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Category: masculinity (page 17 of 23)

Speedophobia: America’s Fear & Loathing of Budgie Smuggling

Mark Simpson undresses the tortured relationship between American men and their swimsuits

(Out, February 2007)


If the stern, killjoy rubric of this warning sign, erected in the 1960s by the good people of Cape May, N.J., sounds like a way to rain on a gay beach party, that’s because it was.

Cape May, a resort town a few hours south of New York City by car, had become a popular gay haunt by the late 1950s, nicknamed “Cape Gay” by the cognoscenti. According to a 1969 article in Philadelphia magazine, “their public displays of affection, particularly among men wearing women’s bathing suits on the main beach… turned off the townsfolk.” The city council, eager to protect its flock from glimpsing the terrifying outline of adult male genitalia, was moved to pass a law forbidding bikini bathing suits on males over age 12 – a “phalliban,” if you will.

The ban on ‘form-fitting’ bathing suits on males was officially lifted by Cape May in 2005. Arguably this didn’t happen because America now accepts male bumps and lumps but simply because it was now unnecessary. After all, these days everyone knows that male bikinis – or, to give them their trade name-turned-generic moniker, “Speedos” – are unofficially banned from all main beaches in the United States, whatever your age.

You may think them practical and sexy and iconic. You may consider them the single most perfect and pithy item of clothing ever designed for the male body. You may consider them the only thing to wear on the beach. You might even consider yourself slightly overdressed in them. But if you do, it’s probably because you’re gay. Or foreign. Speedos, otherwise known as “banana hammocks,” “marble bags,” “noodle benders,” and “budgie smugglers,” are apparently as un-American as Borat’s body thong.

Speedos on a nongay beach are the surest way to earn yourself angry stares, abuse, and plenty of room for your beach towel. As a result, Speedos have in the United States become a badge of gay pride and exclusion-as overt homophobia declines, rampantly overt Speedophobia is bringing U.S. gays and Brazilians together, huddling together at the far end of the beach in their Lycra.

Male celebs like David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Daniel Craig may now be nicely filling out their Speedos on their beach holidays – but none of these fellows are American. Speedos and even more revealing male swimsuits are popular in South America, Asia, much of Europe, and especially, of course, in the land of the pert-butted lifesaver: Australia, the place where the “Aussie cossie” and much of the beach lifestyle we know today was born.

The Speedo is more than just “gay” beachwear: It’s a symbol of sexual freedom and a rediscovery of the body after centuries of clammy Christian morality.

Bathing and swimming are undoubtedly pagan passions. The ancients invented the seaside resort and spent a great deal of gold on, and time in, their blessed public baths, where the men bathed and swam naked. Not because they were indifferent to nakedness, but because they esteemed virility. Every night was wet jockstrap night (without the jockstrap) at the Roman baths, and especially well-endowed bathers were likely to be greeted with a round of applause; during the reign of notorious size queen Emperor Elagabalus, those who hung low at the baths were promoted to high office.

Alas, neither swimming nor bathing nor size-queenery survived the decline of the Roman Empire. Medieval Christianity, with its ghastly suspicion of the body, rendered water – the sensual cleanser of limbs – suspect. As late as the 16th century, bathing was thought to be wicked, unhealthy, and, er, filthy. (Even Catholic baptism used only “holy” water, water that had been blessed, symbolizing the cleansing blood of Christ: Sin was the deep-down dirt that Christianity was angry with.)

The English were the first to rediscover the lost art of swimming, largely as a result of their exploration of Polynesia in the 18th century, where swimming was common amongst the blissfully naked natives. By the 19th century swimming in rivers, lakes, and the sea was almost as popular in England as it had been in Rome – frequently naked, males and females, sometimes at the same time.

Christian moralists, their influence having resurged in the late 19th century, were naturally incandescent at these displays of wanton happiness. They successfully campaigned for local bylaws banning daylight bathing, or insisting on the use of “bathing machines” that allowed the bather to enter and depart the water unseen, or requiring “neck-to-knee” bathing costumes (New York State had such a law until as late as 1938). A typical swimming costume comprised a pair of woolen knickers extending to the knees and a sleeveless jersey. Not a good look.

