This essay originally appeared on Salon.com (22 July, 2002) and is credited with introducing the word ‘metrosexual’ to the US. It is collected in Simpson’s ‘biography’ of the metrosexual: Metrosexy: A 21st Century Self-Love Story.
By Mark Simpson
David Beckham, the captain of the England soccer team at this year’s World Cup in Korea and Japan – quite possibly the most famous and photogenic soccer player in the world – recently posed for a glossy gay magazine in the U.K., just before leaving for battle in the Far East.
Well, you can imagine the outcry. The leader of England’s courageous lads tarting around in a pooftah magazine? Handing our enemies such an embarrassing pink stick to hit us with when the nation is girding its manly loins? Well, actually, apart from a few predictable but strangely muted snickers in the tabloid press, the sensation was that there wasn’t a sensation. It was entirely what the British public has come to expect.
You see, “Becks” is almost as famous for wearing sarongs and pink nail polish and panties belonging to his wife, Victoria (aka Posh from the Spice Girls), having a different, tricky haircut every week and posing naked and oiled up on the cover of Esquire, as he is for his impressive ball skills. He may or may not be the best footballer in the world, but he’s definitely an international-standard narcissist, what would once have just been called, in the Anglo world at least, “a sissy.” Hence in that World Cup game against Brazil that kicked England out of the tournament, Becks was the only English player not to be upstaged aesthetically as well as athletically by the Latins.
In the interview with the Brit gay mag Attitude, this married father of two confirmed that he’s straight, but as he admits, he’s quite happy to be a gay icon; he likes to be admired, he says, and doesn’t care whether the admiring is done by women or by men.
All of this is very modern and progressive, I’m sure, and Beckham’s open-mindedness and “equal ops” narcissism has undoubtedly helped to change some – how shall we say? – unsophisticated attitudes in this very male, tough, still largely working-class sport. However, I feel it is my duty to inform you that Mr. Beckham, candid to the point of blatant exhibitionism as he is, is not being entirely honest with us about his sexuality.
Outing someone is not a thing to be contemplated lightly, but I feel it is my duty to let the world know that David Beckham, role model to hundreds of millions of impressionable boys around the world, heartthrob for equal numbers of young girls, is not heterosexual after all. No, ladies and gents, the captain of the England football squad is actually a screaming, shrieking, flaming, freaking metrosexual. (He’ll thank me for doing this one day, if only because he didn’t have to tell his mother himself.)
How do I know? Well, perhaps it takes one to know one, but to determine a metrosexual, all you have to do is look at them. In fact, if you’re looking at them, they’re almost certainly metrosexual. The typical metrosexual is a young man with money to spend, living in or within easy reach of a metropolis – because that’s where all the best shops, clubs, gyms and hairdressers are. He might be officially gay, straight or bisexual, but this is utterly immaterial because he has clearly taken himself as his own love object and pleasure as his sexual preference. Particular professions, such as modelling, waiting tables, media, pop music and, nowadays, sport, seem to attract them but, truth be told, like male vanity products and herpes, they’re pretty much everywhere.
For some time now, old-fashioned (re)productive, repressed, unmoisturized heterosexuality has been given the pink slip by consumer capitalism. The stoic, self-denying, modest straight male didn’t shop enough (his role was to earn money for his wife to spend), and so he had to be replaced by a new kind of man, one less certain of his identity and much more interested in his image – that’s to say, one who was much more interested in being looked at (because that’s the only way you can be certain you actually exist). A man, in other words, who is an advertiser’s walking wet dream.
Beckham is the biggest metrosexual in Britain because he loves being looked at and because so many men and women love to look at him: He’s the future, but also a way of adapting other, less advanced specimens to that future. More to the point, he sucks corporate cock with no gag reflex. A staple of newspapers, men’s magazines, TV advertising and billboards, last year he earned around $8 million for sponsoring various male fashion accessories, such as Police sunglasses.
The Beckham advertising phenomenon, however, goes beyond the usual cash-in, slightly wooden product endorsements of sporting stars. Becks gives the impression that he’d do it for nothing (except the attention); he’s a sporting star who wants to be a model.
