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‘Bare Thrills’ Strips Masculinity Down To Its Skidmarks

Maybe I suffer from what Freud described as man’s tendency to devalue what he desires, but I find anything touched by TV survivalist Bear Grylls’ calloused-but-manicured hands difficult to take too seriously.

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But taken seriously he most certainly has been by the UK media with his currently airing C4 reality show The Island, in which thirteen ‘ordinary men’ are marooned on a tropical island for a month to find out whether today’s softies can cut it as ‘hunter gatherer’ butch Bear Grylls types. Nothing very much happens – the Gryllsettes grow beards, lose some pounds, drink a lot of boiled stagnant water, get bitten by sand-flies, and fall out with one another and then back in again. Like Big Brother but more boring.

Though given the column inches devoted to this show you’d think Grylls was some kind of sociologist, anthropologist and cultural seer. Rather than an outdoor cabaret artist with properly hydrated skin and really nice eyes.

So I hesitate to add to C4’s already bulging folder of press cuttings about Grylls’ sweaty island, but the Channel’s Chief Creative Officer Jay Hunt’s defence of the show’s decision not to include women last week was such a wonderfully serious and altogether inadvertent admission of where the actual ‘sexism’ of the show lies that it’s impossible to resist.

Hunt defended her reality show from the straw woman argument, aired widely in the media recently by female survival experts, that it was sexist because it excluded women from the island by reiterating the comically prejudiced premise of the reality show: that it was intended as a ‘real test of modern masculinity’. She went on:

‘Let’s be honest, what better way of finding out what British men were REALLY made of than leaving them to fend for themselves in a frighteningly tropical environment.’

Yes, let’s be honest. Real men don’t eat quiche, but creepy crawlies. Real masculinity is about being deprived of all culture and civilization and potable water. Real masculinity is all about tropical skid marks.

Bear-Grylls Island

Women are excluded from the delights of the island not because Ms Hunt didn’t think women would be able to cope, but because doing so would have got in the way of the stereotype that men are ‘really’ savages. Or ‘hunter gatherers’ as she likes to describe them. The show is not about finding out what people are REALLY made of – but today’s men. Because we already know what men should be made of. It’s not sexist, in other words, because its sexism is directed towards chaps. Any sexism towards ladies is just unintended blowback.

In fact this kind of brutish reductiveness about men applied to women by C4 would have brought a much bigger backlash than the one prompted by disgruntled female survival experts. It would have cost Hunt her job. Can you imagine the outcry, for instance, over a reality TV show which announced that it aimed to find out what British women, as a sex, were REALLY made of – by locking them in the kitchen? Or Mothercare?

Any attempt to talk about REAL and ESSENTIAL femininity – let alone applying some contrived ‘test’ of it – is generally held up to fierce criticism these days, now that women are, rather wonderfully, encouraged to believe they can be anything they want to be. Including Chief Creative Officers at C4 – commissioning shows about REAL and ESSENTIAL masculinity. ‘Women are every bit as cut out for this survivalist stuff as men,’ says Ms Hunt. ‘Women are stronger, more independent and more self-reliant than they have ever been.’

Quite so. But while women can be much more than submissive Janes nowadays, men are apparently still supposed to be forever anxiously comparing themselves to some mythical Tarzan that never existed. And if you doubt it never really existed, take a look at Mr Grylls, who is the most absurd and unbelievable confection of a human being imaginable. A survival porn star.

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In an introduction to the series, in which Bare Thrills has, very unusually, kept most of his clothes on, he opined: “I want to find out what happens if you strip man of all the luxuries and conveniences of modern living and then force him to fight for his existence.” By ‘man’ here Grylls means, as Ms Hunt has explained, not humans, but ‘men’.

The presentation of the series as some ‘real test of modern masculinity’ is, ‘naturally’, completely bogus even by the cranky standards of reality TV ‘experiments’. You could have taken any group of unprepared British men of the last hundred years or so and dropped them in a tropical mangrove swamp equipped with nothing but some garden string, Elastoplasts and hand-held TV cameras with much the same results. (Though it turns out that some of the contestants, and indeed the island itself, weren’t so unprepared after all. But hey, that’s show business.)

But the underlying premise that masculinity has to be ‘tested’, to be proved ‘real’, is what shows up the, ahem, rigid expectations we can still have of men compared to women, even on groovy C4. This is why Grylls, picking up on media chatter of the last year, has talked repeatedly about his show being about today’s ‘crisis of masculinity’.

That phrase is, like Grylls’ show, now much more of a problem than the one it purports to describe. As I’ve written elsewhere, when people talk about a ‘crisis of masculinity’ these days they’re usually talking about their own – in dealing with the fact that modern masculinity isn’t what they want or expect it to be. Particularly when working class chaps aren’t what middle class chaps like Chief Scout Grylls (educated at Eton ) want them to be.