To their eternal credit, it was the Australians who struck the first blow against the 19th-century phalliban. With typical Aussie obstinacy, the men of the aptly named Manly Beach chose simply to disregard the pissy-prissy laws banning daytime bathing. Faced with this seaside insurrection, local authorities threw in the towel and lifted the ban in 1903. The rest of Australia followed (swim)suit, though precisely what kind of swimsuit was still contested. Many male bathers disregarded the neck-to-knee ordinances, either rolling their one-piece down to the waist or, wearing trunks, simply improvising.

Good Christian folk found this intolerable. There was a strident campaign by decent, upstanding, if slightly pallid, Christians to get male bathers to wear modesty-preserving bathing “tunics.” Protests by angry crowds of male bathers at Manly and Bondi Beach – wearing ballet skirts and sarongs – put an end to the Ozzie phalliban.

So it was in Australia, a warm country where most of the population tenderly hug the coastline and pay little attention to busybodies – perhaps because Australia began as a convict colony – that the bodily freedom of the modern beach lifestyle (“surfers rather than serfs!”) was invented, anticipating by decades the sexual revolution of the 1960s – giving men’s packets and asses freedom of expression. It was this, not Kylie Minogue, that was their greatest contribution to world culture. Australia, a country fond of casually abbreviating English, abbreviated the male bathing “cossie,” and with it Victorian morality.

The institution that did more to export this vision of a sandy, nicely rounded utopia than any other, smuggling millions upon millions of “budgies,” was originally called MacRae Knitting Mills after the family who founded it in Australia in 1914. Among the first companies to produce specifically “athletic” designs (i.e., swimming costumes that didn’t double as sea anchors), MacRae changed its name to “Speedo” in 1928 after staff member Captain Parsons coined the slogan “Speed on in your Speedos.”

In 1955, Speedo introduced nylon into its fabric for competitive swimwear (unwittingly inventing a whole new branch of fetishism). The 1956 Melbourne Olympics provided a sensational debut for the new sheer style of brief briefs when Speedo sponsored the medal-sweeping Australian team. By the time of the 1968 Olympics and through the ’76 games, almost every gold medalist swimmer wore Speedos. Naturally, men all over the globe wanted to enjoy the sensation for themselves.

Even in the United States. Up until the early 1980s, Speedos were a common sight here, both on the beach and at the pool. Everything was lovely and snug and nicely outlined. But then something horrifying happened. Sometime in the late ’80s men’s swimsuits began to grow in length and bulk. Year by year they crept down the thigh toward the knee-and beyond – all the while billowing clownishly outward. Now U.S. men wear, of their own volition, not even the knee-length woolen knickers that the Australian men of Manly heroically protested in the early 20th century, but bloomers – a voluminous form of female attire last seen in the 1850s (and generally regarded as ridiculous back then). In the water, today’s Speedophobic males are half-man, half-jellyfish.

Unfittingly enough, this tragic trend began with someone wearing two pairs of shorts at the same time. In the ’70s basketball shorts were skimpy (almost like Oz football shorts), but Michael Jordan popularized sexless long shorts in the NBA in the late 1980s. “He wanted to keep wearing his lucky University of North Carolina shorts under his Chicago Bulls shorts,” explains Australian academic David Coad, author of an upcoming book on sexuality, gender, and sport,” and decided to wear a longer pair to cover the shorter ones.” Because Jordan was Jordan, others copied, and thus baggy shorts became fashionable. It seems that this evil trend spread to male swimwear.

There was, I’d venture, another, weightier reason for this swimwear elephantiasis. The late ’80s was also when male obesity became a big trend in the United States. Baggy shorts hide baggy buttocks. They also wear higher, and their large profile makes a baggy stomach considerably less obvious than when hanging over the waistband of a Speedo. Moreover, “board shorts” hide the chicken legs of a car-centered society in which men watch sport (while eating) instead of playing. Is it simply a coincidence that when many young American men saw their bodies losing masculine definition they started wearing ladies’ bloomers?

