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

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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 13 ‘trad’ boys, nine were members of the college’s rugby team – perhaps because then they did at least get to touch one another on the pitch. The rugby coach seemed to be an old skool guy himself, over-fond of the phrase ‘man up’, telling one injured player: “You’ll just have to man up and get on with it. We’re a man down here.”

Mark Simpson at Heartland Festival

Delighted to announce that I’ll be appearing at Denmark’s famous Heartland Festival, Egeskov Castle, 2-4 June. I’ll be discussing that hot topic of contemporary masculinity – and it’s need to be hot – along with the Danish designer Mads Norgaard, with the journalist Adrian Lloyd Hughes charing. More info here.

The festival promised in the video below looks charming. Not sure I’m flexible enough for the yoga, but the hot tubs look fun.

Heartland Festival 2017

 

Man Down – Defining Deflated & Liberated Masculinity

by Mark Simpson

‘What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! in apprehension how like a god!… And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?’ – Hamlet

There has been a lot of soul-searching about what it means to ‘be a man’ nowadays. Because no one really knows the answer. Defining ‘man’ and ‘masculine’ in a world in which phallic certainties have dramatically deflated like a dirigible disaster is an endless and probably pointless task. It is the philosopher’s stone of marketing. The quintessence of dust.

Coach, a weekly free UK men’s fitness/lifestyle magazine produced by Dennis publishing (also behind the stalwart spornosexual monthly Men’s Fitness), recently produced some research on the elusive nature of the modern male that defined him by un-defining him. It claimed to show that the ‘alpha male’ stereotype is largely a thing of the past, replaced by an ‘alta male’ who is less interested in money and career than in a healthy work/life balance, self-improvement and personal relationships – ‘higher’ things.

Most of all, he prefers to follow his own lights, rather than compare himself to traditional models of masculinity which are now seen as largely obsolete. Modern man is defined, in other words, by his lack of definition.

Last month I was invited by Coach to appear on a panel in Soho, London discussing the findings. As I said at the time, what most interested me about the research was that, in addition to proving me, in my humble opinion, completely and absolutely right about everything – which is always gratifying – it seemed to finally dispel the over-hyped, almost hysterical, notion that men are undergoing a ‘crisis of masculinity’. Though I’m sure many of the people in crisis about this ‘crisis’ will continue to have a cow about it.

Masculinity has always been in crisis. This has been its ‘natural’, anxious, paranoid, Hamletian state. It’s why it always had something to prove. But probably less so now than ever before.

As I’ve argued for some time, instead of a crisis, what we’re really going through is a revolution. A revolution against mostly restrictive, repressive ideas of what being a man is. A metrosexual revolution – or ‘male lib’. In fact, this revolution has been going on for the last few decades and for most of the younger generation its achievements are largely taken for granted.

Hence the Coach found that: ‘Friendliness, intelligence, being funny, caring are all attributes man wants to be seen possessing – in contrast with toughness and strength of the man of yesteryear.’

This is underlined by how ‘masculine’ is the No.2 quality today’s men attribute to ‘man of yesteryear’ (48%) – but doesn’t make it into the top 12 attributes he likes others to see in him (23%).

This sentiment is loudly echoed in a recent YouGov survey (cited in the Coach research) that found only 2% of 18-24 year olds see themselves as ‘completely masculine’ – compared with 56% of 65+ men.

genderAge

A whopping 47% (the largest segment) see themselves as 2s on a scale of 0-6, where 0 = completely masculine 6 = completely feminine, while a sizeable 17% see themselves as 3s, i.e. somewhere in the middle. (This is similar to a previous YouGov survey on sexuality which found that most young people in the UK now consider themselves something other than ‘100% heterosexual’.)

For comparison, 14% of 18-24 women see themselves as ‘completely feminine’, which is seven times as many men of the same age who see themselves as completely masculine. While 12% see themselves as 3s.

The remarkably low figures for young men seeing themselves as ‘masculine’ may be influenced by the way that masculinity has had a bad press lately – and indeed the majority of 18-24 men have a negative impression of masculinity, with 42% perceiving it negatively compared to 39% positively. Interestingly, 18-24 women mostly don’t share young men’s critical view of masculinity and are as positive about it as young men are negative (42% positive to 27% negative). In this regard, young men seem to be more ‘feminist’ than young women.

By the way, YouGov’s figures for the US show that American men are much more likely than UK ones to think of themselves as ‘completely masculine’, 42% overall compared to 28%. As I’ve pointed out before, despite being very much involved in its creation, the US has been resistant to metrosexuality and the revolution it represents – or at least terribly conflicted about it. The US is of course the home of ‘manning up’, bearism, ‘bro-nuts‘, and IT professionals who think they’re lumberjacks.

Back in the effete UK, while discussing its findings on men’s attitudes towards masculinity, the Coach report concludes: ‘But even though man is more comfortable with who he is on the inside, there’s a struggle to define ‘masculinity’. (61% find it ‘hard to define exactly what masculinity means’.)

I think this statement is phrased wrongly. There’s no ‘but’ about it. And not much of a ‘struggle’. I don’t think many if not most young men can be bothered. Which is a good thing. It’s precisely because masculinity can’t be easily defined nowadays that men have much more freedom than their forefathers – and can thus be ‘more comfortable with who he is on the inside’. In the past, really only a couple of decades ago, everyone knew what being a man was – and what a ‘regular bloke’ looked like. And who wasn’t.

Although trad masculinity had many admirable qualities, such as self-sacrifice, stoicism and DIY – they were largely based on repudiation. Most of trad masculinity was defined by what men were not – not soft, not tender, not nurturing, not passive, not feminine, not good with colours, not gay. As a result, most young men today don’t ‘struggle’ to define masculinity – rather, they get on with living their lives how they want to live them.

Finally, a slightly tedious word about demographics. The Coach research was based on a focus group of 21 men aged between 22-59 in London, and a survey of 1000 men and women across Britain. Although the focus group apparently included many men originally from around the UK (and some who still lived outside London), it’s probably true that the research – like the magazine itself – had a metropolitan bias.

It also seems to have had, unsurprisingly, a middle class one – 79% of the respondents were ABC1 (compared to c.54% nationally according to 2015 figures). However, I don’t think this invalidates their findings, especially since the aspects of their research which most interested me seem to be backed up by the more demographically representative YouGov research – which when you drill down into their C2DE/ABC1 breakdown, mostly shows no great differences between them in regard to attitudes towards masculinity.

It’s one of the hallmarks of the metrosexual revolution that it cuts across all classes, with working class men often on the coalface of change.

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