It’s Not a Journey: The Endless Trend of Male Vanity

The next time someone tries to con­vince me that Pitt is ‘a really great actor, actu­ally’ I’ll just throw my eyes around the room in a casually-but-profoundly dra­matic fash­ion before fix­ing them on the Fight Club fan­boy — and it always is a Fight Club fan­boy — and say­ing: “THERE you ARE!”

I don’t mean to be bitchy, but… Ab Pitt seems to have all the neur­oses of a Marilyn Monroe about being thought a dumb blond, but little or none of the tal­ent. It’s not the fact this Big Movie Star has done an ad like this at all, or even the bathetic hor­ror of the script – par to the course in per­fume ads – it’s the way he deliv­ers this stinky stuff like it was a Shakespearean soli­lo­quy. We’re laugh­ing at it because we know it will hurt.

Though of course, we’re just jeal­ous. I cer­tainly am. Brad is being so earn­est and romantico not because he’s address­ing you or me or Angelina Jolie, but his reportedly $7M cheque for the 30 second spot – which I sus­pect the dir­ector has taped to the camera.

At the height of her fame method-actress Marilyn was paid only $100,000 plus 10% of profits for the feature-length clas­sic movie: Some Like It Hot. And I rather doubt she received a fee at all for her own posthum­ous Chanel No.5 ad.

The real sig­ni­fic­ance of Brad’s ad of course is that Pitt is the first man to advert­ise the woman’s fra­grance Chanel No.5 – which hitherto has been plugged only by lead­ing examples of the ‘fairer sex’. Leading man Brad has stepped into a role pre­vi­ously occu­pied by lead­ing ladies.

This though is very famil­iar ter­rit­ory though for Brad. Often described as ‘the most beau­ti­ful man in the world’ – i.e. the most objec­ti­fied – he did after all play both Achilles and Helen in the movie Troy. He has the abs that launched a thou­sand sit-ups. And this former model’s own movie career was launched by play­ing a toy­boy picked up and rav­ished by an older Geena Davis in Thelma and Louise (1991), a movie which itself fam­ously reversed the gender roles of the buddy road movie.

Clinching the mat­ter, his hair­styles are dis­cussed almost as much as any act­ress’ – or even David Beckham’s.

Pitt also played, you may remem­ber, the highly, er, aes­thetic leader of a bogus revolt against met­ro­sexu­al­ity and con­sumer­ism in Fight Club.

Oh, and by the way. Pitt is 48 years old. Which makes him even older than me. But in the Chanel ad, even with his gray beard and (elec­tron­ic­ally altered?) grav­elly voice, Dorian Pitt seems no older than about 27 — the same age he was when we first met him in Thelma & Louise. In fact, he looks like a 27-year-old with a stick-on beard pre­tend­ing to be 48.

As he puts it himself:

It’s not a jour­ney. Every jour­ney ends. But we go on.”


A sur­vey released just before Brad’s Bad Marilyn moment appears to con­firm the con­tinu­ing, end­less trend for men appro­pri­at­ing pre­vi­ously fem­in­ine pre­serves that has been going on since at least the 1990s, and which Pitt, whether he wants to or not, has often exem­pli­fied – and encour­aged. “The world turns and we turn with it.”

The fash­ion and beauty spend­ing poll (com­mis­sioned by online casino asked 1000 UK men and women how much they spent on clothes and cos­metic products. The find­ings showed, they said, that ‘men are fast catch­ing up with women’.

  • Women aver­age £2,462 p.a.; men £1,786 (£50 less a month than women).
  • Men and women in London are the most extra­vag­ant, and also the closest to one another in expendit­ure, with women spend­ing c. £2,700 a year; men £2,350, £29 per month less than women.
  • Unsurprisingly, other met­ro­pol­itan areas such as Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle and Liverpool also showed above-average rates of spending.
  • A man who took part in the sur­vey says: ‘I can remem­ber my dad’s cos­metic shelf con­sisted of a bar of soap and a bottle of Old Spice but I have a cab­inet full of products.’
  • A woman says: ‘I have been shop­ping with my boy­friend before and on occa­sions he has been known to spend more than me on hair products. I don’t think men spend­ing more money on clothes and cos­met­ics is a bad thing. It’s always attract­ive for someone to take pride on their appearance.’

Again, noth­ing very new here (and the quotes do sound a tad hack­neyed). Just, fur­ther evid­ence that des­pite the reces­sion the ‘trend’ of met­ro­sexu­al­ity has hardened into an epoch — that nev­er­the­less some are still in ter­rible denial about.

A spokes­per­son for concluded:

It’s becom­ing increas­ingly accept­able for men to use cos­metic treat­ments. Even macho film stars are advert­ising skin cream, and whilst it would be dif­fi­cult to ima­gine a world where guys spent more money on look­ing good than women do, but who knows where the age of met­ro­sexu­al­ity will lead us?’

I ima­gine when he men­tioned ‘macho film stars’ he had in mind Gerard Butler as the bearded face of L’Oreal, not Brad Pitt. But in regard to his last poser, it’s not entirely impossible that for younger people liv­ing in met­ro­pol­itan areas, that world may have already been delivered by met­ro­sexu­al­ity. Or very nearly.