The ’80s also saw the beginning of the rise of the male as appetizing, idealized media sex object. The bar for male beauty was being set higher and higher as the reality was getting heavier and heavier. The tyranny of “boardies” is an expression of male self-consciousness, self-loathing – and paranoia. Both of being “checked out” and of not measuring up. The ’80s saw a steep rise in the American male’s awareness of gays – and with it his desire not to be mistaken for one in any way by signaling that he actually had an ass and a packet. Baggy shorts are a deliberate and cruel affront to homos – but it’s nice to know that straight men are thinking about us so much.

Gays are, of course, frequently flamboyant Speedophiles. They are less likely to be overweight. They are more likely to be worked-out. Hence their wearing Speedos really rubs people’s noses in it – in every sense. Gays are generally more than happy to advertise the highly versatile sex-object status of the male body. And a Speedo screams COCK!! BALLS!! ASS!!… in any order or combination you fancy.

It’s as obvious as a badly smuggled budgie that despite the pagan passions of pop culture and an enthusiastic uptake of the beach lifestyle, the promise of sandy sexual liberation has come slightly adrift Stateside. The painfully unequal sexual division of labor on U.S. beaches, where women wear little more than eyeliner and men wear tents – without the pole – is a sorry testament to that.

The phalliban spirit of 1960s Cape May has triumphed.

This essay is collected in Metrosexy: A 21st Century Self-Love Story

Metrosexual breasts

American scientists believe that metrosexuality in pre-pubescent boys causes them to develop breasts

(Post-pubescent metros can’t rely on product to give them a nice pair of tits and have to visit the gym.)

Captain Kirk’s Bulging Trousers

Mark Simpson on the pointed queerness of the original Shatner/Nimoy Star Trek series – and the PC limpness of all the spin-offs.

(Originally appeared on Feb. 26, 2003)

The first thing that greets me is Capt. Kirk’s package. Jim’s intergalactic manhood is clearly, alarmingly outlined against the fabric of his tight 1960s-cut black trousers, dressing very much to the left. I assure you I wasn’t looking for it – it just loomed up, like a de-cloaked Romulan Bird of Prey.

It shouldn’t be surprising that James Tiberius Kirk, the famously gung-ho Starfleet commander, went commando, boldly swinging where no man had swung before. Maybe that, as much as his twinkly mascaraed eyes and his captaincy of the fastest, flashiest vehicle in the galaxy, the USS Enterprise, was the secret of caddish Jim’s phenomenal success with lady humanoids and aliens alike.

Indubitably, as his first officer Mr Spock (Leonard Nimoy) might have said, raising one angled eyebrow, this was the crucial difference between the sweaty, highly Freudian original Star Trek series and the sexless, sweatless, p.c. Star Trek: The Next Generation. Can you imagine Jean-Luc Picard not wearing spotless knickers with a built-in containment field, changed twice a day and incinerated after use?

Alas, I’m not actually in the humbling presence of the godlike genius of William Shatner himself. Rather, I’m gazing up at a monitor playing a clip from “The Trouble With Tribbles” in a medley of “classic ‘Star Trek’ moments,” at an exhibition dedicated to a genre and a universe that have, so to speak, sprung from his loins. “Star Trek: The Adventure,” held in a “climate-controlled” “hi-tech” 7,000-square-foot tent in London’s Hyde Park, showcases the “Trek” universe, from the original series more than 35 years ago to the newest feature film, Star Trek: Nemesis.

Sets, costumes, props and models from Star Trek, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and the current Trek series, the low-tech Enterprise prequel, are all here. Billed as the biggest Star Trek exhibition ever, the London show has been a great success. This is only the first stop on a world tour, taking in Europe, Australia and the U.S., on a “five-year mission to boldly go where Star Trek has never been before” – although where that would be is something of a mystery.

In addition to six successful TV series, each of them being rerun somewhere in the world right now, there have been 10 movies, grossing well over $1 billion. Amazon lists 1,238 Trek books, 1,832 Trek auctions, 515 videos, 73 music items, 61 PC and video games. I simply refuse to enter “Star Trek” into a Web search engine, as I fear it will cause some kind of terrible e-feedback loop and global net overheating of the kind that happened whenever Kirk asked some upstart out-of-control alien computer to compute “love.”

