The next time someone tries to convince me that Pitt is ‘a really great actor, actually’ I’ll just throw my eyes around the room in a casually-but-profoundly dramatic fashion before fixing them on the Fight Club fanboy – and it always is a Fight Club fanboy – and saying: “THERE you ARE!”
I don’t mean to be bitchy, but… Ab Pitt seems to have all the neuroses of a Marilyn Monroe about being thought a dumb blond, but little or none of the talent. It’s not the fact this Big Movie Star has done an ad like this at all, or even the bathetic horror of the script – par to the course in perfume ads – it’s the way he delivers this stinky stuff like it was a Shakespearean soliloquy. We’re laughing at it because we know it will hurt.
Though of course, we’re just jealous. I certainly am. Brad is being so earnest and romantico not because he’s addressing you or me or Angelina Jolie, but his reportedly $7M cheque for the 30 second spot – which I suspect the director has taped to the camera.
At the height of her fame method-actress Marilyn was paid only $100,000 plus 10% of profits for the feature-length classic movie: Some Like It Hot. And I rather doubt she received a fee at all for her own posthumous Chanel No.5 ad.
The real significance of Brad’s ad of course is that Pitt is the first man to advertise the woman’s fragrance Chanel No.5 – which hitherto has been plugged only by leading examples of the ‘fairer sex’. Leading man Brad has stepped into a role previously occupied by leading ladies.
This though is very familiar territory though for Brad. Often described as ‘the most beautiful man in the world’ – i.e. the most objectified – he did after all play both Achilles and Helen in the movie Troy. He has the abs that launched a thousand sit-ups. And this former model’s own movie career was launched by playing a toyboy picked up and ravished by an older Geena Davis in Thelma and Louise (1991), a movie which itself famously reversed the gender roles of the buddy road movie.
Pitt also played, you may remember, the highly, er, aesthetic leader of a bogus revolt against metrosexuality and consumerism in Fight Club.
Oh, and by the way. Pitt is 48 years old. Which makes him even older than me. But in the Chanel ad, even with his gray beard and (electronically altered?) gravelly voice, Dorian Pitt seems no older than about 27 – the same age he was when we first met him in Thelma & Louise. In fact, he looks like a 27-year-old with a stick-on beard pretending to be 48.
As he puts it himself:
“It’s not a journey. Every journey ends. But we go on.”
A survey released just before Brad’s Bad Marilyn moment appears to confirm the continuing, endless trend for men appropriating previously feminine preserves that has been going on since at least the 1990s, and which Pitt, whether he wants to or not, has often exemplified – and encouraged. “The world turns and we turn with it.”
The fashion and beauty spending poll (commissioned by online casino RoxyPalace.com) asked 1000 UK men and women how much they spent on clothes and cosmetic products. The findings showed, they said, that ‘men are fast catching up with women’.
Women average £2,462 p.a.; men £1,786 (£50 less a month than women).
Men and women in London are the most extravagant, and also the closest to one another in expenditure, with women spending c. £2,700 a year; men £2,350, £29 per month less than women.
Unsurprisingly, other metropolitan areas such as Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle and Liverpool also showed above-average rates of spending.
A man who took part in the survey says: ‘I can remember my dad’s cosmetic shelf consisted of a bar of soap and a bottle of Old Spice but I have a cabinet full of products.’
A woman says: ‘I have been shopping with my boyfriend before and on occasions he has been known to spend more than me on hair products. I don’t think men spending more money on clothes and cosmetics is a bad thing. It’s always attractive for someone to take pride on their appearance.’
Again, nothing very new here (and the quotes do sound a tad hackneyed). Just, further evidence that despite the recession the ‘trend’ of metrosexuality has hardened into an epoch – that nevertheless some are still in terrible denial about.
A spokesperson for RoxyPalace.com concluded:
‘It’s becoming increasingly acceptable for men to use cosmetic treatments. Even macho film stars are advertising skin cream, and whilst it would be difficult to imagine a world where guys spent more money on looking good than women do, but who knows where the age of metrosexuality will lead us?’