And has anyone noticed how no one ever seems to talk about a ‘crisis of femininity’?

Older men may miss some of the masculine certainties of their youth, but most of today’s ‘soft’ young men seem very glad indeed that they’re not banished to the desert island of ascetic old skool masculinity their fathers and grandfathers were. Unless of course it gets them on telly.

Whatever people’s intentions in invoking it, and whatever value it may have had back in the 80s and 90s when male roles really began to change, post Thatcherite-Reaganite crash consumerism and de-industrialization, the concept of a ‘crisis of masculinity’ all these years of change later merely perpetuates the notion that masculinity is one phallic thing only, and that thing needs to be kept up, and ‘hard’. Otherwise we’ll all have a nervous breakdown. And not catch any fish.

In the end, for all the pretentious and possibly sexist claims made for it, everyone knows that The Island is really just entertainment and voyeurism. But it’s cheering to think that the use of the ‘crisis of masculinity’ to sell Bare Thrills’ latest instalment of survival porn may finally do for the phrase.

Let’s leave its meagre carcass on the island, picked clean of what little, stringy meat it ever had on it.

Bear Grylls mud bath

Polymorphous Perversity & One Direction Fandom

Fame, fame, fatal fame. It can play hideous tricks on the brain.

Last week C4 aired Crazy About One Direction a documentary about ‘Directioners’, febrile fans of the globally – some would say criminally – successful reality TV assembled UK boy band One Direction, or ‘1D’ if you’re typing with your thumbs.

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They were all teenage girls. Now, I’m sure there are male Directioners out there (and that would make for an interesting doc in itself), but I reckon many of them would turn out to be quite a bit older than teenagers. In fact, I might be a male fan of 1D – if quite liking ‘What Makes You Beautiful’ and thinking the blond one would make a cute car dashboard gonk counts.

But of course, ‘quite liking’ doesn’t count. At all. Timed to cash in on the cash-in release of This Is Us their remarkably boring-looking band movie this was a TV doc about OMG!!! LOVING!!!!!! 1D. About crayzee teen girl fandom, with beating hearts hovering sweetly, expectantly, menacingly over ‘i’s. About extravagant professions of undying, breathless, pitiless devotion for people you’ve never met – along with not entirely serious threats to top yourself or lop off limbs if they don’t acknowledge you. And hanging around the arse-end of concert stadia for hours and hours on the off-chance of screaming at a blacked out minivan which may or may not contain a member of 1D accelerating away from you.

Not to forget playing all this up for the cameras – something teen girl pop fans have been wise to for generations: e.g. that immortal, always-recycled clip of a girl outside a David Bowie concert in the 1970s sobbing gently and completely unconvincingly to camera about not getting to meet Ziggy – and, when she spots the camera’s attention wandering towards other fans, suddenly crying MUCH LOUDER.

So far, so Bay City Rollers. This doc’s main update on this now very familiar trope seemed to be that thanks to social networking fans can now monitor their idols constantly on Twitter, searching endlessly for clues as to their whereabouts and feeding their imaginary relationship with them. But watching teen girls watching their idols’ Twitter feed waiting impatiently for the next status update which may or may not be posted by a member of Simon Cowell’s PR team isn’t exactly great TV.

1DDemented as this kind of fandom may seem in its main professed hope – that the beloved will love you back or even notice you – it isn’t perhaps quite as irrational as it seems. After all, this unreality really brings fans together.

Much was made in the doc of the fact that most of the girls interviewed don’t have boyfriends. But it didn’t bother mentioning the fact that they do have girlfriends. Lots and lots of girlfriends. Who all want to have Harry Styles as their boyfriend. Or at least, enjoy thinking they do. But, of course, the chances of this desire ever being put to the test are rather slim. So everything remains endlessly, exquisitely unconsummated. It’s the perfect romance, really. And it’s part of 1D’s job description to remain always (or for a couple of years or so) available for the fans’ endless yearning – and pursuit. 1D are electric hares at a musical greyhound track run by Simon Cowell, but with fussier hair.

So the fans may or may not be single but are far from lonely because they have everything in common with one another, with the ‘pack’ – shared excitement yes, but most especially delicious disappointment, which is after all what pop music is all about. Though, to be fair, the look on the face of one of the girls when another fan was proudly showing off phone pics of her smugly beaming face next to various indulgent over-moussed 1D chaps accosted in some hotel reception was not exactly what you’d call sisterly. (And the DIE BITCH! tweets some 1D fans like to send to girlfriends of band members,or bomb threats sent to magazines that run interviews with the band they disapprove of, definitely aren’t.)