The whole phenomenon is, to use another Spockism, fascinating. The Trek series is not only the most frighteningly successful and profitable TV series of our “timeline” but also one that has helped to make television what it is – and us what we are. Star Trek really did turn out to be the future – not of faster-than-light space travel, but of couch-potato entertainment. We have been, to use yet another Trekkian phrase, assimilated. Resistance was futile.

If the original Star Trek series was an exercise in the power of human imagination – and frustrated aspiration – the massive “Trek” exhibition can only be called an exercise in hubris. Perhaps that is why the monitor on which I glimpsed Kirk’s package is swaying a little, as is everything else suspended from the ceiling – the vast hi-tech tent is moving in the wind, making slightly distracting and very non-futuristic clanking noises.

Close up, imprisoned behind glass cases, the props and costumes look rather disappointing and forlorn, like deeply discounted items in a theatrical supply store. The disrupters and phasers are bits of badly painted wood; the scale models of the various Enterprises are the discarded toys of rich kids. The recreated bar from Deep Space Nine looks like the sort of place you wouldn’t hang out in unless you wanted to pick up a low-rent transvestite (mind you, if that had been true of the series itself it might have been worth watching).

The armoury from the Enterprise series, complete with photon torpedo launchers, is more impressive but something of an elaborate tease. Like the other control-panel-based exhibits here, much of the instrumentation is covered with glass screens and large signs warning “DO NOT TOUCH.” What other reason would you have to come to a Star Trek exhibition except to press, in Stimpy-esque tongue-lolling abandon, all those buttons you’ve seen winking at you on TV over the years?

The Scimitar brig restraint cage from the Nemesis” film, in which Picard is all too briefly imprisoned, is here, but has, like the film itself, the rather tired, S/M catalogue feel that dominated the later, Borg-rich episodes of Next Generation – the nearest that series ever got to sex. The Borg were, after all, everyone’s nightmare fetish-party people – sadomasochists who tried to accessorize themselves a personality and considered themselves irresistible.

My pulse begins to quicken near the exit, however, when I spot, like a beacon, Capt. Kirk’s cocky chartreuse green velour shirt with gold braided cuffs and also his … black trousers. They are in a display of costumes from the original series, wrapped around a headless dummy instead of around Kirk’s corseted, bewigged torso. No doubt I’m a terminal nostalgic – as a boy I watched the ’60s Star Trek on ’70s UK TV in a state of arousal bordering on psychosis which, obviously, has yet to subside – but the original Trek uniforms, like the series itself, seem much more exciting than anything that followed.



These are not clothes so much as archetypes. Like Trek technology, they embody an idea of function rather than a practical elaboration of it. Here is the cool, intellectual blue of Spock’s tunic, with his trusty tricorder handbag slung over the shoulder; here the feisty red of Lt. Uhura’s (Nichelle Nichol’s) costume, breasts surging forward like rockets, with streamlined waist, miniskirt tail fins spouting a plume of long, long tights, and knee-length pointy black boots.

Ahem. Anyway, Star Trek was, like 1960s American cars, very … pointy. In addition to the boots, and Kirk’s package, there were pointy sideburns, pointy breasts, pointy ears, pointy Federation logos, pointy lettering in the credits, and also the pointedly pointy mission statement: “To boldly go where no man has gone before,” which of course was bluntly de-sexed by Next Generation to “…where no one has been before.” Perhaps this is why the Next Generation crew were dressed like flight attendants on a particularly dull 1980s airline – one that went bust because the synthetic fibers and padding produced so much static electricity that insurers refused to cover them.


Voyager became much pointier, and more watchable, when in later years declining ratings beamed aboard the streamlined and coolly logical Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan), promptly massaging up the Nielsen points. (Perhaps that is why Enterprise features the similarly spaceworthy female Vulcan first officer T’Pol, her uniform snugly inhabited by Jolene Blalock.)

Star Trek uniforms remain timeless classics, ones that seem to have directly inspired ’70s glam rock – Ziggy Stardust, for instance, looked as though he would have fit in on the Enterprise. Certainly Kirk would have shagged him.