I imagine when he mentioned ‘macho film stars’ he had in mind Gerard Butler as the bearded face of L’Oreal, not Brad Pitt. But in regard to his last poser, it’s not entirely impossible that for younger people living in metropolitan areas, that world may have already been delivered by metrosexuality. Or very nearly.
These days, working out is often at least as important a way of ‘looking good’ for males as fashionable clothes and cosmetics – but isn’t covered in the survey. In fact, many men invest more heavily in their bodies than in their wardrobe – which tends to be rather skimpy…. And generally it seems men are more into working on their bodies to ‘look good’ than women are.
So if you were to factor in average spends on gym membership, fitness equipment, and particularly sports supplements such as creatine and protein drinks (a booming market), the gap between men and women’s average spend on ‘vanity’ might shrink again. Currently the gap between male and female spending on ‘looking good’ is reportedly only £29/month in London. That’s less than most monthly gym memberships.
£29 also happens to be about the price of a yearly subscription to the best-selling men’s magazine, Men’s Health. The November UK issue of which carries the results of another survey, this one studying MH readers’ favourite subject: themselves.
One of the questions asked readers who had their ideal body. The answers were:
Tom Hardy 42%.
Cristiano Ronaldo 32%.
David Beckham 26%.
Somewhere David Beckham is crying into his low-carb lunch. Interesting to note though that Brad Pitt doesn’t make the list at all, when once he would probably have dominated it – after all, Men’s Health has built a global empire out of modern man’s yen to have abs – and thus be worthy of love. And abs didn’t exist, remember, until Brad Pitt invented them in the 1990s.
Perhaps though Brad is relieved to be out of the running. Or maybe he’s relieved and heartbroken.
Tom Hardy, the Brit Brando with the voluptuous pecs and the pouty lips, seems to have won the hearts of Men’s Health readers. I don’t blame them. And I suspect Tom’ doesn’t either. Probably they were seduced by his body in Warrior and his motto in Inception: “Don’t be afraid to dream a little bigger darling”. Actually, in a better world that would be the motto of Men’s Health magazine.
Interesting that a third would want a body like Ronaldo’s – despite Ronaldo’s official designation in the UK as Most Hated Footballer. It rather confirms my suspicion that us Brits are just jealous of him.
It does seem a little odd though that there are only three men in the whole world whose bodies Men’s Health readers want/aspire to – and nearly half of them want just one body in particular. (There’s no indication of whether they were given a multiple choice or just came up with the names themselves.)
Other findings include:
37% of MH readers spend 4-6 hours in the gym a week – while 30% spend more than six hours there.
46% want to improve their abs. 42% their upper body, and 12% lower body.
Chicken legs, in other words, are de rigeur with MH readers.
You know how everyone complains that the best bits of a movie are in the trailer these days? Well, in the case of the new super-hero blockbuster Captain America the ONLY bits are in the trailer.
But WHAT bits they are! At around c. 1.40 mins Chris Evans’ oiled bazookas burst out of the instant stud machine he’s been strapped into by the German-Jewish Frank-N-furter. Everyone’s jaw in the lab slaps the floor as the camera trolleys in for a worshipful close-up on those shiny, massive melons.
Injected with gallons of steroids and popped in the gimp microwave the skinny nerd’s buns have risen, transforming him, not into an ultimate fighting machine but into the ultimate Men’s Health cover model. And in just a few moments instead of the several months it usually takes everyone else using gear — or the seven days that Charles Atlas promised. Isn’t this every boy’s metrosexy dream come true?
So I eagerly coughed up £8 to see more of his super tits last night. But I was robbed. Turns out that this is the only time Evans’ gets his tits out in the whole movie. What a con! What a TEASE!
What’s more, this scene comes very early on in the film, and is its climax — in every way. Unfortunately, there’s another hour or two to go, in which our hero tediously battles the evil Nazi bad guy, fully-clothed — and wearing that daft helmet. Desperately trying to prove he’s not, as Tommy Lee Jones’ hard-bitten old Colonel character dismisses him after he has done one too many propaganda shows, a ‘chorus girl’.
But he so IS a chorus girl. No one went to see Captain America because they wanted to see him throwing his stupid bouncing dustbin lid around (has there ever been a more rubbish super-power? Or a camper one?) Male, female, gay, straight, young, old, animal and vegetable they ALL went to see his TITS.
