MetroDaddy Speaks!

Mark Simpson answers some of the many ques­tions he has been asked in the last year by the world’s media about what he has called his “Frankenstein mon­ster with per­fect skin, ter­ror­iz­ing and sash­ay­ing the globe.”

(Salon.com, 5 January 2004)

Why has your term, which you first used ten years ago, caught on so widely now?

When I wrote about met­ro­sexu­al­ity back in the dark days of 1994 most were in denial about this new social prob­lem. Metrosexuals them­selves didn’t want to con­front who they really were. They were ashamed, not of their love for them­selves, of course, but of what the world would think of it. They feared, prob­ably cor­rectly, that their part­ners and friends wouldn’t under­stand, didn’t want to under­stand. Although the media at that time was already full of met­ro­sexual males, pretty much all of them were in the closet. There were no open, well-adjusted met­ro­sexu­als will­ing to be role mod­els to young, isol­ated met­ros wrest­ling with their deep yearn­ing for scruff­ing lotion and Lycra-rich underwear.

So when I returned to the sub­ject on Salon.com last year I decided it was time to be ruth­less and name names: I outed sev­eral lead­ing met­ro­sexu­als, includ­ing David Beckham, Brad Pitt and Spider-Man. After the ini­tial shock and protests sub­sided it became appar­ent that my reck­less­ness had shattered taboos and brought about, if I may say so myself, a seis­mic shift in social mores. Suddenly, dec­ades of accu­mu­lated steam has been released. People now feel able to talk – end­lessly – about a sub­ject that couldn’t even be acknow­ledged before. A chain reac­tion ensued as hun­dreds of thou­sands of met­ro­sexu­als around the world who had been cower­ing in their walk-in closets felt empowered to out them­selves – or maybe their friends and part­ners felt empowered to do so on their behalf….

How did you first come up with the term and what did you mean by it then?

When I first deployed the word in 1994 in the Independent, a British news­pa­per, I did so to describe a new, nar­ciss­istic, media-saturated, self-conscious kind of mas­culin­ity. This was the ver­sion of mas­culin­ity pro­duced by Hollywood, advert­ising and glossy magazines to replace tra­di­tional, repressed, unre­flex­ive, unmois­tur­ized mas­culin­ity, which didn’t go shop­ping enough, and which thought – ha! – that it was enough to earn money for wives or girl­friends to spend. In the ‘80s it had seemed as if this kind of man only really exis­ted in ads. By the early ‘90s, it was already alarm­ingly clear that life was imit­at­ing bad art. At least to someone like me, who had spent far too much time think­ing about such things.

The concept grew out of my 1994 book Male Impersonators, which ana­lyzed the effect an increas­ingly aes­thet­i­cized and medi­ated world was hav­ing on mas­culin­ity. I meant “met­ro­sexual” as cheeky satire, but also as sober social obser­va­tion. As I’ve said before, I don’t think I was the first ever to utter the word, but it appears that I was the first in print and the first to elab­or­ate a concept behind it.

Is there really such a thing as a met­ro­sexual? Or is it just a con­veni­ent pigeonhole?

Well, “met­ro­sexual” is a rather ludicrous cat­egory, but no more ludicrous per­haps than “het­ero­sexual” or “homo­sexual.” I’d say he’s as real as either of those cat­egor­ies. Arguably more so. The met­ro­sexual is a recog­niz­able spe­cies; you can point to one. Pointing to a het­ero­sexual or homo­sexual is gen­er­ally not as easy, without fol­low­ing them home to check. Not least because of the pro­lif­er­a­tion of the metrosexual….

What do you think of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”?

Clearly it’s meant to be “Metrosexuality: The Reality TV Show.” In a makeover cul­ture it’s the ulti­mate makeover show because what is being made over is mas­culin­ity itself. However, the basic premise is, it has to be said, a lie. I know this will come as a shock to mil­lions, but gays are not neces­sar­ily more styl­ish than straight men. Exhibit A: the gay fash­ion “expert” on “Queer Eye” Carson Kressley, who dis­penses sar­torial advice while dressed like the Children Snatcher in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”

And Exhibit B? Well, me. The queer daddy of the met­ro­sexual, ladies and gents, is more of a les­bo­sexual – though this is prob­ably a ter­rible slight on the styl­ish­ness of les­bi­ans. I hate shop­ping and make one trip a year to a huge out-of-town sportswear ware­house to buy my year’s sup­ply of manmade-fibre cloth­ing. Yes, I go to the gym, but mostly because it’s the only club that will let me in, in my les­bi­an­wear. Urban, fashion-conscious gays access­or­iz­ing mas­culin­ity and desirab­il­ity may have provided the pro­to­type for met­ro­sexu­al­ity, but they’re the dis­carded, beta version.

