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

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Lockdown Pressups

Mark Simpson on the joy of gyms & the dreary barbarism of home workouts

A week before gyms were shuttered for lockdown back in March, I managed to buy a pull-up bar, a dip stand – great for lower pecs, triceps, inverted rows and drying socks – plus an ab roller. (I’m not sure whether ab rollers actually work, but they make me think I’m Richard Gere in American Gigolo.)

My smugness at successfully planning ahead for the gympocalypse before home workout equipment transmuted into gold dust was slightly dented however by the fact that I somehow completely forgot about actual weights – so had to buy a 17.5kg pair of dumbells for silly money. About three times the pre-lockdown price.

It took me several weeks to install the pull-up bar – it’s a permanently fixed one that requires substantial drilling, controlled explosions and deep-sea anchors to fit. It was as much down to wishful thinking as DIY-phobia – I hoped and prayed gyms would reopen before I had to install it on my most suitable wall – in my living room . Where it will remain forever: pandemic wall art.

Initially, I was full of determination not to let my over-muscled middle-aged physique – or self-love – wither away. After all, when you’re in your 50s you’re going to struggle to put that beef back on. And the last thing I want at my age is for nature to take its course.

I studied innumerable, exhaustive and exhausting online home workout videos. I printed off charts depicting every dumbbell exercise imaginable. And several that weren’t. I made lists and routines, which I carefully pinned to my fridge.

Pro sporno Bradley Simmonds getting sweaty in Men’s Health’s topless & tight bottoms gym

I even worked out. Fairly furiously and frequently. Convincing myself, like a recently dumped lover, that working out by yourself at home was actually, like, really GREAT. And, anyway, who needs gyms? And how fab is it that you can work out in your pajamas? Or do a spot of gardening in between sets!

But that was early lockdown.

As lockdown dragged on and on and on, and as the re-opening of gyms got pushed further and further back – after pretty much everything, including pubs – I could no longer avoid the truth. The truth that strangely, none of those evangelical home workout videos mentioned.

Home workouts are shit.

Gyms existed for a reason. Not just that they have all the equipment and space you need to work out, but also there’s not much else to do there except work out. Once you’ve paid your membership, pulled your stretchy pants on, taken your pre-workout and turned up you feel foolish about turning round and going home for a sandwich or to do some dusting.

When you work out at home there is no shame and these things happen regularly between sets. In my case, by mid-lockdown a workout ended up taking me most of a week to complete.

I actually began to have dreams about being at the gym. And no, not those kind of dreams about hanging around the steam room and showers, Top Gun stylee, but dreams of actually working out in a place designed and equipped for it.

It was only when they started talking about the possibility reopening gyms in late July that I began to start exercising at home with a less listless attitude. Suddenly there seemed to be a point. I wanted to look as good as I could for my re-entrance. And really, ‘fitness’ is all very well and good, but if you’re not showing off as well then isn’t it all a bit monkish?

Contrary to what I said before, gyms are not just places where you go to work out. They are also places you go to check each other out. Places of inspiration, not just perspiration. Competition, comparison, exhibitionism – envy and desiring. Life, in other words.

I’ve missed it.

As someone who already worked from home before lockdown, the gym was vital. It got me out of the house. It got me out of myself. It got me offline. It got me talking to actual flesh-and-blood people – many of them very fleshly indeed. It got my pulse up. And it got my pectorals big.

So it won’t surprise you that I’ve been almost every day since they reopened in the UK a few weeks ago, and I feel as reborn as someone my age can be. My first session – the first in four months – was almost quasi-sexual. (Yes, I sanitised the bench after me).

Amazingly, I suddenly had enough room to pump iron in without worrying about knocking over the telly. Huge racks of dumbells and barbells of every weight to choose from. As well as strange, alien equipment such as ‘bench presses’ and ‘squat racks’ to play with. Even better, I was surrounded by lads in shorts and vests offering me encouragement.

(In my mind.)

Gymnasia, not democracy, philosophy or kalamata olives, are the greatest gift the Greeks gave Western Civilisation. Even if we are still terribly overdressed in them by their standards (‘gymnos’ = ‘naked’). I will never take them for granted again.

And so long as I can grasp a dumbell, I never, ever want to watch a dreary, barbaric home workout video again.

(Unless it has Bradley Simmonds stretching in his compression pants.)

Spornosexual pride

As for spornosexuals, lockdown inevitably put them into hibernation. But they are coming out of it now, and want to make up for lost staring time. Spornos need to share.

Exhibit A – the swole guy who walked down Oxford Street in London stark naked, save for a face-mask posing pouch last month. It was on the day that masks were made mandatory in shops in England, and he does seem to be pointedly mocking this – but it was also, and this was something missed in the reporting, the day before the gyms reopened.

