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

Tag: masculinity (page 1 of 3)

Funny-Peculiar Men: Laurel & Hardy

Tonight the BBC screens Steve Coogan and John Reilly’s well-received 2019 film Stan & Ollie’, about the most famous comedy duo’s disastrous, almost-posthumous 1953 tour of Britain – and also their love for one another. Or at least, our investment in the idea of it. Back in the no-homo early 1990s me and my pal Nick Haeffner wrote a newspaper feature on the ‘queer’ appeal of their on-screen relationship that was cruelly spiked. With Nick’s permission, I expanded it into the version below and included it as a chapter in my 1994 book Male Impersonators .

(Of course, the conclusion is entirely wrong: Rick Mayall and Ade Edmondson weren’t the 90s inheritors of the Laurel and Hardy tradition – it was a cartoon cat and chihuahua….)

—————-

Stan: Well, what’s the matter with her anyway?

Ollie: Oh, I don’t know. She says I think more of you than I do of her.

Stan: Well, you do don’t you? 

Ollie: We won’t go into that! 

Stan: Y’know what the trouble is?

Ollie: What?

Stan: You need a baby in your house.

Ollie: What’s that got to do with it?

Stan: Well, if you had a baby it would keep your wife’s mind occupied; you could go out nights with me and she’d think nothing of it.

Their First Mistake, 1932

SUGGESTING THAT CINEMA’S most cherished comedy duo might be homosexual is not something you are likely to be thanked for. But this is precisely what Vito Russo does in his 1987 book The Celluloid Closet. Boldly claiming Laurel and Hardy for the history of gay cinema, Russo points out that in films like Their First Mistake (1932), the fat man and the thin man exemplified the ‘perfect sissy-buddy relationship, which had a sweet and very real loving dimen­sion’ with ‘unmistakably gay overtones.’

Could ‘buggery-pokery’ really be at the root of Stan and Ollie’s relationship – a relationship which has endured as the most fondly regarded cinema partnership of all time? Could their videos, amongst the all-time best-sellers and considered perfect children’s entertainment, be promoting some kind of queer Eros? Or is this rather the result of over-heated analysis, the product of the perverse imagination of gay critics?

Laurel and Hardy’s classic silent short Liberty seems to con­firm the Russo reading, in the most explicit way. Stan and Ollie play convicts on the run, who, in their haste to change into civvies, manage to put on each other’s trousers, which, given their famously contrasting shapes, proves somewhat impractical. There then follows a sequence of events that will be only too familiar to many gay viewers. Frantically, they try to swap their pants in an alleyway, behind some crates and in the back of a taxi. Each time they are frustrated by being discovered by some horrified passer-by, includ­ing: a housewife, a shopkeeper, a young heterosexual couple and a policeman. Sheepishly they scurry off in search of some other inti­mate place to effect their exchange (a building site, as it happens). 

Even critics unsympathetic to homosexuality have noted the sexual script here: as French film critic Andre S. Labarthe observed: ‘Liberty offers to anyone who can read, the unequivocal sign of unnatural love.’ 

But others have reacted indignantly to the suggestion that there could be anything ‘unnatural’ in the fat man and the thin man’s relationship. ‘There is something rather absurd about dis­cussing this seriously at all,’ harrumphs Charles Barr in his book Laurel and Hardy, responding to Labarthe. What is revealing is not so much Barr’s response as the example that he selects to refute the imputation: ‘Their First Mistake surely gives, to anyone who can read, an explicit rebuttal of Labarthe’.

In Barr’s analysis, the signs of ‘unnatural love’ represent in fact, through infantilization, the very naturalness and purity of Stan and Ollie’s love: ‘since their mental processes, particularly Stan’s, are those of nursery children, one takes it for granted that they should share a bed as in the nursery.’ Their infantilism, in other words, guarantees their ‘pre-sexual’ status.

This response by Barr sounds a bit like a dismissal of filthy foreign slanders, reminiscent of Leslie Fiedler’s remark in Love and Death in the American Novel that, ‘in our native mythology, the tie between male and male is not only considered innocent, it is taken for the very symbol of innocence itself.’

