Column by yours truly over on HuffPo about why America needs to drop the manly strap-ons and fag-up instead.
“At first I thought it was a mistake, but then I realised that L’Oreal wasn’t looking for models but for people with strong personalities, who are worth it…and who aren’t afraid to proclaim that using cosmetics can be a very masculine decision after all.” – Hugh Laurie.
L’Oreal’s new middle-aged poster boy Hugh Laurie — or Hugh L’Oreal as he shall henceforth be known — used to attend the same gym as me in the 1990s, in Tufnel Park, North London, before he moved to the bright lights of Hollywood. He was a very determined gym-goer, working up a terrific sweat and going quite beetroot red in the face while those famously goggly eyes stared fixedly into the distance.
A distance that turned out to be transatlantic stardom and lucrative men’s anti-ageing cosmetics endorsement deals. That sweaty determination was a surprisingly contrast with the foppish, Woosterish, posh idiot characters this Cambridge-educated thesp was famous for playing on British TV up until then.
He seemed to be aiming for a very much more ‘toned’ appearance than the largely working-class, younger lads that used the gym, most of whom who wanted ‘vulgar’ big muscles. He would also work out alone, and rarely speak to anyone (noticeable because it was a very chatty, sociable gym – or at least, I was forever chatting to the cute, vulgar lads). There was almost a kind of religious, monkish quality to his work-outs. But perhaps that was less a class issue than a celebrity one.
One day though he brought along his considerably less toned, but equally posh gay chum and comedy ‘other half’ (very much the top half) Stephen Fry. Who was very chatty and flirty. But entirely ‘in character’. After patiently waiting for the face-down leg-curl machine I was hogging, he clambered onto his stomach and hurriedly moved the pin up to a much lighter weight, saying: ‘Oh, I couldn’t possibly lift that kind of weight! I don’t have your thighs!’
You probably won’t be too surprised to hear that I think that was the only time I saw Mr Fry in the gym. Mr Laurie, on the other hand, was always there.
Because, I suppose, he was ‘worth it’.
How many obituaries will the press write for the metrosexual before they finally accept that he’s immortal? Or at least, undead? That every time they cut off his head and pronounce him ‘deceased’ they replace him with even more metrosexuality?
I was recently asked some questions by Maria Paz Lopez for the Spanish national newspaper La Vanguardia about the supposed ‘decline’ of the metrosexual in response to a piece in food and drink retailing magazine The Grocer called ‘Rise of the Retrosexual’, also widely-publicised in the UK — though no journalists here took the trouble to ask for Metrodaddy’s opinion.
It wasn’t really necessary since this twaddle was anyway comically rebutted a couple of weeks later by the this report about how a ‘new wave of metrosexuals’ prompted by reality TV shows like ‘Geordie Shore’ and ‘The Only Way is Essex’ apparently can’t go on holiday without hair straighteners and travel irons.
My Spanish is very poor and I’m not sure what conclusion Paz Lopez comes to, or even how much of me she quotes. But below is the main question she asked, and my unedited response, incorporating some subsidiary questions.
Do you agree that the metrosexual man in Western societies is now in decline in favour of the retrosexual one? If so, why? If not so, why? Or are both models coexisting, and this happens to be a transitional period to God knows what kind of manliness?
Mark Simpson: I see no evidence of the ‘decline’ of metrosexual man. Whatsoever. Quite the contrary. I just see more marketing mendacity to sell us even more male beauty products.
Since the early Noughties, when people around the world began writing and talking about the metrosexual in a big way, the metrosexual has regularly been declared ‘dead’ every few months – by marketers keen to sell even more product to men. The metrosexual is dead! Real Men are back! And using our Real Man moisturiser!!
You can’t really blame them. It seems to be a foolproof way to get lots of press attention. No matter how many times you do it.
The retailing journal behind the latest announcement of the ‘death’ of the metrosexual are even repeating themselves. In 2007 they produced another widely-publicised ‘report’ that told us: ‘Move aside metrosexuals, real men are back in action.’
If they were right four years ago, what’s newsworthy about their claim now? But of course, they were dead wrong four years ago and they’re dead wrong now. Or rather, they lied four years ago and they’re lying again now. But hey, that’s marketing.
Apparently I was the first to use the term ‘retrosexual’ to contrast with ‘metrosexual’, in an essay from 2003. Back then I just meant who weren’t metro – but a decade on ‘retrosexual’ seems now to mean middle-aged, middle-class metros with shaped chest hair, designer stubble and L’Oreal endorsement deals.
