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The 'Daddy' of the Metrosexual, the Retrosexual, & spawner of the Spornosexual

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Category: masculinity (page 1 of 23)

Male Lib is Nothing to Be Scared Of

(First appeared in Sweden’s SvD newspaper17/06/2017; published here in English with permission) 

The ‘crisis of masculinity’ is really a form of male emancipation argues Mark Simpson

Back in the late 20th Century, when I first began writing about masculinity – which seems an epoch away now – everyone knew what masculinity was. Or rather, what is wasn’t. And what masculinity wasn’t was very, very important. As a man, your balls depended on it.

Masculinity wasn’t sensual or sensitive. It wasn’t good with colours. It wasn’t talkative, except about football. It wasn’t passive. It wasn’t nurturing. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t feminine. And it certainly wasn’t gay. Masculinity was uniformity – difference was deviance.

Yes, I’m grossly stereotyping here. But that’s exactly what cultural expectations did to men.

And yes, masculinity could also be stoic, altruistic and heroic – but these ‘positive’ masculine qualities, which of course we’re all terribly nostalgic about in this selfie-obsessed century, were also based on repression. Being a man was much more about ‘no’ than ‘yes’. If you said ‘yes’ too much you might as well be a woman – or gay.

Because everyone knew what masculinity was – or wasn’t – hardly anyone talked about it. Apart from feminists and gays. Anyone who used the ‘m’ word was a bit suspect, frankly. And I was very suspect indeed – especially when I insisted that the future was metrosexual. Masculinity was supposed to be taciturn and self-evident not self-conscious and moisturised. No wonder I was laughed at.

More than a decade and a half into the nicely-hydrated 21st Century, everyone is now talking about masculinity. There is also a great deal of media chatter, from both ends of the political spectrum, about a so-called ‘crisis of masculinity’ – and a tendency to suggest that today’s generation of men are in a bad way compared to their forefathers, and also compared to women.

I couldn’t disagree more. There has never been a better, freer time to be a man. Which is precisely why we’re actually able to talk about the ‘m’ word. Yes many men, particularly older men who grew up with a model of masculinity that isn’t working for them any more, do of course face new and real problems in our rapidly-changing world – and sexism is, as the word suggests, a two-way street. But today’s ‘crisis of masculinity’ is basically the crisis of a man whose cell door has been left ajar.

In a sense, masculinity has always been ‘in crisis’ – a degree of hysteria was in-built because it was about living up to impossible, nostalgic expectations. Even the Ancient Greeks were worrying that men weren’t what they used to be: Homer’s Iliad is essentially a love letter to the ‘real’ men of the Bronze Age – heroes that made Iron Age men look like proper sissies.

Today’s men are probably less in ‘crisis’ than they have ever been before because those impossible, ‘heroic’ expectations have largely fallen away, and along with them the masculine prohibitions. Even that reactionary trend for lists of ‘man code’ ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ is just another sign of this. If you have to spell them out in a prissy list then they’re really not working any more. They were supposed to be completely internalised.

Everyone is asking ‘how to be a man’ now because no one really knows the answer. Which is actually great news! Rather than something to worry about. It means that everything is up for grabs. Men today are beginning to aspire to what women have been encouraged to aspire to for some time now – everything.

Repression, once the bedrock of masculinity, is definitely out of fashion. After all, we live in a hypervisual, social me-dia world where expression is the lingua franca. If you don’t express yourself you don’t exist. Today’s young men are mostly much more interested in being and feeling and sharing than in denying and hiding. They have tasted the forbidden fruits of sensuality, sensitivity, taking an interest in their own kids (if they have them), being good with colours, or having a prostate massage, and want more, please.

In fact, for the younger generation most of these masculine ‘transgressions’ are now pretty much taken for granted. Metrosexuality – the ‘soft’ and ‘passive’ male desire to be desired – is the new normal. Products, practises and pleasures previously associated – on pain of ridicule – only with gays and women have been more or less fully-appropriated by guys.

The most obvious, flagrant example of this is what has happened to the male body. No longer simply an instrumental thing labouring in darkness, extracting coal, building ships, fighting wars, making babies and putting out the rubbish, it has been radically and sensually redesigned to give and especially receive pleasure. It has become a pumped and waxed brightly-lit bouncy castle for the eyes.

Today’s eagerly self-objectifying young spornosexuals – or second generation, body-centred metrosexuals – toil in the gym in their own time to turn their bodies into hot commodities that are ‘shared’ and ‘liked’ in the online marketplace of Instagram and Facebook. Which is certainly needy, but also very generous of them. Young straight(ish) men today have taken the gay love of the male body and buffed it up – and want to share that love.

