the Centre for Appearance Research at UWE in Bristol who led the survey, described this conversation between men about their bodies as ‘body talk’ (which makes me think of both Olivia Newton John beating up the fatties in ‘Physical’, and also that single from the same era by the incredibly camp dance band Imagination.)

‘Body talk reinforces the unrealistic beauty ideal which reinforces leanness and muscularity. This is traditionally seen as an issue for women but our research shows that men are feeling the pressure to conform too.’

Rosi Prescott, chief executive of Central YMCA which commissioned the research also sees this as ‘damaging’:

‘Historically conversation about your body has been perceived as something women do, but it is clear from this research that men are also guilty of commenting on one another’s bodies; and in many cases this is having a damaging effect. Men’s high levels of body talk were symptomatic of a growing obsession with appearance, she added.

Some three in five men (58.6%) said body talk affected them, usually negatively.’

I’m a bit conflicted here. Probably because as an ‘avid fan’ of the worked-out male body I’m part of the problem. On the one hand I welcome this kind of research and the publicity it’s received because it’s both putting the spotlight on both how much men’s behaviour has changed of late, and also undermining sexist assumptions about ‘men’ and ‘women’, which many feminists, like lazy stand-ups, buy into. And it’s always good to draw attention to the Patrick Batemanesque dark side of the metrosexual revolution – and its costs.

On the other hand, I’m not entirely sure that applying the problematising, pathologising and sometimes Puritanical, dare I say ‘Wolfian’ (as in ‘Naomi’), discourse that’s been used on women’s bodies wholesale to men would be something to welcome. Men aren’t the new women, but they might be the new moral panic.

This ‘body talk’ amongst men isn’t necessarily a sign of ‘guilt’ as was suggested. It might be a healthy honesty. And whilst obviously this kind of critique and competition might push some into anxiety and obsession and self-destructive behaviour, or conformity to rather narrow ideals of male beauty, the generalised, compulsory, traditional self-loathing that existed amongst men before ‘body talk’ and (male) body interest became acceptable was in many ways worse. It was also, remember, ‘normal’.

After all, not wanting to talk about their bodies is part of the reason why men historically have been very reluctant to visit their GP and tend to die much earlier on average than women. Until very recently the male body was simply an instrument that was to be used until the mainspring broke. Barely giving men time to rewind their horribly symbolic retirement clock.

And certainly, men didn’t look at one another’s bodies. Unless they were queer.

Not anymore. Men’s ‘body talk’ has become deafening. On the hit ITV reality series The Only Way is Essex Arge, who is a little on the husky side, was always gazing longingly at Mark (above) and asking how he gets his ‘fit body’ and whether he can help him get one too.

A married squaddie mate who is an occasional gym buddy always subjects my body to a close scrutiny in the changing rooms after our workouts, appreciatively commending, say, my deltoid or tricep development, and mercilessly criticising, say, my forearms’ failure to keep up with them. And my belly’s general miserable flabbiness. Part of me dreads the scrutiny, but another welcomes the frank ‘body talk’ too. I’m glad he gets all Olivia Newton John on my ass. If he didn’t, I might have to pay someone to do it.

Mind you, his wise observation about gym culture to me one day sticks in my mind: “It’s all about ‘ow you look isn’t it, Mark? Nobody really cares whether any of this makes you fit or not. You could be rotten underneath but if you look great no one gives a fook.” He’s right. The metrosexy cult of male beauty is all a bit Dorian Ghey.

Which reminds me, apparently a quarter of the respondents in this survey were gay (well, it was sponsored by the Central YMCA). Of course, some people will hastily seize upon that to disqualify its findings. And while it probably is reason to treat them with at least as much caution as those of any other survey, I’m inclined to see the large sample of gay men included as a sign of this survey’s relevance and inclusiveness. After all, it’s gays that are to blame for the cult of male bloody beauty….