And I’m not even mentioning the terrible script, total lack of any plot – or credibility – the completely lifeless direction, and the terrible acting (Evans’ body may have been injected with steroids but his face seems to have been injected with Novocaine). It is, after all, a super-hero movie.
Towards the end of this very long, very disappointing, very chaste movie date, Nick Fury played by Samuel L. Jackson in a dashing eye-patch, tells a defrosted Evans running around Times Square (finally levered into a nice tight t-shirt — but it’s much too little much too late): ‘You’ve been asleep for 70 years, Cap’n.’
‘YES!’ I felt like shouting at the screen in my local cinema, ‘AND SO HAVE WE!!’
I jest of course. The staff at Men’s Healthwish they looked like that.
Even if I’m sure quite a few of them dance like that — when the readers can’t see them (Don’t Ask Don’t Tell may be about to be repealed in the US Armed Forces, but not any time soon at Men’s Health publisher Rodale Inc.).
The topless, somewhat top-heavy chaps miming to Kylie in the vid are actually models from a gay porn outfit. The clip is called ‘A Tribute to Kylie’ – but should probably be called ‘A Tribute to My Tits’.
Then again, lots of things today should probably be called that, including Men’s Health, Strictly Come Dancing, and Mikey Sorrentino’s wannabe narcissists’ self-help book, Here’s the Situation.
Get outta their way!
Especially now that narcissism is officially no longer a mental illness. Earlier this month it was announced that the next edition of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual, the bible of therapists and psychiatrists, would no longer include narcissism in its list of personality disorders.
It’s official. Men’s tits are now more popular than women’s. With men.
Men’s Health, the metromag with the pec-fest, ab-tastic covers is now the best-selling men’s magazine in the UK, selling more than 250,000, compared to 235,000 for previous best-seller so-called ‘lad mag’ FHM with its famous cover babes sporting udders almost as big as those of Men’s Health models.
The truth is of course is that FHM is as much a metromag as Men’s Health (or ‘Men’s Hypochondria’ as I like to call it). It just used the ‘lad mag’ tits-and-booze formula as a beard for its metrosexuality. When it was attacked by female journalists for being ‘sexist’ FHM’s publishers secretly cheered because this meant that these mass-circulation magazines peddling male vanity, fashion and self-consciousness might be mistaken for something traditional.
The real money shot in FHM — and the reason for its very existence — was never the ‘High Street Honey’ spreads but rather the pages and pages of glossy ‘high-value’ ads featuring pretty male models in various states of designer undress.
But fifteen years on from the launch of the first ‘lad mag’ – and also fifteen years on from my first use of the word ‘metrosexual’ in an article for the Independent which predicted that male vanity was ‘the most promising market of the decade‘ – the moisturised future has arrived. A generation of young men have grown up with metrosexuality, see it as ‘normal’ – and don’t need the hysterical heterosexuality of lad mags.
In a sense, lads mags have done what they were invented to do: metrosexualize men on the sly. So they aren’t really needed any more. And arguably, post YouTube/iPhone, magazines in general aren’t needed any more either.
Men’s Health by contrast was always the most nakedly metro of the metromags – and as a result of those covers the most openly narcissistic and homoerotic. In a post metro world, men are most interested in themselves — and can download hardcore porn 24-7. So they choose the lifestyles mag that puts men’s (shaded) tits and abs on the cover, rather than hiding behind women’s. (In one issue earlier this year, having nothing better to do on a train journey, I counted 73 male nipples and 4 female ones, the latter partly obscured by ‘superfoods’).
But no revolution is ever complete. And everything is relative. Precisely because everyone knows what it is, Men’s Health are still trying convince you that none of their readers are gay or bisexual — or even metrosexual. Instead the deputy editor reassures The London Times all their readers ‘have kids or want to have kids’, and and are ‘heteropolitan’ — an uptight marketing inversion of the word ‘metrosexual’, with HETERO in place of anything ambiguous and with that dangerous ‘sexual’ part surgically removed.
As I noted a couple of years ago in a piece lampooning their prissy denial, I suspect that most of even their straight readers (and most of their readers are probably straight – just not very narrow) are way ahead of them. But then, marketing tends to be instinctively dishonest even if there’s no particular reason to be any more.