Oddly, while Beckham is now officially a gay icon, he’s probably someone that gays would rather be than fuck — all that money, all those free designer clothes, living with a Spice Girl and all those straight men in love with you. Of course, they also like him because imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Gay men did, after all, provide the early prototype for metrosexuality. Decidedly single, definitely urban, dreadfully uncertain of their identity (hence the emphasis on pride and the susceptibility to the latest label) and socially emasculated, gay men had pioneered the business of accessorizing masculinity in the ’70s with the clone look enthusiastically taken up by the mainstream in the form of the Village People. Difficult to believe, I know, but only one of them was gay and 99 percent of their fans were straight.
In the Eighties, the moustaches were shaved off and the male body became more smoothly, invitingly aestheticized and commodified by media regents such as Bruce Weber, Herb Ritts and Calvin Klein. Two decades on, and the hairless – perpetually adolescent and available – dazzlingly toothy, muscular, masculine template is still with us, simultaneously a cliché and de rigueur in an Abercrombie & Fitch world. A&F may be looked down upon as middlebrow and middle American by the most refined metrosexuals, but its alarming popularity with straight, beer-drinking frat boys is proof of how metrosexuality has gone mainstream – while its lusciously produced, semi pornographic quarterly catalogues deliver conclusive proof that male narcissism (in photographic shorthand: Weber-ism), is only ever a post-workout shower away from homoeroticism.
Perhaps this is because nowadays straight men are also emasculated. Female “Sex and the City” metrosexuality has seen to that. Female metrosexuality is the complement of male metrosexuality, except that it’s active where male metrosexuality is passive. No longer is a straight man’s sense of self and manhood delivered by his relationship to women; instead it’s challenged by it. Women are still monarchs of the private world, but increasingly assertive in the public world too. Series like “Oz,” set in a male prison and featuring story lines that revolve around violent buggery, probably look like a kind of sanctuary for some men from the female voraciousness of “Sex and the City.”
And, as the pages of the celeb mags reveal, the more independent, wealthy, self-centred and powerful women become, the more they are likely to want attractive, well-groomed, well-dressed men around them. Though not for very long. By the same token, the less men can rely on women, the more likely they are to take care of themselves. Narcissism becomes a survival strategy; apparently, some men actually buy their own underwear and deodorant these days. Beckham, unlike most metrosexuals, is happily married, though he seems to wear his marriage and even his children as accessories: The name of his first child, Brooklyn, is tastefully tattooed across his back.
Many years ago, Norman Mailer described homosexual men as narcissists who occasionally bump into one another. Which was true, of course. But now that everyone’s gone metrosexual it’s also true of straights. Perhaps this is why straights are almost as promiscuous as gays these days: All those TV dating shows where marriage or even sending each other Christmas cards is the last thing on anyone’s mind; all those youth holidays that appear to have become fortnight-long rum-soaked orgies, while Mum and Dad back home are taking part in wife-swapping parties in the suburbs.
Sometimes it seems as if the only thing holding straights back from full equality with gays is the fact that most restroom facilities are not yet co-ed. Perhaps this is also why hetero sodomy has become such a hot topic of late: These days my straight male friends talk of no other kind of intercourse (though maybe it’s because they think I’m an expert on it). According to the same straight men, the vagina was made not for their penis but for another female’s tongue.
Perhaps because it represents the definition of recreational sex and doesn’t remind them of their heterosexual responsibilities but rather of their homosexual possibilities (the exhibitionism of male metrosexuality is literally asking to be fucked), or maybe because it’s seen as a kind of extreme sport, anal sex has become the unholy grail of metrosexual sex. The booty has become the pervey focus of so much fashion lately, including those Engineered Levi’s ads featuring men and women with their jeans on back-to-front, zippers over ass cracks.
Kylie Minogue’s career was recently successfully and spectacularly relaunched as a global brand by her bending over and offering her pert, almost boyish ass literally to the world. A front-page headline on Britain’s most popular national newspaper drooled: “Has Kylie Had a Bum Job?” (One of the most popular taunts used by opposing fans against Beckham used to be “Posh takes it up the arse!!” Now it just sounds like flattery.)