Gays like The Village People. Love it or loathe it, the body-fascist foundations for the metrosexy male culture we’re living in were laid in the early Eighties. And I’m deliriously happy the Central YMCA commissioned this survey as it’s a perfect excuse for me to post (below) my Favourite Music Video of All Time. I suspect it was part of the inspiration for Olivia’s ‘Physical‘ video. (And both were almost certainly inspired by this epic.)

Every frame is a joy, but the Busby Berkeley (or is it Leni Riefensthal?) shot of the swimmers diving one after the other into the pool as if they were perfectly-formed poppies scythed down by the camera’s gaze never fails to send me into paroxysms of delight. For me, it’s always fun to stay at the YMCA.

Which is just as well. In the 21st Century we’re all checked in there. Permanently.

 

Traditional Masculinity Has a Stroke – ‘Burly Rugby Player’ Transforms Into ‘Gay Hairdresser’

My friend Michelle, formerly the male stripper known as ‘Stud-U-Like’, alerted me to this ‘freaky’ tale of transformation reported in this week’s freaky Daily Mail with this priceless headline:

Burly rugby player has a stroke after freak gym accident… wakes up gay and becomes a hairdresser

It then teases us with a couple of ‘shocking’ bullet-pointed facts

Chris Birch loses eight stone and transforms himself from skinhead to ‘preened man’

Gives up job in bank and retrains as a hairdresser

 

Cutting to the chase:

Mr Birch recalled: ‘I was gay when I woke up and I still am. It sounds strange but when I came round I immediately felt different.

“I wasn’t interested in women any more. I was definitely gay. I had never been attracted to a man before – I’d never even had any gay friends.

‘But I didn’t care about who I was before, I had to be true to my feelings.’

Before the accident Mr Birch, of Ystrad Mynach, South Wales, had spent his weekends watching sport and drinking with his mates.

But he said: ‘Suddenly, I hated everything about my old life. I didn’t get on with my friends, I hated sport and found my job boring.

‘I started to take more pride in my appearance, bleached my hair and started working out. I went from a 19-stone skinhead to an 11-stone preened man.

‘People I used to know barely recognised me and with my new look I became even more confident.’

The copy and a supportive quote from a neuroscientist seems to suggest only two explanations: ‘he was gay all along but didn’t know it before the stroke’; or ‘his stroke made him gay and good with colours’.

I’m not a neuroscientist, but it seems to me that there are more than two possible explanations here.

Maybe Mr Birch was just fed up with being the big Welsh boyo everyone wanted him to be and when it almost killed him he decided: ‘Sod THAT for a game of soldiers! Life’s too short. I’m gonna be a FLAMER!!’

Maybe Mr Birch simply resolved, albeit unconsciously, to be about Mr Birch from now on, not what his family, friends and fiancée expected of him. Maybe he chose to reject heterosexuality because it made too many demands on him. And what better way to escape its demands in a small Welsh town by waking up from a near death experience as the only gay in the village?

Being a bloke’s bloke isn’t always as much fun as it looks. And being honest, it usually doesn’t look that much fun anyway. You don’t have to be a ‘secret gay’ to find it miserable and oppressive. And more often than not you’ll be punished if you try to escape. Look at what happened to Shane Warne, whose own transformation from beer-bellied Aussie stereotype to flaming metrosexual has been regularly pilloried in the papers, including the one in which this latest sporting transformation story appeared.

Though of course nowadays it’s sometimes possible to be a rugby-playing Welshman and something of a flamer too. Maybe Mr Birch should have taken a leaf out of fellow Welshman Gavin Henson’s bachelor book and continued playing with odd-shaped balls but as a ‘preened’ rugby player. But then again, perhaps he didn’t have the legs for it.

And as for Mr Birch’s new-found interest in chaps. Well, I’m sorry but I don’t think it very surprising when males find other males sexually interesting. Or something that needs to be explained by a stroke. At least not the kind the Daily Mail reports.

There is though yet another possible explanation for all this. That this story is complete twaddle. It did after all appear in the Daily Mail. And the writer is the same one who reported pretty much every important fact about this infamous ‘gay orgy in the bushes’ story incorrectly, apparently pandering to the imagined Daily Mail reader’s worst fantasies.

