‘A spectacular collision of the sublimated homoerotics of traditional buddy movies with the glossy ‘gayness’ and emergent individualism of 1980s advertising’
Yours truly writing in this week’s Daily Telegraph on how Top Gun became so gay.
Tom Cruise is reportedly working on a script for a sequel to Top Gun. In case he’s mislaid his well-thumbed original copy of Male Impersonators: Men Performing Masculinity, the book that outed the flaming queerness of the original movie, he needn’t worry.
Tom can now download it in an instant as a Kindle eBook, in a ‘2011 Director’s Cut Edition’.
In fact, Top Gun and Tom Cruise’s swishingly sexually ambiguous career only make up one of the chapters (and one of the weaker ones at that, it seems to me now). Published in 1994 Male Impersonators examined the way men were represented in popular culture as a whole – movies, ads, mags, music and comedy – filtered through, of course, my trademark ‘bent’. Showing how ‘unmanly’ passions such as homoerotics, male narcissism and masochism were not excluded but rather exploited, albeit semi-secretly, in voyeuristic virility.
Essentially, Male Impersonators is an X-ray of what late-Twentieth Century mediated culture was doing to masculinity. Elbow deep.
Unlike most ‘Director’s Cuts’ I have actually cut instead of adding stuff. Chiefly, I’ve axed the long introduction I didn’t want to write in the first place and that probably no one read anyway.
WARNING: Commissioned by an academic publisher, Male Impersonators, my first book, is often heavily referenced and freighted with theory. This was the last time I wrote that kind of book.
It was also the high summer of my love-affair with Freud. So there’s rather a lot of what Gore Vidal sniffingly dubbed ‘the Jewish dentist’ in this work. My heart still belongs to Siggy and his theory of universal bi-responsiveness, of course. But I’m no longer, as they say, ‘in love’.
Written in 1993, a lot of MI is naturally very dated now. It really was a different century. ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ had just been enacted in the US, while even properly closeted homosexuality was still a dismissal offense in the UK Armed Forces. The age of consent for two civilian males was 21 (lowered haltingly, reluctantly, to 18 in the same year as MI was published). Section 28, the 1980s law introduced by Margaret Thatcher that outlawed the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ by local authorities was still in force, along with all the grim panoply of ‘gross-indecency’ and ‘importuning’ anti-homo legislation of the Nineteenth Century.
The HAART therapy cavalry was yet to arrive and Aids was still perceived as a (gay) death sentence in the West, and had ‘executed’ a number of friends of mine: including one of the dedicatees, Imanol Iriondo (who died just after MI was published).
So it’s only understandable that I should have been a little more preoccupied with ‘homophobia’ back then than I am these days. Particularly the hypocritical way it was often used to keep homoerotics pure. I was a lot gayer then.
That said, some of MI stands up surprisingly well, I think. Often, my feeling as I went through it was: WHY did I write that? Quickly colliding with HOW did I write that? MI was written in the space of three months, when I was still in my 20s. Ah, the energy of youth….
And MI did after all give birth to that attention-seeking, damnably pretty creature that was to own the 21st Century: the metrosexual. Though I never use that word in MI. Instead I talk about male narcissism (and masochism). A lot. It wasn’t until I wrote an essay for UK newspaper The Independent in late 1994 to publicise MI that I used the ‘m’ word – which turned out to be its first appearance in print.
I deployed ‘metrosexual’ as journalistic shorthand for the freighted theory of MI. Reading MI you may decide that the shorthand said rather more than the longhand. If Male Impersonators was the theory of metrosexuality, Metrosexy, my recent collection of metro journalism, documents the way metrosexuality went on to conquer the culture over the next decade or so – and also the half-hearted, men-dacious backlash against it in the late Noughties.
Sometimes I have to pinch myself today. Watching the pretty boys hugging and crying on X-Factor and American Idol, or the straight muscle Marys flaunting their depilated pecs and abs on Jersey/Geordie Shore, or the orange rugby players spinning around topless in glittery tight pants on Strictly Come Dancing – or Tom Hardy doing much the same thing in Warrior – it’s as if I’ve died and gone to a hellish kind of heaven.
Men Performing Masculinity
The book that changed the way the world looks at men.
Why is bodybuilding a form of transsexualism? What do football and anal sex have in common? Why is Top Gun such a flamingly ‘gay’ movie? Why is male vanity such a hot commodity? And why oh why do Marky Mark’s pants keep falling down?
In his influential first book Male Impersonators, first published in 1994, Mark Simpson argues for the vital centrality of homoeroticism and narcissism in any understanding of the fraught phenomenon of modern masculinity. A highly penetrating, ticklish but always serious examination of what happens to men when they become ‘objectified’.
From porn to shaving adverts, rock and roll to war movies, drag to lads’ nights out, Male Impersonators offers wit and reader-friendly theory in equal measure in a review of the greatest show on Earth – the performance of masculinity.
‘The myth of male stripping mesmerises precisely because it contradicts itself with every discarded item… No matter how freakish his genital attributes, no matter how craftily engorged and arranged with rings and elastic bands, no matter how frantically it is waved and waggled, the stripper’s penis, once naked, never lives up to the promise of the phallus: the climactic finale of the strip is… an anti-climax.’
‘The world does not need a ‘gay Elvis’, for the original, with his black leather suit, pomaded pompadour, come-fuck-me eyes and radiant narcissism, was quite queer enough.’
