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

Category: popular culture (page 1 of 7)

Funny-Peculiar Men: Laurel & Hardy

Tonight the BBC screens Steve Coogan and John Reilly’s well-received 2019 film Stan & Ollie’, about the most famous comedy duo’s disastrous, almost-posthumous 1953 tour of Britain – and also their love for one another. Or at least, our investment in the idea of it. Back in the no-homo early 1990s me and my pal Nick Haeffner wrote a newspaper feature on the ‘queer’ appeal of their on-screen relationship that was cruelly spiked. With Nick’s permission, I expanded it into the version below and included it as a chapter in my 1994 book Male Impersonators .

(Of course, the conclusion is entirely wrong: Rick Mayall and Ade Edmondson weren’t the 90s inheritors of the Laurel and Hardy tradition – it was a cartoon cat and chihuahua….)

—————-

Stan: Well, what’s the matter with her anyway?

Ollie: Oh, I don’t know. She says I think more of you than I do of her.

Stan: Well, you do don’t you? 

Ollie: We won’t go into that! 

Stan: Y’know what the trouble is?

Ollie: What?

Stan: You need a baby in your house.

Ollie: What’s that got to do with it?

Stan: Well, if you had a baby it would keep your wife’s mind occupied; you could go out nights with me and she’d think nothing of it.

Their First Mistake, 1932

SUGGESTING THAT CINEMA’S most cherished comedy duo might be homosexual is not something you are likely to be thanked for. But this is precisely what Vito Russo does in his 1987 book The Celluloid Closet. Boldly claiming Laurel and Hardy for the history of gay cinema, Russo points out that in films like Their First Mistake (1932), the fat man and the thin man exemplified the ‘perfect sissy-buddy relationship, which had a sweet and very real loving dimen­sion’ with ‘unmistakably gay overtones.’

Could ‘buggery-pokery’ really be at the root of Stan and Ollie’s relationship – a relationship which has endured as the most fondly regarded cinema partnership of all time? Could their videos, amongst the all-time best-sellers and considered perfect children’s entertainment, be promoting some kind of queer Eros? Or is this rather the result of over-heated analysis, the product of the perverse imagination of gay critics?

Laurel and Hardy’s classic silent short Liberty seems to con­firm the Russo reading, in the most explicit way. Stan and Ollie play convicts on the run, who, in their haste to change into civvies, manage to put on each other’s trousers, which, given their famously contrasting shapes, proves somewhat impractical. There then follows a sequence of events that will be only too familiar to many gay viewers. Frantically, they try to swap their pants in an alleyway, behind some crates and in the back of a taxi. Each time they are frustrated by being discovered by some horrified passer-by, includ­ing: a housewife, a shopkeeper, a young heterosexual couple and a policeman. Sheepishly they scurry off in search of some other inti­mate place to effect their exchange (a building site, as it happens). 

Even critics unsympathetic to homosexuality have noted the sexual script here: as French film critic Andre S. Labarthe observed: ‘Liberty offers to anyone who can read, the unequivocal sign of unnatural love.’ 

But others have reacted indignantly to the suggestion that there could be anything ‘unnatural’ in the fat man and the thin man’s relationship. ‘There is something rather absurd about dis­cussing this seriously at all,’ harrumphs Charles Barr in his book Laurel and Hardy, responding to Labarthe. What is revealing is not so much Barr’s response as the example that he selects to refute the imputation: ‘Their First Mistake surely gives, to anyone who can read, an explicit rebuttal of Labarthe’.

In Barr’s analysis, the signs of ‘unnatural love’ represent in fact, through infantilization, the very naturalness and purity of Stan and Ollie’s love: ‘since their mental processes, particularly Stan’s, are those of nursery children, one takes it for granted that they should share a bed as in the nursery.’ Their infantilism, in other words, guarantees their ‘pre-sexual’ status.

This response by Barr sounds a bit like a dismissal of filthy foreign slanders, reminiscent of Leslie Fiedler’s remark in Love and Death in the American Novel that, ‘in our native mythology, the tie between male and male is not only considered innocent, it is taken for the very symbol of innocence itself.’