These days, work­ing out is often at least as import­ant a way of ‘look­ing good’ for males as fash­ion­able clothes and cos­met­ics — but isn’t covered in the sur­vey. In fact, many men invest more heav­ily in their bod­ies than in their ward­robe — which tends to be rather skimpy.… And gen­er­ally it seems men are more into work­ing on their bod­ies to ‘look good’ than women are.

So if you were to factor in aver­age spends on gym mem­ber­ship, fit­ness equip­ment, and par­tic­u­larly sports sup­ple­ments such as cre­at­ine and pro­tein drinks (a boom­ing mar­ket), the gap between men and women’s aver­age spend on ‘van­ity’ might shrink again. Currently the gap between male and female spend­ing on ‘look­ing good’ is reportedly only £29/month in London. That’s less than most monthly gym memberships.

£29 also hap­pens to be about the price of a yearly sub­scrip­tion to the best-selling men’s magazine, Men’s Health. The November UK issue of which car­ries the res­ults of another sur­vey, this one study­ing MH read­ers’ favour­ite sub­ject: them­selves.

One of the ques­tions asked read­ers who had their ideal body. The answers were:

  • Tom Hardy 42%.
  • Cristiano Ronaldo 32%.
  • David Beckham 26%.

Somewhere David Beckham is cry­ing into his low-carb lunch. Interesting to note though that Brad Pitt doesn’t make the list at all, when once he would prob­ably have dom­in­ated it – after all, Men’s Health has built a global empire out of mod­ern man’s yen to have abs — and thus be worthy of love. And abs didn’t exist, remem­ber, until Brad Pitt inven­ted them in the 1990s.

Perhaps though Brad is relieved to be out of the run­ning. Or maybe he’s relieved and heartbroken.

Tom Hardy, the Brit Brando with the volup­tu­ous pecs and the pouty lips, seems to have won the hearts of Men’s Health read­ers. I don’t blame them. And I sus­pect Tom’ doesn’t either. Probably they were seduced by his body in Warrior and his motto in Inception: “Don’t be afraid to dream a little big­ger darling”. Actually, in a bet­ter world that would be the motto of Men’s Health magazine.

Interesting that a third would want a body like Ronaldo’s – des­pite Ronaldo’s offi­cial des­ig­na­tion in the UK as Most Hated Footballer. It rather con­firms my sus­pi­cion that us Brits are just jeal­ous of him.

It does seem a little odd though that there are only three men in the whole world whose bod­ies Men’s Health read­ers want/aspire to – and nearly half of them want just one body in par­tic­u­lar. (There’s no indic­a­tion of whether they were given a mul­tiple choice or just came up with the names themselves.)

Other find­ings include:

  • 37% of MH read­ers spend 4–6 hours in the gym a week — while 30% spend more than six hours there.
  • 46% want to improve their abs. 42% their upper body, and 12% lower body.

Chicken legs, in other words, are de rigeur with MH readers.


Tip: Lee Kynaston

Chris Evans is Captain Cocktease

You know how every­one com­plains that the best bits of a movie are in the trailer these days? Well, in the case of the new super-hero block­buster Captain America the ONLY bits are in the trailer.

But WHAT bits they are! At around c. 1.40 mins Chris Evans’ oiled bazookas burst out of the instant stud machine he’s been strapped into by the German-Jewish Frank-N-furter. Everyone’s jaw in the lab slaps the floor as the cam­era trol­leys in for a wor­ship­ful close-up on those shiny, massive melons.

Lab 1

Injected with gal­lons of ster­oids and popped in the gimp microwave the skinny nerd’s buns have risen, trans­form­ing him, not into an ulti­mate fight­ing machine but into the ulti­mate Men’s Health cover model. And in just a few moments instead of the sev­eral months it usu­ally takes every­one else using gear — or the seven days that Charles Atlas prom­ised. Isn’t this every boy’s met­ro­sexy dream come true?

So I eagerly coughed up £8 to see more of his super tits last night. But I was robbed. Turns out that this is the only time Evans’ gets his tits out in the whole movie. What a con! What a TEASE!

What’s more, this scene comes very early on in the film, and is its cli­max — in every way. Unfortunately, there’s another hour or two to go, in which our hero tedi­ously battles the evil Nazi bad guy, fully-clothed – and wear­ing that daft hel­met. Desperately try­ing to prove he’s not, as Tommy Lee Jones’ hard-bitten old Colonel char­ac­ter dis­misses him after he has done one too many pro­pa­ganda shows, a ‘chorus girl’.

But he so IS a chorus girl. No one went to see Captain America because they wanted to see him throw­ing his stu­pid boun­cing dust­bin lid around (has there ever been a more rub­bish super-power? Or a camper one?) Male, female, gay, straight, young, old, animal and veget­able they ALL went to see his TITS.

And I’m not even men­tion­ing the ter­rible script, total lack of any plot – or cred­ib­il­ity – the com­pletely life­less dir­ec­tion, and the ter­rible act­ing (Evans’ body may have been injec­ted with ster­oids but his face seems to have been injec­ted with Novocaine). It is, after all, a super-hero movie.