Ironically, part of the reason for the pop­ular­ity of “Queer Eye” may be that it reas­sures the audi­ence that the “queer eye” belongs to queers, rather than to the mil­lions of nongay men at whom met­ro­sexual advert­ising is aimed.

In your ori­ginal defin­i­tion, the sexual ori­ent­a­tion of a met­ro­sexual is imma­ter­ial. Yet in most of the cov­er­age and the mar­ket­ing lit­er­at­ure appro­pri­at­ing the term he is described as straight. Why is this?

Partly, as I say, because all gays are assumed to be styl­ish and well-presented. This is what “gay” means, appar­ently. However, describ­ing the met­ro­sexual as being straight is slightly silly. But then, advert­ising usu­ally sells things as being the oppos­ite of what they are. Yes, most met­ro­sexu­als go to bed with women, and prob­ably will only ever go to bed with women, but there is noth­ing par­tic­u­larly “straight” about met­ro­sexu­al­ity. It “queers” all the codes of offi­cial mas­culin­ity of the last hun­dred years or so: It’s pass­ive where it should always be act­ive, desired where it should always be desir­ing, looked at where it should always be looking.

That most met­ro­sexu­als aren’t gay or bisexual only makes things even queerer. A hetero metro checks out 1) him­self, 2) other met­ros – how else to know what’s “in” this sea­son? – and 3) women that match his key col­ours. Not neces­sar­ily in that order, but then not unne­ces­sar­ily in that order either.

Perhaps the most inter­est­ing thing about met­ro­sexu­al­ity is that it rep­res­ents the begin­ning of the end of “sexu­al­ity,” the 19th cen­tury pseudo-science of sexual pref­er­ence that said that per­son­al­ity and iden­tity are dic­tated by whether or not your partner’s gen­it­als are the same shape as yours. In a hyper­con­sumer­ist, post-industrial age like ours, iden­tity and per­son­al­ity are not per­mit­ted to be inher­ent – it would put most ad agen­cies out of busi­ness – and are instead based on life­style choices, con­sump­tion pat­terns, brands, social circles. As a meas­ure of this, there are even glossy life­style magazines for same-sex and cross-sex couples. Love — and also repro­duc­tion – is a life­style. The sexual ori­ent­a­tion of met­ro­sexu­als is obvi­ously import­ant to them and their part­ners, but their iden­tity is not based on it, and from a cultural-commercial point of view it is almost immaterial.

From a mar­ket­ing per­spect­ive, though, it makes per­fect sense to main­tain offi­cially that met­ro­sexu­als are all straight – after all, advert­ising is try­ing to per­suade as many men as pos­sible to relax their sphinc­ter muscles, coo­ing in their ear that there’s noth­ing gay about being fucked by cor­por­ate con­sumer­ism. Which, iron­ic­ally, is kinda true.

Are hetero met­ro­sexu­als really lat­ent homosexuals?

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-opps 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 that 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.

Who best per­son­i­fies the met­ro­sexual, besides David Beckham?

Tom Cruise. He’s in his 40s now, but he uses all the tech­no­logy of beauty and fash­ion to remain a desir­able, smooth-skinned, buffed boy with a tarty grin. He’s still Maverick from the defin­it­ive ‘80s movie Top Gun. Actually, he’s still the adoles­cent with no pants jump­ing up and down on the sofa in Risky Business. Hence the “Missy Impossible” movies are really all about his impossible quest to remain etern­ally youth­ful and desir­able — and the sex object of his own movies. This is the nar­rat­ive that all met­ro­sexu­als are destined to act out, though most with rather less help from Hollywood makeup artists, fil­ters and CGI. Metrosexuality is just a tick­ing clock away from mutton-dressed-as-lamb-ness. I under­stand that in his latest film Tom’s finally grown a beard, but I’ll bet you ready money that it’s full of product.