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The fun of being girls together asserting an active, quite possibly aggressive sexual interest in pretty, pouting, packaged, passive boys is something I encountered full-frontal way back in 1994 when I wrote a piece about Manchester boy band Take That playing Wembley Arena at the height of the teen feeding frenzy surrounding the grinning Manc lads in leather harnesses. I spoke to a group of rambunctious girls (and a mum or two) who’d come down from the North to lust after the boys. I asked them who their favourite was:

“HOWARD!” “ROBBIE!” “MARK!” “JASON!” they all scream at once. “Mark’s brill ‘cos ‘e’s so short an’ sweet an’ lovely an’ ‘e looks like you could do anything you like to ‘im!” “Howards’ ace ‘cos ‘e’s got pecs, and ‘cos ‘e’s got a BIG PACKAGE ‘e’s REALLY, REALLY, WELL-ENDOWED!!” How do you know? “You can’t miss it when ‘e comes on stage!!” says Lucy. “It just about pokes yer eye out!,” adds Lucy’s Mum, helpfully. Pardon me, but didn’t The Sun tell us recently that mums were shocked by the new saucy TT show? “I am shocked,” she admits. “I expected them to get their kit off!!”’

As another pretty boy bander from Manchester who knows a few things about fandom and gender reversal (and most of whose fans were male) put it: She wants it Now and she will not wait, but she’s too rough and I’m too delicate…. It’s a sobering thought that the women having the time of their life at the Take That gig nearly twenty years ago and baying for Howard’s BIG PACKAGE would be the mothers and grandmothers of today’s 1D fans.

Which brings us back, I’m sure you’ll be glad to hear, to bumming. By far the most memorable section of Crazy About One Direction and the part that caused the most controversy examined the phenomenon of ‘Larry shippers’, 1D fans who fantasise about a relationship between Louis Tomlinson and Harry Styles writing passionately romantic or outright erotic stories, complete with eye-popping illustrations. Harry Tomlinson, the beast with two very shapely backs. One Direction fans can be very polymorphously perverse.

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 ‘Shipping’ seems to be an update on ‘slashing’ – the long-established fanfic tradition of women writing storylines for one another that bring male celebs or fictional characters together for their enjoyment: e.g. Spock/Kirk, Starsky/Hutch, Sam/Frodo finally gloriously consummating, if you like, or even if you don’t like, a hidden subtext. And yet this was the part of the documentary that was generally seen as most ‘bizarre’. C4 played up to this with a slightly sniffy voiceover that introduced shipping Larry with the line ‘…and they have funny ways of showing their love.’

What’s really ‘funny’ is that manlove for ladies, the female version of men’s enjoyment of woman-on-woman fantasy, is as old as pop music. From The Beatles to The Bay City Rollers to Wham to Take That boy bands have slyly exploited the girlish fantasy of cute, coiffed boys who live together and out of one another’s fashionably-styled pockets, usually supervised by a gay male father figure/manager. Boy bands are a kind of gay porn for girls. Wham were explicitly told by their manager Simon Napier Bell to flirt with one another on stage to get the girls hot (advice that George Michael seems to have taken to heart). Take That took things a be-thonged step further and were test-marketed on gay men before being offered, with their heads resting on one another’s shoulders – no doubt exhausted after all that dancing around and slapping their arses on stage – to teen girls.

Twenty years on it’s not necessary to test market a boy band on The Gays any more. Everyone seems to know the formula. How to do ‘gayness’. Including of course the boys themselves, whose tenderness and physical affection for one another is much more ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ for their metrosexualised generation than it was for the Take That one. Thanks, in part, to Take That.

You could argue that the Larry shippers are only joining the dots that have already been drawn – very close together – by 1D’s management and the whole history of boy bands. As one girl put it, “I think the management secretly love Larry.”

Though admittedly some of the Larry shippers/slashers are a trifle over-zealous, insisting that Louis and Harry REALLY ARE, LIKE, TOTALLY!!! shagging one another’s brains out non-stop and that any girlfriends that come along are JUST A DIVERSION, SHEEPLE!!! As one fan put it in the doc, “A lot of the fans wouldn’t be so jealous if they had a boyfriend instead of a girlfriend.” Or perhaps it’s better to find a way of believing that the doll-like boys are, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, sticking to your storyline – rather than following their own.

But what’s really ‘crazy’ is the way so many people have failed to see and hear the literally screaming evidence of the gravitational pull of manlove for ladies and the voyeuristic, highly kinky ‘female gaze’ powering it.

A few years ago a UK TV producer friend of mine tried vainly to pitch a documentary proposal we’d put together about women’s interest in man-on-man action and the huge but largely unspoken role it had played in shaping a lot of pop culture. Apparently the response was always the same: bafflement. Followed by a certain amount of unease. Followed swiftly by total and no doubt highly reassuring scepticism that such a phenomenon existed at all.

Oh, but it does. It really does, guys. Like, TOTALLY!!!

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