Whatever, I think it will be a while before male homoerotics and steroids, those unspoken staples of every single issue of Mens Health, get a strapline on the cover — even if female-on-male strap-on sex apparently already has (see the cover picture at top).
By the way, a similar trend has emerged in Australia, with MH also outselling FHM down under. This recent piece in The Age, complete with rather amusing mock-up of what a men’s mag might look like in the not-too-distant future (which I thought for a moment was an publication currently available), provides a rather better analysis of what’s going on than much of what appeared in the UK press.
Shame then that The Age, along with its sister publication The Sydney Morning Herald, ‘borrowed heavily’ from — or in Australian: plagiarised — my 2002 Salon essay ‘Meet the metrosexual’ for a feature it ran in 2003 called ‘The rise of the metrosexual’ — with no mention of me or my Salon essay they thieved from. I’ve yet to receive an apology.
I suspect I’ll get a column in Men’s Health before I do.
The first time I saw a Tom of Finland drawing was in a well-thumbed, seventh-hand issue of Fiesta, a top-shelf favourite of schoolboys in the 1970s. The image, buried at the back, was in a small ad for more “specialised” publications, probably missed by most of my schoolchums who had thumbed the issue before me. But it jumped out at me like an outsized erection.
It depicted a pair of muscular butch young men with big chins and broad grins grabbing each other’s bubble butts and straining packets while winking at the reader. I immediately rushed out to the post office to buy as many postal orders as my pocket money would allow.
Although I was sorely disappointed with the ‘Biker Boy’ lame leather fetish magazine – with no Tom of Finland drawings – that eventually turned up, I have spent much of my adult life and a fortune on gym membership fairly ‘fruitlessly’ trying to recreate that Tom of Finland image that I glimpsed as a teen.
I needn’t have bothered, however, because as it turned out the whole world was going to become a Tom of Finland drawing. His sensualised, cartoonish über-male body and its endless potential for pleasure and pleasuring has become commonplace. Think of the rugby player Austin Healey pulsating on BBC One’s Strictly Come Dancing in tight pants and a sleeveless top. Or all those footballers keen to strip off and show us their assets on the sides of buses.
The notes for artist retrospectives usually make extravagant claims, and those for a major retrospective of Tom of Finland in Liverpool, part of that city’s annual Homotopia queer culture festival, make some very extravagant ones indeed: “Tom had an effect on global culture unmatched by that of virtually any other artist,” we are told. But for once, there’s something to this hyperbole, despite the artistic merit of his work being very debatable.
Tom was born Touko Laaksonen in Kaarina, Finland, in 1920 and his work is literally the masturbatory fantasies of a lonely young homosexual Finnish boy – he began drawing in his locked bedroom in the 1940s, pencil in one hand, penis in the other. His fetishised, overobserved, long-distance gay appropriation of masculinity has in a mediated, long-distance world become… masculinity.
It’s often said that Tom’s greatest achievement was in drawing gay men who were masculine, happy and proud at a time when they were supposed to be effeminate, neurotic and shameful. This is certainly the reason why so many gay men are Tom devotees, wittingly or not. Today’s gay porn is merely filthy footnotes to Tom, endlessly replaying the narrative of “regular guys” with very irregular-sized penises and pectorals having spontaneous, shameless sex at the drop of a monkey wrench. (And it’s entirely apt that one of the sponsors of this retrospective is Gaydar, the gay ‘dating’ site where gay men post Tom-ish pictures of themselves looking for other Tom-ish men to have Tom-ish sex with.)
However, the out-and-proud gay biker look – identity even – that Tom perfected after seeing Marlon Brando in The Wild One (Brando was a Tom drawing in 3D) and which became so popular in the pre-Aids 1970s and early 1980s, reaching its peak with the climactic success of the Liverpool band Frankie Goes to Hollywood, has become a dated cliché. See, for example, the tangoing, mustachioed leather men in the Blue Oyster basement bar in Police Academy – and few if any young gay men today aspire to it.