In effect, Barr is defending the myth of America itself, positioning the purity of the Great Ameri­can Childhood between Laurel and Hardy and those who would seek to corrupt their legacy. ‘After Mark Twain,’ writes Fiedler,

‘one of the partners to such a union is typically conceived of as a child, thus inviting the reader to identify with the Great Good Place where the union is consummated with his own childhood …’

Laurel and Hardy’s own ‘innocence’ serves to keep the critical lid on a veritable Pandora’s box of forbid­den desires. We laugh at their ‘queer’ antics to relieve our discom­fort at their associations. But we also enjoy that discomfort. This is why both Barr and Labarthe are correct. Stan and Ollie by their own behaviour reveal that they are not so innocent after all: why else would they display shame when discovered trying to swap their pants?

In Their First Mistake Ollie is sued for divorce by his wife (with Stan named as ‘the other woman’). The action then centres around Ollie’s incompetent attempts to run a house and look after an infant. Eventually he and Stan end up in their bed with the baby. Ollie falls asleep but is awoken by the baby’s cries. Half asleep, eyes closed, Ollie reaches over with the feeding bottle, but it inevitably ends up in Stan’s mouth who is sleeping alongside him, cuddled in his arm. Stan instinctively sucks it dry in his sleep.

The scene’s humour depends precisely upon reading this as both ‘innocent’ and ‘queer’, with the second reading held under the first. In other words, the signified ‘pre-sexual’ status of Stan and Ollie defuses the threat of the bed scene but does not remove the charge – if it did, where would the gag be? The disavowal of Stan and Ollie’s queerness does not erase it, otherwise they would never have cut it as a comedy duo and would have long been forgotten.

Ollie’s oral gratification of Stan is ‘funny’ precisely because to take it any other way would be shocking and indecent. The absurd protects itself against enquiry by salvaging the disturbing reading beneath the innocent one — by humorous ‘contamination’. Thus ‘there is something rather absurd about discussing this seriously at all’. In other words, Barr continues the disavowal through the idea of the ‘joke’.

Of course, Laurel and Hardy are not ‘gay’. But they are clearly not ‘straight’ either. Attempts by gays to claim them as ‘the ultimate gay couple’ almost miss the point. Laurel and Hardy’s dalliance with perverse signifiers – their ‘queerness’ – is actually a measure of their gender nonconformity as much as, if not more than, a sign of sexual deviation. Their refusal/inability to perform heterosexuality and play the role of ‘men’ is what defines them. 

This is the other mean­ing of their infantilization, their escape from the usual masculine standards. Unable to hold down a job for the length of a film, irresponsible, cowardly, living in the shadow of their Amazonian wives and regularly given a good pasting by them, our heroes are wonderfully, thrillingly catastrophic failures as men. Which is of course why we love them — gay or straight.

In her book Gender Trouble, Judith Butler argues that from a queer perspective heterosexuality prescribes ‘normative sexual positions that are intrinsically impossible to embody’. These in turn become ‘an inevitable comedy,’ and heterosexuality becomes a ‘constant parody of itself’. But the popularity of comedy duos like Laurel and Hardy show that this perspective is not exclusive to lesbians and gays. The particularly rigid enforcement of gender roles that ac­companied the arrival of capitalism and the sexual division of labour still rankles in the popular subconscious, and any ‘safe’ revolt against them, especially the transformation of ‘straight’ roles into pantomime, is enthusiastically welcomed.

Laurel and Hardy base their own brand of sex-role panto on the impossibility of the demands of manhood. The joke, so to speak, is on masculinity. This is even suggested in the title of their first headline movie together, Putting Pants on Philip (1927). In it Stan plays a kilt-wearing Scotsman visiting his American uncle Ollie, who is embarrassed by his nephew’s unorthodox leg-wear. Despite Stan’s portrayal as – of all things – a woman chaser (a peculiarly jarring image), most of the jokes revolve around Stan’s ‘skirt’. 

At one point Stan even treats us to a bizarre premonition of Marilyn Monroe’s trademark by standing over a ventilation grille, with predictable results. At this, women in a crowd that has been attracted by Stan’s strange apparel faint and a policeman warns Ollie, ‘This dame ain’t got no lingerie on.’ It is not Stan whom we laugh at, but the social agonies of the respectable gent played by Ollie who desperately tries to get his nephew kitted out in some ‘proper’ masculine attire, to no avail.

