Retrosexuality isn’t what it used to be

My attention was recently drawn by a concerned member of the browsing public to a piece on Salon.com, ‘Retrosexuals: The latest lame macho catchphrase’ by Aaron Traister, entertainingly lambasting the ‘new’ retrosexual trend:

I woke up this morning to discover my local paper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, peddling a story about America’s new favorite model of man: the retrosexual. Normally I ignore almost everything in my local paper, but this, in combination with a recent article in the New York Times about the sequel to “The Official Preppy Handbook,” has got my knickers in a bunch.

The retrosexual is a clever play on that other dusty gem of modern trend masculinity, the metrosexual. Unlike metrosexualism, which encouraged men to worry about their appearance and spend copious amounts of money on beauty products and clothes to mask the kinds of insecurities normally pushed on women, the retrosexual trend encourages men to worry about their appearance and spend copious amounts of money on products and clothes to mask more traditional masculine insecurities, like being gay, or a broke loser, or a gay broke loser.

I happen to agree with much of Traister’s trashing of retrosexualism, particularly the way he mocks its central fear of being thought a fag.  But then I would because I’ve already done it. Several years ago. On Salon.  OK, so I stopped writing for them yonks ago, and it would of course be entirely understandable if they were still sulking about this….

But still, Salon writers should perhaps show a little more research – even from just the Salon.com search box – before lambasting at length ‘the latest lame macho catchphrase’. According to WordSpy.com the first usage of the term ‘retrosexual’ in the sense of the ‘anti-metrosexual’ was in an essay (‘Becks the virus’) by yours truly in 2003.  On Salon.

By the following year, 2004, America was having a gigantic national nervous breakdown over metrosexuality and gay marriage and re-elected Bush. I remember it well because it followed the crazy year or so of metrosexmania that swept the US – after my outing essay ‘Meet the metrosexual’ in 2002, and its bizarre appropriation and bowdlerisation by American marketers.  Which also appeared on Salon.

The ‘menaissance’ was mendacious even back in the mid noughties, of course, with its prissy lists of ‘dos and don’ts’, and euphemistic marketing strategies – as I pointed out at the time. But now everyone knows that ‘retrosexuality’, at least when appropriated by the media and marketing business, is just jokey, Mad Men-esque nostalgia for nostalgia – with a trilby cocked ‘just so’.  Or gag-me-with-a-silver-spoon preppy wannabe niche marketing that isn’t to be taken seriously.

In early 2004, with the homophobic anti-metro backlash brewing in the US, I returned to the subject – again, for Salon (‘Metrodaddy speaks!’).  Since I love quoting myself (at length), and since I think this as pertinent now as back then, here’s the relevant section from that auto-interview, which explains the repugnance of traditionalists towards the lack of repugnance metrosexuals generally have towards homoerotics:

Are hetero metrosexuals really latent homosexuals?

MS: Certainly it would make life easier and less worrying for retrosexuals if this were true — and I notice that in certain slightly, shall we say, clenched circles, metrosexual has become another word for “homo” or “fag.” Unfortunately for these threatened types — and also for me — this is just wishful, over-tidy thinking; homophobic housework. Hetero metros are not “really” gay — they’re just really metrosexual. In point of fact, hetero metrosexuals are probably rather less “latent” than retrosexuals. They are, after all, rather blatant — in their flirtatiousness. Their identity is not based on a constant repudiation of homosexuality. What the retrosexual finds repugnant in the metrosexual is his invitation of the gaze — a gaze that is not and cannot be gendered or straightened out. They’re equal-opportunity narcissists.

Homoerotics, rather than homosexuality, is an inevitable and obvious part of male narcissism — just as it is for female narcissism, hence “lesbian chic.” Which is one of the reasons why it has been discouraged for so long. This isn’t to say that most metrosexuals want to go to bed with other men — not even so as to generously share their beauty with the half of the human race so far deprived of it — it’s just that they aren’t necessarily repulsed by the male body in the way that many retrosexuals like to assert, repeatedly, they are. By extension, their interest in women is not necessarily driven by self-loathing or a need to prove their virility; it’s a matter of taste and pleasure. Which I suspect many women find something of a relief, not to mention a turn-on. Though admittedly some women may feel that the metrosexual is too much like competition.