But when you look at Tom’s drawings in this retrospective, which features 25 of his works in the basement (predictably) of the Contemporary Urban Centre in Liverpool, it becomes apparent that his achievement goes much further than just making gay men feel good about themselves or love the snugness of leather harnesses. Tom, who worked as an illustrator in the Finnish advertising business until the early 1970s, when he became a full-time gay propagandist, sold the male body as a pleased, pleasuring and pleasured thing several decades before Calvin Klein thought of it. In the middle of the 20th century, Tom was effectively sketching the blueprint of 21st-century man. And boy, was he blue.
Before Tom almost no one drew men like he did, making them such unabashed sex objects and sex subjects, giving them such exaggerated male secondary – and primary! – sexual characteristics: big chins, strong jaws, full lips. Masculinity, and virility end up looking so… nurturing. Buxom. Busty. Tom’s men have round firm breasts, saucer-like aureolas and nipples you can adjust your thermostat with. One (from 1962) struts down the street, biceps bulging, chest literally bursting out of his shirt, and dressing very much to the left: no wonder he’s being followed.
His saucy curvaceousness a testament to the way in which aestheticised hyper-masculinity is oddly androgyne. And while Tom’s men may have had their tits out for the lads, the kind of Tom-ish male body he helped to invent is nowadays getting them out for lads and lasses, gay or straight, online or in real time.
Likewise Tom’s drawings also reveal the male derrière as a sexual organ: not just in some of the more hardcore examples, but the way that Tom-ish buttocks are so spherical, so sensual, so inviting. One of the most striking and prescient sketches, from 1981, is also one of the tamest: a row of bedenimed male bubble butts sticking out at a bar – awaiting perhaps the attentions of the hugely powerful Abercrombie & Fitch photographer Bruce Weber (a big Tom fan), or perhaps the vaselined, wide-angled lens of a Levi’s commercial.
Tom’s big break came in the 1950s from Physique Pictorial, an underground, semi-legal gay American fanzine disguised as a straight men’s bodybuilding magazine, which frequently put Tom’s men on the cover. Half a century later, and 17 years after his death in 1991, the world is inverted: flesh-and-blood men who look like Tom’s drawings appear on the cover of bestselling corporate mags such as Men’s Health. Flick one open, and you’ll find it full of advice on how straight men can turn themselves into something Tom-ish.
POSTSCRIPT Feb 2011
Compare the 1960s Tom of Finland sketch of the pneumatic young man swaggering/sashaying down the street at the top of this essay, with the one below of 21st Century Jersey Shore star Mikey ‘The Situation’ Sorrentino (Mikey’s face isn’t quite the Tom-ish ideal, but boy, his tits and abs are):
‘What other culture could have produced someone like Ernest Hemingway,’ waspish bisexual American exile Gore Vidal once asked of America’s favourite so-butch-he’s-camp writer, ‘and not seen the joke?’. The answer, was, of course, that only a culture that couldn’t see the joke could produce a Hemingway.
I don’t know whether Matt Lucas and David Walliams read Vidal or Hemingway, but in Little Britain USA, the recently launched HBO spin-off of their hit UK TV comedy sketch series (which is also airing on BBC1), they seem to be posing that question again – though this time the answer has some bearing on the likelihood of Stateside success of their show. In Little Britain USA ‘Our Boys’ (as a cheer-leading UK media seem to have tagged the camp duo) have put their probing finger on one of the most ticklish fault-lines of US culture: how ‘gay’ big butch God-fearing America can seem – and how comically in denial of this Americans can be.
There certainly seems to be a bit of Hemingway, who loved his guns, in the moustachioed cop (played by Walliams) who gets a visible hard-on while demonstrating his impressive collection of weapons to his fellow officers. But it’s in the steroid-scary shape of the towel-snapping ‘Gym Buddies’, Tom and Mark, who like to take long showers together after pumping iron, and graphically re-enacting what they did to the ‘pussy’ they pulled last night – with each other’s huge latex bubble-butts and tiny penises – that the so-butch-it’s-camp not-so-hidden secret of American culture is graphically outed by Little Britain USA.