In a later silent, You’re Darn Tootin (1928), the trouser motif, or rather the lack of them, is taken to glorious extremes. It climaxes with the duo’s infectious mayhem embroiling a whole street full of men in one of their tiffs (brought about by their failure, once again, to success­fully perform a job). Soon trousers sail through the air in a ‘de-bagging’ orgy. No man, however dignified, is safe: workmen, busi­nessmen and even policemen succumb to the irresistible chaos Laurel and Hardy have brought to the masculine world – and quite literally lose their trousers. The gag is simple but universal in its effective­ness, relying on one basic assumption: men and the way they take themselves so seriously are actually the biggest joke going – just pull their pants down and you’ll see why.

Stan and Ollie, meanwhile, waltz away from this scene of masculine devastation sharing a pair of trousers. Unmanly men they may be, but together they have just enough dignity to go round after the ‘real men’ have been stripped of theirs.

‘Pants’ also symbolize the civilization and refinement of the ‘nether regions’; their loss stands for disorder. For the Russian critic and medievalist Bakhtin, laughter brings the mighty low and turns the natural world upside down – returning us to the body. The carnivalesque in our comic duo’s films resides most obviously in Ollie’s belly and bottom: soft, wobbly, outsized and irresistible, they are hardly ever out of frame. Especially that bottom.

The arse is the first line of defence in the paranoid masculine struggle against being ‘unmanned’. It is the inevitable site of floods of jokes designed to allay fears about being penetrated, sexual passivity and ridicule. And in case we should forget Ollie’s laugh­able arse and all that it represents, a stream of missiles launch themselves with unerring accuracy at his flabby flanks: water jets, nails, arrows, pitchforks, shotgun pellets and pins ‘prick’ his bot­tom in a sadistic torture that makes us squirm while we guffaw.

And, true to Bakhtin’s carnivalesque characterization of popular humour, everything these ‘crap’ men touch turns to shit. Objects exist only to be broken; conventions, to be flouted. Now wincing, now cheering, we follow their sniggering trail of destruc­tion to a millionaire’s trashed mansion, to a banquet become a battlefield, or to the remnants of a grand piano – the ultimate symbol of failed bourgeois pretension. 

In the anally-fixated, scato­logical humour of popular comedy, shit, bottoms and mess are gleefully celebrated as an antidote to the repressive strictures of high-minded middle-class respectability: bathos triumphs over pathos; the ridiculous over the sublime. Mess, destruction and disaster, epitomized in the custard pie fight, are fundamental fun. 

If their humour is medieval, then Stan and Ollie’s relation­ship is more modern. Inhabiting a resolutely hostile world where nothing goes right, the inadequate co-dependents that are Stan and Ollie have only each other to count on or blame: ‘That’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!’ We identify not only with their hopelessness but with their love. We can laugh at their spiteful, shin-kicking, eye-poking squabbles only because we are sure that their love will endure. We know that out of the rubble of a Beverly Hills villa, the heap of torn trousers and the sea of ‘custard’, Stan and Ollie will emerge unscathed and indissoluble; survivors of everything the world can throw at them.

So admirable is their love that very often it is set against conventional male heterosexuality, as both a resistance to it and, for all our silly pair’s ‘crapness’, as a favourable contrast. Pack Up Your Troubles (1932) begins with war being declared and Stan and Laurel unsuccessfully trying to evade conscription by faking inval­idity (again their unmanliness allows them to display traits, in this case cowardice, that other men are forbidden). Once inducted into the army, they continually demonstrate their hilarious inability to perform the martial myth of manhood. In drill they are, needless to say, disastrous. Stan cannot get the hang of left and right and so hooks his arm around Ollie’s. 

True to form they both end up marching in the wrong direction — arm in arm. They are sent to the trenches, where their love continues to defy the expected manly performance: we see them at reveille in the same bed, arms wrapped around one another with their feet pressed against a hot water bottle. A sergeant major barks at them and orders them to capture some Germans. Their bungling ineptitude saves them from certain death and wins the day without the death of a single soldier, American or German.