Towards the end of this very long, very dis­ap­point­ing, very chaste movie date, Nick Fury played by Samuel L. Jackson in a dash­ing eye-patch, tells a defros­ted Evans run­ning around Times Square (finally levered into a nice tight t-shirt — but it’s much too little much too late): ‘You’ve been asleep for 70 years, Cap’n.’

YES!’ I felt like shout­ing at the screen in my local cinema, ‘AND SO HAVE WE!!’

Chris Evans Tits

Men’s Health Staff Celebrate News That Narcissism Is No Longer an Illness

I jest of course. The staff at Men’s Health wish they looked like that.

Even if I’m sure quite a few of them dance like that – when the read­ers can’t see them (Don’t Ask Don’t Tell may be about to be repealed in the US Armed Forces, but not any time soon at Men’s Health pub­lisher Rodale Inc.).

The top­less, some­what top-heavy chaps mim­ing to Kylie in the vid are actu­ally mod­els from a gay porn out­fit. The clip is called ‘A Tribute to Kylie’ – but should prob­ably be called ‘A Tribute to My Tits’.

Then again, lots of things today should prob­ably be called that, includ­ing Men’s Health, Strictly Come Dancing, and Mikey Sorrentino’s wan­nabe nar­ciss­ists’ self-help book, Here’s the Situation.

Get outta their way!

Especially now that nar­ciss­ism is offi­cially no longer a men­tal ill­ness.  Earlier this month it was announced that the next edi­tion of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual, the bible of ther­ap­ists and psy­chi­at­rists, would no longer include nar­ciss­ism in its list of per­son­al­ity disorders.


Final Triumph of Metrosexuality: Men’s Tits More Popular Than Women’s

Men's Health

It’s offi­cial. Men’s tits are now more pop­u­lar than women’s. With men.

Men’s Health, the met­ro­mag with the pec-fest, ab-tastic cov­ers is now the best-selling men’s magazine in the UK, selling more than 250,000, com­pared to 235,000 for pre­vi­ous best-seller so-called ‘lad mag’ FHM with its fam­ous cover babes sport­ing udders almost as big as those of Men’s Health models.

The truth is of course is that FHM is as much a met­ro­mag as Men’s Health (or ‘Men’s Hypochondria’ as I like to call it). It just used the ‘lad mag’ tits-and-booze for­mula as a beard for its met­ro­sexu­al­ity. When it was attacked by female journ­al­ists for being ‘sex­ist’ FHM’s pub­lish­ers secretly cheered because this meant that these mass-circulation magazines ped­dling male van­ity, fash­ion and self-consciousness might be mis­taken for some­thing traditional.

The real money shot in FHM – and the reason for its very exist­ence – was never the ‘High Street Honey’ spreads but rather the pages and pages of glossy ‘high-value’ ads fea­tur­ing pretty male mod­els in vari­ous states of designer undress.

But fif­teen years on from the launch of the first ‘lad mag’ - and also fif­teen years on from my first use of the word ‘met­ro­sexual’ in an art­icle for the Independent which pre­dicted that male van­ity was ‘the most prom­ising mar­ket of the dec­ade’ - the mois­tur­ised future has arrived.  A gen­er­a­tion of young men have grown up with met­ro­sexu­al­ity, see it as ‘nor­mal’ — and don’t need the hys­ter­ical het­ero­sexu­al­ity of lad mags.

In a sense, lads mags have done what they were inven­ted to do: met­ro­sexu­al­ize men on the sly.  So they aren’t really needed any more.  And argu­ably, post YouTube/iPhone, magazines in gen­eral aren’t needed any more either.

Men’s Health by con­trast was always the most nakedly metro of the met­ro­mags - and as a res­ult of those cov­ers the most openly nar­ciss­istic and homo­erotic. In a post metro world, men are most inter­ested in them­selves — and can down­load hard­core porn 24–7. So they choose the life­styles mag that puts men’s (shaded) tits and abs on the cover, rather than hid­ing behind women’s.  (In one issue earlier this year, hav­ing noth­ing bet­ter to do on a train jour­ney, I coun­ted 73 male nipples and 4 female ones, the lat­ter partly obscured by ‘superfoods’).

But no revolu­tion is ever com­plete.  And everything is rel­at­ive. Precisely because every­one knows what it is, Men’s Health are still try­ing con­vince you that none of their read­ers are gay or bisexual — or even met­ro­sexual.  Instead the deputy editor reas­sures The London Times all their read­ers ‘have kids or want to have kids’, and and are ‘het­ero­pol­itan’ — an uptight mar­ket­ing inver­sion of the word ‘met­ro­sexual’, with HETERO in place of any­thing ambigu­ous and with that dan­ger­ous ‘sexual’ part sur­gic­ally removed.

As I noted a couple of years ago in a piece lam­poon­ing their prissy denial, I sus­pect that most of even their straight  read­ers (and most of their read­ers are prob­ably straight — just not very nar­row) are way ahead of them. But then, mar­ket­ing tends to be instinct­ively dis­hon­est even if there’s no par­tic­u­lar reason to be any more.

Whatever, I think it will be a while before male homo­erot­ics and ster­oids, those unspoken staples of every single issue of Mens Health, get a strap­line on the cover — even if female-on-male strap-on sex appar­ently already has (see the cover pic­ture at top).