‘Visually, Jeff Stryker resembles nothing so much as an illustration of the human nervous system in a medical textbook where the size of each region and appendage represented is related to the number of nerve endings. Thus Jeff on-screen is remembered as a huge face, a vast pair of hands (all the better to grab and slap ass with) and grotesquely outsized genitalia.’
‘Simpson pulls the pants off popular culture and wittily winks at the Freudian symbols lurking beneath.’ (FOUR STARS OUT OF FOUR) – The Modern Review
‘This set of high-spirited essays displays more insight into the masculine mystique than has the decade of earnest men’s studies that preceded it. Simpson has an unerring eye for the inner logic and pretences of a wide range of masculine enterprises and symbols. THIS IS QUEER THEORY WITHOUT THE JARGON AND IS A MUST FOR ANYONE INTERESTED IN THINGS MALE. GENERAL AND ACADEMIC READERS AT ALL LEVELS ‘– Choices
‘What is happening when men and their sexualities become the focus of the camera’s gaze? Mark Simpson’s brilliant, witty, up-to-the-minute analysis shatters complacencies, old and new.’ – Alan Sinfield, University of Sussex
‘Mark Simpson detects and dissects the myths of machismo and its attendant media circus with refreshing gusto and wit.’ – John Ashbery
‘It’s not only women who don’t have the phallus – men don’t have it either – just the inadequate penis! This book cheered me up with the reminder that when it gets down to it, both sexes are just great pretenders.’ – Lorraine Gamman
‘Like me this book plays with men. Provocative, irreverent, acerbic and witty, it offers one gigantic intellectual orgasm after another.’ – Margi Clarke
‘A brilliantly-positioned array of firecrackers, elephant traps and banana skins designed to trick conventional maleness into showing it’s true hand, or some extremity…. SIMPSON CAPERS LIKE ROBIN GOODFELLOW, STRIPPING OFF THE FIG LEAVES WITH EXUBERANCE.’ – The Observer
‘CLEVER, ENGAGING, INCISIVE.’ – The Guardian
‘EMINENTLY READABLE.’ – My Prime
‘Mark Simpson’s Male Impersonators could do for male sexuality what Camilla Paglia did for women, finding latent homo subtexts to Marky Mark, Clint Eastwood and Tom Cruise’s baseball bat.’ – Melody Maker
‘Male Impersonators quickly reveals itself to be different and, arguably more insightful than many previous ‘Masculinity books’. Male Impersonators makes a timely and exemplary addition to cult stud’s ‘Return to Freud’. It has an excellent readability factor compared to many others freighted with dull writing.’ – Perversions
‘A DEFT AND PERSUASIVE DISCUSSION ON THE SUBJECT.’
– Stage and Television Today
‘These smashingly provocative essays by the spunky Brit writer Mark Simpson detonate myths, stereotypes and icons, gay as well as straight. The psycho-social line separating homo and hetero maleness, he fulsomely shows, is much fuzzier than Robert Bly and Pat Buchanan find it to be.’
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Frankly, we could watch a few more hours of Baldwin chewing the scenery as Pacino and Hader flabbergasted that the producers don’t understand how “gay” their script is: “I say, ‘Ice Man’s on my tail, he’s coming hard.’ I literally said that to a bathroom attendant last night.”
Curious how, twenty five years on from its release, the ‘gayness’ of Top Gun is now part of conventional wisdom and a shared joke. It certainly wasn’t at the time.
Hard to believe, but in the 80s Top Gun, starring the young, tarty Tom Cruise (the Cristiano Ronaldo of his day), with its topless volleyball scenes (to the strains of ‘Playing With the Boys’), lingering locker-room scenes, boy-on-boy central love-story (Iceman and Maverick’s aerial sex scenes are much hotter than anything going on with Kelly McGillis, who has since come out as lesbian) – and awash with enough baby oil and hair gel to sink an aircraft carrier – was generally seen as the epitome of heterosexual virility.
And even nearly a decade later in 1994, when I devoted a whole chapter in my first book Male Impersonators to explaining the homoerotics of that outrageous movie, plenty of people still wouldn’t have Top Gun‘s heterosexuality impugned.
Later the same year Quentin Tarantino made a cameo appearance in the movie Sleep With Me, essentially making the same argument, Toby Young, then editor of The Modern Review and Tarantino fanboy, was moved to write a long essay in the The Sunday Times defending his favourite movie’s heterosexuality from Simpson and Tarantino’s filthy calumnies.
Mr Young’s clinching argument? Top Gun HAD to be straight because he’d watched it twenty times – and he’s straight.
But now that everyone and his mother thinks Top Gun – and Tom Cruise – gay, I’m no longer quite so sure….
In fact, what I told Mr Young in 1994 when he rang me for a quote for his piece was this: “Of course Top Gun isn’t a ‘gay movie’ – but it’s clearly, flagrantly not a straight one either.” I think I’ll stick with that.
Perhaps we’re all more knowing now. Perhaps more people are clued-up about homoerotics. Perhaps it’s down to the Interweb making all the ‘incriminating’ clips always available. Perhaps it’s all my fault. Though I suspect it’s more a case of the past being a foreign country – so ‘gayness’ can be safely projected onto something in the past, even if it was once what hundreds of millions of straight young men saw as the very epitome of aspirational heterosexuality.