Also, the stroke that ‘turned him gay’ (instantly, apparently), happened in 2005. Why wait six years to tell the national press? Especially if you told your parents and fiancée when you came round in the hospital.

And I seem to recall that when I first read this story about Mr Birch online yesterday it mentioned that he and his fiancé/girlfriend were ‘taking a break’ before the accident. The piece was ‘updated’ today and this detail is nowhere to be found.

And then we have the banner headline which talks about a ‘freak gym accident’ causing his injuries but the copy talks instead about ‘him attempting a backflip in front of friends on a field when he fell down a grass bank, breaking his neck and suffering the stroke.’ Or the way the ‘before’ picture appears to have been manipulated/squashed to make him look burlier.

But my favourite dodgy passage is this one:

‘He was taken to hospital where his fiancée and family spent days waiting anxiously at his bedside before he delivered the shocking news.’

What? More shocking than breaking his neck, suffering a stroke and nearly dying?

UPDATE 18/04/12

Last night BBC3 aired ‘I Woke Up Gay’, a documentary about Mr Birch. It was an hour long, but apart from some local Welsh colour, some more snaps of Birch pre-stroke when he was straight and very chunky (“Oh! That’s AWFUL!!'” was today’s slimline Birch’s horrified response to them) and more close-ups of Birch’s remarkable hairdo, which looks like a badly ironed dead badger, the doc didn’t really add anything to the Mail’s story. Or really clarify the ‘confusions’. (Birch says he ‘can’t remember’ much of his pre-stroke past.)

It did however leave you feeling that the whole thing wasn’t just cooked up by the Mail, and that Mr Birch seems to believe his own story. Or perhaps needs to believe it. Though it’s still not entirely clear when exactly he decided on it. His family were notable by their absence in the doc – apparently he has become estranged from most of the people he used to know before the stroke.

I don’t wish to suggest as many have done that Birch is ‘lying’, or was a ‘closet queen’ before the stroke. Or that he’s simply attention-seeking (though he certainly doesn’t seem to mind it). I do think though that he may be deceiving himself – but then, we all do that. To some extent probably most coming out stories are fictional if necessary narratives. What’s interesting is not what his story says not about dubious ‘brain science’ but about how difficult it can still be for some to accept themselves in places like the Valleys as gay, or just not a boozy rugger bugger.

In that kind of situation a stroke might even be a stroke of luck. At least in the sense of giving you a chance to reinvent yourself.

The ‘highlight’ of the doc was when Birch travels up to London to see the Wizard of Oz – or rather, a highly controversial scientist called Quazi Rahman who believes that gay men’s brains are innately different to straight men’s (this in turn is based on dubious assumptions about ‘men’ and ‘women’ that are increasingly being questioned). The narrator told us that Rahman has tested “hundreds of lesbian, gay and straight volunteers” (no bisexuals, note – and for the purposes of this entire documentary they simply don’t exist) and “can tell if a person was born gay or straight, despite their current lifestyle”.

In other words, Rahman is God.

The narration continues, cheerfully telling us:

“Though controversial, some scientists believe that our genes and hormones may determine sexuality before birth and personality traits too. These traits can be tested and this means that Dr Rahman can work out whether or not a person was truly born gay.”

Truly born gay.

In other words, Rahman is even bigger than God. He’s Jeremy Kyle.

(Note how BBC3 throws in a reluctant ‘controversial’ at the beginning of the first sentence but by the end of the second, knowing most BBC3 viewers have already long forgotten it, seems to be expressing nothing short of a divine revelation.)

So it was touching to see two people who both fervently believe in ‘gay brains’ come together – but unfortunately for Birch, it wasn’t a marriage made in heaven. Rahman talks to Birch about testing him to find out “how gay your brain is” (no, really, that’s actually what he says), but was clearly disappointed with his own results, which showed that half Birch’s responses fell within the ‘normal range’ for a gay man and the other half within the ‘normal range’ of a straight man. Whatever that means.