There is no crisis of masculinity – but rather, a long overdue crisis of the heterosexual division of labour, looking, and loving with which the Victorians stamped most of the 20th Century. Freed from the imperative to be ‘manly’ and (re)‘productive’, men have blossomed into something beautiful. A word that until very recently was absolutely not supposed to describe men.

Obviously the rise of feminism and gay rights have helped changed men’s attitudes. But perhaps the boot is on the other foot. Men in general are much less hard on gay men and on women now because they are no longer so hard on themselves. In a sense, women and particularly gays existed to project all men’s own forbidden ‘weaknesses’ into.

Nowadays, having been allowed to discover the pleasure they can bring, men want those ‘weaknesses’ back, thanks very much.

Mark Simpson at Heartland Festival

Delighted to announce that I’ll be appearing at Denmark’s famous Heartland Festival, Egeskov Castle, 2-4 June. I’ll be discussing that hot topic of contemporary masculinity – and it’s need to be hot – along with the Danish designer Mads Norgaard, with the journalist Adrian Lloyd Hughes charing. More info here.

The festival promised in the video below looks charming. Not sure I’m flexible enough for the yoga, but the hot tubs look fun.

 

Man Down – Defining Deflated & Liberated Masculinity

by Mark Simpson

‘What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! in apprehension how like a god!… And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?’ – Hamlet

There has been a lot of soul-searching about what it means to ‘be a man’ nowadays. Because no one really knows the answer. Defining ‘man’ and ‘masculine’ in a world in which phallic certainties have dramatically deflated like a dirigible disaster is an endless and probably pointless task. It is the philosopher’s stone of marketing. The quintessence of dust.

Coach, a weekly free UK men’s fitness/lifestyle magazine produced by Dennis publishing (also behind the stalwart spornosexual monthly Men’s Fitness), recently produced some research on the elusive nature of the modern male that defined him by un-defining him. It claimed to show that the ‘alpha male’ stereotype is largely a thing of the past, replaced by an ‘alta male’ who is less interested in money and career than in a healthy work/life balance, self-improvement and personal relationships – ‘higher’ things.

Most of all, he prefers to follow his own lights, rather than compare himself to traditional models of masculinity which are now seen as largely obsolete. Modern man is defined, in other words, by his lack of definition.

Last month I was invited by Coach to appear on a panel in Soho, London discussing the findings. As I said at the time, what most interested me about the research was that, in addition to proving me, in my humble opinion, completely and absolutely right about everything – which is always gratifying – it seemed to finally dispel the over-hyped, almost hysterical, notion that men are undergoing a ‘crisis of masculinity’. Though I’m sure many of the people in crisis about this ‘crisis’ will continue to have a cow about it.

Masculinity has always been in crisis. This has been its ‘natural’, anxious, paranoid, Hamletian state. It’s why it always had something to prove. But probably less so now than ever before.

As I’ve argued for some time, instead of a crisis, what we’re really going through is a revolution. A revolution against mostly restrictive, repressive ideas of what being a man is. A metrosexual revolution – or ‘male lib’. In fact, this revolution has been going on for the last few decades and for most of the younger generation its achievements are largely taken for granted.

Hence the Coach found that: ‘Friendliness, intelligence, being funny, caring are all attributes man wants to be seen possessing – in contrast with toughness and strength of the man of yesteryear.’

This is underlined by how ‘masculine’ is the No.2 quality today’s men attribute to ‘man of yesteryear’ (48%) – but doesn’t make it into the top 12 attributes he likes others to see in him (23%).

This sentiment is loudly echoed in a recent YouGov survey (cited in the Coach research) that found only 2% of 18-24 year olds see themselves as ‘completely masculine’ – compared with 56% of 65+ men.

A whopping 47% (the largest segment) see themselves as 2s on a scale of 0-6, where 0 = completely masculine 6 = completely feminine, while a sizeable 17% see themselves as 3s, i.e. somewhere in the middle. (This is similar to a previous YouGov survey on sexuality which found that most young people in the UK now consider themselves something other than ‘100% heterosexual’.)

For comparison, 14% of 18-24 women see themselves as ‘completely feminine’, which is seven times as many men of the same age who see themselves as completely masculine. While 12% see themselves as 3s.

