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.
The US had a national nervous breakdown over male beauty in the early noughties.
It seems ridiculous now – and actually it was fairly ridiculous at the time – but it’s simply an objective fact that the US went completely fucking berserk over the metrosexual: my insufferably pretty offspring with the really great, hydrated skin. Not since the Beatles had a British import caused so much screaming – and so much moral panicking.
The same year, the networked animated cable TV series South Park devoted a whole episode to him satirising his stunning popularity, called ‘South Park Is Gay!’. In it all the straight men and boys in South Park turn, we are told, ‘metrosexual’ – which here seems to mean ‘effeminate’.
The ‘Fab Five’ swishy gay male grooming and lifestyle experts from Queer Eye For the Straight Guy – that year’s new, smash-hit makeover show – are blamed for the epidemic of preening. They turn out to be alien monsters and are executed by the men’s angry wives, who explain: ‘men need to be masculine!’.
Strangely, this disturbingly silly cartoon spoof pretty much predicted/incited how America ended up reacting in non-animated real life to the scary sexual ambiguity of metrosexuality.
The uptake of ‘gay’ beauty concerns by men along with the ‘feminine’ desire to be desirable, was something well underway by the noughties – without an intervention from the Fab Five (I’d originally written about metrosexuality for a British newspaper back in 1994, predicting the future of masculinity was moisturised).
In hindsight, I wonder how many of the straight men in NYC the Fab Five rescued from flaky skin, cheap chinos and TV dinners were just slumming it for the sake of a free facial, some product and plenty of attention.
For my money, Queer Eye For the Straight Guy, which was often described as the ‘metrosexual reality TV show’, had a typo in the title. It should have been ‘Queer Eye OF the Straight Guy’. But then it wouldn’t have been commissioned.
Queer Eye was entertaining, mostly safe fun precisely because it restated the already blurring boundaries in a reassuring way: straight men were hopeless at appreciating male beauty and gay men were fabulous. The queer eye belonged to the queers. Despite this, Queer Eye still managed to outrage some at the time – including apparently the makers of South Park.
My own definition of the metrosexual from my Salon essay had though been carefully inflammatory about the sexual ambiguity of the metrosexual:
‘He might be officially gay, straight or bisexual, but this is utterly immaterial because he has clearly taken himself as his own love object and pleasure as his sexual preference.’
Though of course the US marketers who tried to appropriate – and spay – the metrosexual after my essay went viral, vehemently insisted that the metrosexual was always straight. And never vain. Just ‘well-groomed’. No one really bought this. His ambiguity and out-and-proud vanity was the only reason anyone was interested in him.
And it’s also why America, which really wasn’t ready to face up to this stuff back then, ended up having a full-blown backlash against metrosexuality by 2006, when the full, horrifying implications of metrosexuality began to sink in. Anti-metrosexuality became the 21st Century ‘Disco Sucks!’ campaign, but with even more pronounced gay panic.
The US media now aroused itself talking up hilariously butch reaction-formations such as ‘machosexuals’, ‘retrosexuals’ and a ‘menaissance’. Lots of books with annoying, anal lists of ‘manly’ do’s and don’ts were published. Most of all, the MAN word was hysterically over-deployed, often as a reassuring manly phallic pacifier strapped on the front of something that so wasn’t: MANdates, MANscara etc.
Metrosexuality of course, along with hyper-consumerism and visual culture, continued conquering the world. But in the US it wasn’t polite to mention it: metrosexuality was now on the downlow. As the South Park wives had put it in 2003: Men need to be masculine!
Or at least we needed to pretend they need to be.
All of which was of course way camper than the metrosexual ever was.
Queer Eye itself was axed in 2007 – the same year that the legendary cable TV drama series Mad Men first aired. But the star of the show, and the apple of the camera’s eye, the very dapper Don Draper (John Hamm) was essentially a late noughties metrosexual daydream of what a 1960s retrosexual looked like.
Either way, he certainly didn’t need the Fab Five to pick out his shirts.
Most apocalyptically of all, young men are putting their shirts back on and Love Island has been cancelled.
Or so you might be forgiven for thinking if you read Martin Daubney’s piece last week in Telegraph Men about the findings of a study into masculinity he helped organise. ‘We can say confidently’, he said, confidently, ‘that British men in 2017 are increasingly abandoning narcissism, the perfect body and promiscuity’.