By the way, a sim­ilar trend has emerged in Australia, with MH also out­selling FHM down under.  This recent piece in The Age, com­plete with rather amus­ing mock-up of what a men’s mag might look like in the not-too-distant future (which I thought for a moment was an pub­lic­a­tion cur­rently avail­able), provides a rather bet­ter ana­lysis of what’s going on than much of what appeared in the UK press.

Shame then that The Age, along with its sis­ter pub­lic­a­tion The Sydney Morning Herald, ‘bor­rowed heav­ily’ from — or in Australian: pla­gi­ar­ised — my 2002 Salon essay ‘Meet the met­ro­sexual’  for a fea­ture it ran in 2003 called ‘The rise of the met­ro­sexual’ — with no men­tion of me or my Salon essay they thieved from.  I’ve yet to receive an apology.

I sus­pect I’ll get a column in Men’s Health before I do.

Tip: Sisu

From Finland With Lust: How Tom Re-Designed the Male Body. For Pleasure.

The teen­age Tom of Finland’s gay fantas­ies from the 1940s of mus­cu­lar men have come to define a main­stream view of mas­culin­ity, says Mark Simpson

(The London Times, Nov 2008 and col­lec­ted in Metrosexy)

The first time I saw a Tom of Finland draw­ing was in a well-thumbed, seventh-hand issue of Fiesta, a top-shelf favour­ite of school­boys in the 1970s. The image, bur­ied at the back, was in a small ad for more “spe­cial­ised” pub­lic­a­tions, prob­ably missed by most of my school­chums who had thumbed the issue before me. But it jumped out at me like an out­sized erection.

It depic­ted a pair of mus­cu­lar butch young men with big chins and broad grins grabbing each other’s bubble butts and strain­ing pack­ets while wink­ing at the reader. I imme­di­ately rushed out to the post office to buy as many postal orders as my pocket money would allow.

Although I was sorely dis­ap­poin­ted with the ‘Biker Boy’ lame leather fet­ish magazine — with no Tom of Finland draw­ings — that even­tu­ally turned up, I have spent much of my adult life and a for­tune on gym mem­ber­ship fairly ‘fruit­lessly’ try­ing to recre­ate that Tom of Finland image that I glimpsed as a teen.

I needn’t have bothered, how­ever, because as it turned out the whole world was going to become a Tom of Finland draw­ing. His sen­su­al­ised, car­toon­ish über-male body and its end­less poten­tial for pleas­ure and pleas­ur­ing has become com­mon­place. Think of the rugby player Austin Healey pulsat­ing on BBC One’s Strictly Come Dancing in tight pants and a sleeve­less top. Or all those foot­ballers keen to strip off and show us their assets on the sides of buses.

The notes for artist ret­ro­spect­ives usu­ally make extra­vag­ant claims, and those for a major ret­ro­spect­ive of Tom of Finland in Liverpool, part of that city’s annual Homotopia queer cul­ture fest­ival, make some very extra­vag­ant ones indeed: “Tom had an effect on global cul­ture unmatched by that of vir­tu­ally any other artist,” we are told. But for once, there’s some­thing to this hyper­bole, des­pite the artistic merit of his work being very debatable.

Tom was born Touko Laaksonen in Kaarina, Finland, in 1920 and his work is lit­er­ally the mas­turb­at­ory fantas­ies of a lonely young homo­sexual Finnish boy — he began draw­ing in his locked bed­room in the 1940s, pen­cil in one hand, penis in the other. His fet­ish­ised, over­ob­served, long-distance gay appro­pri­ation of mas­culin­ity has in a medi­ated, long-distance world become… masculinity.

It’s often said that Tom’s greatest achieve­ment was in draw­ing gay men who were mas­cu­line, happy and proud at a time when they were sup­posed to be effem­in­ate, neur­otic and shame­ful. This is cer­tainly the reason why so many gay men are Tom devotees, wit­tingly or not. Today’s gay porn is merely filthy foot­notes to Tom, end­lessly replay­ing the nar­rat­ive of “reg­u­lar guys” with very irregular-sized pen­ises and pec­tor­als hav­ing spon­tan­eous, shame­less sex at the drop of a mon­key wrench.  (And it’s entirely apt that one of the spon­sors of this ret­ro­spect­ive is Gaydar, the gay ‘dat­ing’ site where gay men post Tom-ish pic­tures of them­selves look­ing for other Tom-ish men to have Tom-ish sex with.)

However, the out-and-proud gay biker look — iden­tity even — that Tom per­fec­ted after see­ing Marlon Brando in The Wild One (Brando was a Tom draw­ing in 3D) and which became so pop­u­lar in the pre-Aids 1970s and early 1980s, reach­ing its peak with the cli­mactic suc­cess of the Liverpool band Frankie Goes to Hollywood, has become a dated cliché. See, for example, the tan­go­ing, mus­ta­chioed leather men in the Blue Oyster base­ment bar in Police Academy — and few if any young gay men today aspire to it.

