Burst your bubble

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.

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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.

Walk Like a Man, My Son

Scientists are reportedly trying to uncover the secret of the Essex Walk – but Mark Simpson has been studying the Squaddie Spring and the Wide Boy Waltz for years

(Attitude, March 1998 & collected in Sex Terror)

Putting one foot in front of the other is a tricky business when you’re a bloke. There’s so much scope for things going wrong. Seriously, shockingly wrong. You might be a Dennis Wise on the pitch, but if you walk off it like Frank Spencer you might as well hang up your boots.

Even though the map of human evolution seems to have gone from quadri-pedal to bi-pedal to couch-potato, how a man perambulates his pegs remains the key to his masculinity. Walking on two legs is, after all, still mankind’s greatest achievement, next to which all his technological triumphs are dwarfed. Neil Armstrong recognised this when he uttered those immortal words: ‘One small step for me; one giant blokish stomp for mankind’.

Unfortunately, Armstrong went and spoilt it all after he stepped off the Lunar Module by prancing like a fairy in slow motion. The only reason anyone bothered to fish him out of the Atlantic after splashdown was because Nasa scientists in a damage limitation exercise explained at great length that it wasn’t Armstrong’s fault – that it was the moon’s reduced gravitational attraction that made him walk like that.

By far the most dangerous part about walking, even in normal gravity, is that it seems to be something, after you get the hang of it, you can do without having to think about it. But this is a fatal error. Any man who lets his concentration lapse while ambulating and begins to allow himself to, say, notice the fluffy clouds in the sky or the bluebird on his shoulder, is bound to come a cropper. For men, walking isn’t a way of getting somewhere – it’s a way of broadcasting your seriousness to the world on the way to wherever the hell you’re headed.

This is why new recruits have to spend so much time square-bashing. In being taught how to walk like men instead of boys recruits are taught how to move like they mean business – that’s to say, how to look like they have rather less joints than females and pansies.

But for a lot of civilians and all off-duty squaddies the key to successful walking is remaining fully concentrated on the task in hand, but affecting a casual, happy-go-lucky air while executing it – sort of the walking equivalent of riding a bike without gripping the handlebars.

The Squaddie Spring

That jaunty little bounce that TV squaddies do when going down the pub or on leave – elbows out, hands balled up near their chest or in their high jacket pockets, head moving from side to side while doing some excessive heel-toe calf-work. The Squaddie Spring signals that you’re full of beans and/or spunk, that you know how to have a good time and that you’re care-free in a determined, cocky kind of way (see also Persil Skinhead – ‘Awww, Mum! – walking down the street in freshly washed white shirt).

This cracking amble is particularly effective if you have a sports bag/kit bag slung over your shoulder with ‘Head’ or ‘Man U’ on the side. Popular with cheeky chappies everywhere: including comprehensive schoolboys and public schoolboys wanting to avoid getting beaten up by comprehensive schoolboys.

The Bodybuilder Bowl

For those who want a walk with a bit more gravitas, there’s the Bodybuilder Bowl, the key to the successful execution of which is imagining that your limbs are so muscle-bound that you can barely move them – arms and legs must stick out at an angle of no less than 45 degrees. (Note: Head is not allowed to turn without the whole upper body moving as well – otherwise people might think you have a neck).

Arms are most not move at the shoulder, but are permitted some movement at the elbow. Legs cannot simply move forwards and backwards but must move in semi-circular robotic jerks. This lets the world know that your glutes are so huge they cause friction burns and also hints that you still have something resembling testicles, despite your massive steroid abuse. The BB Bowl is popular with bouncers, wrestlers, male masseurs and lesbians.

The Wide Boy Waltz

For those looking for something with a bit more elan, a bit more romance, there is the Wide Boy Waltz very popular on North and East London housing estates, football pitches and in the City. This requires the same 45 degree angle of the limbs as in the BB Bowl, but the actions is quicker, smoother, suppler and it advertises attitude not muscle. However, it is absolutely essential that you keep your hips and arse completely immobile. The head however may move around, but only to clock birds and nice motors and generally proclaim a cock-o’-the-roost demeanour. One drawback to the Wide Boy Waltz, of course, is that it requires hours of practice walking with an XXL butt plug up your arse.