I’d better end there as I’m off to the movies – to see Warrior.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to blow up the Twentieth Century’s most infamous evil genius in his heavily fortified bunker in the East, escape alive and then fly back to Berlin where you will lead a coup, negotiate an armistice with the Allies and save Germany from total destruction and eternal ignominy. Oh, and also save your own reputation which has recently sunk to near Hitlerite levels.
This plot will self-destruct in five seconds….
I finally got around to seeing Missy Impossible IV the other night, the one directed by Bryan Singer with the art-house name: Valkyrie. Although it has by far the most improbable plot – because of course it’s based on real events – and this mission is, we all know (at least those of us who are not American High School students) destined to spectacular failure, for me this is probably the most watchable product of Tom Cruise’s James Bond knock-off Mission Impossible vehicle. And I’m someone who always finds Mr Cruise watchable – even if I like to say unpleasant things about him.
Of course, Valkyrie is not officially part of the MI franchise, but in terms of the way it presents itself it doesn’t pretend too hard not to be. The credits tell us that Tom Cruise is cast as Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, the leader of the abortive 1944 July Bomb Plot against Hitler, but Mr Cruise is bigger than Hitler, let alone some German aristo officer who tried and failed to knock him off. Hence Claus von Stauffenberg is mostly just another, mid-Twentieth century, Prussian look for Mr Cruise’s morality-in-action-hero persona, while the twilight of the Nazi regime and the last desperate attempt by Germans to overthrow their crazy Fuhrer is just another exotic cinematic backdrop for his photogenic looks.
The poster for the film also looks like it’s advertising the latest MI (Mr Cruise leading his ‘team’ into the villain’s lair). Even the theme music is the same. In the film Mr Cruise names the secret coup plot ‘Valkyrie’ after listening to the thrilling, high-energy string intro to Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ – which sounds remarkably similar to the opening of the MI theme tune.
But Tom Cruise vanity vehicle or no, Valkyrie throws up some interesting themes. It opens by showing us on screen the text of the personal oath that all members of the Wehrmacht had to swear to Adolf Hitler from 1934 onwards:
‘I swear by God this sacred oath that I shall render unconditional obedience to Adolf Hitler, the Führer of the German Reich and people, supreme commander of the armed forces, and that I shall at all times be ready, as a brave soldier, to give my life for this oath.’
The oath, which of course the July Bomb plotters were all flagrantly breaking, was one of the favourite reasons often given by German soldiers after the war was lost as to why they continued fighting to the bitter end. Regardless, it was certainly one of the reasons why the plotters had to kill Hitler – and the main reason why their failure doomed them.
The movie is built on the premise that the ‘brave soldiers’ are the ones who tried to kill the Fuhrer, knowing that, as Eddie Izzard (perhaps playing a bargain-basement Philip Hoffman playing a German staff officer) puts it to Mr Cruise in a men’s room: ‘the SS will pull you apart like warm bread’. We spend much of the movie looking forwards to this climax, but alas, in the final reel, Cruise manages to get himself shot before the SS arrive.
Odd to think though that what essentially was a ‘til-death-do-us part’ marriage vow that every German soldier had to make to Hitler came about largely as a result of the murder of homosexual SA leader Ernst Rohm and much of the rest of SA leadership during the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, the first extra-judicial killings by the Nazi regime, justified shrilly by Goebbels – who of all the Nazi leadership was genuinely, passionately, devoted to Hitler – railing about the ‘degeneracy’ of the SA leadership and claiming, falsely, that they were planning a coup. (Rohm, much more socially radical than Hitler, did though want the SA to replace the Wehrmacht – in part because he saw it as being run by counter-revolutionary aristocrats like Stauffenberg. The Wehrmacht was so grateful to Hitler for backing them and eliminating Rohm they were happy to pledge alleigance to him after President Hindenburg’s death the following year, effectively making Hitler dictator.)
But then, Valkyrie is a heavily homosocial movie with some distinctly homoerotic overtones: almost everyone in it apart from a couple of telephone operators and Stauffenberg’s long-distance wife, is male and the romantic interest in the movie is provided by the spectacularly cute and devoted young blond male aide de camps resplendent in tailored Hugo Boss uniforms that all the generals have tagging along, including Mr Cruise (his lad played by Brit Northerner Jamie Parker ). In the opening scene of the movie, Cruise is badly wounded in North Africa trying to save a young soldier; at the end Parker voluntarily puts himself between the firing squad and Mr Cruise – facing him in death. And also meaning that Cruise sees Parker’s handsome face instead of the muzzles of the firing squad. This, the film seems to suggest, is the right kind of male soldierly devotion. Devotion to ugly evil old Hitler the wrong kind.
Even more than most Hollywood films Valkyrie is extremely fetishistic, openly revelling in the ‘sexiness’ of German Second World War uniforms (thanks to Hugo Boss, everyone in Second World War re-enactment societies wants to be the Germans). Perhaps this is because the subject here for once is ‘good’ Germans. ‘Real life’ though can be even more absurd than Hollywood: the actual Stauffenberg decided to assassinate Hitler himself after a previous assassin lost his nerve during an inspection by Hitler of… new uniforms.