But when you look at Tom’s draw­ings in this ret­ro­spect­ive, which fea­tures 25 of his works in the base­ment (pre­dict­ably) of the Contemporary Urban Centre in Liverpool, it becomes appar­ent that his achieve­ment goes much fur­ther than just mak­ing gay men feel good about them­selves or love the snug­ness of leather har­nesses. Tom, who worked as an illus­trator in the Finnish advert­ising busi­ness until the early 1970s, when he became a full-time gay pro­pa­gand­ist, sold the male body as a pleased, pleas­ur­ing and pleas­ured thing sev­eral dec­ades before Calvin Klein thought of it. In the middle of the 20th cen­tury, Tom was effect­ively sketch­ing the blue­print of 21st-century man. And boy, was he blue.

Before Tom almost no one drew men like he did, mak­ing them such unabashed sex objects and sex sub­jects, giv­ing them such exag­ger­ated male sec­ond­ary — and primary! — sexual char­ac­ter­ist­ics: big chins, strong jaws, full lips. Masculinity, and vir­il­ity end up look­ing so… nur­tur­ing. Buxom. Busty. Tom’s men have round firm breasts, saucer-like aure­olas and nipples you can adjust your ther­mo­stat with. One (from 1962) struts down the street, biceps bul­ging, chest lit­er­ally burst­ing out of his shirt, and dress­ing very much to the left: no won­der he’s being fol­lowed. His saucy cur­va­cious­ness a test­a­ment to the way in which aes­thet­i­cised hyper-masculinity is oddly andro­gyne. And while Tom’s men may have had their tits out for the lads, the kind of Tom-ish male body he helped to invent is nowadays get­ting them out for lads and lasses, gay or straight, online or in real time.

Likewise Tom’s draw­ings also reveal the male der­rière as a sexual organ: not just in some of the more hard­core examples, but the way that Tom-ish but­tocks are so spher­ical, so sen­sual, so invit­ing. One of the most strik­ing and pres­ci­ent sketches, from 1981, is also one of the tamest: a row of bedenimed male bubble butts stick­ing out at a bar — await­ing per­haps the atten­tions of the hugely power­ful Abercrombie & Fitch pho­to­grapher Bruce Weber (a big Tom fan), or per­haps the vas­el­ined, wide-angled lens of a Levi’s commercial.


Tom’s big break came in the 1950s from Physique Pictorial, an under­ground, semi-legal gay American fan­zine dis­guised as a straight men’s body­build­ing magazine, which fre­quently put Tom’s men on the cover. Half a cen­tury later, and 17 years after his death in 1991, the world is inver­ted: flesh-and-blood men who look like Tom’s draw­ings appear on the cover of best­selling cor­por­ate mags such as Men’s Health. Flick one open, and you’ll find it full of advice on how straight men can turn them­selves into some­thing Tom-ish.

This essay is col­lec­ted in ‘Metrosexy: A 21st Century Self-Love Story’.


Compare the 1960s Tom of Finland sketch of the pneu­matic young man swaggering/sashaying down the street at the top of this essay, with the one below of 21st Century Jersey Shore star Mikey ‘The Situation’ Sorrentino (Mikey’s face isn’t quite the Tom-ish ideal, but boy, his tits and abs are):

Little Britain Touches Up Uncle Sam

By Mark Simpson (Guardian, 20 October, 2008)

What other cul­ture could have pro­duced someone like Ernest Hemingway,’ waspish bisexual American exile Gore Vidal once asked of America’s favour­ite so-butch-he’s-camp writer, ‘and not seen the joke?’. The answer, was, of course, that only a cul­ture that couldn’t see the joke could pro­duce a Hemingway.

I don’t know whether Matt Lucas and David Walliams read Vidal or Hemingway, but in Little Britain USA, the recently launched HBO spin-off of their hit UK TV com­edy sketch series (which is also air­ing on BBC1), they seem to be pos­ing that ques­tion again — though this time the answer has some bear­ing on the like­li­hood of Stateside suc­cess of their show. In Little Britain USA ‘Our Boys’ (as a cheer-leading UK media seem to have tagged the camp duo) have put their prob­ing fin­ger on one of the most tick­lish fault-lines of US cul­ture: how ‘gay’ big butch God-fearing America can seem — and how com­ic­ally in denial of this Americans can be.

There cer­tainly seems to be a bit of Hemingway, who loved his guns, in the mous­ta­chioed cop (played by Walliams) who gets a vis­ible hard-on while demon­strat­ing his impress­ive col­lec­tion of weapons to his fel­low officers. But it’s in the steroid-scary shape of the towel-snapping ‘Gym Buddies’, Tom and Mark, who like to take long showers together after pump­ing iron, and graph­ic­ally re-enacting what they did to the ‘pussy’ they pulled last night — with each other’s huge latex bubble-butts and tiny pen­ises — that the so-butch-it’s-camp not-so-hidden secret of American cul­ture is graph­ic­ally outed by Little Britain USA.

Along with patho­lo­gical denial. In last week’s epis­ode, when an alarmed bystander glances nervously at them hump­ing naked in the locker room they retort: ‘Whaddyou lookin at? Are you A FAG??’  Walliams, who is so camp he’s almost butch (a ladies’ man off-screen he has been described repeatedly by the UK press as ‘the ulti­mate met­ro­sexual’), seems espe­cially proud of the Gym Buddies sketch — describ­ing it as ‘pos­sibly the most out­rageous we’ve ever done’. Certainly it’s drawn most fire from crit­ics in the US, who have given the series very mixed reviews.