Along with pathological denial. In last week’s episode, when an alarmed bystander glances nervously at them humping naked in the locker room they retort: ‘Whaddyou lookin at? Are you A FAG??’ Walliams, who is so camp he’s almost butch (a ladies’ man off-screen he has been described repeatedly by the UK press as ‘the ultimate metrosexual’), seems especially proud of the Gym Buddies sketch – describing it as ‘possibly the most outrageous we’ve ever done’. Certainly it’s drawn most fire from critics in the US, who have given the series very mixed reviews.
Lucas and Walliam’s gleefully amoral queer sensibility – they’re basically drag queens on a revenge trip, especially when they dress up as men – was always going to be difficult for America to swallow. But touching Uncle Sam up in the locker room may well make it a lot harder… er, I mean, more difficult. America, even that part of it that watches HBO, may not want to get that joke. Especially when made by a couple of faggy Brits. And by the way, while we over here might think American butchness tres gay – e.g. the locker-room and volley-ball scenes in Top Gun – all Europeans look ‘faggy’ to Americans, especially us Brits. The sketch featuring Walliams as a flaming Brit Prime Minister trying to get into the straight black US President’s pants probably won’t offend as much as Walliams hopes since most Americans thought Tony Blair was gay anyway.
Rather sweetly, compared to the UK, America is a country where masculinity and machismo is still sacred – despite having done more than any other country to make it obsolete by inventing men’s shopping magazines. In the US of A, it seems, anything masculine can’t be gay and vice versa. Hence Hummersexual Tom and Mark. Hence ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’. And hence all that fuss the US made over that mediocre gay cowboy movie Brokeback Mountain which, when it arrived in the UK, promptly bored everyone senseless.
America’s love of the masculine body, is gloriously ‘gay’ – or, more accurately, homoerotic. But alas, until now Uncle Sam has been terribly ashamed of his natural, red-blooded and blatantly bloody obvious bi-responsiveness.
Only America, God Bless, could have produced UFC, a hugely popular pay-per-view ‘full-contact-sport’ that involves two young muscled men in shorts trying to get each other’s legs around their ears (Tom and Mark probably watch it together – in their UFC shorts). Only America could produce a best-selling men’s workout magazine like Men’s Health, put men’s pumped tits and abs on the cover every month and strenuously maintain the pretence that none of its readers are gay or bisexual – or even metrosexual. Only America could produce a film like last year’s ‘300′, essentially a toga-themed Chippendale flick for teen boys – but because it was made for American teen boys its denial was even more preposterous than its pectorals: the baddie had to be a big black club queen in a spangly Speedo.
Mind you, ‘300′ had at least one virtue, albeit unintentional: it was rather funnier than Little Britain USA. Perhaps the biggest problem Walliams and Lucas face in ramming their sensibility down Uncle Sam’s throat isn’t America’s gay denial or gagging reluctance to see the camp joke, but simply the fact that, on the basis of the first couple of shows, their American ‘outing’just isn’t very funny.
According to yesterday’s The Sunday Times, the so-called ‘laddish’ culture promoted by men’s magazines has spawned a new medical condition: ‘athletica nervosa’, or an obsession with exercise:
New research shows that the magazines, whose titillating displays of female flesh were meant to liberate their readers from political correctness, may be trapping them into an unhealthy obsession with their own bodies.
Rather than, presumably, a healthy obsession with women’s bodies.
Some readers become so anxious about their own physique that they embark on excessive exercise, spending hours running, swimming or in the gym. Athletica nervosa is already known to affect young women, but this is thought to be the first British study to link the phenomenon to men.
The piece, headlined ‘Lads’ mags inflict preening curse’, quotes David Giles, a psychologist at Winchester University, who co-wrote the research, saying: “We found that the more such magazines a man reads the more likely he is to be anxious about his physique.” The study carried out interviews and surveys of 161 men aged 18-36 to find out how many lads’ mags they read and for how long. They also scored them for dietary habits, exercise regimes and attitudes towards appearance.
“Men who read the most lads’ mags seemed to internalise the appearance ideals portrayed by them,” said Giles. “Models in these magazines are impossibly good-looking and seeing them can make readers anxious about their own bodies.”
Really? You don’t say.
Pardon me for pointing out that this is the whole glossy point of them. And the only research you have to do to discover this is flick through them. Describing these metromags as ‘lads mags’ or ‘laddish mags’ is to fall for their mendacious marketing and the beard-like breasty covers.