Metrosexuality has also converted Hollywood to its persuasion. Films like “Fight Club” and “American Psycho” and “Spider-Man” exploit and/or negotiate the anxiety created by metrosexuality’s impact on masculinity while of course employing all the advertising techniques that have been used to convert young men to metrosexuality in the first place. This can lead to an irony that loops back on itself: auto-fellatio with arched, plucked eyebrows. In “Fight Club,” a film that looks like a feature-length glossy men’s magazine fashion shoot, Brad “six-pack” Pitt, smooth Calvin Klein model turned Hollywood pretty boy, and one of America’s most famous metrosexual males, leads an all-boys-together rebellion against … Calvin Klein, or rather emasculating consumerism.
In “American Psycho,” the antihero serial killer’s problem is presented as his failure to recognize the woman that could civilize him: “Have you ever wanted to make someone happy?” she asks innocently. He doesn’t hear her: He’s too busy getting out his giant nail gun. Making someone else happy is of course an even more impossible quest than making yourself happy – our parents taught us that. But in this case it is rather less likely to stain your white silk sofa.
The “Spider-Man” movie meanwhile offers us the kinky, fetishistic spectacle of a geeky ordinary young man whom no one notices transformed into a raving metrosexual before our very eyes. Apparently injected with steroids and ecstasy by a gay spider, he admires his new buffed body with widening eyes in the mirror, dresses up in a tight lycra gimp suit and runs around a lot on all fours with his arse in the air, after having setting up (Web?) cameras to record his (s)exploits. Peter Parker/Tobey Maguire employs designer drugs, clothes, perverse sexuality and multimedia technology to get people to look at him as he swings between the billboards and skyscrapers from what appears to be his own hardening jism.
In one memorable bondage/mummification-resonant scene he hangs upside down in his gimp suit while Kirsten Dunst peels off the lower part of his mask to kiss him, before replacing it: a perfect example of the new power dynamic between metrosexual men and women and how metrosexual men have to be the centre of attention. We’re supposed to believe that Tobey is motivated by old-fashioned virtues of social concern and love for Kirsten but we don’t believe it for a moment. Nor does, in the end, the movie: Kirsten finally offers herself but Tobey declines, realizing that she would come between him and his real love: his metrosexual alter ego in the Day-Glo gimp suit.
American publishing meanwhile is effectively repeating the ironic formula of “Fight Club” and the Brit lad-mags (Maxim, FHM) exported to the U.S. from the U.K.. In the editorial these magazines perform a kind of hysterical heterosexuality of tits, beer, sports, cars, and fart-lighting – but the real money shot is the pages and pages of glossy, straight-faced fashion spreads and ads featuring glossy male models selling male vanity; that, after all, is what these magazines exist to deliver. Which is to say, the lad-mags are actually raving metrosexual but still in denial, which is the place that most men are at right now.
Mind you, denial has something to be said for it. It can take some interesting and creative forms – such as Eminem, for example. The “faggot” boy bands that Mr. Mathers hates are definitely metrosexual. And yet Em, who like Beckham can’t resist a big fat shiny lens, who loves to pose half-naked (and drag it up in his videos), and who also wears his children as accessories, is clearly and alarmingly metrosexual himself; we’re all looking at him and he’s meeting our gaze with his pretty, hooded baby-blue eyes. He bitches and moans about all the attention he gets, but succeeds in turning that bitching and moaning into… another album.
Eminem poses dreamily for the cover of glossy magazines, but then has a hissy fit when they Photoshop his shirt pink and demands that they pulp their entire print run. The real “Eminem Show” is exhibitionism and passivity masquerading, very attractively, very seductively, as rap-ismo activity – and is probably why most of his songs contain references to being “fucked in the ass.” (And perhaps why his former bodyguard has alleged that Eminem’s wife regularly beat up Slim Shady and not the other way around.)
By way of contrast, the relaxed, ‘faggoty’, apparently submissive metrosexuality of David Beckham, posing for gay magazines and more than happy to wear pink shirts – and pink nail varnish – is much less pathological, and probably represents a more benign or successful adaptation of masculinity to the future, but can be a trifle distasteful, not to say occasionally downright nauseating. The final irony of male metrosexuality may be that, given all its obsession with attractiveness, vanity for vanity’s sake turns out to be not very sexy after all.
But then, it’s much too late for second thoughts. Metrosexuality is heading out of the closet, and learning to love itself. Even more.