Lucas and Walliam’s glee­fully amoral queer sens­ib­il­ity — they’re basic­ally drag queens on a revenge trip, espe­cially when they dress up as men — was always going to be dif­fi­cult for America to swal­low. But touch­ing Uncle Sam up in the locker room may well make it a lot harder… er, I mean, more dif­fi­cult. America, even that part of it that watches HBO, may not want to get that joke. Especially when made by a couple of faggy Brits. And by the way, while we over here might think American butch­ness tres gay — e.g. the locker-room and volley-ball scenes in Top Gun — all Europeans look ‘faggy’ to Americans, espe­cially us Brits. The sketch fea­tur­ing Walliams as a flam­ing Brit Prime Minister try­ing to get into the straight black US President’s pants prob­ably won’t offend as much as Walliams hopes since most Americans thought Tony Blair was gay anyway.

Rather sweetly, com­pared to the UK, America is a coun­try where mas­culin­ity and mach­ismo is still sac­red — des­pite hav­ing done more than any other coun­try to make it obsol­ete by invent­ing men’s shop­ping magazines. In the US of A, it seems, any­thing mas­cu­line can’t be gay and vice versa. Hence Hummersexual Tom and Mark. Hence ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’. And hence all that fuss the US made over that mediocre gay cow­boy movie Brokeback Mountain which, when it arrived in the UK, promptly bored every­one senseless.

America’s love of the mas­cu­line body, is glor­i­ously ‘gay’ — or, more accur­ately, homo­erotic.  But alas, until now Uncle Sam has been ter­ribly ashamed of his nat­ural, red-blooded and blatantly bloody obvi­ous bi-responsiveness.

Only America, God Bless, could have pro­duced UFC, a hugely pop­u­lar pay-per-view ‘full-contact-sport’ that involves two young muscled men in shorts try­ing to get each other’s legs around their ears (Tom and Mark prob­ably watch it together — in their UFC shorts). Only America could pro­duce a best-selling men’s workout magazine like Men’s Health, put men’s pumped tits and abs on the cover every month and strenu­ously main­tain the pre­tence that none of its read­ers are gay or bisexual — or even met­ro­sexual. Only America could pro­duce a film like last year’s ‘300′, essen­tially a toga-themed Chippendale flick for teen boys — but because it was made for American teen boys its denial was even more pre­pos­ter­ous than its pec­tor­als: the bad­die had to be a big black club queen in a spangly Speedo.

Mind you, ‘300′ had at least one vir­tue, albeit unin­ten­tional: it was rather fun­nier than Little Britain USA. Perhaps the biggest prob­lem Walliams and Lucas face in ram­ming their sens­ib­il­ity down Uncle Sam’s throat isn’t America’s gay denial or gag­ging reluct­ance to see the camp joke, but simply the fact that, on the basis of the first couple of shows, their American ‘out­ing’just isn’t very funny.

Either side of the pond.

Shock News: Mens Glossies Promote Metrosexuality

According to yesterday’s The Sunday Times, the so-called ‘lad­dish’ cul­ture pro­moted by men’s magazines has spawned a new med­ical con­di­tion: ‘ath­let­ica nervosa’, or an obses­sion with exercise:

New research shows that the magazines, whose tit­il­lat­ing dis­plays of female flesh were meant to lib­er­ate their read­ers from polit­ical cor­rect­ness, may be trap­ping them into an unhealthy obses­sion with their own bodies.

Rather than, pre­sum­ably, a healthy obses­sion with women’s bodies.

Some read­ers become so anxious about their own physique that they embark on excess­ive exer­cise, spend­ing hours run­ning, swim­ming or in the gym. Athletica nervosa is already known to affect young women, but this is thought to be the first British study to link the phe­nomenon to men.

The piece, head­lined ‘Lads’ mags inflict preen­ing curse’, quotes David Giles, a psy­cho­lo­gist at Winchester University, who co-wrote the research, say­ing: “We found that the more such magazines a man reads the more likely he is to be anxious about his physique.” The study car­ried out inter­views and sur­veys of 161 men aged 18–36 to find out how many lads’ mags they read and for how long. They also scored them for diet­ary habits, exer­cise regimes and atti­tudes towards appearance.

“Men who read the most lads’ mags seemed to inter­n­al­ise the appear­ance ideals por­trayed by them,” said Giles. “Models in these magazines are impossibly good-looking and see­ing them can make read­ers anxious about their own bodies.”

Really? You don’t say.

Pardon me for point­ing out that this is the whole glossy point of them. And the only research you have to do to dis­cover this is flick through them. Describing these met­ro­mags as ‘lads mags’ or ‘lad­dish mags’ is to fall for their men­dacious mar­ket­ing and the beard-like breasty covers.