The reason they exist at all is to deliver the hyper-fit, near naked male-modelled fashion and vanity product advertising within to men who until the 90s were immune to it because they were too busy being actual lads with other lads to buy a magazine selling them a simulated, lonely version of ‘laddishness’ while encouraging them to to look with a mixture of envy and desire at idealised images of other men produced lovingly with all the latest techniques and technology of consumerism.
The desire that ‘lads mags’ are selling isn’t heterosexuality. It’s metrosexuality.
And don’t think staying in and becoming an online gaming geek will save you. The article quotes a separate study at the University of Illinois two years ago which showed that the muscular male bodies in computer gaming magazines drove boys as young as eight to try to build their muscles. Which is not very easy if you spend your time playing computer games. Another reason why steroids, the metrosexual hormone, are the dystopian future.
For all this, men’s magazines, however, have had their day.
Loaded – the magazine that invented the phoney ‘lad mag’ beer-and-tits-and-designer-underpants formula but which was quickly emulated, improved on and overtaken by kit-and-clobber-happy FHM – lost nearly 30% of its circulation in the second half of 2007 as circulation dropped by 47,000 year on year.
Even FHM shed 56,114 sales while Maxim lost 53,034 sales. However, sales of Men’s Health are said to be ‘stable’. Probably because, despite its laughable recent attempts to het it up, it’s the most obviously metro of the metromags – and puts men‘s tits on the cover. And also the one with the most hardcore hypochondria. Men’s Health is ‘stable’ because it’s the most neurotic title, doing its best for equality of the sexes when it comes to eating disorders and supplement addiction.
Men’s magazines have peaked not so much because they have so many gadgets now to play with when they’re bored and alone – Ipods, Podcasts, portable DVD players, the Interweb, Fleshlights – but because men’s mags have largely done their job.
They slyly converted an entire generation of young men to metrosexuality so successfully – partly because they were aching to be converted anyway – that now, with the possible exception of Men’s Hypochondria, they’re more or less redundant.
And this despite the frightening possible side-effects meticulously listed in these press reports, including liver, heart and kidney damage, atrophied testicles, erectile dysfunction, depression and raised aggression. (Though, arguably, you could also experience most of these simply by following Arsenal FC.)
The key to this mainstreaming of steroids is vanity. If you want to get into people’s bloodstream these days, promise to make them like what they see in the smoke-glass gym-mirror. According to the surveys, the large majority of young men using the gear are not doing so to be stronger or faster or scarier – all traditionally acceptable ‘masculine’ ambitions – but rather to look more attractive. To look shaggable. Or just make you look.
In other words, young men are taking steroids the way that many gay party boys have taken them for years: to look good on the beach or dance floor or webcam. ‘Muscle Marys’ – as they’re called by envious, less-muscular gays – are apparently no longer a strictly gay phenomenon. Muscle Marys are where masculinity is at, Mary.
It shouldn’t be so surprising. We don’t really need surveys to tell us this. It has, after all, happened right before our eyes. It’s the media that has mainlined steroids into the culture and our kids. Unlike, say, very skinny girls, very muscular boys are very popular. An anti ‘Size Hero’ campaign like that we’ve seen against Size Zero is somewhat unlikely. Steroids are an essential, prescribed even, part of the way that the male body has been farmed and packaged for our consumption since it was laid off at the factory and the shipyard in the 1980s.
A generation of young males have been reared on irresistibly – and frequently chemically – lean and muscular images of the male body in sport, advertising, magazines, movies and telly, even in the cartoons they watch and the computer games or toy dolls (or ‘action figures’) they play with. It seems all that’s left of masculinity in a post industrial, post paternal world, apart from a science-fiction-sized penis, or a right foot good enough to get you into the Premier League, is a hot bod. Men and women – but especially men – will give you kudos for that. So will people casting reality TV series.
Even Action Man (GI Joe in the US) is now a Muscle Mary. Perhaps because he’s only twelve inches tall, Action Man seems to have been hitting the ‘juice’ big time. He’s also got himself a nice deep all-over tan – to better show off his pumped muscles.