The key assassination attempt scene at the Wolf’s Lair is uniform-related in the movie: in order to get some privacy to arm his briefcase bomb, Cruise asks one of Hitler’s flunkeys ‘Do you have anywhere I can change?’ showing a tiny shaving cut bloodstain on his crisp starched white shirt-collar (we saw him deliberately nicking his neck earlier). All in all, you can’t help but think it a terrible shame that the Red Army was going to arrive at Berlin the following year and get everyone’s uniforms very dirty indeed.
Most of the other lead actors in Valkyrie are British. Perhaps to lend a sense of Old World classiness to the proceedings that Mr Cruise, as an all-American, clean cut, apple-pie, autoerotic action hero isn’t able to – shouldn’t do . Or perhaps because they’re cheap. Whatever they cost, their faces lend character and credibility, and perhaps even a little Shakespearean gravitas (though perhaps not Eddie Izzard). Tom Wilkinson puts in a particularly seasoned performance as General Fromm, whose opportunistic vacillation helped seal the coup’s fate (he also played a corrupt East End Godfather in Guy Ritchie’s latest homosocial and even-more-bumming-obsessed-than-usual gangster movie Rocknrolla.) But Mr Cruise looks strangely out of place amidst all this – less like the altruistic Prussian officer than one of the British luvvies’ American male escort.
Valkyrie manages to play a little with Mr Cruise’s own celebrity and global narcissism (which today’s audience of course identifies with). It places much emphasis on Stauffenberg’s missing right hand, two fingers on his left hand and his left eye in North Africa, almost presenting this as the reason for his joining the resistance. Stauffenberg was a born warrior from a long line of warriors so he probably was less concerned with his wounds than we are: this motif only really resonates because it’s Tom Cruise, the most famous and recognisable actor in the world, one of the most officially desirable men in the world, whose entire film career from Risky Business onwards has been based on his heroic determination to see himself as a sex-object — and make you see it too.
The frequent close-ups on Cruise’s eye-patch and glass eye which he keeps in a silver box also seem to reference Minority Report, where he goes through an agonising eye-swap process so he can escape arrest. Apparently, Mr Cruise was attracted to the role of Stauffenberg because of what he saw as the resemblance of his profile to that of the warrior aristocrat.
In fact, any similarities there are between the two men’s profiles only throws into greater relief the dissmilarities – both in terms of their appearances and their character. At 46, Cruise often looks younger than 37-year-old Stauffenberg did in 1944 because looking forever boyish is Cruise’s job – it certainly wasn’t Stauffenberg’s. Most obviously of all, the difference between their profiles is that Mr Cruise is demotic, whereas Stauffenberg is aristocratic. Put another way, Mr Cruise has a much bigger schnozzle.
I do have one major complaint about the film, however. One of the greatest comedy moments of the Twentieth Century is missing. A scene sadly uncaptured on film at the time which would in itself almost justify making this movie (though probably not the mass execution of the plotters and much of the non-Communist German resistance). While he himself was left largely unscathed by the attempt on his life by Stauffenberg, Herr Hitler’s apparel was less fortunate. The bomb blew off the Fuhrer’s trousers leaving him unceremoniously debagged.
Now that Risky Business, with its career-making dancing-in-your-underwear-on-the-sofa scene is over a quarter of a century old, I bet Mr Cruise wishes that he could achieve that effect more often.
Thanks to Pedro for insisting I watch this film.
Matt Damon is the ‘Sexiest Man Alive’, according to People magazine.
Perhaps it’s time to cruise the graveyard.
I don’t mean to be cruel — honest — but Matt is preppy, not sexy. The two things are not necessarily antagonistic, granted. But in Matt they are.
Yes, I know, it’s ‘all a matter of taste’. But my taste is the right one. OK?
It’s true I’ve never quite forgiven him for the film that launched his career, the intensely irritating ‘Good Will Hunting’ in which Damon, an Ivy League drop-out, plays a maths-genius janitor — at an Ivy League college (and makes us sit at the feet of Robin Williams talking through a full beard for two hours). But then, why should I? He wrote it.
So here’s a list of entirely objective reasons why he isn’t the Sexiest Man Alive:
When he arrived on the scene all those years ago, Matt’s greatest physical asset was simply that he was bland and young and twinky/WASPy (twaspy, anyone?). Now that he’s no longer so young (he’s 37) his flaws are predominating, as they do (and I should know). But somehow without turning him into an adult or even a ‘character’ — even when he plays a middle-aged father, with lots of latex, as in the later scenes of ‘The Good Shepherd’.
Like most of his generation of male Hollywood actors, including Brad Pitt, Keanu Reeves, and his buddy Ben Affleck, Matt’s essentially a cruisette — a Tom Cruise clone. An All-American narcissistic male film star that never grows up because a) we don’t know what a man is any more, and b) the brand must go on forever and be forever desirable. Cruise’s stellar and sustained success from the mid 80s onwards meant that the male Hollywood leads that came after him would be fashioned in his miniature image. (Damon’s actual height, like penis-size on dating sites, is something of a contested issue: it seems to be somewhere between 5’9″ and 5’11” — I suppose it all depends on where you measure from).
But unlike Tom, cruisette Matt doesn’t have blue-collar credibility, his narcissism isn’t aspirational — and has never quite matched Cruise’s high-wattage on-screen tartiness. Perhaps because he didn’t have to strive as much as Cruise, he’s soberly professional. Though of course, this helps make the cruisette more palatable to some than the wacky Scientologist original.