The Daddy Dribble

Another drawback to the Wide Boy Waltz is that it often turns into the Daddy Dribble within just a few years. The Daddy Dribble is best achieved by imagining your stride restricted by a pushchair or pram or shopping trolley full of Pampers. Also useful in achieving the right effect is changing your Nike shoes for Hush Puppies and imagining yourself trying to remember what sex with the lights on must be like.

Of course, there is a genus of mens’ walks which is designed to announce the fact that you are never going to have children or wear Hush Puppies. This is gay walking. Gay walking comes in two different but immediately recognisable styles.

The Mary Mince

To achieve the Mary Mince, you must walk as if you were negotiating a narrow tightrope in heels whist trying to describe a perfect circle around your hips with a lighted cigarette.

It is also very important that your shoulders should appear attached to your feet by some invisible string. Alas, the Mary Mince is less popular than it used to be with gays and tends to be practised nowadays only by ex-husbands of Sandie Shaw and the lead-singer of Suede.

The Compton Street Swagger

This very intense form of promenading has become the dominant form of gay walking today, retaining within it the ghost of the Mary Mince but now overlaid with elements of the Wide Boy Waltz and Body Builder Bowl (the Squaddie Spring is usually omitted – perhaps because gays wouldn’t be seen dead carrying Head sports bags).

The Compton Street Swagger is, needless to say, very, very alarming and is very, very difficult to describe since it is impossible to identify quite which joints remain rigid and which are allowed movement – in the Compton Street Swagger rigidity and passivity blend into one versatile action (£70 out calls; £50 in). The overall effect is Graham Norton crossed with Dennis Wise crossed with Rhona Cameron crossed with a black dj shoulder bag and lots of Celtic rings.

Because the Compton Street Swagger is really at least three walks at once, it is by far the most serious and business-like of all the serious and business-like walks practised by men today. Perhaps this is why most afternoons British Army Drill Instructors can be seen on Compton Street taking notes.

As a visibly shocked Armand reassures his extravagantly queeny partner in Birdcage after witnessing him trying to walk like John Wayne ‘No, that was… fantastic. I just never realised that John Wayne walked that way before.’

‘Sex Terror’ is now available on Kindle

Are Modern Men Manly Enough?

Yours truly takes part in a round table heated  debate on masculinity over at The New York Times.

(You won’t be surprised to discover that unlike most contributors, I’m intensely relaxed about intensely relaxed modern masculinity.)

America to Machismo: How Do I Quit You?

Dire warnings of how men are doomed because more chapesses are now in work than chaps, are more educated, and now earning more (in large cities), prompted a special ‘Man Up!’ issue of Newsweek a few weeks back on the ‘crisis of masculinity’.  The centrepiece was an interesting, lengthy – and oddly-conflicted – essay titled ‘Men’s Lib’ which seems to identify America’s continuing love-affair with machismo as holding American men and America back from adapting to a changing world.

It calls for a ‘reimagining’ of masculinity.  Men need to jettison their prejudices and pride and embrace ‘girly’ professions and ‘changing diapers’ to adapt and survive:

… as women assume positions once occupied exclusively by men, and the more ‘manly’ sectors of the U.S. economy continue to shrink, a more capacious notion of manhood — the product of both new policies and new attitudes — is no longer a luxury. In fact, it may be exactly what’s needed to keep the American male, and America itself, competitive in the 21st century.

Which sounds splendid, if somewhat late in the day: this argument could have been made at any time since at least the 80s when ‘masculine’ heavy industries began to be replaced by ‘feminine’ service industries.  It’s also charming to see that ‘reimagining masculinity’ is cast as a patriotic project: Uncle Sam Needs YOU to change diapers!

The authors of this piece, Andrew Romano and Tony Dokoupil are very into changing diapers.  And reproduction generally.  Which is perhaps why they assume when talking about ‘reimagining masculinity’, even at such length, that it is entirely heterosexual.  I don’t mention this to score points. And reproduction is a wonderful, if slightly scary thing.  I mention it because fear of being thought homo – and thus emasculated, and thus outside the world of men – has long been one of the chief ways in which traditional notions of masculinity have been maintained.  Long past their use-by date – particularly in the US.