The fact that sales of male cosmetics may have reached a plateau in the last year is remarkable only for the fact that this is the first time that market hasn’t grown considerably in over a decade – despite recession and economic hardship for the last few years. Male vanity and its fripperies has proved to be largely recession proof.
But anyway metrosexuality isn’t about male beauty products per se, or manbags, or spas, it’s about the male’s desire to be desired in an increasingly mediated world. And there’s no sign that that is going away. Instead it has become increasingly ‘normal’, especially amongst young men, many of whom take a great deal of care over their bodies and their appearance – and the pictures of themselves they post on their Facebook profile.
Of course, fashions come and go but metrosexuality isn’t a fashion – it’s an epoch. It represents a fundamental shift in what men are allowed to be and to want. Men are now permitted to be ‘passive’ – inviting our gaze.
Metrosexuality represents a totally aestheticized, self-conscious masculinity. And gays have been aestheticizing and accessorizing masculinity for longer than anyone else. Hence the current supposedly ‘rugged’ and ‘retrosexual’ fashion for facial hair (as yet another male accessory) was actually pioneered by gays some years ago. ‘Retrosexuals’ are aping homosexuals.
Much has been made of L’Oreal’s adoption of stubbly Hugh Laurie star of the US TV series ‘House’ as their poster boy. But no one mentions that L’Oreal have for some time been targeting middle-aged men with ads that appeal in coded fashion to their anxiety about getting old (Laurie is 52). Middle-aged men who, with their more traditional mindsets, are probably the last hold-outs against metrosexuality. Unlike their sons who just take it all for granted.
And anyway, their sons don’t know who Hugh Laurie is, or watch TV — or read newspaper articles about alleged ‘retrosexuals’ — because they’re too busy updating their topless photos on Facebook.
Much-loved British heavyweight boxer Henry Cooper died this week.
Unborn in 1963, the year he nearly defeated Cassius Clay (the Brits love near-winners much more than winners), I remember him for the curious Brut TV commercials he did in the 1970s that helped usher in the world of male product aisles in supermarkets and spornographic advertising we know today.
‘Enery’s ‘omely features and working class man’s man status, along with the ironic play on Brut/brute, guaranteed that there was nothing poofy about men using cologne as more than just an aftershave — ‘splash it on all ovah!’ Which was an important statement for one of the first mass market male colognes to make at a time when such vanites were generally still frowned upon in the rather pongy UK. In the Dick Emery, Are You Being Served? 1970s it was inconceivable that ‘enery could be ‘omo.
But the ‘omosocial reassurance that something isn’t ‘omo can look a lot like ‘omosexuality sometimes.
Here’s one of the happily married Henry having a sweaty workout, shower and towel-flicking sesh with footballer Kevin Keegan. Which is manly man’s man stuff, but with a surprisingly pronounced (intergenerational) homoerotic sub-text. The fact I still vividly remember it from my youth suggests that the sub-text was there all along, and not just something the filthy-minded 21st Century has projected on the past.
It even seems like they’re about to kiss at one point. But then, in the 1970s footballers did this to one another after scoring. Because again, it was inconceivable that they could be ‘omo.
Thirty years on, it’s hardly a surprise that Brut is no longer trailblazing. Brut, which was never exactly a ‘refined’ fragrance, is marketed in the US today as a slightly ironic retrosexual throwback.
Though maybe I’m mistaken. Perhaps the retrosexual at the end of the ad below is really a butch lesbian.
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.
A profile on the truck driving Republican Presidential hopeful from Boston Scott Brown in Vanity Fair caused a few chuckles last week with his wife’s cheeky revelation about the pink leather shorts he wore to his first date with her in the 1980s. Here’s the money shot:
“The pinkish color drained from [Brown’s] face when I asked him about it during a conversation in his campaign office just before we took off in the truck. He clarified that the shorts weren’t something that he went out and purchased — it wasn’t like that at all. ‘I did the couture shows, and instead of paying in cash, they paid in clothes,’ he said. ‘And one of the things I had to wear were leather shorts. And these happened to be pink.’”
It’s certainly a relief to know Mr Brown didn’t buy them — that would be kinda faggy — that instead he was given the pink leather shorts for sashaying up and down the catwalk at a couture show.