In effect, Barr is defending the myth of America itself, positioning the purity of the Great Ameri­can Childhood between Laurel and Hardy and those who would seek to corrupt their legacy. ‘After Mark Twain,’ writes Fiedler,

‘one of the partners to such a union is typically conceived of as a child, thus inviting the reader to identify with the Great Good Place where the union is consummated with his own childhood …’

Laurel and Hardy’s own ‘innocence’ serves to keep the critical lid on a veritable Pandora’s box of forbid­den desires. We laugh at their ‘queer’ antics to relieve our discom­fort at their associations. But we also enjoy that discomfort. This is why both Barr and Labarthe are correct. Stan and Ollie by their own behaviour reveal that they are not so innocent after all: why else would they display shame when discovered trying to swap their pants?

In Their First Mistake Ollie is sued for divorce by his wife (with Stan named as ‘the other woman’). The action then centres around Ollie’s incompetent attempts to run a house and look after an infant. Eventually he and Stan end up in their bed with the baby. Ollie falls asleep but is awoken by the baby’s cries. Half asleep, eyes closed, Ollie reaches over with the feeding bottle, but it inevitably ends up in Stan’s mouth who is sleeping alongside him, cuddled in his arm. Stan instinctively sucks it dry in his sleep.

The scene’s humour depends precisely upon reading this as both ‘innocent’ and ‘queer’, with the second reading held under the first. In other words, the signified ‘pre-sexual’ status of Stan and Ollie defuses the threat of the bed scene but does not remove the charge – if it did, where would the gag be? The disavowal of Stan and Ollie’s queerness does not erase it, otherwise they would never have cut it as a comedy duo and would have long been forgotten.

Ollie’s oral gratification of Stan is ‘funny’ precisely because to take it any other way would be shocking and indecent. The absurd protects itself against enquiry by salvaging the disturbing reading beneath the innocent one — by humorous ‘contamination’. Thus ‘there is something rather absurd about discussing this seriously at all’. In other words, Barr continues the disavowal through the idea of the ‘joke’.

Of course, Laurel and Hardy are not ‘gay’. But they are clearly not ‘straight’ either. Attempts by gays to claim them as ‘the ultimate gay couple’ almost miss the point. Laurel and Hardy’s dalliance with perverse signifiers – their ‘queerness’ – is actually a measure of their gender nonconformity as much as, if not more than, a sign of sexual deviation. Their refusal/inability to perform heterosexuality and play the role of ‘men’ is what defines them. 

This is the other mean­ing of their infantilization, their escape from the usual masculine standards. Unable to hold down a job for the length of a film, irresponsible, cowardly, living in the shadow of their Amazonian wives and regularly given a good pasting by them, our heroes are wonderfully, thrillingly catastrophic failures as men. Which is of course why we love them — gay or straight.

In her book Gender Trouble, Judith Butler argues that from a queer perspective heterosexuality prescribes ‘normative sexual positions that are intrinsically impossible to embody’. These in turn become ‘an inevitable comedy,’ and heterosexuality becomes a ‘constant parody of itself’. But the popularity of comedy duos like Laurel and Hardy show that this perspective is not exclusive to lesbians and gays. The particularly rigid enforcement of gender roles that ac­companied the arrival of capitalism and the sexual division of labour still rankles in the popular subconscious, and any ‘safe’ revolt against them, especially the transformation of ‘straight’ roles into pantomime, is enthusiastically welcomed.

Laurel and Hardy base their own brand of sex-role panto on the impossibility of the demands of manhood. The joke, so to speak, is on masculinity. This is even suggested in the title of their first headline movie together, Putting Pants on Philip (1927). In it Stan plays a kilt-wearing Scotsman visiting his American uncle Ollie, who is embarrassed by his nephew’s unorthodox leg-wear. Despite Stan’s portrayal as – of all things – a woman chaser (a peculiarly jarring image), most of the jokes revolve around Stan’s ‘skirt’. 

At one point Stan even treats us to a bizarre premonition of Marilyn Monroe’s trademark by standing over a ventilation grille, with predictable results. At this, women in a crowd that has been attracted by Stan’s strange apparel faint and a policeman warns Ollie, ‘This dame ain’t got no lingerie on.’ It is not Stan whom we laugh at, but the social agonies of the respectable gent played by Ollie who desperately tries to get his nephew kitted out in some ‘proper’ masculine attire, to no avail.