The reason they exist at all is to deliver the hyper-fit, near naked male-modelled fash­ion and van­ity product advert­ising within to men who until the 90s were immune to it because they were too busy being actual lads with other lads to buy a magazine selling them a sim­u­lated, lonely ver­sion of ‘lad­dish­ness’ while encour­aging them to to look with a mix­ture of envy and desire at ideal­ised images of other men pro­duced lov­ingly with all the latest tech­niques and tech­no­logy of consumerism.

The desire that ‘lads mags’ are selling isn’t het­ero­sexu­al­ity. It’s met­ro­sexu­al­ity.

And don’t think stay­ing in and becom­ing an online gam­ing geek will save you. The art­icle quotes a sep­ar­ate study at the University of Illinois two years ago which showed that the mus­cu­lar male bod­ies in com­puter gam­ing magazines drove boys as young as eight to try to build their muscles. Which is not very easy if you spend your time play­ing com­puter games. Another reason why ster­oids, the met­ro­sexual hor­mone, are the dysto­pian future.

For all this, men’s magazines, how­ever, have had their day.

Loaded - the magazine that inven­ted the phoney ‘lad mag’ beer-and-tits-and-designer-underpants for­mula but which was quickly emu­lated, improved on and over­taken by kit-and-clobber-happy FHM - lost nearly 30% of its cir­cu­la­tion in the second half of 2007 as cir­cu­la­tion dropped by 47,000 year on year.

Even FHM shed 56,114 sales while Maxim lost 53,034 sales. However, sales of Men’s Health are said to be ‘stable’. Probably because, des­pite its laugh­able recent attempts to het it up, it’s the most obvi­ously metro of the met­ro­mags — and puts mens tits on the cover. And also the one with the most hard­core hypo­chon­dria. Men’s Health is ‘stable’ because it’s the most neur­otic title, doing its best for equal­ity of the sexes when it comes to eat­ing dis­orders and sup­ple­ment addiction.

Men’s magazines have peaked not so much because they have so many gad­gets now to play with when they’re bored and alone — Ipods, Podcasts, port­able DVD play­ers, the Interweb, Fleshlights - but because men’s mags have largely done their job.

They slyly con­ver­ted an entire gen­er­a­tion of young men to met­ro­sexu­al­ity so suc­cess­fully — partly because they were aching to be con­ver­ted any­way — that now, with the pos­sible excep­tion of Men’s Hypochondria, they’re more or less redundant.

Size Hero: How Steroids & Muscle Marys Conquered the World

Mark Simpson on how ster­oids got into our blood­stream and changed the shape of masculinity

(Guardian CIF, 6 Dec, 2007)

Roids may sound as Eighties as Cher’s black-lace bod­ice. But they’re baaak, even big­ger and bustier than ever.

According to a series of recent reports, ster­oids, or ‘juice’ or ‘gear’ to the ini­ti­ated, once an exotic drug of cheat­ing ath­letes and freaky body­build­ers have entered the main­stream and have become just another life­style product for young men: some boys as young as 12 are reportedly tak­ing the drug.

And this des­pite the fright­en­ing pos­sible side-effects metic­u­lously lis­ted in these press reports, includ­ing liver, heart and kid­ney dam­age, atrophied testicles, erectile dys­func­tion, depres­sion and raised aggres­sion. (Though, argu­ably, you could also exper­i­ence most of these simply by fol­low­ing Arsenal FC.)

The key to this main­stream­ing of ster­oids is van­ity. If you want to get into people’s blood­stream these days, prom­ise to make them like what they see in the smoke-glass gym-mirror. According to the sur­veys, the large major­ity of young men using the gear are not doing so to be stronger or faster or scar­ier — all tra­di­tion­ally accept­able ‘mas­cu­line’ ambi­tions — but rather to look more attract­ive. To look shag­gable. Or just make you look.

In other words, young men are tak­ing ster­oids the way that many gay party boys have taken them for years: to look good on the beach or dance floor or web­cam. ‘Muscle Marys’ — as they’re called by envi­ous, less-muscular gays — are appar­ently no longer a strictly gay phe­nomenon. Muscle Marys are where mas­culin­ity is at, Mary.

It shouldn’t be so sur­pris­ing. We don’t really need sur­veys to tell us this. It has, after all, happened right before our eyes. It’s the media that has main­lined ster­oids into the cul­ture and our kids. Unlike, say, very skinny girls, very mus­cu­lar boys are very pop­u­lar. An anti ‘Size Hero’ cam­paign like that we’ve seen against Size Zero is some­what unlikely. Steroids are an essen­tial, pre­scribed even, part of the way that the male body has been farmed and pack­aged for our con­sump­tion since it was laid off at the fact­ory and the shipyard in the 1980s.

A gen­er­a­tion of young males have been reared on irres­ist­ibly — and fre­quently chem­ic­ally — lean and mus­cu­lar images of the male body in sport, advert­ising, magazines, movies and telly, even in the car­toons they watch and the com­puter games or toy dolls (or ‘action fig­ures’) they play with. It seems all that’s left of mas­culin­ity in a post indus­trial, post paternal world, apart from a science-fiction-sized penis, or a right foot good enough to get you into the Premier League, is a hot bod. Men and women — but espe­cially men — will give you kudos for that. So will people cast­ing real­ity TV series.