It seems ironic, given the kind of people who are Trekkies – bed-wetting idealists for the most part – that the post-’60s incarnation of the series has become perhaps the symbol of corporate culture, globalization and “American imperialism”. Though generally dressed in the drabbest kind of political correctness. The spinoffs have produced an empire of nerdiness. Give me a stripped-to-the-waist Republican Kirk in full-body makeup, trying to remember to suck in his waist while battling a rubber lizard-head alien with half-learned karate and pro-wrestling moves, any day of the week.

And then I spy it, like a mirage: the bridge of the original USS Enterprise! It’s roped off so I can’t ride the turbo lift, fire Sulu’s (George Takei’s) phasers, mess with Spock’s science station, or put my butt where Kirk’s has gone before and take “the conn.” I suspect that in this instance I wouldn’t even if I could. You can get too close to something that has been so important to you for so long. In fact, there is something so venerable about this silly wooden set that I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. This is, after all, the holiest shrine of TV culture, of much more importance to the contemporary world than, say, the Church of the Nativity, Shakespeare’s Globe or even Lucille Ball’s living room.

They really knew about the future in the ’60s. They really cared about it. It was, of course, a time when people still believed in it, a time when “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow” was not necessarily a self-consciously retro slogan. Perhaps that is why the original series, with its female crew members (albeit in submissive jobs) and racial harmony (ditto – except for Spock, the Jewish Vulcan), was rather more adventurous and progressive for its time than its spayed spinoffs.

More important, in the ’60s they also knew how to make buttons and dials that, 35 years on, are much more “futuristic” than anything seen since. Not only that, they made them for next to nothing. (Star Trek cost about $100,000 an episode; Enterprise costs $6 million.) From where I’m standing, those buttons and dials look like the most precious and promising jewels in the universe. By comparison, the Next Generation bridge displayed next door looks like the foyer of an expense-account motel.

Naturally, true Trekkies prefer the more recent series, precisely because they have much bigger budgets, more special effects – and no William Shatner. Apparently Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry (and much of the original cast) despised Shatner and the way he played Kirk. He was too aggressive, too violent, too sexist, too vain. The anal-retentive goody-goody Jean-Luc Picard, played fastidiously by Patrick Stewart, was much closer to what Roddenberry had in mind.

It was Shatner’s Kirk, with all his magnificent flaws and vanities, however, who made Star Trek more than just another canceled ’60s sci-fi series. He saved the show from its own appalling virtuousness – or, to put it more pretentiously, he was the Dionysian bass line to Roddenberry’s Apollonian synth music. (By the same token, Cmdr. Data’s quest to become human on Next Generation is comic, since his colleagues seem to aspire to be androids.)

Shatner was rock ‘n’ roll – his post-Trek album-cum-aural breakdown, “The Transformed Man,” notwithstanding. It was his perversity, his Napoleonic ego, that made Star Trek an epic for our times. Not for nothing was his pre- Trek project a canceled series called Alexander the Great, starring Shatner as the lovable Macedonian psychopath himself. Shatner has earned his place in the pantheon of postwar virile degeneracy: What Brando did for the cinema and Elvis did for music, Shatner did for the small screen.

In fact – and I think I can say this with no fear of insulting Jim Carrey, himself a helpless Shatner fanatic, who does him doing Kirk even better than Shatner – Bill is simply the greatest actor that Canada has ever produced. He was (and is) an outrageous ham, applying the “skills” he developed performing in Canada’s Shakespearean theatre (“I combine English technique with American virility”) as indiscriminately to Star Trek scripts as LBJ did Agent Orange to the jungles of Southeast Asia, bafflingly stressing words and syllables that mere mortals might think had no importance, pausing. Painfully. In. The. Middle. Of. Sentences. Whilerushingheadlongovertheirconclusions. But there is something oddly powerful about many of his performances. Even something believable and human, especially in the slightly camp context of a series like Star Trek. Even Shatner’s vanity is sympathetic. The tasteful, restrained, mannered – and, let’s face it, bourgeois – seriousness of Picard and Voyager’s Captain Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) seems rather more ridiculous by comparison.