Like the met­ro­sexual, there is no “mys­tery” about his sexual pref­er­ence – his stun­ningly suc­cess­ful film career is a test­a­ment to his pas­sion­ate love affair with… Tom.

Is the met­ro­sexual a product of Gen X? That is, hav­ing no her­oes, does a man then turn inward and start ador­ing himself?

It’s more a case of hav­ing no father. Metrosexuals are all “bas­tards” inas­much as they want to be their own spe­cial cre­ation, though they per­haps end up being the off­spring of cor­por­ate cul­ture. They do have her­oes, but usu­ally only aes­thetic ones. Men who are fam­ous for their looks and style, rather than, say, their polit­ical or mil­it­ary achieve­ments. They do admire sport­ing her­oes, but gen­er­ally only the ones with the best (media) pro­file and product endorse­ment deals.

Is Democratic Candidate Howard Dean, who briefly outed him­self as a met­ro­sexual, really metro?

Arguably all politi­cians oper­at­ing in Western demo­cra­cies have to be at least a little bit metro these days, to attract flat­ter­ing media atten­tion as well as female and male X’s. They’re all a little bit Mel Gibson in “What Women Want”: admen try­ing on women’s under­wear and beauty products in the bath­room to “get inside” women’s minds.

Some are less openly metro than oth­ers. When Air National Guard absentee George W. Bush dressed up in Cruise’s “Top Gun” cos­tume and used the USS Abraham Lincoln as a giant, nuclear-powered strap-on, that was as brazen an exhib­i­tion of cross-dressing as there’s ever been. But it was rep­res­en­ted by Bush’s P.R. machine as evid­ence of his “real,” “down-home,” “all-guy” masculinity.

What about Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has been called metrosexual?

Yes, def­in­itely, but not, as has been sug­ges­ted, because he wears Prada shoes. As a mul­ti­mil­lion­aire film star, what else is he sup­posed to wear?

Rather, Arnie is an example of (early) met­ro­sexu­al­ity, proto-metro if you will, because, after watch­ing too many Steve Reeves movies as a boy, he became devoted to his physique, turn­ing him­self into a spec­tacle, a sign, a com­mod­ity, one that was even­tu­ally noticed and bought by Hollywood – and used to seduce hun­dreds of mil­lions of other boys around the world into turn­ing them­selves into com­mod­it­ies. This is the new American Dream: Don’t live it, become it. Arnie was a new kind of working-class hero, one who works on him­self, not on his boss’ prop­erty – labour­ing for aes­thet­ics.

As we now know, beef­cake can now become the most power­ful man in the wealth­i­est – and most met­ro­sexual – state in the U.S. Arnie may have been fam­ously accused of grop­ing women in real life, but it was mostly men’s bod­ies that he assaul­ted and aroused at the movies, which, because these were early days for met­ro­sexu­al­ity, had to be “action” movies which frantic­ally dis­avowed the passiv­ity – and redund­ancy – of his aes­thet­i­cized body.

How dif­fer­ent is a met­ro­sexual from a yuppie?

A met­ro­sexual would never wear pad­ded shoulders. He’d be wear­ing a sleeve­less shirt to show off his deli­ciously developed delt­oids and designer tat­toos. Yuppies, any­way, are now a defunct and mean­ing­less cat­egory because since the ‘80s every­one in the Western world has become one, or wants to be one. Give or take a few anti-capitalist pro­test­ers in balaclavas.

What’s the rela­tion­ship between met­ro­sexu­als and bour­geois bohemi­ans, known as bobos?

A bobo would rather go to a gal­lery open­ing than the gym. A met­ro­sexual would prob­ably rather read the Abercrombie & Fitch cata­logue, or Wallpaper, than David Brooks’ “Bobos in Paradise.”

So, really, what’s the dif­fer­ence between a met­ro­sexual and a homosexual?

Metrosexuals are bet­ter dressed. Homosexuals are so last season.

What role will the homo­sexual play in the future?

Gooseberry.

Do met­ro­sexu­als have to be wealthy or middle class?

This is a com­mon fal­lacy, partly based on the idea that working-class equals authen­tic and middle-class equals inau­thentic. It’s actu­ally a mat­ter of spend­ing pri­or­it­ies. Most met­ro­sexu­als in Britain, for example, are prob­ably work­ing class. David Beckham, like most of his male fans, is from a working-class fam­ily; he may have rather more money than most and get his togs for free, but this just means that he’s been able to con­tinue his met­ro­sexu­al­ity longer and on a lar­ger, more fright­en­ing scale than most working-class men. Who, until recently, have had to give up these tend­en­cies when they take on a family.