Apparently, instead of being selfie-admiring, ‘vain’, ‘shallow’, ‘dopey metrosexuals’, today’s men are now looking for ‘greater depth and meaning’ and emphasising ‘traditional’ and ‘moral values’, including marriage.
In other words, men have – finally! – stopped being so bloody gay.
Male vanity’s death sentence was supposedly delivered in Harry’s Masculinity Report, sponsored by and named after an American male grooming company that is, well, muscling in on the lucrative UK male vanity market. But Harry’s you see is a straight-acting all-American grooming company. On their website they boast that they make ‘a high-quality shave that’s made by real guys for real guys’. Sweet!
Of course, as a big ol’ homo and the ‘daddy’ of the metrosexual and his ‘shredded’, under-dressed younger ‘bro’, the spornosexual, I’m a tad over-invested in male prettiness – even if I don’t always invest enough in my own. But I really don’t see much evidence for the demise of male self-reflexivity and image-consciousness. Except perhaps in the popularity of man-buns. (No one could wear one of those and own a mirror.)
I suspect what we have here is more a case of wishful/murderous thinking. The report seems to me to have found the ‘traditional’ values and morality it was looking for.
Were the guys surveyed ‘real guys’, like the guys at Harry? Well it seems they were simply the first 2000 men aged between 18-85 living in the British Isles who completed a lengthy online questionnaire. It was promoted in male-related online forums and ‘to ensure broad UK reach across all demographics, the survey was also promoted by Martin Daubney.’
Martin, a high-profile, right-of-centre, white, male, heterosexual, married journalist, indefatigable campaigner around men’s issues and ‘porn addiction’ – and infuriatingly likeable chap – has 17K followers on Twitter. It would be unfair to call this Daubney’s Masculinity Report, but we should at least wonder how much Martin is inadvertently admiring his own reflection in it.
It’s difficult to tell though – the ‘men’ in this study are rather opaque. Monolithic, even. There’s an age and marital status breakdown, which seems fairly representative, but no information about their ethnicity, their sexuality, political affiliation or their class/occupation. Though the fact that nearly half of them were from London and the South East (there is a regional breakdown) might be a bit of a clue as to the latter.
There are 35 ‘core values’ options listed in the questionnaire. The first four are: ‘Dependable, ‘Reliable’, ‘Loyal’, ‘Committed’, and the seventh is ‘Honest’.
The top five rated by respondents were, in order: ‘Honest’, ‘Reliable’, ‘Dependable’, ‘Loyal’, ‘Committed’.
‘Helpful’ isn’t in the list, but I suppose that’s implicit in the answers.
‘Fit’ and ‘athletic’, the only two options in the list of ‘core values’ that aren’t moral values appear at 21 and 22 and were rated by respondents at 31 and 35. Though perhaps the ratings for them should have been added together, as I’m not sure what the difference is between ‘fit’ and ‘athletic’. Both arouse me.
It’s great that men want to be, as they say in their online dating profiles, ‘100% gen’. Or seen as that. But I’m not sure how that shows they’ve abandoned the gym and their own reflection.
As for the evidence of men ‘abandoning promiscuity’ – the questionnaire doesn’t have anything to say, or ask, about ‘promiscuity’, or for that matter, monogamy. Unless of course you think that valuing honesty, reliability, dependability, loyalty and commitment is necessarily incompatible with having sex with more than one person. Or rather, sex with more people than you – probably the most accurate definition of ‘promiscuous’.
The trad-dad moralising thrust of all this becomes evident in the ‘main lessons from this survey’ section we are told the factors found to be associated with men’s ‘mental positivity’ are ‘good job satisfaction’, ‘stable relationship’, ‘living up to their roles as men’, ‘more connected to a sense of spirituality’ and ‘engage in sports’ – that’s manly team sports, I’m guessing, not posing around the gym like a tart.
I’m sure this is all well-intentioned. But it does sound a shade School Speech Day, c.1956. Especially the ‘living up to their roles as men’ bit.
I can understand why report’s authors want to ‘detoxify’ the ‘brand’ of masculinity (this ‘core values’ shtick is mostly used in a corporate context) and offer some ‘good news’ about men that goes against the bad news grain. And think it’s great that the oft-neglected issue of men’s mental health is being addressed and men’s intimate preoccupations are being probed.
But re-stigmatising the hard won right of men of whatever sexuality to be pretty and ‘gay’ isn’t going to help. I mean, really? No gym. No porn. No Tinder. No preening. This is supposed to reduce male suicide?