As for his acting — yes, we finally get to that — it’s true that Matt’s better than most of his Hollywood contemporaries, but that doesn’t make him sexy. This is Hollywood, after all. Acting is what you do when all else fails. Besides, Matt’s best at roles like The Talented Mr Ripley and his Mission Impossible/James Bond vehicle The Bourne Identity — playing a man who has no identity. That’s far too close to the truth of modern masculinity to be ‘sexy’. Interesting, yes. Shaggable? I’ll text you later….
Perhaps what people — or People — find ‘sexy’ about Damon, apart of course from his success, is his on-screen masochistic streak, as wide as his many-toothed smile. In the Bourne films his character displays an almost insatiable appetite to be tortured and humiliated and treated like meat — which perhaps stems from his need to find out who he is at any cost, his psycho-reprogramming by his CIA Bad Daddies, or perhaps his need to please us, the audience (Who is Bourne? Why, he’s our punk!).
Admittedly, I too derive some pleasure from seeing preppy Matty, adrift in Europe like some Ivy League Gap Year student who’s mislaid his passport, get it, both ends. But it’s not very erotic. It’s just revenge.
The re-booting of the James Bond franchise last year with Daniel Craig in the lead role was strongly influenced by the success of the Bourne films, which of course were themselves an updating of the Bond concept. (Craig’s Bond is, in postmodern stylee, a copy of a copy of a copy.)
But Craig’s on-screen masochism is as filthy and sexy as Damon’s is antiseptically, twaspily clean-cut. Bond has a tight foreskin; Bourne has Wintergreen-flavoured scar tissue.
(The Guardian, 13 July, 2007)
America, meet David Beckham. America, meet The Metrosexual.
You’re going to be seeing even more of both.
As most of the world already knows, today Becks is proudly ‘unveiled’ by LA Galaxy on their home turf. Brand Becks, the ultimate metrosexual who transformed himself from a talented professional soccer-player with a cute smile into global me-dia, is the not-so-secret weapon in their campaign to seduce America into opening its arms, legs – and, most importantly, wallets – to that obscure version of football played without crash helmets, Frankenstein padding or artillery barrages by the rest of the world.
In case you can’t wait for the unveiling, you can find a selection of adorable photos of Ken Doll David ‘taken’ from every delicious angle in his new strip in The Times of London. Or coquettishly meeting your gaze on the cover of Sports Illustrated, on a red carpet. Or stripped to the waist on a car bonnet on the cover of ‘W’ magazine flexing his tits and tatts in trousers that appear to be pulling themselves off. Oh, and that ex-ex Spice Girl wife of his is somewhere in the picture too.
And, of course, you can always catch Brand Beckham endorsing major brands like Motorola and Nike. Or is it the other way around?
Spice Boy Becks is the total commodity who has totally commodified himself – and turned soccer into his personal billboard. ESPN, the channel televising Beck’s first game in his LA Galaxy strip on 21 July have arranged for an extra TV camera to feast solely on David for the duration of the entire game, lest we miss any precious moment of his spornographic body in motion – as well as making sure that they get their money’s worth. Who said that football was a game of two teams of eleven men? Or two halves? Becks is all that you could need and all that you could want. The Alpha and Omega of soccer.
ESPN are already airing an ad promoting the match in which Becks leaves a heartbroken Europe for an ecstatic US, with the Beatles’ ‘Hello Goodbye’ as the soundtrack – referencing a previous ‘Brit’ invasion. Some are already talking about ‘Beckmania’. The Beatles may have been bigger than Jesus, but Becks is bigger than soccer (which is why all those lengthy articles debating whether he will or won’t make soccer popular in the US somewhat miss the point).
And after all, in the Sixties the Mop Tops successfully exported pop music back to the US, the country of its birth, having taken it further and transformed it into something even more saleable. Becks in the Noughties is exporting metrosexuality back to the US, and in fact to the very town, which, in the Fifties, came up with the prototype for it in the delectable, Cinemascoped form of Marlon Brando, Monty Clift, James Dean, and Elvis Presley.
It was also the US that produced possibly the first metro sports star in the form of Seventies NFL star Joe Namath, dubbed ‘Broadway Joe’, an aesthetically inclined quarterback who advertised shaving cream and… pantyhose. But once he retired, America pretended he had never happened – leaving the field open to dandy foreign players like David Beckham.
America and Hollywood, so long at the cutting edge of commodifying masculinity, have fallen far behind. America is today conflicted, fearful and hypocritical about one of its greatest inventions: the mediated, male sex object. Speedos, the perfect ‘package’ for the male body and Beckham’s favourite beachwear, are all but banned on US shores because they are seen as ‘gay’. Which, apparently, is still the worst thing you can accuse a man of in the US – and the reason why the US, unlike the UK, experienced a backlash against metrosexuality, albeit a men-dacious one.
American masculinity desperately needs some tarty tips on how to tart it out more. Enter Becks, the tartiest tart in Tart-Town who relishes being seen as ‘gay’ – and also relishes being seen by gays (‘because they have good taste’). What’s more, he’s a jock not an actor.
Which reminds me, perhaps Becks will offer some friendly advice to his new Scientologist neighbour Tom Cruise. Cruise, the All-American Dream Boy gone wrong, who once wooed the world by dancing in his underwear on a sofa in his 80s film ‘Risky Business’, but now jumps up and down on chat show sofas (while President Bush jumps up and down on Iraq), needs Becks more than Becks needs Cruise, who is now globally much less popular than Becks.