Birch though is delighted with the results because he sees it as an endorsement of his narrative of the stroke ‘turning his brain gay’. But Rahman seems set against the idea, despite his mixed findings. Perhaps this is because for the gay neuroscientist (who is the author of a book called ‘Born Gay’) the whole point of ‘gay brains’ seems to be that you’re born with them, rather than being something you can acquire, even by accident. Like I said, everyone has their own necessary coming out fiction.

Birch’s boyfriend, who accompanied him to the Gay Brain Detector’s lab, seemed to be the only one who had his head screwed on. He was gently sceptical of his partner’s belief that the stroke made him gay, but was patiently sympathetic to the psychology of it. “He’s based his whole life on the stroke making him gay,” he said whilst Birch’s brain was being ‘tested’ for ‘gayness’.

“If he wasn’t, it would almost be like having to start from scratch again.”

Anders Breivik: Metro-Psycho


When I first saw the images of Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik, the ones he had so helpfully included in his press pack that accompanied his ‘manifesto’, two thoughts immediately popped into my net-addled head:

a) They look photoshopped. Especially the soft-focus glamour one in the Lacoste jumper with the collar turned up

b) The ‘action man’ dressy-uppy photos look like they’ve been pulled from a gay fetish dating website. Look at all my sexy accessories!

When I compared them with the pictures of the inanely grinning, boringly bovine balding 31-year-old male being driven away in handcuffs in the back of a police car I congratulated myself that I hadn’t arranged to meet him.

Deluded as he is, Breivik seems very aware of the disconnect between the ‘Justiciar Knight’ image he wants to present to the world – which may appear laughable to others, but clearly turns him on like the Blackpool Illuminations – and the more hum-drum reality. According to The Daily Telegraph:

A narcissist and a fantasist, Breivik, 32, refuses to have his prison ‘mugshot’ taken to ensure that the carefully stage-managed photographs he took of himself – in full Masonic regalia or clutching his rifle – are not replaced by more humbling images.

Given his yen to stage-manage everything, even from behind bars, it’s perhaps not so surprising that costuming seems to be a continuing preoccupation of his:

Having been refused permission to wear a combat uniform, he has demanded to wear a red Lacoste sweater for his public outings to court or to the police station. He will not wear anything else.

Well, if you know your signature colour and you have a brand that you feel at home in, why change?

I have no desire to read Breivik’s manifesto. It’s over 1,500 pages long. It’s demented. Worse, it’s badly spelled. Plus there’s the small matter of his murdering scores of people, most of them children, to make me and you do just that. To make us take his delusions of grandeur and purpose seriously. So forgive me if I don’t feel like curling up with him.

There isn’t a ‘mystery’ to Breivik that needs to be unlocked, except perhaps by mental health professionals. And even then, it certainly wouldn’t be in his rambling, ranting cut-and-pasted scrapbook of (mostly American) right-wing nut-jobbery.

But plenty of people seem to take a different view. Legions of journalists and commentators and sociologists are reading the manifesto avidly, searching for clues. Explanations. Keys to unlock the ‘enigma’ that is Breivik and make sense of his senseless slaughter. Perhaps it’s the media’s job to try and find meaning where there isn’t any, but even in seeking to refute or ridicule his arguments – or hold him up as an example of what happens when right wing extremism or misogyny is allowed to flourish as many liberal papers have done – I think they are in danger of flattering him.

There are no ‘lessons’ to be learned from the pathetic creature that is Breivik, no matter how much he might want us to think so and no matter how tempting it is to pander to that. He’s criminally insane. End of.

And yet. Maybe I’m in danger of being a big fat hypocrite here, but it’s increasingly difficult for me to ignore some of the stuff in his manifesto that keeps being discussed. From a nice middle-class Norwegian background, the perpetually single (and “100% hetero”) chap laments that modern men spend so much time worrying about their clothes and their colognes.