Male narcissism has added enormously to the gaiety of the nation. It should be celebrated as a Great British tradition, from Byron to Bowie to Beckham to Bromans. Puritanical Yankee grooming go home. What’s more the acceptance of it has made homophobia less acceptable. Non-gay men today, particularly younger men for whom metrosexuality is just ‘normal’, are much less hard on The Gays than their fathers were because they are less hard on themselves.
Being soft on yourself is surely the key to being soft on others.
Most men are not going to dedicate themselves to becoming a Men’s Health cover model, thank the baby Jesu. Apart from anything else, if they did I’d never be able to get on the squat rack at 5pm. But metrosexuality, love it or loathe it, is part of masculinity’s gayish DNA now. It’s far too late to straighten it out.
And even if you could, you’d just cause a global economic catastrophe, like the terrifying End of Days one envisioned at the beginning of this article.
All these nicely-presented years on from the birth of the metrosexual -- he turned 22 this month -- and my prediction that he represented the future of masculinity, out and proud male vanity shows no sign of getting bored with itself, or running out of cash to splash. ‘Male grooming’ is still booming: it’s a fine-smelling, thoroughly-moisturised market estimated to top £14.8bn globally this year.
But now that almost every post-pubescent male shares his bathroom with a buff puff there is a danger that the market could become as saturated as men’s skin. In order to continue growing, and create demands for new products, male grooming increasingly has to boldly go where no ad has gone before. Groping male consumers intimately in the quest for new frontiers of needs.
And this TV commercial currently airing in the UK is very bold, as Julian and Sandy would say. It features a man playing with his balls on prime time.
Below The Belt Grooming Commercial
‘Only a few decades ago if you wore underarm spray you were not considered to be a REAL MAN,’ says the strangely robotic (butch?) voiceover, as we watch a young, worked out, fashion-bearded male performing his most personal ablutions in his mirrored privy. ‘A few decades’ looks like a millenia.
The Scottish-American text-to-speech app goes on to tell us that talcum powder ‘around your damp bits’ was acceptable back then, but ‘black suave underpants put paid to that messy solution’.
Yes, those black suave underpants that I’m probably to blame for.
He continues (I had to replay this bit several times to understand what was being said): ‘Lots has evolved since then, but men are still just as badly-designed downstairs.’
Are we? Speak for yourself, dear!
But before we can ponder that statement, or assess whether sweaty knackers are really such a major social problem, we’re slapped in the face with a irresistible question:
‘Surely modern man deserves the choice of being comfortable all day?’
Well, who can argue with choice, comfort and deservingness? And besides, the model is nodding in agreement at this point. Or maybe ecstasy -- he’s clearly handling himself now. While admiring his reflection in the mirror.
‘Welcome to Below the Belt grooming and fresh and dry balls!’
Thanks! I think.
Then the corny kiss-off line which is, it has to be said, the dogs bollocks:
‘Your balls are safe in our hands!’
The effect is to make the ad -- sorry, testimonial -- a WTF? moment. Is this is a spoof? Is this product real? Or is there some double entendre here that I’ve somehow missed? Surely they can’t be being this direct on the tellybox?
And then you find yourself wondering well, why shouldn’t balls be mentioned in telly ads, without coyness or evasion? Even if yours aren’t ‘badly-designed’? Men’s balls exist! They have needs! They have feelings! (Which can, as any man will tell you, be hurt very, very easily.) And they need to breath! It’s about time they stopped having to hide and came out.
The sweaty nads ad is perhaps not quite as clever or funny -- or even as ‘ballsy’ -- as this ‘I’d f*ck me’ US Phillips manscaping ad from a few years back which took male vanity to its logical, self-loving conclusion, but it’s up there. Or down there. Certainly we’ve come a long way since this anxious 1968 UK commercial that sought to tell us that spray-on deodorant wasn’t girly or gay at all because manly, pub-going, bird-chasing, working class England footie heroes used it (and it was kept in the locker-room first aid cabinet because it was purely medicinal and not at all cosmetic).
Post-Beckham, all professional footballers have monogrammed Luis Vuitton washbags filled with the latest, most expensive male cosmetics issued along with their football strip.