However much Becks may deny movie star aspirations, his Hollywood career has already begun.
Copyright Mark Simpson 2007
So David Beckham, the uber-metrosexual, the photogenic English athlete who transfigured himself from mere professional soccer player into global me-dia, is leaving Real Madrid Football Club, his home for the past three years, and is now heading for the City of Signs.
Beckham became a Hollywood footballer years ago (around about the time of my essay ‘Beckham the Virus’, posted below). Certainly his bosses at Real Madrid seem to have found Becks more style than substance.
But in a metrosexualised world style is almost everything now. Even and especially in the world of men’s sports. This is why his lack-lustre performance on the pitch during his time in Spain didn’t prevent his agent landing him a $1M a week salary at Los Angeles Galaxy – the biggest world sports deal ever.
Galaxy, like Real, have paid a hefty premium for Beckham’s unrivalled merchandising power. Galaxy also believe, to the tune of a million bucks a week, that Beckham can seduce America, so long peevishly resistant to the sweaty, clean-limbed – and increasingly coquettish – charms of soccer, and ‘open up’ a spectacularly lucrative new young male market in the US.
Whether or not he succeeds, America had better get ready for a little more soccer and a lot more metrosexuality and Sporno. It was back in 2002 that the US was introduced to metrosexuality and its poster-boy, David Beckham (by, erm, me: ‘Meet the metrosexual’), and look what happened then. With Becks actually residing and playing in the US the results could be climactic.
America and Hollywood, so long at the cutting edge of commodifying masculinity, have fallen behind much of the rest of the world in that regard since the 1990s. Incredible as it may sound, American masculinity needs some tarty tips on how to tart it out more. Enter Becks, the tartiest tart in Tart-Town.
This is why Beck’s friendship with Hollywood’s box-office king/queen Tom Cruise is more than just another footballer going celebrity chumming. Cruise, the all-American Dream-boy gone wrong, needs Becks more than Becks needs Cruise who is now globally rather less popular than Becks. Because this is about media power rather than political or military power, that’s to say the New Power, it’s the inverse relationship of Bush and Blair.
Britain meanwhile will enviously and resentfully watch his every move reflected across the pond, and start to feel like it’s missing out. And then Becks, currently out of favour here, partly because of last year’s World Cup disaster but mostly because we don’t forgive him for moving to Spain three years ago, will be back in vogue.
We Brits are fickle like that.
He’s one of the most famous humans who has ever lived — even though he’s not that cute, not that smart and not that great a soccer player.
By Mark Simpson
(Originally appeared on Salon, June 28, 2003)
It hasn’t been like this since the death of Diana. Britain has been suffering from a national nervous breakdown ever since David Beckham, handsome icon of the Manchester United soccer team, announced last week that he was leaving to play for Real Madrid.
The Sun, the best-selling UK tabloid, set up a Beckham “grief helpline” and claims it has been swamped with calls from distressed fans. One caller said he was considering suicide, while several confessed that they were so upset they couldn’t perform in bed. A man who has “Beckham” tattooed on his arm threatened to cut if off. “I cried myself to sleep after hearing the awful news,” said grandmother Mary Richards, age 85. A London cabby, ever the voice of reason, asked, “Has the world gone mad? He’s only a footballer!” But he was mistaken. A footballer is now the least of what David Beckham is.
In the era of soccer that will come to be known as B.B. – Before Beckham – the sport was a team game. What mattered was the club, the team and the player in that order. Then in the mid-1990s, David Beckham — or “Becks” as he is known in that familiar, affectionately foreshortened form with which the British like to address their working class heroes — came along, flicked his (then) Diana-style blond fringe and changed the face of soccer. It wasn’t his legendary right foot that altered the game, but his photogenic face — and the fact that he used it to become one of the most recognizable, richest and valuable athletes in the world, receiving a salary of $8 million per year, earning at least $17 million more in endorsements and commanding a record transfer fee for his move to Real Madrid of $41.6 million.
Beckham’s greatest value is his crossover appeal – he interests not only those who have no interest in the club for which he plays, but those who have no interest in soccer. He is the most recognized sportsman in Asia, where soccer is still relatively new. Possibly only Buddha himself is better known – though Beckham is catching up there too: In Thailand someone has already fashioned a golden “Becks” Buddha. He’s even managed to interest Americans, for God’s sakes. The 27-year-old, tongue-tied, surprisingly shy working-class boy from London’s East End has succeeded in turning the mass, global sport of soccer into a mass, global promotional vehicle for himself, reproducing his image in countless countries. He has turned himself into a soccer virus, one that has infected the media, replicating him everywhere, all over the world, endlessly, making him one of the most famous men that has ever lived.
David Beckham, in other words, is a superbrand.
In recognition of this, Becks was the first footballer ever to receive “image rights” — payment for the earning potential his image provided his club — and got them, to the tune of $33,300 a week. In fact, image rights were the main issue at stake in the record-busting six weeks of contract renegotiations he had with Manchester United last year; his worth as a player was agreed at $116,500 a week almost immediately. Then there’s that $17 million a year for endorsing such brands as Castrol, Brylcreem, Coca Cola, Vodafone, Marks & Spencer and Adidas. And Becks just keeps getting bigger. His trusty lawyers have already registered his name for products as various as perfumes, deodorants, jewelry, purses, dolls and, oh yes, soccer jerseys. Such is the power of the Beckham brand that it’s hoped it can rescue the fortunes of Marks & Spencer’s clothing (a high-end British chain that has become a byword for “dowdy”).