Even Action Man (GI Joe in the US) is now a Muscle Mary. Perhaps because he’s only twelve inches tall, Action Man seems to have been hit­ting the ‘juice’ big time. He’s also got him­self a nice deep all-over tan — to bet­ter show off his pumped muscles.

Since the 1960s his bicep meas­ure­ments have more than doubled from a (scaled up) 12″ to 27″ and his chest from 44″ to 55″. His cur­rent ‘cut’ physique would be rather dif­fi­cult to achieve just by eat­ing corned-beef hash rations — espe­cially since, as far as I’m aware, a port­able plastic gym isn’t yet one of his basic accessor­ies. In an example of life imit­at­ing art, or at least squad­dies imit­at­ing dolls, ster­oid abuse by sol­diers is increas­ingly com­mon: US sol­diers in Iraq have been caught order­ing ster­oids online, and it was recently alleged that a size­able pro­por­tion of Blackwater mer­cen­ar­ies are on ‘the gear’.

Muscle Marys aren’t just for Xmas — they’re also for High Office. Arnold ‘Commando’ Schwarzenegger, seven times Mr Olympia, who has admit­ted using indus­trial quant­it­ies of ster­oids since he was in his teens (though denies he takes them now) is today the walk-on-water Green Governator of California and Republican inspir­a­tion to David Cameron — after a suc­cess­ful Hollywood movie career play­ing an under-dressed heavily-muscled male mas­seur pre­tend­ing to be an action hero. Quite an achieve­ment when just walk­ing without pain­ful chaf­ing must have been difficult.

Partly because of Arnie’s 80s ‘spe­cial effects’, Muscle Marys are de rigeur in the movies today — even in middle-age. The age­ing star of a recent epic block­buster whose career has largely been built on his six-pack was widely rumoured to have been on so much ‘gear’ try­ing to look ‘invin­cible’ that he fre­quently had to be stretchered off the set at the end of the day, poor love. Meanwhile ‘Comeback Kid’ Sylvester ‘Rocky’ Stallone (aged 60) was caught by Australian cus­toms with sev­eral vials of his comeback secret earlier this year.

The ail­ing James Bond fran­chise suc­cess­fully re-launched Bond and made him more attract­ive to younger view­ers by rein­carn­at­ing him in the pneu­matic form of Daniel Craig — Bond became his own big-chested Bond Girl - and last year’s smash hit film ‘300′ fea­tured ‘Spartans’ who looked less like ancient war­ri­ors than Muscle Marys at a Toga Party. Or the “juiced-up” pro­fes­sional wrest­lers in Speedos that so many boys today have on their bed­room walls.

WWE wrest­ler Chris Benoit’s recent murder-suicide of his wife and child and intense media spec­u­la­tion about whether it was steroid-related (ster­oids were found at his house and his post mortem testoster­one level was ten times nor­mal) has caused a major scan­dal in the US. But it has been as obvi­ous for many years that most of these guys were sprink­ling more than sugar on their Cocoa Pops (and Benoit was actu­ally rel­at­ively scrawny com­pared to some wrestlers).

That’s, after all, what people were look­ing at. What they were pay­ing to see. Pro wrest­ling is show­busi­ness, and ster­oids are the busi­ness — at least when it comes to mak­ing spec­tac­u­lar bodies.

As a res­ult of this and other recent ster­oid scan­dals in American foot­ball and base­ball - includ­ing at High School level — a panic has emerged about the use of ster­oids by US ath­letes. But this has ten­ded to obscure how main­stream ster­oids already are in the US and how, as in the UK, they’re prin­cip­ally (ab)used by non-athletes (only 6% of users played sports or con­sidered them­selves bodybuilders).

In the UK there have been calls to ban the sale of ster­oids online, crack­down harder on gyms selling them and edu­cate young people about the dangers. Well, every­one is in favour of edu­ca­tion, and no one is in favour of teens using ster­oids, but it’s unlikely that any of this will ser­i­ously reverse the Muscle Mary/Size Hero trend.

Steroids can’t be unin­ven­ted — or filtered out from the culture’s blood­stream. They’ve already changed the shape of mas­culin­ity. What’s more, unlike most if not all of the expens­ive sup­ple­ments advert­ised in FHM, Men’s Health and Nuts as ‘muscle-builders’ and ‘fat-burners’, they actu­ally work. And I know whereof I speak: I dabbled with the ‘juice’ myself as a cal­low youth. They cer­tainly did what they said on the tin: I only stopped because they made me even spot­tier and angrier than I already was.

In an age when what’s authen­tic­ally mas­cu­line is unclear, but what’s hot is as in-yer-face as a nice pair of pecs, inject­ing syn­thetic man­li­ness, des­pite the pos­sible risks to your actual man-bits, is not going out of fash­ion any­time soon. The only effect­ive way to dis­cour­age their use will be to come up with a new gen­er­a­tion of muscle-building drugs that work as well as ster­oids but have fewer side-effects. I’d cer­tainly take them.

Steroids are the met­ro­sexual hor­mone — they make men sale­able and shag­gable in an age that doesn’t have much idea what else to do with them.

Copyright Mark Simpson 2007

This essay is col­lec­ted in Metrosexy: A 21st Century Self-Love Story