He was obviously a dedicated gym-goer who had done an awesomely good job of maintaining his muscle size during four months of gymlessness. An inspiration to us all – no wonder he wanted to show off.

P.E with Joe | Monday 23rd March 2020
No – things never got so bad that I found myself watching Mr Wicks

It may be that post-lockdown, many gyms will find that their core market is more sporno than before. ‘Hard core’ male gym-goers who haven’t been seduced by Joe Wicks’ flowing, domesticated locks, or socially-distanced runs in the park. And haven’t been terrorised by articles in Men’s Health and the Guardian about the horrifying dangers of going back to the gym, or leaving the house. (Instead of staying at home watching MH workout videos.)

I’m happy to report that my gym has been reassuringly busy-ish – if socially distanced. And everyone is wearing their own face. Which is nice.

Doubtless PM Boris Johnson’s much-publicised ‘war on obesity’ – which he launched after closing gyms and ordering everyone to STAY HOME – will make fitness a more general concern. But spornosexuality always had a particular interpretation of the the word ‘fit’. 

One that will never have anything to do with Boris.

This post was based in part on answers to questions asked by Max Olesker for his London Times feature ‘Will men go back to the gym to get ripped?’

Metrosexual Podcastery

Back in early March I contributed over the phone to a Slate magazine podcast by Willa Paskin on the history of the metrosexual Stateside.

I first wrote about my insufferably pretty offspring in the UK’s Independent newspaper in 1994 – but in 2002 I introduced him to the US on The essay went viral and he quickly spread himself around like nobody’s business.

After I spoke to Slate, another kind of pandemic intervened. But the podcast is now up and you can, if you’re so inclined, listen to it here.

I’ve not yet got around to reviewing it myself (you won’t believe me, but I hate the sound of my voice). So can’t vouch for its accuracy or otherwise.  

If I sound a little rough around the edges this may have something to do with the transatlantic connection, and the fact I was coming down with gastric flu at the time. Which definitely wasn’t pretty.

Though of course, now I wonder whether it really was gastric flu – or something more ‘novel’….

Cecil Beaton: Valour in the Face of Beauty

In a world saturated with social me-dear surveillance and suffused with surplus selfies, being ‘interesting’ becomes ever-more compulsory – just as it becomes ever-more elusive. Not only for artists in this brave new connected, visual, attention-seekingworld, but for civilians too.

Little wonder that Cecil Beaton, a man who essentially invented himself and his astonishing career with a portable camera loaded with his ambition and longing,  one of the brightest of his bright young generation of the 1920s, has become more famous, not less.

As we plough relentlessly into a 21st century that he anticipated in many ways, long before his death in 1980, I suspect ours is a world he would be as much horrified as impressed by.

I’ve penned a long but – it goes without saying – scintillating profile of the British photographer dandy Cecil Beaton for fashion and style mag Another Man‘s 15th anniversary issue. Guest-edited by the legendary and lovely Jo-Ann Furniss, other contributors include Paul Morely, Douglas Coupland and Chris Heath.

You can read my essay below:

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Beaton By Bailey, Lesbian Clip (1971)

Psycho Somatic

How Sam’s body in ‘Psycho’ melted mine and Julie’s minds

On New Year’s Day I rewatched Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. As you do. Released in 1960, his low-budget, shockingly deviant, uber-Freudian masterpiece is sixty years old this year. Pensionable, almost.

Psycho (Opening Scene)

In a worrying development, suggesting I may be due early retirement myself, I discovered that I’d completely forgotten how fit Marion’s boyfriend Sam is, played by John Gavin, 29. And how much we see of his fitness in the opening topless scene – in which Sam, rather more than Marion, played by Janet Leigh, 33, is the apple of the camera’s eye. No wonder Marion steals $40K to keep him.

Sam is the unwitting femme fatale of this noir: those big, black eyes, those long luscious lashes, that beckoning bosom. That sticky end. Sam is desire.

It’s worth analysing that first scene in Psycho in detail, since it prefigures by decades the way the way men are ‘objectified’ today – and is a timeless cinematic love letter to the late Mr Gavin.

We open with a bird’s eye camera panning across the hot, arid Phoenix afternoon skyline, then voyeuristically zooming in on the dirty, open window of a non-descript, seedy hotel – and swooping under the partially-lowered blinds. (Stuffed birds of prey are an obsession of Norman Bates, who later perves on Marion through a peephole as she undresses in his cheap motel room – in much the same way we did at the beginning of the movie.)

The first shot of our trysting, unmarried lovers is of Marion lying on her back on the bed in her lace bra and half slip, gazing up glowingly at Sam – his be-flannelled arse and lunchbox occupying the middle of the screen, framed next to Marion’s upturned face. Like much else in this film, including the shot of an actual flushing toilet later (the first ever in a mainstream US movie or TV show), it’s a shockingly suggestive-to-explicit image for fin-de-50s America. What’s more, that bra and those flannels are not even married.