But alas, the brand couldn’t save murdered Suffolk girls Holly and Jessica, poignantly pictured last year in police posters in matching replicas of his No. 7 red shirt. When it was still hoped that they might be runaways, the man himself made a broadcast appeal for their return. There was the Becks, eerily right at the heart of the nation’s hopes and fears again.
Beckham has even managed to brand a numeral – 7 – the number on his soccer jersey. A clause in his Manchester United contract guaranteed him No. 7, he has 7 tattooed in Roman numerals on his right forearm, his black Ferrari’s registration plate is “D7 DVB,” and his Marks and Spencer’s clothing line is branded “DB07.” He even queues at No. 7 checkout when he goes shopping. This is often interpreted as a sign of his superstitiousness, but is more an indication of his very rational grasp of the magic of branding. (He may, however, have to settle for the number 77 when he moves to Real Madrid, as the coveted 7 is already taken by Spanish superstar Raul.)
But somehow, Beckham has not yet become a victim of his own success and has managed to remain officially “cool.” Europe’s largest survey into “cool” recently found that Beckham was the “coolest” male, according to both young women and men. Beckham’s status can be attributed to his diva-esque versatility and his superbrand power: “Like Madonna he is very versatile and able to radically change his image but not alienate his audience,” says professor Carl Rohde, head of the Dutch “cool hunting” firm Signs of the Time. “He remains authentic.” Each time he goes to the hairdresser’s and has a restyle – which is alarmingly often – he ends up on the cover of every tabloid in Britain. In other words, whatever Becks does, however he wears his hair or his clothes – or, crucially, whatever product he endorses – he is saying, as Rohde puts it, “this is just another aspect of me, David Beckham. Please love me.” And, it goes without saying, buy me. And millions do.
Becks’ greatest sales success, however, was actually on the football field – though less with the ball than with the camera. He’s the most famous footballer in the world, and considered by millions to be one of the greatest footballers of all time, but arguably he’s not even a world-class player. A very fine one, to be sure, but not nearly the footballer we are supposed to think he is — not nearly the footballer we want to think he is. Sport, you might imagine, is the one area of contemporary life where hype can’t win, where results, at the end of the day, are everything. But Beckham has disproved that, has vanquished that, and represents the triumph of P.R. over … well, everything. His contribution to Manchester United was debatable. On footballing skills alone, he is arguably not worthy of playing for the English national team, let alone being its captain. However, in the last decade soccer has become part of show business and advertising.
Beckham is a hybrid of pop music and football, the Spice Girl of soccer – hence his marriage to one. He is – indisputably – the captain of a new generation of photogenic, pop-tastic young footballing laddies that added boy-band value to the merchandising and media profile of soccer clubs in the 1990s.
Beckham’s footballing forte is free kicks. This is entirely appropriate, since these are, after all, among the most individualistic – and aesthetic – moments in soccer. Unlike a goal, with a free kick there’s no one passing to you, no one to share the glory with. Instead there’s practically a spotlight and a drum roll. And how he kicks! “Goldenballs” (as his wife, Victoria, aka Posh Spice, reportedly likes to call him) has impressive accuracy and his range is breathtaking – along with his famous “bending” trajectory, his kicks also have style and grace. Long arms outstretched à la Fred Astaire, wrists bent delicately upward, forward leg angled, and then – contact – and a powerful, precise, elegant thwump! and follow-through.
An Englishman shouldn’t kick a ball like this. This is the way that Latins kick the ball. Beckham doesn’t just represent the aestheticization of soccer that has occurred in a media-tised world – he is the aestheticization of it. Like his silly hairdos, like his “arty” tattoos, like the extraordinarily elaborate post-goal celebrations he practices with the crowd, almost everything he does on the field is designed to remind you that No. 7 is anything but a number.
Off the soccer field Becks is able to use clothes and accessories to draw attention to himself. And does he. The Versace suits, the sarong, and the sequined track suit that opened the Commonwealth Games dazzled TV audiences and confused some foreign viewers who still thought the queen of England was a middle-aged woman. Essentially, Beckham’s visual style is “glam” – more Suede than Oasis (with a bit of contemporary R&B pop promo thrown in). And like glam rock, which was a British working-class style running riot in the decade of his birth, the 1970s, Beckham, the son of Leytonstone proletarians, has a clear image of himself as working-class royalty, the new People’s Princess (though his “superbrand” power has as yet been unable to sell us his wife, who, post-Spice Girls, remains unpopular and unsuccessful). Hence his wedding took place in a castle; at the reception afterward Posh and Becks were ensconced in matching His ‘n’ Hers thrones, and their Hertfordshire home was dubbed “Beckingham Palace” by the tabloids.
Soccer, like pop music, is one of the few ways the British are permitted any success — it is, after all, something both manual and aristocratic at the same time. Becks the football pop star represents and advertises a materialistic aspirationalism that doesn’t appear bourgeois.