Some of course will worry that the Below the Belt ad is just more horrifying evidence that metrosexuality has gone Too Far. That men are being emasculated by their ‘girly’ vanity. That along with ‘extreme’ manscaping trends such as increasing numbers of men apparently shaving their legs, and the arrival of ‘scrotal lifts‘ consumerism now has men by the balls.
And perhaps it’s true that consumerism is trying to create new male neuroses merely to sell more products, in much the same way that it has done with women for decades. That’s a kind of equality, I suppose.
Others might argue that it merely comes down to more freedom, that as the ad says, ‘surely modern man deserves the choice’. You don’t have to Immac your legs or baste your bollocks if you don’t want to. Pants may have got tighter but masculinity is much less restrictive than it used to be, and as a result men are less inhibited than they used to be -- and more likely to do things that might seem a bit silly.
Besides, isn’t it a good thing that men are being encouraged to ‘examine’ their testicles daily -- especially during Movember? Not all bollocks are created equal -- some balls really are sweatier than others. And maybe testicle antiperspirant gel is a potential solution to that terrible modern scourge of ‘manspreading’.
As for me, my main concern is simply this: does Below the Belt come in different flavours?
While everyone else in the 80s wanted to look like they’d walked off the set of Blade Runner or Top Gun, Peter York looked and sounded like he’d stepped out of Dangerous Liaisons. Whenever the co-author of Style Wars and The Sloane Ranger Handbook popped up on telly, as he often did back then, talking about trends or ads in a dapper Saville Row suit, his hair looked like it should be powdered and bowed, and his upper-lip beauty-spotted.
In BBC Four’s recent TV doc The Hipster Handbook – which I was asked to contribute to but was unfortunately unavailable – York seems relatively unaffected by the vulgarities of time, sartorially or even much physically, given that he’s now in his 70s. That imperious ‘high’ hair is still there, if greyed. Though who knows? Maybe it really is a wig now.
His almost drag queen hauteur is still also present and incorrect, enabling him to be wonderfully rude and direct – but entirely politely. I have no idea about York’s sexuality, but in an odd way his persona reminds me slightly of Quentin Crisp (or rather, Hurtian Crisp).
When he visits Williamsburg in Brooklyn, NYC, the birthplace – though perhaps we should call it curation place – of hipsterism he explains in clipped tones to a local complimenting him on his ‘fashionable’ Olde Worlde overcoat: ‘It’s the national dress of my country’.
York was an anachronism in the 1980s but also strangely, sharply (post)modern. Now that we’re living in a ‘post-postmodern’ world he looks like a time-traveller. Dr Who as market researcher. In Williamsburg he discovers that a decade or so on from their arrival, hipsters and even beards are now thin on the ground, having moved on to pastures more affordable – and are not much missed. Asked to define a hipster a young, clean-shaven man dismisses them as: ‘creatives about to turn into yuppies.’
York also travels to Shoreditch, London where hipsters are, as in most other ‘cool’ enclaves of large cities in the Western world, apparently still very much ‘a thing’ – after all these years of peak hipsterdom and regular pronouncements of its death. Full of young creatives being uniquely individual and amazingly authentic in their identical plaid shirts, compulsory facial-hair and passion for really-like-difficult-to-source coffee beans and expensive frosted cereals.
York like any good dandy, aspires to be as artificial as possible. Culture is nature’s enemy and vice versa. Hipsters however, perhaps because they usually have no idea about nature at all – and seem only to have the same ‘ironic’ idea about culture for that matter – are obsessed with authenticity.
‘It’s SO not me’ drawls York.
Paradoxically, the clean-shaven, sharply-dressed old man of slightly camp artifice seemed much more substantial than the young, earnestly ironic men in their ill-fitting beards and table-cloth shirts. Then again, I imagine Mr York is very substantial financially (according to Wikipedia, in addition to his best-selling books he works as a management consultant).
And yes, the doc was entirely focused on the male hipster: the only women interviewed were social commentators, academics or sales staff in hipster clothes shops. To the point where it sometimes looked like a documentary about a bear cub commune. But most people are only interested in the male hipster -- and as York points out, most women can’t grow the hipster hallmark: a beard.
York’s mere presence offered a kind of mocking critique of our hairy young creatives – even without the impish glitter he had in his eyes when listening to them as they droned on about the ‘tradition’ and ‘craft’ behind the expensive bottled beer they like to drink and make.
The money shot came when he visited a barbershop in East London, now specialising in ‘facial-hair management’, observing a handsome man-bunned twenty-something chap reclining in a retro barber’s chair getting his bushy brunette beard ‘managed’.