The remarkably low figures for young men seeing themselves as ‘masculine’ may be influenced by the way that masculinity has had a bad press lately – and indeed the majority of 18-24 men have a negative impression of masculinity, with 42% perceiving it negatively compared to 39% positively. Interestingly, 18-24 women mostly don’t share young men’s critical view of masculinity and are as positive about it as young men are negative (42% positive to 27% negative). In this regard, young men seem to be more ‘feminist’ than young women.

By the way, YouGov’s figures for the US show that American men are much more likely than UK ones to think of themselves as ‘completely masculine’, 42% overall compared to 28%. As I’ve pointed out before, despite being very much involved in its creation, the US has been resistant to metrosexuality and the revolution it represents – or at least terribly conflicted about it. The US is of course the home of ‘manning up’, bearism, ‘bro-nuts‘, and IT professionals who think they’re lumberjacks.

Back in the effete UK, while discussing its findings on men’s attitudes towards masculinity, the Coach report concludes: ‘But even though man is more comfortable with who he is on the inside, there’s a struggle to define ‘masculinity’. (61% find it ‘hard to define exactly what masculinity means’.)

I think this statement is phrased wrongly. There’s no ‘but’ about it. And not much of a ‘struggle’. I don’t think many if not most young men can be bothered. Which is a good thing. It’s precisely because masculinity can’t be easily defined nowadays that men have much more freedom than their forefathers – and can thus be ‘more comfortable with who he is on the inside’. In the past, really only a couple of decades ago, everyone knew what being a man was – and what a ‘regular bloke’ looked like. And who wasn’t.

Although trad masculinity had many admirable qualities, such as self-sacrifice, stoicism and DIY – they were largely based on repudiation. Most of trad masculinity was defined by what men were not – not soft, not tender, not nurturing, not passive, not feminine, not good with colours, not gay. As a result, most young men today don’t ‘struggle’ to define masculinity – rather, they get on with living their lives how they want to live them.

Finally, a slightly tedious word about demographics. The Coach research was based on a focus group of 21 men aged between 22-59 in London, and a survey of 1000 men and women across Britain. Although the focus group apparently included many men originally from around the UK (and some who still lived outside London), it’s probably true that the research – like the magazine itself – had a metropolitan bias.

It also seems to have had, unsurprisingly, a middle class one – 79% of the respondents were ABC1 (compared to c.54% nationally according to 2015 figures). However, I don’t think this invalidates their findings, especially since the aspects of their research which most interested me seem to be backed up by the more demographically representative YouGov research – which when you drill down into their C2DE/ABC1 breakdown, mostly shows no great differences between them in regard to attitudes towards masculinity.

It’s one of the hallmarks of the metrosexual revolution that it cuts across all classes, with working class men often on the coalface of change.

Mark Simpson at Men in Movement, Barcelona

I will be in Barcelona this week for an international workshop organised by the University of Catalonia, titled ‘Men in Movement: Transforming Masculinities in Politics, Care and Media’.

There will be a range of very interesting, esteemed and knowledgeable contributors, and I will have the slightly unnerving honour of presenting the opening lecture, ‘From Metrosexual to Spornosexual: A Spectacular, Permanent Revolution’, on Wednesday 18th November at 6pm. So I’ll be sure to show plenty of slides and video clips of much hotter chaps than me.

The following day at 15.30 I’ll be on a panel discussing Men and Representations, presenting a short, mostly clean talk probing ‘Mainstream Male Anal(ity)’.

Entrance is free (Captain Peacock).

Why Men Are Getting Fatter AND Fitter

Mark Simpson on how the male body is no longer something that ‘simply happens’

Britain is getting bigger. Positively massive, if recent reports are to be believed.

Last week, the World Health Organisation published some hefty, earth-shaking figures which publically body-shamed the UK as having one of the highest obesity rates in Europe and suggesting that by 2030 a whopping 74 per cent of British men and 64 per cent of women will be overweight or obese.

Both sexes are getting fatter, according to the data, but men seem to be getting fatter faster than women. Which represents yet another reversal of traditional sex roles – until recently, women in the UK, like most women around the world, tended to be more likely than men to be clinically obese. Two decades ago, just 13pc of men, a mere sliver, were defined as obese, compared to 17pc of women.

By 2010, however, the last year for WHO figures, UK men had finally caught up with women – who had also been getting larger: 26pc of men and women were now considered clinically obese. But in the next 15 years men are predicted to overtake women in obesity, reaching rates of 36pc, compared to 33pc for women. Finally, men are ahead of women in something.

How did this come about? Particularly in a world in which men are more image- and body-conscious – and increasingly gym-obsessed – than ever before?

