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

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Male Lib is Nothing to Be Scared Of

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark Simpson interviewed by Swedish Public Radio

Yours truly interviewed about spornosexuals by Mona Masri for Swedish Public Radio (and dubbed into Swedish – which makes me sound much more thoughtful).

Cristiano chilling at Mr Armani's place. (But tensing his abs.)

Cristiano relaxing at Mr Armani’s place. (But tensing his abs.)


Swedish Meatballs

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Eric de Saade’s Swedish Leather Act

Alas, our boys in Blue didn’t quite convince enough viewers last night in Düsseldorf that they are beautiful enough to wear the Eurovision Crown, and despite their liberated lyrics they looked very, er inhibited — frozen with fear, actually.

But they did manage a much better showing than the UK has done in years. Even managing to occupy the top voting spot for a brief tantalising moment (prompting a messy snog from Lee Ryan on an alarmed camera lens that couldn’t back away in time — I of course fainted on the spot).

Eurovision 2011 ended up being a contest between warbling Azeri chintzy bridal romance and leathered up Swedish fisting. I was surprised that Sweden got as many votes as it did since even I was a bit scared by the up-your-arseness of their act.

It was reassuring, in a way, that chintzy bridal romance won the official competition in the end. After all it was silly old Eurovision. But Sweden’s ‘Popular’, a song about the irrepressibility of a young leather boy’s desire to be desired, was the one that people will actually remember:

Spread the news
I’m gonna take the fight
For the spotlight, day and night

Eric Saade nearly represented Sweden at Eurovision last year with ‘Manboy’, a song possibly even more metrosexy than ‘Popular’.

Sweden’s Young Metrosexuals Find a Voice

Meanwhile, across the North Sea in Sweden…. 19 year old Eric Saade is telling us, in a leather jacket and gloves: ‘You can call me manboy’ before pleading, in the crie de coeur of metrosexuals everywhere: ‘Give me lurve!  Give me lurve!  — Don’t go!’.

The pleasingly annoying/annoyingly pleasing ditty ‘Manboy’ cranks to a creaky climax with Eric receiving an open-mouthed drenching while on his knees.

This probably shouldn’t be very surprising.  Sweden is the country, you may remember, that gave us Abba, Ikea and Freddie Ljunberg. Sweden is probably the most metrosexual country on Earth.

‘Manboy’ is in with a good chance of being chosen by Swedish TV viewers as their country’s entry in the family-friendly Eurovision Song Contest.

They should.  It would win.

Tip: DAK

Welcome to AbbaWorld – Prepare to be Abbassimiliated


“NO MORE F****** ABBA!!”

So bellowed an ageing transsexual Terence Stamp in Priscilla Queen of the Desert, driven to distraction by his fey fellow bus passengers’ obsession with the silly Swedish 1970s super group.

Some hope. We’re all trapped on a Day-Glo bus full of drag queens squawking along to a loop tape of Abba Gold playing on the stereo. And that’s just watching the Sydney Olympics. The Abba revival in the 1990s turned out to be not so much a rediscovery of a critically overlooked band, as an ascension to pop cultural Heaven and eternal airplay.

Bjorn, Benny, Frida and Agnetha are all our angelic friends now – and we believe in them, something good in everything they do. We hear their sweetly harmonious voices almost every day, though they stopped making records 20 years ago. And we still see their warm, smiling, never-ageing, non-aligned Nordic faces, the epitome of benignity. They just want us to be happy. In fact, Bjorn, Benny, Frida and Agnetha are not just our friends – they’re our parents. Not our unconvincing, biological ones, but our shiny, postmodern ones who will never let us down, except perhaps in their dress-sense. After all, the cute acronym of their names Abba means “Our father” in Aramaic (though in Sweden it’s also the name of a tinned fish company).