Jim Kirk, as I say, was clearly a Republican, while the Federation itself was clearly Democratic. The arrangement appeared to reflect that of a Republican White House and a Democratic Congress, the favoured mechanism of Cold War consensus. Fortunately for the story lines, this meant that Kirk was constantly breaking the Federation’s Prime Directive, which forbade interference in alien cultures. Currently, we see Adm. George W. Bush, with his apparent disdain for the Prime Directive and also the Federation (United Nations) itself, in orbit around planet Iraq, preparing to beam down a heavily armed away team. Bush probably thinks himself more Kirk than Picard, but he’s mistaken: He simply doesn’t have the same pathos. Or the twinkly eyes.

Spock, half alien and half human, was another example of the inherent drama of Star Trek. He was supposed to be coldly logical but was clearly a borderline hysteric, as evidenced by those occasions when he was called on to show emotion, such as the proto-environmentalist episode “Devil in the Dark,” when he mind-melds with the Horta, a silicone-based life form whose eggs are being destroyed by Federation miners. ‘Pain! PAIN!’ he shrieks, his usually impassive face distorting horrifically. “Oh, PA-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-IN!!!”

Moreover, Spock was obviously passionately in love with his rug-wearing bisexual WASP jock captain, something not lost on the bitchy, swishy and rather jealous ship’s doctor, ‘Bones’ McCoy (DeForest Kelley), who wasted no opportunity to tease his green-blooded colleague. (For some reason all the male “Trek” medical staffers have been queeny, even the holograms).

Interestingly, the stellar love affair between Spock and Kirk, which has its roots in Greek mythology and American literature (e.g., Alexander and Hephaestion, Huck and Jim, Ishmael and Queequeg) seems to have grown out of the clash of Shatner’s and Nimoy’s planet-size thespian egos: Roddenberry, driven frantic by their on-set competitiveness, was advised by Isaac Asimov, no less, to channel it by strengthening their on-screen relationship. In addition, a “favored nation” clause was introduced into their contracts, stipulating that any benefits accorded to one must apply to the other. In other words, gay campaigners still calling for gay characters in the next “Trek” series are kind of missing the point. Star Trek featured the world’s first on-screen same-sex marriage back in the ’60s. (Little wonder then that a whole genre of female-authored “slash” fan fictions built around the Spock/Kirk love affair has flourished, making explicit what was always implicit.)


There was a kind of innocent intensity to many of those shows that is impossible to replicate today, an intensity that somehow manages to coexist with a campy tone, even down to the marvellous episode titles: “For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky,” “City on the Edge of Forever,” or “Is There No Truth in Beauty?” (written by Jean Lisette Aroeste – a librarian fan of Star Trek who sent her script in on spec). In the latter the Enterprise gives a lift to the Medusan ambassador and his earthling assistant Dr Miranda Jones, played by the mesmerising Diana Muldaur in a glittery dress and soft focus.


Apparently the Medusans have miraculous navigational abilities in which the Federation is interested. Like a gimp magician, the Medusan is kept in a shiny box – Medusans are so ugly that no human may gaze upon one without going mad (much like David Copperfield). Bones twigs that his glamorous female assistant is actually blind and “sees” through “a sensor array hidden in her dress”, which seems almost like a metaphor for femininity. As a result of a male crew member being driven mad by jealousy for Dr Jones and hijacking the helm, the Enterprise gets very lost. Spock has to mind-meld with the Medusan (wearing natty pink goggles to protect his sanity) so that the ambassador can use his body to navigate the ship back to familiar space. Dr Jones has to be persuaded to consent – she is madly in love with the Medusan and insanely jealous of the notion of Spock’s intimacy with him.


All goes well and the Medusan via Spock’s helmsman skills pilots the Enterprise back to safety. Until that is the moment comes to restore the Medusan to his box. Spock forgets to put his pink goggles back on and goes mad. Cue truly frightening hysterical overacting by Nimoy, in wide-angle extreme distorting close-up. Dr Jones has to mind-meld with Spock to draw him back to sanity. Then Dr Jones finally gets to mind-meld with her boss. And everyone has a post-coital cigarette. (I made that last one up – no one smokes in the ST future.)