The battle over the Pentagon’s ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’, still raging after nearly twenty years, is a very public example of this.  Whatever arguments traditionalists might martial in public against the repeal of this policy, such as ‘unit cohesiveness’, ‘lack of privacy’ and ‘operational readiness’, everyone knows that this is just a polite smokescreen, as much to spare their sensibilities as anyone else’s. However reasonably Don’t Tell-ers state their case we can all hear quite clearly the apopleptic D.I. superego shrieking inside their heads over and over, spraying their cerebellum with spittle: ‘Fags AREN’T MEN!  They take it UP THE ASS, for chrissakes!  And they ENJOY IT!  They bat for the OTHER SIDE!!’

How the devil can you motivate American men to be men and do the ultimate ‘manly’ thing if they are serving alongside open sodomites who aren’t punished, can’t be drummed out of the ranks of men in disgrace, and in fact have every legal right to the same respect and protection as any other soldier? (As with gay marriage, hardly anyone is terribly worked up about lesbians – but unfortunately for the ladies who love ladies they are, once again, lumped in with gay men for the sake of ‘consistency’, and also to avoid having to actually acknowledge the, y’know, bum-sex obsession.)

The connection between machismo and homophobia isn’t, in the words of the somewhat phallic cliché, rocket science.  Likewise, tackling homophobia is something you have to do if you want to take on machismo.  Sweden, the country cited so approvingly in the Newsweek piece for its paternity leave programme is also one of if not the most gay-friendly countries in the world (and the US one of the least gay-friendly in the Western world), though this goes unmentioned.

All in all, Newsweek’s clarion call for ‘men’s lib’ is sounding somewhat muted.  So perhaps it’s not entirely ridiculous that the name given its project for ‘a more capacious notion of manhood’ (that doesn’t appear to include anything non-heterosexual and non-reproductive), is ‘The New Macho’.

This moustachioed moniker has been wheeled out before – most amusingly in the form ‘machosexual’ – when the US was having its gigantic national nervous breakdown over metrosexuality in the mid Noughties, either as a reactionary knee-jerk response to that ‘girly man’/fag stuff.  Or as a mendacious repackaging of metrosexuality for the older, more clenched gentlemen.

Perhaps it’s a really clever piece of marketing by the Newsweek authors, packaging their call for radical change as something reassuring.  Maybe ‘New Macho’ is what you need if you want to tempt the old machos aboard the Twenty First Century.  Or even just aboard the latter part of the Twentieth Century.  We probably shouldn’t forget that at the height of their fame the Village People were a band whom most of the US thought were just wholesome archetypes of all-American virility.  And in a funny way, they were.  Either way, they certainly knew a thing or two about repackaging machismo.  And packets.

By contrast, I’m not so convinced by Newsweek’s spruced up handlebar moustache.

‘It’s clear that we’ve arrived at another crossroads—only today the prevailing codes of manhood have yet to adjust to the changing demands on men. We’re not advocating a genderless society, a world in which men are “just like women.”

Well, c’mon guys you so are! At least in the sense that men should be able, just like women today, to go against traditional expectations.  (I know, know, you have to say these daft things because otherwise you’ll sound… un-American.)

‘We’re not even averse to decorative manhood, or the kind of escapism that men have turned to again and again—think Paul Bunyan, Tarzan, and bomber jackets—when the actual substance of their lives felt light. If today’s men want to be hunters, or metrosexuals, or metrosexuals dressed in hunting clothes, they should feel free.’

Yes, there are rather a lot of metros dressing in hunting clothes these days. Particularly at Newsweek.  But ‘feeling free’ is the key here, of course.  Which is why this really is in the end about a kind of ‘men’s lib’. But my hunch is that a system as rigid, repressive – and now as cloyingly sentimental – as machismo can’t be reformed, or re-styled by putting the word ‘new’ in front of it.  Like medallions and signet rings it just.  Has to.  Go.  (West.)

Along with Newsweek’s and the Pentagon’s notion that masculinity is always heterosexual.

‘The world’s most perceptive writer about modern masculinity’

Is me, apparently.

I can’t really find it in me to disagree.

From the global trend-spotting/cool-hunting website Science of the Time:

Mark Simpson is probably the world’s most perceptive – and certainly the wittiest – writer about modern masculinity. Mark Simpson has by far the sharpest mind when it comes to changing masculinities. With a worldwide reputation, a long story of excellence and many international publications he is simply world-wide leading.