According to Laura Webber of the UK Health Forum which helped compile the figures, the continuing rise in obesity for both sexes was down to the ‘obesogenic environment’ which ‘encouraged the overconsumption of energy dense foods and discouraged physical activity”. Which I suppose means sitting around and eating crisps and drinking fizzy soda.

Of course, this in itself doesn’t explain why men are overtaking women in the overeating department. But perhaps a clue is to be found in the fact that the phenomenon of male obesity and being overweight (defined as BMI -> 25 kg/ms) is closely associated with high-income countries, such as the UK, US and those of Western Europe – which tend also to have the highest rates of obesity for both sexes.

In low- and lower-middle-income countries – which of course make up the vast majority – obesity among women was approximately double that among men (and considerably lower overall).

Combine this with the fact that UK male obesity began to catch up with and overhaul female obesity in the last 20-30 years – when many working-class and manual jobs were being automated or ‘outsourced’ – a strongly suggestive picture emerges of male obesity being related to not just cheap, readily available, heavily advertised, highly-profitable high-calorie food, but also the decline of traditionally “masculine” jobs. Or to put it glibly: call centres replacing pits. Offices are, after all, “obesegenic environments”.

But why is male obesity now overtaking the female variety? How come men are apparently sitting around eating more ready-salted crisps than women? Perhaps because we still tend to have anachronistic ideas about “man sized” portions. In a world in which men were usually expected to put in a day’s physical, often back-breaking labour, this made a certain sense. But when so many jobs are now “unisex” and keyboard-based, and car ownership so widespread, those man-sized portions can just make you super-sized.

 

The calorie surplus begins early. Physical education at school today is, officially, often not terribly physical, or strenuous – and children are less likely to walk there than in the past. And then less likely to play in the street or garden when they’re home.

You can be sure that despite the advertising, high-calorie candy bars like Snickers are not usually being eaten after a game of footie. Makers of high-calorie food aimed at boys and men love to suggest that their “obesogenic” product is “man food” and masculinising – “Get some nuts!”. Or rather, that not eating their product is emasculating. If you don’t eat one, you’ll turn into Joan Collins. When the reality may be that because you’ve eaten too many Snickers you can’t run at all.

For all its calculated casualness, a lot of this kind of ‘man food’ advertising merely highlights the way that men and boys now increasingly tend to have a “relationship” to food in the way that only women were supposed to have in the past.

The irony, or possibly tragedy, for men is that at a time when many of them are putting on weight so rapidly, the world has become very visual and has got very judgy about their appearance. Men are expected to have beach-ready bodies too. Part of the reason for a growing number of men’s increasing obsession with gym-ing and dieting is that in a post-industrial digital world, their body is not something that merely “happens” any more – men no longer merely “act”, they, like women, also have to “appear”. Going down the gym has replaced working in the factory – and also, in many cases, playing sport.

So we seem to be seeing an increasing polarisation between (often middle aged) “fatties” who have given up or don’t care, and (often younger) “fitties”, who are perhaps trying a bit too hard and care way too much – though I am not complaining about the eye popping results.

Of course, quite a few men make the quasi-religious transition from being fatties to fitties – frequently sharing their “before” and “after” pics online, or in Men’s Health magazine.

Which brings us to a possible paradox. All those sweat-soaked gym sessions and protein drinks (a rapidly-growing market expected to reach £471m in the UK by 2018) may actually have contributed to those alarming WHO figures for male “obesity”.

Body Mass Index is a very blunt – flabby even – statistical instrument indeed. Calculated by dividing a person’s weight in kilograms by the square of their height in metres, this formula, devised in the 19th century, doesn’t actually “measure” fatness at all, merely indicates it.

Muscle is denser than fat, so if you are totally buff from all those gym sessions, then your BMI could class you as being “overweight” or even “obese” – despite being “totally shredded”. Fat, particularly abdominal/visceral fat, has a host of documented health problems associated with it – lean muscle, however, brings increased strength, higher metabolism, increased immunity and even life expectancy. Not to mention increased “sexiness”.

BMI is a statistical convention that has been useful in a generalised way – but one that may have to be changed to reflect the changing body composition and shape of men (and women). Without more precise research, it’s impossible to know how much men getting “massive” down the gym has tipped the UK’s male obesity scales, but given how much more muscular many men are today compared to 20 or even just ten years ago, it seems likely to have been a factor.

If so, the coming fatsopocalypse, serious as it is, may have been slightly over-egged.

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