God, I was good back then.  But so was Salon.

15 thoughts on “Retrosexuality isn’t what it used to be

  1. Without any expaination, it’s unclear as to just what you have in mind with a distinction beween the popular use of” masculinity “and alternatively “manhood” and “man”. Masculinity , I suspect has different connotations related to aggression and inflexability–and is clearly almost necessarily logically destinct from” femininty,” especially those aspects which are derogatory. “Manhood” on the otherhand implied, and does yet, a number of qualities of virtue including honor, good faith, humility bravery etc.and were not prereqisits to belonging to a sex. They were applied with only an implicit referance to gender.

    I think that there is more to be said but that’s a beginning of sorts perhaps..

  2. That’s very true what you say, Lola – about masculinity being in crisis since we started using the word ‘masculinity’ instead of ‘manhood’ or just ‘men’.

    Oh, and also the bit about my perceptiveness and insight. That’s even truer. Even though I hadn’t really noticed the ‘masculinity’ thing until you pointed it out.

  3. Masculinity, in any form, has been in crisis since its current usage as a replacement for Manhood.

    I appreciate your keen perception and insight into masculinity, and your ability to create catchy neologisms that are drawing attention to the hidden gender, even if Salon doesn’t seem to remember your name these days. I do!

  4. A self-referential masterpiece; painful to the creator as it may be. It is not just Salon — when Bobbie Nudie died I had to urge the NYTimes obit writers to research their own archives for info. . . they acted like I was crazy.

    Keep fighting the good fight, Mark. There is only one original, and they can’t take that away from you.

  5. “Being your own strong man: forging your own path”: LOL with the Hiawatha routine in the corporate world unless you’re a CEO. As Robert Bly submited (Iron John) men have been victims of of the feminist bifurcation in being often unappreciated slaves to the family in the indyustrial world, distanced from one another(friendless) Wthout the free time of women to bond, they are lonely. God knows the days of going on voyages and hunting are gone.
    Better off playing dress up; and he’d best learn what cocking a trilby “just right ” is, right off. In my personal experience, dressing 40’s is a more homeroticversion of meterosexuality. It’s also a version of doning male drag: in the way that we love a man in a uniform a man in a suit & tie and trilby will do. How very gay reterosexuality might be. Maybe moreso than Meterosexuality .

  6. also they make a point of drawing a hard line against neoliberal claptrap; even by intellectual pretenders like Hitchens. The reason you’all were good is that it was a better world stepping back even a few carbon traces.

  7. There seems to be some general recognition of the term in normal discussion. Even if dictionaries carry spomething that’s not necessarily what makes a word part of the general jargon.
    Salon has at least got the sense not to carry Mrs. Sullivan’s recipes. To me that a whole lot!

  8. yeah unfortunately I can’t paste it in it’s in the mac dictionary!! “liberal political views, an interest in fashion and a refined sense of taste” is the denotation. hardly adequate and as for “origin” we just get “metro plus homo plus sexual” not exactly a triumph of philology!

  9. Pugbear: ‘Metrognome’ is rather good, and I wish I’d come up with that one. I have an almost Roman antipathy towards beards.

    supermarky: it’s in several dictionaries, but apparently not Firefox’s.

  10. I think “retrosexuality” and similar backlashes take hold only because metrosexuality is marketed very poorly. It’s still presented even by its proponents as a liberation from “traditional” masculinity or manhood, when it should be promoted as a complement. What’s more manly: slavishly pleasing a woman for the dim chance you might get some nookie, or dressing and acting like The One Who Needs Pleasing and having the pussy come to you? Men in previous centuries often dressed more lavishly than women. Men today need to realized that thinking of their own sex as de-eroticized workhorses is giving up power, not maintaining it.

  11. I had to ask what a metrosexual was the first time I heard the term and the explanation given was way off. I notice my browser would still like to correct the spelling on the word, too.

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