(Unsurprisingly, the censors enforcing the still-extant Production Code were very unhappy with the first scene. Hitchcock offered to re-shoot the opening with the Code’s grim guardians on the set – if they allowed him to keep the shower scene, which they also hated. Fortunately, the board members failed to show up for the re-shoot and the cheap hotel shots also stayed.)

Unmarried flannels and bra debauching public morals

We can see Marion’s lover is shirtless and towelling himself – so we deduce, along with her satiated countenance, and the drowsy soundtrack, that the tableaux is post-coital. But we can’t see the flannels’ head as the shot cuts him off just above his waist. He is the faceless object of Marion’s desire and longing.

But we do hear him speak – in a deep, smooth voice:

‘You never did eat your lunch, did you?’

The camera cuts to the untouched shrink-wrapped sandwiches and soda bottle (and two stubbed out fag ends) on the bedside table. And then immediately to a long shot of a spectacularly unwrapped Sam, shooting an explosively handsome grin at Marion, his lean, attractively muscled body – especially for 1960 – picked out like a vision by the camera lighting in the gloomy room.

So, we know what Marion did eat for lunch. And it was totally delicious. The way her head instantly moves in on him suggests she’s hungry for more.

Sam’s toplessness – which, being male, is officially non-sexual – to some extent stands in for Marion’s, which was still in 1960 Hollywood officially impossible. But in black and white practise, it is very much its own splendid, highly sexual thing.

They then canoodle on the bed, while Marion makes it clear she’s unhappy about their clandestine, seedy meets and wants to get married. Sam eventually demurs that he can’t afford to get married yet because of the alimony he’s paying to his ex-wife, along with taking care of his father’s debts. Marion replies, prophetically:

“I pay too. They also pay who meet in hotel rooms.”

During this exchange the camera spends most of its time on Sam (who remains partially clothed while Marion gets dressed) and his adorable face, nose and chin, which Marion can’t stop stroking – showing us the back of her head, even when she’s talking. We have to see him from her POV: why she would desire him enough to steal, completely out of character, $40,000 from her kindly old employer.

And we really do.

We’re also left in no doubt that that Marion, despite the talk of marriage, is not some shrinking, 1950s violet. She has a very active sexuality and wants to possess Sam.

Norman, whom she of course meets later on the way to claim Sam with the stolen cash, is a kind of anti-Sam – younger, skinnier, sexually repressed and a mommy’s boy. Oh, and a knife-wielding cross-dressing psychotic.

Sam and Norman exchange sexual tension

His voice is quaveringly pubescent compared to Sam’s butch baritone. But like Sam he is also pretty – after all, he’s played by teen-throb and sometime popster Anthony Perkins. Moreover, it is square Sam’s hotness, and unavailability, as well as the stifling gender roles and mores of mid-century America, that has led Marion – the older woman – to the seedy-grisly terminus of the Bates motel.

Norman goes to see ‘Mother’

I’d also forgotten something else about Psycho: how much Norman swishes his tiny tush when climbing the stairs of his gothic family home in the final reel. Just before we hear his ‘mother’, in a voice like late Bette Davis in full sneer mode, shouting:

“No! I will not hide in the fruit cellar! You think I’m fruity, huh? I’m staying right here!”

But then, it’s gothic chicken and eggs – Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, made two years later, was conceived as a horror cash-in on the runaway success of Psycho, and Davis’ famous ‘psycho-biddy’ character Jane owes more than a little to Ma Bates.

John Gavin died in 2018, aged 86, an event I seem to have somehow missed, but he’s been in my fruity thoughts lately, having also recently rewatched Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960), in which he plays a smouldering young Julius Caesar hanging out with an oysters-and-snails loving Crassus played by Laurence Olivier – and yes, of course there’s a bathhouse scene. And Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959), in which he plays an object of double feminine obsession (mother and daughter).

Often described dismissively as a ‘Rock Hudson lookalike’, Gavin was, I’d venture, prettier in his prime than Hudson, whose straight-edge, solid, dull, Anglo, handsomeness was the very reason he was supposedly ‘the last man you woulda guessed’. Although Gavin, who was of Latin American heritage, could sometimes be butchly wooden on screen, and unlike Hudson very heterosexual off-screen, there was something about his youthful looks that he couldn’t quite straighten out. That body. Those eyes. That mouth.

But it was the obese, bald, 60-year-old – as he was when Psycho was made – grandfather from Leytonstone, Mr Hitchcock, famous for his sometimes cruel, objectifying treatment of his female stars, who seems to have truly recognised, drawn out, and forever captured (stuffed?) the full-throated sexual energy, passivity and fatal charisma of Mr Gavin in his prime. A sexual energy, passivity and fatal charisma that Mr Gavin probably didn’t even know he had in him.