Beckham’s tattoos – a literal form of branding – seem to epitomize this. What were once badges of male working-class identity are now ways of advertising the unique Becks brand. “Although it hurts to have them done, they’re there forever and so are the feelings behind them,” Becks has explained. But these are not the kind of “Mum & Dad Always” tattoos his plumber dad and his mates might have had. The huge, shaven-headed, open-armed, “guardian angel” with an alarmingly well-packed loincloth on his back looks more than a little like himself with a Jesus complex. Beneath, in gothic lettering, is his son’s name: Brooklyn. Once his uniform comes off at the end of a match – as it usually does, and before anyone else’s – the tattoos help him to stand out instantly, and mean that he is never naked: He’s always wearing something designer.
Becks clearly enjoys getting his tits out for the lads and lasses — and oiling them up for the cover of Esquire and other laddie mags. While he may look strangely undernourished and fragile in a soccer uniform, as if his ghoulishly skinny wife has been taking away his fries, and all those injuries suggest he’s somewhat brittle, stripped down he looks as lithe and strong as a panther. He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t do drugs. His body is a temple — to his own self-image — which he never ceases worshipping.
There is however a submissive photophilia to Becks. A certain passivity or even masochism about his displays for the camera, which seem to say “I’m here for you.” Hence perhaps the fondness for those Christ-like/James Dean-like poses with arms outstretched (the cover of Esquire had him “crucified” on the Cross of St. George). Even those free kicks seem to have the loping iconography of “Giant” or Calvary about them. Truth be told, Becks is there for him, but it’s a nice thought nonetheless.
To some he is already a god – literally. In addition to the Thai Becks Buddha, a pair of Indian artists have painted him as Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction. In the Far East, androgyny is seen as a feature of godhead – and so it has here in the West as well since the Rolling Stones. As Becks tells us himself: “I’m not scared of my feminine side and I think quite a lot of the things I do come from that side of my character. People have pointed that out as if it’s a criticism, but it doesn’t bother me.” It’s as if when he was a teenager he looked at those grainy black-and-white ’80s girlish bedroom shrine posters of smooth-skinned doe-ish male models holding babies and thought: I’d like to be like that when I grow up. Becks is the poster boy of what I have termed elsewhere metrosexuality.
His hero/role-model status combined with his out-of-the-closet narcissism and love of shopping and fashion and apparent indifference to being thought of as “faggoty” means that for corporations he is a pricelessly potent vector for persuading millions, if not billions, of young men around the world to express themselves “fearlessly,” to be “individuals” – by wearing exactly what he wears. Beckham is the über-metrosexual, not just because he rams metrosexuality down the throats of those men churlish enough to remain retrosexual and refuse to pluck their eyebrows, but also because he is a sportsman, a man of substance – a “real” man – who wishes to disappear into surface-ness in order to become ubiquitous – to become me-dia. Becks is The One, and slightly better looking than Keanu – but, be warned, he’s working for the Matrix.
Ultimately, though, it is his desire that makes him the superbrand that he is. Beckham has succeeded where previous British soccer heroes you’ve never heard of, such as George Best, Alan Shearer and Eric Cantona – a Frenchman who played for Manchester United and is John the Baptist to Beck’s Christ – have failed, and has become a truly global star. Partly because the world has changed but mostly because they didn’t want it as much as he did. Becks is transparently so much more needy – more needy than almost any of us is. The public, quite rightly, only lets itself love completely those who clearly depend on that love, because they don’t want to be rejected. Beckham’s neediness is literally bottomless. Like his image, it grows with what it feeds on. He’ll never reject our gaze.
It’s there in his hungry face. He isn’t actually that attractive. Blasphemy! No really, his face doesn’t have a proper symmetry. His mouth is froglike and bashfully off-center. But what is attractive, or at least hypnotizing in a democratic kinda way, which is to say mediagenic, is his neurotic-but-ordinary desire to be beautiful, and to use all the technology and voodoo of consumer culture and fame to achieve this. His apparent lack of an inner life, his submissive, high-pitched 14-year-old-boy voice that no one listens to, his beguiling blankness, only emphasize his success, his powerfulness in a world of superficiality. That oddly flat-but-friendly gaze that peers out from billboards and behind Police sunglasses looks to millions like the nearest thing to godliness in a godless world. People fall in love not with him – who knows what Beckham is really like, or cares – but with his multimedia neediness, his transmitted “viral” desire, which seems to spread and replicate itself everywhere, endorsing multiple products. Becks’ desire, via the giant shared toilet handle of advertising, infects us, inhabits us and becomes our own.
The British for their part, even those calling tabloid papers in tears to declare their lives ruined now that Beckham is moving to Real Madrid, will survive sharing him with the Spanish for a few years. After all, they’re already proudly sharing him with most of the rest of the world – and basking in his reflected glory. No one buys our pop music any more; our “Britpop” prime minister, Tony Blair, post-Iraq, is widely regarded abroad as a scoundrel; our royals, post Diana, are a dreary bunch of sods (even her sainted son William is beginning to lose some of his Spencer spark and glow to the tired, horsey blood of his “German” dad and grandmama); and our national soccer squad has difficulty beating countries with a population smaller than Southampton.
But “our Becks” on the other, perfectly manicured hand, is something British the world seems to actually want. Badly.
This essay is collected in Metrosexy: A 21st Century Self-Love Story.
Copyright © 1994 - 2016 Mark Simpson All Rights Reserved.