If I used more cocaine I could have founded an entirely new school of psychoanalysis on that one episode. “Oedipus Rex,” eat your eyes out. That was the greatness of Star Trek – at its best it was like an updated Greek drama for the TV generation. At its worst, well, it was still entertaining. Take “Spock’s Brain” from the dreaded, cash-starved third season, in which the science officer’s gray matter is stolen by some intergalactic sex kittens and a triumphant Bones uses an implant and a TV remote control to pilot a zombie Spock around.

The true measure of the original series’ brilliance is that it’s so immense and timeless that it almost makes up for the Trek-dreck that followed. Mercifully however, it seems that the Trek universe, which has been rapidly cooling since 1969, may finally be imploding. The new series, Enterprise, desperately escapes the p.c. present-future by returning to a low-tech, pre-Kirk past-future (with, appropriately enough, Scott Quantum Leap Bakula at the conn) in which men are men and are still permitted to captain spaceships by the seat of their pants. It’s something of a Home Improvements in space, though rather less popular.

Diminishing ratings for the first season of the new series, and protests by devout Trekkies at the cynical rewriting of Trek history to include opportunistic enemies such as the ‘Suliban’ may finally mean the end of that five-year mission that has lasted 35 years.

And I doubt that even cutting the jib of Bakula’s baggy trousers and persuading him to go commando will work. Let’s hope they don’t try.


Beckham the Virus (Goes To Hollywood)

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.

a_becks_festeja_htop.jpgBeckham 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.jpgBeckham 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-the-virus.jpgBecks 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 beckham-g.jpgmillions 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.


Gagging For It: The Penis in History

If Viagra has turned the penis into a ‘puncture-proof balloon’, does that mean it’s not funny any more? asks Mark Simpson

(First appeared in the Independent on Sunday, 2002)

INVESTIGATING THE PENIS can be an eye-watering business. Examining the urethra of an impotent young man, using a long nickel-plated probe called a ‘No 25 Explorer’, a 19th-century American urologist appropriately named Dr Gross wrote: “As soon as the instrument entered the passage it occasioned tremor and retraction of the testes… the muscles of the lids, nose and mouth twitched convulsively”. Finally, the patient “lost consciousness, his face livid”.

Well, yes – I think, under the circumstances, most of us chaps would be a bit narked. Mind you this patient doesn’t appear to have been deterred from returning to the good Doctor Gross to have blasts of hot and cold air sent down his urethra, a hot rubber plug jammed into his rectum and – hurrah! – our trusty friend No 25 Explorer reinserted, this time after being dipped in some cheeky corrosive chemicals.

Nowadays there are places where you can go and get this kind of thing for free, though usually you have to dress as one of the more intense members of the Village People to get in. Fortunately for those of us who are a little less venturesome, David M. Friedman’s examination of the penis and the, ahem, pointed role it has played in Western culture in A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis (Free Press), is a rather more agreeable – and useful – journey than Doctor Gross’s.

And of course, we all have an interest in the penis, don’t we? Er, or at least, we all have a position on it… Um, what I mean to say is… Oh, bollocks.

Well, you can see the problem with writing a book about the membrum virile: uninvited knob gags have a way of puncturing your carefully maintained hymen of seriousness.

Herein lies the strange and powerfully “fascinating” (derived from the Latin for a phallic charm) dichotomy of the penis: you can’t get any more serious and you can’t get any funnier. It’s ticklish and terrifying, titillating and tremendous all in one lunch-box. Commendably, Mr Friedman maintains an erudite and respectable tone in his book, and while he is occasionally at pains to let us know he has a sense of humour, he avoids cheap laughs. Unlike this reviewer.

The phallictastic journey begins with the Greeks, who as we know went “commando” in their gymnasia. However, the Greeks, hot as they were for the masculine body, considered exposing the glans the pinnacle of bad taste and would “infibulate” their John Thomases, drawing the foreskin forwards over the glans, and then tying it closed with string or clasping it shut with a circular safety-pin-like instrument. (It is not known if this was also indicative of a shortage of toilet facilities in Greek gymnasia.)