One American soldier, however, is captured by the Ger­mans. Stan and Ollie resolve to visit his baby girl on their return home. On their visit they discover that she is being ill-treated by her foster parents. We see the girl being deprived of love and affection by uncaring husband and wife, especially the husband who is tyran­nical and sadistic. On this scene of glum misery the door opens and it is good old Stan and Ollie, clearly representing ‘love’. Naturally they rescue the girl from her ogre foster father and set about trying to locate her grandparents (what, I wonder, would be the popular reaction to the kidnap of a little girl from her heterosexual guard­ians by two men who lived together if it occurred off screen?). Tracing her grandparents proves problematic – they only know their surname: Smith. This provides the entree into a series of gags.

The first Mr Smith they locate turns out to be a boxer. When the door opens Ollie cheerily announces, ‘We’ve got your son’s child!’ ‘Blackmail, eh?’ replies the boxer and punches Ollie on the chin with a bone crushing right hook.

In another ‘Smith’ confusion they bring mayhem to a bour­geois wedding ceremony, leading the father of the bride to think that the little girl belongs to the groom. The wedding cancelled, the bride rushes over to Laurel and Hardy and thanks them effusively for saving her from an unwanted marriage. Once again our lovers manage to upset the heterosexual applecart in heroic fashion, offer­ing a moral contrast in their understanding of love to that of the cynical male characters they encounter who are sadistic, violent, selfish and callous. It is instructive of Laurel and Hardy’s relation­ship that a film that begins with a declaration of war and conscrip­tion quickly devotes itself to a sentimental storyline about children.

Alas, the parody of masculinity and the example of another kind of loving that our boys provide us with is dependent, finally, upon the exclusion of women. This is shown in Their First Mistake: the problem Ollie and Stan are debating is how to get the women out of their life. Any femininity entertained by them in the form of their frequent dragging up, for example, is a mere semblance (although it has to be said that Stan is unnervingly convincing in a frock). Real femininity, in the shape of their knuckle-dusting wives, is something to flee from – however, in contrast to the tradition, these fearsomely strong women are also very attractive.

Given this, it is perhaps unsurprising that the popular international Laurel and Hardy fan club is called Sons of the Desert, after the film of the same name where the boys can go to a convention of their men-only Sons of the Desert club in Chicago only by tricking their wives. Of course their wives find out and there is hell to pay.

This exclusion of women is an almost universal tradition in male comedy duos. From the sleeping habits of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin or Morecambe and Wise to the drag extravaganzas of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, any transgression of masculine standards is predicated upon the maintenance of a boys-only environment including even the 1990s out-of-the-closet comedy of Terry and Julian. Red Dwarf, a comedy set in space, takes this maxim to the cynical extreme of having the only female character played by a computer – i.e. femininity literally disembodied. (This is why Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders’ all-female comedy can be so refreshing and why their vengeful impersonations of men, complete with ball-scratching and fat arses escaping from jeans, so hilarious.)

However, it is Adrian Edmondson’s and Rik Mayall’s double act that must be the direct inheritor of the Laurel and Hardy tra­dition in Britain; like our defunct duo they are utterly ‘crap’ men and for them everything exists to be destroyed. Of course, their relationship is depressingly up-to-date. They sleep in separate beds and are spectacularly cruel to one another without respite in an almost ritualistic fashion; they are not allowed any of the tender moments that Ollie and Stan enjoyed in between the nose-twisting and foot-stamping. 

Nevertheless Rik and Adrian remain together and their tainted, twisted ‘love’ survives an equally tainted, twisted world. And, as with Laurel and Hardy, the rectum is both an exclamation and a question mark hanging over them – a fact freely acknowledged in the title of their latest incarnation: Bottom.

It is not, as some would have it, an age of innocence that has been lost, but rather an impossible tenderness between men.

In an interview towards the end of his life, Foucault sug­gested that the rise of homosexuality as an identity has coincided with the disappearance of male friendships:

‘the disappearance of friendship as a social relationship and the transformation of homosexuality into a social, political and medical problem are part of the same process’.

Perhaps what we have seen in the period since Laurel and Hardy is an increase of the presence of homosexu­ality as a thing to be disavowed in male-to-male relations, rather than its sudden arrival. If male-to-male ties were once taken to be ‘the symbol of innocence itself’ then perhaps this was only through a suspension of disbelief that is no longer tenable in an era when homosexuality is so much more visible.