How funny to think that the US was the only country that had anything approaching a serious backlash against metrosexuality, back in the mid-Noughties. Oh, come on now, surely you remember? That so-called ‘menaissance’? Those prissy lists of ‘manly’ ‘do’s and don’ts’? And those completely non-ironic ‘Reclaim your manhood — go shopping in a Hummer’ ads? It got lots of coverage in the press at the time. Supposedly metro was out and retro ‘regular guys’ were back in. Oh, and George W. Bush was re-elected in part on an anti-gay marriage anti-metro ticket (his Democrat opponent was portrayed by the Republican machine as a girly-man metrosexual passifist).
And yet, just a few years on, faux Texan ‘bring it on!’ George Bush has been replaced by a svelte mixed-race President who starts every day with a workout, who ran a campaign based on slogans printed in the GQ font, and who is, for all Michelle’s prettiness, something of his own First Lady.
And now the great white hope of the Republicans, who whipped Obama’s skinny ass in a Democrat stronghold, is a former Cosmo centreforld and male couture model who liked to wear pink leather shorts because they showed off his tanned legs.
But perhaps the most interesting thing about Scott Brown’s very successful 1980s male modelling career, looking at the pictures, is this: he wouldn’t get the work today. He’d have to do hardcore gay porn. And certainly not Falcon or any respectable studio — no, Scott would have to do fetish/extreme stuff. Fisting in black (not pink) leather, that kind of thing. Or cash-in on his surname. And he still wouldn’t get paid very much. Though they probably would let him keep one of the XXL toys.
I’m not being bitchy. No, really. I’m just being realistic. And anyway, it’s not about him; it’s about us.
He was nice enough looking in a wooden sort of way, but since the 1980s an entire generation of young men have been raised to be male models — and they work at it a lot harder than Scott evidently did. They also look at themselves a lot harder. Scott had it relatively easy because there was much less awareness of what was ‘desirable’ in the male body back then — amongst women and men. Young men as a sex hadn’t learned to desire to be desired. That was still officially women’s role. And because there was probably also rather more in the way of stigma attached to his profession there was even less competition.
Yes, it looks like Scott had a pert bum and what they used to call back then a ‘hunky’ physique — but today it would be a case of ‘Don’t call us dear, we’ll call you.’ Such is the choice available of absurdly desirable, obscenely fit young men, I doubt anyone would even bother to tell him what he so obviously needed to do: get down the gym and take steroids and crystal meth. (And if you work really hard and you’re really lucky you’ll end up on Jersey Shore.)
His body looks far too natural to be credible today as a idealised male image: the lack of porno pecs, a six-pack and ‘cum-gutters’ is heinous. The untrimmed, un-waxed body hair is grievous. The unbleached teeth unforgiveable. He wouldn’t make the audition for today’s male Cosmo — Men’s Health — let alone the cover.
In fact, the most buffed and pumped thing about the young Scott Brown to our critical 21st Century eyes is his hairdo.
You may remember I couldn’t resist poking fun a while back at Canadian Club’s ‘Your Dad Wasn’t A Metrosexual’ poster, the one with with the tag line ‘Damn Right Your Dad Drank It’. It turns out there were several instalments in that faux retro campaign, including ‘Your Dad Never Tweezed Anything’, the very appetising ‘Your Mom Wasn’t Dad’s First’, and the positively lipsmacking, ‘Your Dad Had a Van For a Reason’. (I kid you not.)
It appears that the campaign received some bad press in Canada, and I wasn’t the only one that couldn’t resist sending it up. Fresca has kindly drawn my attention to this project by Michelle Koenig-Schwartz in which she invites people to creatively deface the ads — the ‘Your Mom Was Your Dad’ poster below is one of the contributions. Others include a picture of two naked twinks snogging under the headline ‘Your Mom Wasn’t Your Dad’s First.’ I’m not sure that I share the sense of outrage that some people seem to have over the ads, but they were certainly asking for a good kicking.
Which makes me wonder whether all this attention might well be exactly what the wannabe Mad Men at the ad agency responsible wanted — the ‘Damn Right Your Dad Drank It’ campaign has apparently begun again, with posters announcing, ‘Your Dad Didn’t Wear a Bridge’. Whatever that is supposed to mean.
But it’s always fun defacing ads, so what the hell?
Canadian Club. Damn Right the Metro’s Dad Didn’t Drink it. It tastes of synthetic provocation.