Abba were a fiendishly clever and catastrophically successful Scandinavian plan for total world domination. Deploying pop singles instead of longboats, aspirations instead of horned helmets, they kidnapped pre-teen children everywhere, ultimately making the world safe for that other Swedish four- letter word: Ikea. Abba were the ultimate suburban aspirational group and the two crooning couples the ultimate aspirational parents. Now that we’re grown up, we’re all Abba now. We’ve all bought the dream of Swedish bourgeois classlessness, excellence and niceness, the soft furnishings and cool green frosted glass kitchen cabinets that scratch surprisingly easily if you’re not really careful.

It’s significant that nowhere was Abba’s strategy more successful than in Australia, where not just pre-teens, but pretty much the whole country was abducted overnight. When they performed on TV there, more than half the population tuned in. Abba: The Movie was set in Australia. The Abba tribute band Bjorn Again is Australian. Australian films are obsessed with Abba (eg Priscilla and Muriel’s Wedding).

Why did Australia go “ABBAustralian” as one paper put it at the time? Unkind Poms might say it was because the Aussies identified with the Swedes’ problems with the English language, but the truth was that Australia, the former penal colony, was a “bastard” country looking to be adopted by well-mannered parents with nice teeth who weren’t sheep farmers or uranium miners.

The Abba makeover to which Australia surrendered worked perfectly: nowadays Australia is a country of nice, friendly middle-class people, dental hygienists, publicists, models, personal trainers, lawyers and cheery soap operas. In other words, once assimilated, Australia was able to go about the business of running the AbbaWorld. Hence that triumphal climax of last year’s closing ceremony at the Sydney Olympics, broadcast around the world to billions, featured AbbaChild Kylie Minogue on a Priscilla float singing “Dancing Queen”, the national anthem of AbbaWorld. (And a literally irresistible pop song – which is to say, it wrestles your better judgement to the floor, sits on its face, and leaves you free to make a complete fool of yourself.)

Britain was the first non-Scandinavian country to succumb to Abba, that Eurovision night with Katie Boyle back in 1974 at the Brighton Dome was when we met our Waterloo. It’s probably why that nice Mr Sven has had so much success with his makeover of the English football team, most of whom were born post Abbassimilation and have no trouble recognising their masters.

Scandinavian design, with its clean lines, high quality, what-you-see-is-what-you-get lack of hierarchy, is the only kind of bourgeoisdom we Brits seem willing to recognise nowadays. Those satanically clever and clean Abba hook-lines and impressive arrangements (praised now by everyone from Pete Townsend to Bono) were the product of craftsmanship and professionalism. The very things that made them deeply unhip in the 1970s and led to them being described as “cynical” and “icy” are what makes them the soundtrack to a careerist, managerial age. Those tunes may have sounded innocent to kids back then, but now that they have grown up they’re glad to discover that they weren’t – that like everything else these days, they were very, very calculated.

I’m not sure how much of this fellow Swede and uber AbbaChild Carl Magnus Palm, author of Bright Lights Dark Shadows: The Real Story of Abba would agree to. The flyleaf describes him as “the world’s foremost Abba historian”, but really his book isn’t as bad as that would lead you to believe. It’s all clearly and soberly written, painstakingly detailed and incontrovertibly definitive. Very professional. Well crafted. The prose slides in and out smoothly like a fitted kitchen drawer. But there are not enough clean lines. Some of this detail and definitiveness is not likely to appeal, unless you’re the world’s No 2 Abba historian. Thankfully, his main thesis about “the Nordic angst being there all along, just beneath the surface” isn’t really borne out. So the band members turn out to be actual human beings who have rows and bust ups? Big deal. There are fewer “dark shadows” here than in an Ikea showroom. And, being an AbbaChild, the author can’t contemplate the possibility that Abba itself may have been the “dark shadow”.

As a pal of mine, a blonde male-to-female transsexual Abba fan (“Abba made me what I am today!”) pronounced after devouring the book: “There’s no dirt. No one’s ever been able to find any.”

She didn’t sound disappointed. Which is, perhaps, the scariest thing of all about Abba.


Originally appeared in the Independent on Sunday October 2001

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