He also bemoaned metrosexuals, seeing them as part of the ‘feminisation’ of the culture in general and men in particular which was leaving Europe (wide) open to Islamification:

…men are not men anymore, but metro sexual [sic] and emotional beings that are there to serve the purpose as a never-criticising soul mate to the new age feminist woman goddess.

Other reports tell us that he was an avid gym-goer, took steroids and visited tanning salons. There are also claims that he had plastic surgery in his early twenties on his nose and chin. And then we have those carefully staged, possibly photoshopped images and his refusal now to have his mugshot taken or wear anything in public he considers unflattering.

Breivik was clearly in pathological denial about all sorts of things – his own metrosexuality was perhaps the least of them. But he went to and continues to go to a great deal of trouble to present himself to the world, however camply, however grotesquely, as a ‘real man’, a Christian warrior, while using and displaying many of the characteristics of his hated ‘passive’, ‘weak’, ‘feminine’ metrosexuality to do that.

And in this, alas, he isn’t so unusual – just rather more extreme. There are a lot of metros in denial. Not all of them are out and proud. Quite a few are self-loathing as well as self-loving and diss ‘girlie-men’ metros in the hope that this will prove they’re not ‘that way’ themselves. A bit like how it works, in other words, with your actual homosexuality.

Much of Breivik’s politics was gleaned from right wing US websites, where chaps are always whining about not being able to find a ‘real man’ these days (in much the same way gay bears do), and where ‘metrosexual’ is used as the worst kind of insult. A fag who isn’t actually a fag. Worse than a fag, in fact. A heterosexual who allows himself to be penetrated by the weakness and effeminacy of gay men – spreading the disgusting disease of unmanliness.

So, in a sense Breivik’s anti-metro tirades are just copying and pasting again. Likewise his camply conflicted personal presentation seems to European eyes very American.

You don’t need to read A European Declaration of Independence to know that this ‘Christian warrior’ mass-murderer clearly desires to be desired. The manifesto, those glamour shots and probably even the awful crimes are one enormous, mega-creepy personal ad. Not so much metrosexual as metro-psycho.

The worst of it is that to some extent Anders Breivik has achieved what appears to be his main goal. Not starting a war against the Islamic invasion of Europe and ‘cultural Marxism’. Nor getting people to read his bloody manifesto.

He’s become a celebrity.

Tip – Bat020

 UPDATE 17/04/12

It seems Breivik tired of the red Lacoste jumper and decided to go for something more formal, but still designer (with very padded shoulders) for his court appearance this week. And a fashion beard that accentuates his ‘heroic’ jaw-line. Quite the dashing ‘Christian warrior’.

From his meticulously crafted appearance, his rehearsed clenched fist salute, to the tears on viewing his own propaganda film, to to his lack of response to the tapes of the final moments of the people he slaughtered to get this gig in front of the word’s media, it’s obvious that Breivik is thoroughly enjoying the attention and won’t let the small matter of all those dead bodies spoil his week.

UPDATE 24/08/12

Breivik was originally diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and thus not responsible for his actions – i.e. criminally insane. This caused an outcry in Norway and, highly unusually, two more forensic psychologists were called in. This time a much more popular diagnosis was delivered: they declared that because of the way he meticulously planned his attacks he couldn’t be crazy.

Today the Oslo district court where he has been on trial for mass murder went with the second diagnosis, declared him legally ‘sane’ and sentenced him to 21 years in prison – though he is unlikely to ever be released.

Everyone seems happy with this verdict. The survivors. The families. Norway. The media. Breivik is perhaps the happiest. Unless he was playing an Oscar winning Br’er Rabbit, the thing he appeared to fear most was being ruled insane and thrown in a specially built psychiatric unit indefinitely. In his mind he is now a ‘political prisoner’ not a highly dangerous mentalist.

I can’t say I blame Norway for perhaps moving the goalposts to make sure he was found criminally responsible. But in a sense, his ‘Christian warrior’ delusions have been endorsed.