As a parting observation, I would suggest only slightly subjectively that in this film so famous for its focus on eyes – Norman’s at the peephole, Marion’s blinking at the car headlights on the highway, unblinking on the brightly-lit bathroom floor, the beady glass ones of the stuffed birds, ours zooming in under the cheap Phoenix hotel room’s blinds, Norman’s grinning psychotic eyes in the final frame – it is Sam’s eyes that are most seductive. They suck you in.

Like a shower drain.

Midway to Paradise (So Near, Yet So Far Away)

Mark Simpson finds Midway ‘dumb, numb and empty of cum

When I went to see Roland Emmerich’s teensploitation flick Midway this week I had low expectations. In fact, they were so low I almost ran aground on the way to the multiplex. Emmerich, the director-writer responsible for blockbusters such as Independence Day, Stargate, and The Day After Tomorrow, specialises in making movies as spectacularly awful as they are successful.

Why did I go? Because Emmerich’s films are aimed at teen boys – and I’m a classic case of arrested development. So is Emmerich, clearly – but I can only aspire to his level of adult cynicism, which has probably made him as wealthy as a war profiteer.

Midway, based on the pivotal 1942 Pacific naval engagement between the US and Japan which saw the destruction of much of the Japanese carrier fleet and the loss of their hopes of any kind of victory, manages to be even more stupidly awful than I expected.

But this time I doubt the stupid awfulness will be accompanied by stupid success. Not least because while the Battle of Midway may mean a lot to old queens like Emmerich – and me – raised on 1950s-60s Second World War movies, it probably doesn’t mean very much to the youths who are the film’s target market. The auditorium I saw it at one evening a few days after it opened was mostly empty – and I was somehow not the oldest person there.

Emmerich tries of course to ‘update’ things to get around this problem. So Midway is WWII re-run as a First-Person MMO Shooter – won by an excruciatingly cocky character called, I kid you not, ‘Dick Best’. Think Tom Cruise’s ‘Maverick’ (he’s often called a ‘cowboy’), but somehow much more annoying. Ed Skrein really knocks himself out in the role.

All the other men are droolingly in love with him and the size and heft of his virility – especially his handsome moustachioed boss played by that gay Brit actor who put Orlando Bloom out of work (Luke Evans).

After Dick sinks the Japanese Imperial Navy one of his fanboys announces, somewhat redundantly:

‘This war will be won by men who like dick best!’

(The ‘who’ may have been silent.)

What’s peculiar about Midway though is that for a film obsessed with dick and rammed with hot male talent, including professional manteaser Nick Jonas – and referencing Top Gun – how lacking in homoeroticism it is. Or any kind of eroticism, really – apart from, I suppose, the CGI explosions.

Midway isn’t just dumb, which would be entirely acceptable – it’s completely numb. Dumb, numb and totally devoid of cum. Even the homosociality is unconvincing and unfelt, which is quite an achievement in a movie set on board aircraft carriers filled with hundreds of young men. Perhaps this is because, paradoxically, the director likes dick best.

Jonas letting loose by far the most erotic moment in Midway

Emmerich is gay, and so may be inhibited on that front – lest he ‘let the side down’, especially in this age of gay respectability. It’s not impossible either that he’s a homo that just doesn’t get it – which is surprisingly common, I can assure you. But his biggest hits Stargate and Independence Day relied on cynically exploiting 1990s teen male homopanic and anal anxiety in a way that only a homo could.

In 2015 he apparently tried to atone for his sins with Stonewall, a flick celebrating the 1969 Stonewall ‘Uprising’ as its now called (why spoil a perfectly good bar riot?) – which I haven’t seen and have zero interest in seeing. It was panned by critics and activists and pilloried for its politics and lack of diversity. But what were people expecting from someone who makes movies about shit exploding while dudes high five?

As a side issue, Midway stars several Brit actors, as is often the way these days, playing Americans – including the lead, Ed Skrein. Oh, and waiting for it to start I saw a trailer for Knives Out, with Daniel Craig playing an American with a ripe southern accent.

Now, it’s fabulous that Brit actors are getting work, darling. But as a Brit watching Brit actors do American accents in Hollywood moovies, too often I find myself cringing like a limey. Skrein’s accent in Midway is like being keel-hauled by your ears. (He also seems to be doing something intensely irritating with his clean-cut-jutting All-American jaw.)

But apparently not to Americans, otherwise they wouldn’t keep getting cast. And you would think, wouldn’t you, that Americans are a better judge of an American accent than me. Is it perhaps prejudice on my part – because I see them as British, whereas Americans just assume they’re American? Or are as generous and open-hearted as I’m bitter and small-minded and so are happy to accept them and their goddamn stupidly awful accents as ‘American’?

Probably the latter.

Midway (2019 Movie) New Trailer – Ed Skrein, Mandy Moore, Nick Jonas, Woody Harrelson