‘Would you like it rounder at the bottom – a lumberjackfinish?’ asked the bearded, inked, young barber solicitously.
At the climax of the ‘management’, the barber rubbed beard conditioner into the customer’s pride and joy.
Regardless of what the actual, existing sexuality of these two young men is it’s difficult to see how this scene could be any gayer. In fact, if it had been properly gay, with your actual gay sex -- cocks agogo -- it would somehow have been considerably less gay.
And what’s more, it was gay threesome -- with York as the older voyeur/punter (in a double-breasted blazer).
‘What does “lumberjack” mean?’ asked York, with a heroically straight face. The barber patiently explained that it’s a ‘wild’, ‘rugged’ look. He mentioned the ‘lumbersexual’. But pronounced it ‘lumbosexual’. Which is, actually, the way it should be pronounced.
The barber, who I think may not have been so much a true believer as just someone trying to make a living, made the salient point that a lot of his customers ‘work in media, architects, or web design, that type of thing’, who ‘spend a lot of time in front of a PC screen so don’t have that feeling of being in touch with their, like, masculine side’.
Amidst all this plaidery and lumbering York’s voiceover tells us that the shelves in the barber shop are positively groaning with beautifully-packaged product: ‘This is not a lumberjack’s cabin -- this could be Mayfair’.
He suggests that hipsters’ laborious obsession with ‘masculine authenticity’ produces a look as constructed as what he terms ‘the metrosexual look that went before it’. He also admits that he can’t quite get the ‘beardy thing’ and that it strikes him as ‘a bit steampunk, a bit homosexual -- a bit Clone Zone, a bit Tom Selleck in Magnum PI’.
This is probably where I would have popped up saying something unkind. Though I’m not entirely sure that I would have been needed.
All the same, I’ve listed seven unkind thoughts on hipsterism below:
1. Everyone hates hipsters – including & especially hipsters.
They’re far too special and unique and knowing to be captured in a word. Let alone that word. Hipsters want to be the curators never the curated. Which is why everyone delights in pinning the ‘H’ word on them as they try to wriggle away. It’s Kryptonite to their eclectic superpowers. Or garlic to a vampire.
2. Hipsterism is a cult with no credo
As that that big beardy Karl Marx put it: ‘Hipsterism is the sigh of the badly-dressed, a longing for authenticity in an inauthentic, online world. It is the OxyContin of the creative classes.’
3. Hipsters think they’re totally worth it.
And so should you. ‘Artisan’ means: ‘double the price coz expensively-educated kids got their hands dirty -- and wrote something amazing on a chalkboard’.
4. Hipsterism is not locally-sourced.
It’s a thoroughly American cultural franchise. Hence hipsters in London or Brighton or Barcelona or Berlin or Rome laboriously replicate the obsessions of American hipsters – such as ‘gourmet burgers’, ‘craft ales’ and ‘real coffee’ – that were a reaction to the Budweiser blandness of American consumerism. Regardless of the fact that in Europe we already have amazing ‘real beer’ and ‘real coffee’ outlets. Called ‘Germany’ and ‘Italy’.
5. Hipster masculinity is also not locally-sourced.
It is imported, assembled and accessorised -- curated -- largely from officially ironic but rather anxious-looking retro ‘authentic’ American signifiers such as ‘the trucker cap’, or ‘the lumberjack’. Signifiers which are fairly meaningless in the UK – except perhaps as a Monty Python sketch.
6. Hipsterism is the anti-sexual wing of metrosexuality.
Maybe it depends on how aroused you are by gingham, but hipsterism sometimes looks like a form of male self-love that seems to be oddly self-loathing. Flannel shirts as hair shirts. Hipsters generally have big beards and big data allowances instead of bodies. (This is perhaps why some hipsters like to make ‘gender flip’ memes mocking the objectification of women which depend on the notion that men aren’t and can’t be objectified.)
7. The hipster beard is not a beard.
It’s far too heavily overdetermined to be mere face fur. There’s something magical and quasi-sexual about it. At least for hipsters. For all their famous love of irony, most don’t seem terribly ironic about the hairy thing on their chin that they treat like a prized, pampered pet.
The plain, unvarnished, but nicely-conditioned truth is that the hipster beard is a fetish – in the classic Freudian sense of a penis-substitute. This is why they have to be so BIG, and why they can’t leave them alone.