In a later silent, You’re Darn Tootin (1928), the trouser motif, or rather the lack of them, is taken to glorious extremes. It climaxes with the duo’s infectious mayhem embroiling a whole street full of men in one of their tiffs (brought about by their failure, once again, to success­fully perform a job). Soon trousers sail through the air in a ‘de-bagging’ orgy. No man, however dignified, is safe: workmen, busi­nessmen and even policemen succumb to the irresistible chaos Laurel and Hardy have brought to the masculine world – and quite literally lose their trousers. The gag is simple but universal in its effective­ness, relying on one basic assumption: men and the way they take themselves so seriously are actually the biggest joke going – just pull their pants down and you’ll see why.

Stan and Ollie, meanwhile, waltz away from this scene of masculine devastation sharing a pair of trousers. Unmanly men they may be, but together they have just enough dignity to go round after the ‘real men’ have been stripped of theirs.

‘Pants’ also symbolize the civilization and refinement of the ‘nether regions’; their loss stands for disorder. For the Russian critic and medievalist Bakhtin, laughter brings the mighty low and turns the natural world upside down – returning us to the body. The carnivalesque in our comic duo’s films resides most obviously in Ollie’s belly and bottom: soft, wobbly, outsized and irresistible, they are hardly ever out of frame. Especially that bottom.

The arse is the first line of defence in the paranoid masculine struggle against being ‘unmanned’. It is the inevitable site of floods of jokes designed to allay fears about being penetrated, sexual passivity and ridicule. And in case we should forget Ollie’s laugh­able arse and all that it represents, a stream of missiles launch themselves with unerring accuracy at his flabby flanks: water jets, nails, arrows, pitchforks, shotgun pellets and pins ‘prick’ his bot­tom in a sadistic torture that makes us squirm while we guffaw.

And, true to Bakhtin’s carnivalesque characterization of popular humour, everything these ‘crap’ men touch turns to shit. Objects exist only to be broken; conventions, to be flouted. Now wincing, now cheering, we follow their sniggering trail of destruc­tion to a millionaire’s trashed mansion, to a banquet become a battlefield, or to the remnants of a grand piano – the ultimate symbol of failed bourgeois pretension. 

In the anally-fixated, scato­logical humour of popular comedy, shit, bottoms and mess are gleefully celebrated as an antidote to the repressive strictures of high-minded middle-class respectability: bathos triumphs over pathos; the ridiculous over the sublime. Mess, destruction and disaster, epitomized in the custard pie fight, are fundamental fun. 

If their humour is medieval, then Stan and Ollie’s relation­ship is more modern. Inhabiting a resolutely hostile world where nothing goes right, the inadequate co-dependents that are Stan and Ollie have only each other to count on or blame: ‘That’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!’ We identify not only with their hopelessness but with their love. We can laugh at their spiteful, shin-kicking, eye-poking squabbles only because we are sure that their love will endure. We know that out of the rubble of a Beverly Hills villa, the heap of torn trousers and the sea of ‘custard’, Stan and Ollie will emerge unscathed and indissoluble; survivors of everything the world can throw at them.

So admirable is their love that very often it is set against conventional male heterosexuality, as both a resistance to it and, for all our silly pair’s ‘crapness’, as a favourable contrast. Pack Up Your Troubles (1932) begins with war being declared and Stan and Laurel unsuccessfully trying to evade conscription by faking inval­idity (again their unmanliness allows them to display traits, in this case cowardice, that other men are forbidden). Once inducted into the army, they continually demonstrate their hilarious inability to perform the martial myth of manhood. In drill they are, needless to say, disastrous. Stan cannot get the hang of left and right and so hooks his arm around Ollie’s. 

True to form they both end up marching in the wrong direction — arm in arm. They are sent to the trenches, where their love continues to defy the expected manly performance: we see them at reveille in the same bed, arms wrapped around one another with their feet pressed against a hot water bottle. A sergeant major barks at them and orders them to capture some Germans. Their bungling ineptitude saves them from certain death and wins the day without the death of a single soldier, American or German.