The Greeks disliked large members, considering only dainty ones desirable: “hung like a hummingbird” was a compliment. Aristotle gave this Tinymeat tendency a scientific basis, explaining that a small penis is better for conception because semen cools down in a large one, becoming “not generative”. And perhaps less appetising. Semen was considered by the Greeks as a vehicle for the transfer of arete: manly virtues such as courage, strength, fairness and honesty which a boy needed to grow into a man. As you’ve probably worked out, this theory meant that young Greek males had to spend a lot of time receiving ‘arete’ from older men.

Romans, on the other hand, were less versatile; they thought penetration always emasculating, and saw the penis as a sacrosanct weapon of the Roman State – glans is also Latin for ‘bullet’. When launched by slings, Roman bullets often had lurid inscriptions written on them comparing their use to acts of rape (reminiscent of the slogan “Take this, faggots!”, daubed on American bombs due to be dropped on the Taliban).

Populating the legions was also a duty of a Roman: Augustus Caesar penalised bachelors and rewarded fatherhood. Romans celebrated a son’s first ejaculation as part of a state holiday, the Liberalia. You can imagine the proud father: “Nice one, our kid! No, don’t put them in the washer – yer mam’s gonna show them to the neighbours and then frame them!”

The Christian “peter” was different. In fact, next to the rampant Roman pagan prick it was difficult to see it at all. The Kingdom was God’s, not Caesar’s; true freedom was freedom from lust. God’s only son was born of a virgin and remained one, and admired those men who would become “eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven”. Some, such as Origen, took him literally and castrated themselves. In the fourth century, Augustine’s rather exciting idea of the “demon rod” as the organ of corruption became the dominant influence on Western Christianity and Western culture, and perhaps the reason why there are so many homo priests today. After all, if one penis is sinful, two penises and twice as much semen must mean double the sin/fun.

Or perhaps it was because Jesus was the only person allowed a penis. Jesus’s organ – since it was never used and was the product of a penisless birth – was as holy as all others were damned. His foreskin or prepuce became a holy relic, so holy that there were thousands of them. Hence the taste test, a medieval version of the Pepsi Challenge: chewing the shrivelled leather to determine whether it was wholly or partly human. Saint Agnes imagined she was swallowing the Holy Prepuce at Communion (with no gag reflex).

In a classic case of projection, Christians accused Jews of ritual cannibalism – in part because of the ancient practice where a child’s freshly circumcised, bleeding penis was placed briefly in the Rabbi’s mouth. Of course, the use of the somewhat phallic word “projection” is another example of the humongous impact of the Jewish dentist Sigmund Freud and his very phallic theories of the Oedipus complex, castration anxiety and penis envy.

Perhaps it’s because I don’t believe that a cigar is ever just a cigar that I feel Friedman’s book really only reaches full tumescence in his chapter on Freud, who as far as Western culture is concerned, discovered the penis as surely as Cook discovered Australia. Actually, the penis, or at least the phallus, is Freud’s. Any book about the cultural history of the penis is de facto a history of Freud. He’s the daddy.

In an interesting passage, Friedman points out that Freud and Augustine, so far apart in other ways, meet on a crucial point: each recognised the psychic and historic potency of the penis. “For the Bishop of Hippo original sin is passed from one generation to the next by semen, and the punishment for Adam’s insult against God is erections we cannot control. For Freud the killing of the primal father and the sexual appropriation of the mother is passed on as the Oedipus complex, and the punishment is a civilisation which controls our erections.”

Oddly, one of the ways that modern civilisation has controlled our erections is to prescribe them to us. In his, he believes, literally final chapter on the history of the cultural signification of the penis, Friedman examines how Viagra has changed our relationship to it and the anxieties it produces, by turning it into a reliable thing: a “punctureproof balloon”. This is because, while Viagra is rather less fun than our old friend Explorer No 25, it does – unlike No.25 and almost all the other attempts to make the penis obedient – actually work.

The really bad news, I suspect, is that if the penis no longer has “a mind of its own” it might not be funny any more.

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