Partly as a leg­acy of the now-expired British aes­thetic youth move­ments of teddy boys, mods and glam rock­ers, since the 1950s and rising wages working-class men in the U.K. have ten­ded to have a strong interest in their appear­ance. They also tend to live with their dear old mums longer than middle-class boys, so much of their income is dis­pos­able; and because of their status they tend to be more keen to advert­ise. They also tend to have a more dir­ect – and his­tor­ical – rela­tion­ship to the male body than middle-class boys. Though now they go to the gym instead of doon tha pit, if I can go all D.H. Lawrence on you.

Are met­ro­sexu­als really such a mod­ern phe­nomenon? What about dandies?

A met­ro­sexual wouldn’t be caught dead in a powdered wig – though he might be temp­ted by the stock­ings and buckled shoes. Sorry to be pedantic, but dan­dies were an 18th cen­tury phe­nomenon. Metrosexuals belong to the 21st cen­tury. Dandyism was the pur­suit of an élite, aris­to­cratic, or wan­nabe aristo group of men and was largely a way of advert­ising their wealth, idle­ness and refined taste. Metrosexuality is a main­stream, mass-consumer phe­nomenon involving the com­plete com­modi­fic­a­tion of the male body. It takes Hollywood, ads, sports and glossy magazines as its inspir­a­tional gal­lery, rather than high clas­si­cism. The met­ro­sexual desires to be desired. The dandy aimed to be admired. Or at least bitched about.

That said, there are con­tinu­it­ies. Oscar Wilde, prob­ably the most fam­ous and most pop­u­list dandy of the last cen­tury, would have under­stood met­ro­sexu­al­ity and might even have approved of it – he did once declare: “To love one­self is the begin­ning of a lifelong romance.” Even if he could never have lived up to its exact­ing, ath­letic stand­ards himself.

It was Wilde’s trial and impris­on­ment for “gross inde­cency” at the end of the 19th cen­tury that pop­ular­ized the Homosexual: The word was coined in 1860 – and, like “met­ro­sexual,” is a for­bid­den con­jug­a­tion of Greek with Latin. It also sym­bol­ized the tri­umph of the Industrial Age notion that male sen­su­al­ity, aes­thet­i­cism and nar­ciss­ism were patho­lo­gical, per­ver­ted and crim­inal. At least when you did them right. It was the decidedly middle-class concept of “sexu­al­ity” that killed the dandy. Now, fit­tingly enough, the met­ro­sexual is killing sexuality.

Would the met­ro­sexual still exist if the media didn’t pay atten­tion to him?

No, but then he’s a product of the media, so it’s a trick ques­tion. You can’t have met­ro­sexu­als without the media; you can’t have a global media without met­ro­sexu­als. Metrosexuality is one of the most flag­rant symp­toms of a medi­ated world: The male body was the last fron­tier and it’s now being thor­oughly explored and mapped. Though admit­tedly, the media’s recent gang­bang of the met­ro­sexual, their own love child, is slightly incestuous.

Have glossy women’s magazines helped cre­ate met­ro­sexu­al­ity? Do the magazines influ­ence the woman, so that the woman influ­ences the man?

Possibly, though again I think men’s rela­tion­ship to con­sumer­ism and tempta­tion is more dir­ect and not some­thing that we can blame on Eve’s shame­less­ness. Metrosexual men are the way they are because they like what they see in the mir­ror. Women’s glossy magazines have had an influ­ence on men mostly via men’s magazines, which have become, like women’s magazines, gender manu­als, maps and bibles.

Is met­ro­sexu­al­ity related to trans­vest­ism or transsexuality?

I sus­pect the rise of met­ro­sexu­al­ity may actu­ally lead to a decline in male trans­vest­ism. Or at least, it will no longer be noticed. Beckham, after all, likes to wear sarongs and his wife’s knick­ers but is not ser­i­ously accused of being a trans­vest­ite. In a met­ro­sexual world it will no longer be neces­sary for men to change sex sur­gic­ally or sar­tori­ally in order to indulge their nar­ciss­istic and exhib­i­tion­istic tendencies.