One American soldier, however, is captured by the Ger­mans. Stan and Ollie resolve to visit his baby girl on their return home. On their visit they discover that she is being ill-treated by her foster parents. We see the girl being deprived of love and affection by uncaring husband and wife, especially the husband who is tyran­nical and sadistic. On this scene of glum misery the door opens and it is good old Stan and Ollie, clearly representing ‘love’. Naturally they rescue the girl from her ogre foster father and set about trying to locate her grandparents (what, I wonder, would be the popular reaction to the kidnap of a little girl from her heterosexual guard­ians by two men who lived together if it occurred off screen?). Tracing her grandparents proves problematic – they only know their surname: Smith. This provides the entree into a series of gags.

The first Mr Smith they locate turns out to be a boxer. When the door opens Ollie cheerily announces, ‘We’ve got your son’s child!’ ‘Blackmail, eh?’ replies the boxer and punches Ollie on the chin with a bone crushing right hook.

In another ‘Smith’ confusion they bring mayhem to a bour­geois wedding ceremony, leading the father of the bride to think that the little girl belongs to the groom. The wedding cancelled, the bride rushes over to Laurel and Hardy and thanks them effusively for saving her from an unwanted marriage. Once again our lovers manage to upset the heterosexual applecart in heroic fashion, offer­ing a moral contrast in their understanding of love to that of the cynical male characters they encounter who are sadistic, violent, selfish and callous. It is instructive of Laurel and Hardy’s relation­ship that a film that begins with a declaration of war and conscrip­tion quickly devotes itself to a sentimental storyline about children.

Alas, the parody of masculinity and the example of another kind of loving that our boys provide us with is dependent, finally, upon the exclusion of women. This is shown in Their First Mistake: the problem Ollie and Stan are debating is how to get the women out of their life. Any femininity entertained by them in the form of their frequent dragging up, for example, is a mere semblance (although it has to be said that Stan is unnervingly convincing in a frock). Real femininity, in the shape of their knuckle-dusting wives, is something to flee from – however, in contrast to the tradition, these fearsomely strong women are also very attractive.

Given this, it is perhaps unsurprising that the popular international Laurel and Hardy fan club is called Sons of the Desert, after the film of the same name where the boys can go to a convention of their men-only Sons of the Desert club in Chicago only by tricking their wives. Of course their wives find out and there is hell to pay.

This exclusion of women is an almost universal tradition in male comedy duos. From the sleeping habits of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin or Morecambe and Wise to the drag extravaganzas of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, any transgression of masculine standards is predicated upon the maintenance of a boys-only environment including even the 1990s out-of-the-closet comedy of Terry and Julian. Red Dwarf, a comedy set in space, takes this maxim to the cynical extreme of having the only female character played by a computer – i.e. femininity literally disembodied. (This is why Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders’ all-female comedy can be so refreshing and why their vengeful impersonations of men, complete with ball-scratching and fat arses escaping from jeans, so hilarious.)

However, it is Adrian Edmondson’s and Rik Mayall’s double act that must be the direct inheritor of the Laurel and Hardy tra­dition in Britain; like our defunct duo they are utterly ‘crap’ men and for them everything exists to be destroyed. Of course, their relationship is depressingly up-to-date. They sleep in separate beds and are spectacularly cruel to one another without respite in an almost ritualistic fashion; they are not allowed any of the tender moments that Ollie and Stan enjoyed in between the nose-twisting and foot-stamping. 

Nevertheless Rik and Adrian remain together and their tainted, twisted ‘love’ survives an equally tainted, twisted world. And, as with Laurel and Hardy, the rectum is both an exclamation and a question mark hanging over them – a fact freely acknowledged in the title of their latest incarnation: Bottom.

It is not, as some would have it, an age of innocence that has been lost, but rather an impossible tenderness between men.

In an interview towards the end of his life, Foucault sug­gested that the rise of homosexuality as an identity has coincided with the disappearance of male friendships:

‘the disappearance of friendship as a social relationship and the transformation of homosexuality into a social, political and medical problem are part of the same process’.