Since the 1960s his bicep measurements have more than doubled from a (scaled up) 12″ to 27″ and his chest from 44″ to 55″. His current ‘cut’ physique would be rather difficult to achieve just by eating corned-beef hash rations – especially since, as far as I’m aware, a portable plastic gym isn’t yet one of his basic accessories. In an example of life imitating art, or at least squaddies imitating dolls, steroid abuse by soldiers is increasingly common: US soldiers in Iraq have been caught ordering steroids online, and it was recently alleged that a sizeable proportion of Blackwater mercenaries are on ‘the gear’.
Muscle Marys aren’t just for Xmas – they’re also for High Office. Arnold ‘Commando’ Schwarzenegger, seven times Mr Olympia, who has admitted using industrial quantities of steroids since he was in his teens (though denies he takes them now) is today the walk-on-water Green Governator of California and Republican inspiration to David Cameron – after a successful Hollywood movie career playing an under-dressed heavily-muscled male masseur pretending to be an action hero. Quite an achievement when just walking without painful chafing must have been difficult.
Partly because of Arnie’s 80s ‘special effects’, Muscle Marys are de rigeur in the movies today – even in middle-age. The ageing star of a recent epic blockbuster whose career has largely been built on his six-pack was widely rumoured to have been on so much ‘gear’ trying to look ‘invincible’ that he frequently had to be stretchered off the set at the end of the day, poor love. Meanwhile ‘Comeback Kid’ Sylvester ‘Rocky’ Stallone (aged 60) was caught by Australian customs with several vials of his comeback secret earlier this year.
The ailing James Bond franchise successfully re-launched Bond and made him more attractive to younger viewers by reincarnating him in the pneumatic form of Daniel Craig – Bond became his own big-chested Bond Girl – and last year’s smash hit film ‘300′ featured ‘Spartans’ who looked less like ancient warriors than Muscle Marys at a Toga Party. Or the “juiced-up” professional wrestlers in Speedos that so many boys today have on their bedroom walls.
WWE wrestler Chris Benoit’s recent murder-suicide of his wife and child and intense media speculation about whether it was steroid-related (steroids were found at his house and his post mortem testosterone level was ten times normal) has caused a major scandal in the US. But it has been as obvious for many years that most of these guys were sprinkling more than sugar on their Cocoa Pops (and Benoit was actually relatively scrawny compared to some wrestlers).
That’s, after all, what people were looking at. What they were paying to see. Pro wrestling is showbusiness, and steroids are the business – at least when it comes to making spectacular bodies.
As a result of this and other recent steroid scandals in American football and baseball – including at High School level – a panic has emerged about the use of steroids by US athletes. But this has tended to obscure how mainstream steroids already are in the US and how, as in the UK, they’re principally (ab)used by non-athletes (only 6% of users played sports or considered themselves bodybuilders).
In the UK there have been calls to ban the sale of steroids online, crackdown harder on gyms selling them and educate young people about the dangers. Well, everyone is in favour of education, and no one is in favour of teens using steroids, but it’s unlikely that any of this will seriously reverse the Muscle Mary/Size Hero trend.
Steroids can’t be uninvented – or filtered out from the culture’s bloodstream. They’ve already changed the shape of masculinity. What’s more, unlike most if not all of the expensive supplements advertised in FHM, Men’s Health and Nuts as ‘muscle-builders’ and ‘fat-burners’, they actually work. And I know whereof I speak: I dabbled with the ‘juice’ myself as a callow youth. They certainly did what they said on the tin: I only stopped because they made me even spottier and angrier than I already was.
In an age when what’s authentically masculine is unclear, but what’s hot is as in-yer-face as a nice pair of pecs, injecting synthetic manliness, despite the possible risks to your actual man-bits, is not going out of fashion anytime soon. The only effective way to discourage their use will be to come up with a new generation of muscle-building drugs that work as well as steroids but have fewer side-effects. I’d certainly take them.
Steroids are the metrosexual hormone – they make men saleable and shaggable in an age that doesn’t have much idea what else to do with them.
Banning gay propaganda can backfire. Spectacularly.
“All Saints should be presumed guilty until proved innocent.”
The book that changed the way the world looks at men
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