In Ollie and Stan’s day the audience’s anxieties/interest in queerness could be titillated and the joke could safely be substituted for its actual expression: their behaviour could be ‘funny’ in a sense that was ‘peculiar’ but disavowed by being funny. But nowadays this mechanism, even with infantilization and the exclusion of women, seems unable to cope with any tenderness between our male comics. Looking back, contemporary audiences can enjoy the antics of the fat man and the thin man because, like Barr, they place them in a pretended pure and innocent past — ‘the Great Good Place’ — that never existed. 

Finally, perhaps Laurel and Hardy are regarded with such fondness today because they represent an impossible contradiction: innocence and queerness. They are men who are in every sense ‘impossible’ – then, and especially now: impossibly ‘funny’ and impossibly touching. Reports that Stan was ‘inconsolable’ after Ollie’s death only heighten our own sense of loss at the passing of their screen affair.

Nick Haeffner’s new solo album A New Life Awaits You is available on Band Camp

Danish Spornosexuality

According to a recent article on male image from DR, the Danish version of the BBC, ‘From Hippie to Sex Symbol‘, the 21st Century belongs to my Rocky Horror-esque creations – the Metrosexual (‘metroseksuelle’) and the Spornosexual (‘spornosexsuelle’).

Although I might quibble with some of the things the article says – at least as filtered through Google Translate – I can’t disagree with them about that.

Shame they didn’t actually credit Dr Simpsonfurter. 

(h/t David S)

Slit-Trenches & Eternal Comradeship

Mark Simpson totally relates to the author’s 1970s childhood war-fetish, but has to draw the line at Ernest Hemingway.

(Independent on Sunday, 31 March 2002)

Robert Twigger is a man who wins awards. The jacket of Being a Man… In The Lousy Modern World boasts of the Newdigate Prize for poetry, the Somerset Maugham Award and the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award. Perhaps this because Twigger is very talented, or perhaps it’s just because Twigger is the kind of man who wins awards.

Whatever the answer, despite ringing testimonials on the same jacket from those well-known gatekeepers of masculinity Will Self (‘a tour de force’) and Tony Parsons (‘I urge you to read everything that carries his name’) the one prize which Twigger’s been aiming for all his life – manhood – still eludes him.

Or as Leighton Bailey, Michael Horden’s fabulously starchy boss in the 1956 Rank film The Spanish Gardener says when firing him, ‘It’s as a man you’ve failed’. (As proof, Horden’s son has deserted him for his ‘Spanish’ gardener, Dirk Bogarde – yes Dirk Bogarde. In fake tan.). Of course, nowadays most men are ‘failures’ – but being manly is not now a very smart career move and most men under forty don’t seem to care whether they’ve failed as men or not, just so long as they win in the soft, sybaritic consumerist marketplace.

Mr Twigger however, does. Very much. Which is nice, but the real question is: should we care about Twigger?

Certainly Twigger’s evocatively recounted 1970s lower middle-class childhood is entirely familiar to me and probably millions of others: that odd emphasis on service and sacrifice, stoicism and stiffened upper lips, forever preparing to fight a war that ended thirty years previously. I too was an avid fan of The Colditz Story, The Guns of Navarone, Dambusters, Hotspur, Commando Comics, Victor, Dad’s Army and playing war in abandoned pillboxes. ‘Never mind the seventies,’ Twigger writes, ‘flower power, flared jeans and platform soled shoes; for me and my friends it was all war, war, war.’

Life forever presented itself as a test that might prove you wanting: ‘I never saw a river without imagining someone was drowning in it and waiting to be rescued, a railway track without working out how to save someone who had fallen in front of a moving train…’ Of course, it was a shining, virtuous childhood which laughably failed to prepare Twigger – or me – for the ‘lousy modern world’. Both of us would have been much better off with the platform shoes and flares the street-smart boys on The Estate wore.

If he’d lived in my village, Twigger and I would probably have been blood brothers for a few summers, covering the countryside with slit trenches and promises of eternal comradeship. But I suspect we would have drifted apart eventually, round about the time that I realised he didn’t have much of a sense of humour. Or maybe when he realised that I had a bit of an over developed one.