Is met­ro­sexu­al­ity a sign of male con­fid­ence or a sign of weakness?

Very good ques­tion. I’m rather con­flic­ted on this one. But then, so is the met­ro­sexual. The answer is: both.

Metrosexuality depends on a cer­tain kind of anxi­ety about iden­tity – as a cre­ation of advert­ising, the met­ro­sexual couldn’t be any­thing else. Metrosexuality also rep­res­ents a switch in the power rela­tions between the sexes and, in tra­di­tional terms, an “emas­cu­la­tion” of the male. On the other hand, met­ro­sexu­al­ity is a sign of a cer­tain kind of sexual con­fid­ence or “lib­er­a­tion” on the part of men – they can express “unmanly” desires they have always har­boured but have had to repress for gen­er­a­tions. It can also be a way of assert­ing a new, aes­thetic power in an aes­thet­i­cized world. A wealthy, suc­cess­ful male like Beckham can enhance his suc­cess and wealth via a “sub­missive” met­ro­sexu­al­ity, and even be per­ceived as a bet­ter ath­lete as a res­ult. Someone who looks like a male mas­seur at a Palm Springs spa can become gov­ernor of California.

Did you know that “met­ro­sexual” means “mother­fucker” in Greek?

No, but thank you for point­ing it out. It does make a cer­tain kind of sense. Metrosexuality is the sens­ib­il­ity of the New Matriarchy. It’s post-Oedipal. Dad is largely out of the pic­ture, replaced by Nike and Playstation. The met­ro­sexual fam­ily romance, the cradle of male nar­ciss­ism, is just Junior and an ador­ing Mom. It’s why, from a cer­tain per­spect­ive, Italians have been met­ro­sexu­als for years.

Is a met­ro­sexual a straight man in touch with his fem­in­ine side?

This com­mon defin­i­tion is a more polite ver­sion of the “straight men who act gay” line. Implicit in it is the laugh­ably mis­taken notion that gay men are by defin­i­tion in touch with their fem­in­ine sides. Actually, male homo­sexu­al­ity could be char­ac­ter­ized as less an attrac­tion to men and more of lifelong flight from the fem­in­ine – a ter­ror of the womb-tomb and suf­foc­at­ing domest­icity. Arguably a straight man is the one who really gets in touch with his “fem­in­ine side” – when he gets mar­ried. Admittedly, though, gay men – all of them, without excep­tion, even les­bo­sexu­als like me – are no stranger to the phe­nomenon of male nar­ciss­ism. And nar­ciss­ism has been seen as the fem­in­ine qual­ity par excel­lence – even though Narcissus was in fact a bloke.

Again, it was the hall­mark of the sub­lim­at­ing 19th cen­tury and its divi­sion of labour that all desire, beauty, sen­su­al­ity and “weak­ness” had to be pro­jec­ted onto the female. It’s why the female nude replaced the male nude in art (the male nude had been dom­in­ant since ancient times) and why women became so patho­lo­gies. It is the hall­mark of a met­ro­sexual world, where the male nude some­times seems to have replaced the female, that what is mas­cu­line and what is fem­in­ine are no longer quite so self-evident – per­haps because they never were.

Is the met­ro­sexual a good or a bad thing? You have made fun of him quite a bit.

I have to con­fess I’ve been some­thing of a dead­beat dad. I’ve been very hard on the met­ro­sexual. I’ve taken some cheap shots and didn’t defend him enough from the mar­keters keen to exploit and mis­rep­res­ent him.

I’d like to think I was just try­ing to toughen him up, but prob­ably it was reverse-Oedipal: I’m just jeal­ous of his com­plex­ion and all the atten­tion he gets. He isn’t without some redeem­ing and nat­ur­ally attract­ive fea­tures, which I’ve ten­ded to over­look. But as for whether the met­ro­sexual is, in the long run, all things con­sidered, a good or bad thing, I can’t say. It might be said that met­ro­sexu­al­ity rep­res­ents a cer­tain kind of lib­er­a­tion of the male, but I sus­pect it may be another kind of enslave­ment, albeit a better-dressed variety.

The only thing that’s cer­tain about the met­ro­sexual is that he’s the kind of man that the mod­ern world deserves.

 

This inter­view is col­lec­ted in ‘Metrosexy: a 21st Century Self-Love Story’