‘Being a Man’, we’re told, contrasts ‘twenty-four hours of “normality” in Robert Twigger’s suburban existence with half a lifetime of (mis) adventurous living’. In other words, bragging reminisces and whimsy about masculinity woven around a narrative of holding a barbecue and taking his wife to the hospital to have their first child.

Now, I don’t mind a bit of masculine bravado, but the ‘nasty scrapes’ the author has managed to get himself into, how if it hadn’t been for the adrenaline rush he wouldn’t have been able to haul himself back into the boat/onto that mountain ledge/confront that bull in Pamplona (yes, he really did go bullfighting) are, alas, mostly quite tedious. Several times Twigger mentions that his father was down the pub when he was born – but despite the fact that Twigger actually witnesses his son’s birth, with ‘Being a Man’ he somehow manages to be down the pub with the reader of his book, boring them to death with his tales of derring-do.

Twigger’s failure is a failure of self-consciousness, twice over. His masculinity is a failure because he’s always looking for the secret, the code,the instructions (hence a fascination with martial arts); but in a self-reflexive world this is to be forgiven. However his writing here fails because it’s not self-conscious enough; he doesn’t seem to realise how comically self-defeating that literal-mindedness is, or be able to diagnose his own malady, let alone anyone else’s. This is not forgivable, even without the constant invocation of that American granddaddy of twats Hemingway (and the‘lousy’ use of Americanisms throughout the book).

Twigger’s boyish Army obsession continued until he was sixteen; when he realised that the only people who wanted to join the army were either ‘misfits, gay… or teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown.’ Yes, right, OK, but Robert I still don’t know why didn’t you join….

When Twigger finds himself in Mothercare he finds a part of his brain screaming that ‘BUYING NAPPIES IS STRICTLY FOR FAGS!’, an interesting response but one that is not analysed or even commented on. In a particularly risible passage he discusses at great length the story about Papa Doc’s encounter with F. Scott Fitzgerald in which Scotty complained that his dick was too small: Hemingway asked to see it and authoritatively pronounced it ‘normal sized’.

Twigger then advances an agonisingly torturous and entirely unnecessary argument that Hemingway worried about the size of his penis. Is Twigger the last person on Earth to have ‘twigged’ this? What’s clear is that Twigger has worried about the size of his penis – which is nothing to be ashamed of, especially in a book about masculinity – but he doesn’t tell us about it, instead he literally tries to put it in Papa Doc’s mouth. Not a pretty sight.

Speaking of which, in the gay world, afflicted as it is by far too much self-consciousness, there’s a term called ‘straight acting’. It’s supposed to denote ‘non-effeminate’ but unfortunately, unless the practitioner has a sense of humour, it too often merely denotes ‘a pain’. Alas, it would appear that this condition is not to be sexuality-specific. I have another award for the award-winning Mr Twigger: The Ernest Hemingway Award for Straight Acting Heterosexuality.

As Twigger writes himself: ‘What follows may be bollocks, so be warned.’ A commendable and very necessary warning.

Shame it doesn’t appear until page 121.

Male Lib is Nothing to Be Scared Of

The ‘crisis of masculinity’ is really a form of male emancipation argues Mark Simpson

(First appeared in Sweden’s SvD newspaper17/06/2017; published here in English with permission) 

Back in the late 20th Century, when I first began writing about masculinity – which seems an epoch away now – everyone knew what masculinity was. Or rather, what is wasn’t. And what masculinity wasn’t was very, very important. As a man, your balls depended on it.

Masculinity wasn’t sensual or sensitive. It wasn’t good with colours. It wasn’t talkative, except about football. It wasn’t passive. It wasn’t nurturing. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t feminine. And it certainly wasn’t gay. Masculinity was uniformity – difference was deviance.

Yes, I’m grossly stereotyping here. But that’s exactly what cultural expectations did to men.

And yes, masculinity could also be stoic, altruistic and heroic – but these ‘positive’ masculine qualities, which of course we’re all terribly nostalgic about in this selfie-obsessed century, were also based on repression. Being a man was much more about ‘no’ than ‘yes’. If you said ‘yes’ too much you might as well be a woman – or gay.

Because everyone knew what masculinity was – or wasn’t – hardly anyone talked about it. Apart from feminists and gays. Anyone who used the ‘m’ word was a bit suspect, frankly. And I was very suspect indeed – especially when I insisted that the future was metrosexual. Masculinity was supposed to be taciturn and self-evident not self-conscious and moisturised. No wonder I was laughed at.

More than a decade and a half into the nicely-hydrated 21st Century, everyone is now talking about masculinity. There is also a great deal of media chatter, from both ends of the political spectrum, about a so-called ‘crisis of masculinity’ – and a tendency to suggest that today’s generation of men are in a bad way compared to their forefathers, and also compared to women.

I couldn’t disagree more. There has never been a better, freer time to be a man. Which is precisely why we’re actually able to talk about the ‘m’ word. Yes many men, particularly older men who grew up with a model of masculinity that isn’t working for them any more, do of course face new and real problems in our rapidly-changing world – and sexism is, as the word suggests, a two-way street. But today’s ‘crisis of masculinity’ is basically the crisis of a man whose cell door has been left ajar.

In a sense, masculinity has always been ‘in crisis’ – a degree of hysteria was in-built because it was about living up to impossible, nostalgic expectations. Even the Ancient Greeks were worrying that men weren’t what they used to be: Homer’s Iliad is essentially a love letter to the ‘real’ men of the Bronze Age – heroes that made Iron Age men look like proper sissies.

Today’s men are probably less in ‘crisis’ than they have ever been before because those impossible, ‘heroic’ expectations have largely fallen away, and along with them the masculine prohibitions. Even that reactionary trend for lists of ‘man code’ ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ is just another sign of this. If you have to spell them out in a prissy list then they’re really not working any more. They were supposed to be completely internalised.

Everyone is asking ‘how to be a man’ now because no one really knows the answer. Which is actually great news! Rather than something to worry about. It means that everything is up for grabs. Men today are beginning to aspire to what women have been encouraged to aspire to for some time now – everything.

Repression, once the bedrock of masculinity, is definitely out of fashion. After all, we live in a hypervisual, social me-dia world where expression is the lingua franca. If you don’t express yourself you don’t exist. Today’s young men are mostly much more interested in being and feeling and sharing than in denying and hiding. They have tasted the forbidden fruits of sensuality, sensitivity, taking an interest in their own kids (if they have them), being good with colours, or having a prostate massage, and want more, please.

In fact, for the younger generation most of these masculine ‘transgressions’ are now pretty much taken for granted. Metrosexuality – the ‘soft’ and ‘passive’ male desire to be desired – is the new normal. Products, practises and pleasures previously associated – on pain of ridicule – only with gays and women have been more or less fully-appropriated by guys.

The most obvious, flagrant example of this is what has happened to the male body. No longer simply an instrumental thing labouring in darkness, extracting coal, building ships, fighting wars, making babies and putting out the rubbish, it has been radically and sensually redesigned to give and especially receive pleasure. It has become a pumped and waxed brightly-lit bouncy castle for the eyes.

Today’s eagerly self-objectifying young spornosexuals – or second generation, body-centred metrosexuals – toil in the gym in their own time to turn their bodies into hot commodities that are ‘shared’ and ‘liked’ in the online marketplace of Instagram and Facebook. Which is certainly needy, but also very generous of them. Young straight(ish) men today have taken the gay love of the male body and buffed it up – and want to share that love.

There is no crisis of masculinity – but rather, a long overdue crisis of the heterosexual division of labour, looking, and loving with which the Victorians stamped most of the 20th Century. Freed from the imperative to be ‘manly’ and (re)‘productive’, men have blossomed into something beautiful. A word that until very recently was absolutely not supposed to describe men.

Obviously the rise of feminism and gay rights have helped changed men’s attitudes. But perhaps the boot is on the other foot. Men in general are much less hard on gay men and on women now because they are no longer so hard on themselves. In a sense, women and particularly gays existed to project all men’s own forbidden ‘weaknesses’ into.

Nowadays, having been allowed to discover the pleasure they can bring, men want those ‘weaknesses’ back, thanks very much.

Sixth Form Boys Will Hug Boys – And Not Have a Crisis

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.

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 thirteen ‘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.”