Perhaps what we have seen in the period since Laurel and Hardy is an increase of the presence of homosexu­ality as a thing to be disavowed in male-to-male relations, rather than its sudden arrival. If male-to-male ties were once taken to be ‘the symbol of innocence itself’ then perhaps this was only through a suspension of disbelief that is no longer tenable in an era when homosexuality is so much more visible.

In Ollie and Stan’s day the audience’s anxieties/interest in queerness could be titillated and the joke could safely be substituted for its actual expression: their behaviour could be ‘funny’ in a sense that was ‘peculiar’ but disavowed by being funny. But nowadays this mechanism, even with infantilization and the exclusion of women, seems unable to cope with any tenderness between our male comics. Looking back, contemporary audiences can enjoy the antics of the fat man and the thin man because, like Barr, they place them in a pretended pure and innocent past — ‘the Great Good Place’ — that never existed. 

Finally, perhaps Laurel and Hardy are regarded with such fondness today because they represent an impossible contradiction: innocence and queerness. They are men who are in every sense ‘impossible’ – then, and especially now: impossibly ‘funny’ and impossibly touching. Reports that Stan was ‘inconsolable’ after Ollie’s death only heighten our own sense of loss at the passing of their screen affair.

Nick Haeffner’s new solo album A New Life Awaits You is available on Band Camp

Sex in the Park

Rummaging around in an old hard drive one lockdown, I found this review (for Details ) of the Sex Pistols’ Finsbury Park reunion gig – a quarter of a century ago. Ah! The summer of ’96! When they were so young! And when gigs – and life – still existed….

In those rancid gift shoppes, where American tourists stock up on their London Bus paperweights and Houses of Parliament ashtrays, there are three types of (fading) postcards available: guardsman in their quaint busby hats outside Buckingham Palace, Beefeaters in their cute red pantaloons and pikes outside the Tower of London, and punks in their zany bondage trousers and pink spikey hair in front of Trafalgar Square. British eccentricity – don’t ya just love it? 

What most Americans don’t know, however, is that since 1979 all those punks posing for their cameras have been French – the British punks having moved on to New Romanticism, or the soybean futures market.

Or California – like the world’s second punk band the Sex Pistols did after they split up in 1978, self-detonating in the most glorious and perfect rock parabola ever just two years after their launch and at the height of their fame, and who have now decided to spoil it all. Yes, the passage of time and the rising cost of swimming-pool maintenance has healed their differences and brought them together again for the Filthy Lucre Tour and live album recorded tonight at London’s Finsbury Park. 

The band who told us: ‘Don’t know what I want but I know how to get it’ has now decided that what they want is our money.

The world’s first punk band, of course, was the New York Dolls – those seriously scary Yanks in eyeliner and fishnets that Malcolm McLaren managed briefly and later plagiarised at length when he put together the Pistols in 1976. In addition to shameless thievery, there were four main ingredients to British Punk: Carlsberg Special Brew, teeth-gnashingly bad speed, and boredom. Lots and lots of boredom. The kind of boredom that takes hundreds of years of history and only three TV channels to produce.

Oh, and skinny people – the final ingredient of punk. You see, skinny people are nervous. Skinny people don’t have enough tissue between them and the world. Skinny people are disaffected. Skinny people are ANGRY. And Johnny Rotten, Pistols front man, later John Lydon of PIL, was the skinniest, angriest man in the world – a pair of mad staring eyes and spraying, sneering, snarling lips atop a Dickensian bundle of rags and bones.

But not anymore. ‘It’s only uncle Johnny and the boys here,’ he shouts, half challengingly, half apologetically, when they emerge on stage from behind a tattered curtain of ‘Pistols Outrage’ newspaper clippings (yes, they really were shocking once). ‘We’re fat, forty and back!.’ As ever, Johnny tells it how it is. 

His face and chin has filled out in a way his lime green cartoon explosion hair can’t sharpen. Beneath his black and white check jacket lurks a definite paunch. Guitarist Steve Jones, wearing sorely tested spangly pants, doesn’t waste any time getting his shirt off to reveal a heavy, tanned body that perhaps shows some evidence of Beverly Hills Athletic Club membership, but his intensely highlighted hair and tiger-print stretchy pants makes him look a bit off-season female bodybuilder. (In fairness, Glen Matlock for his part looks even slimmer than he did 20 years ago.)

But when the fat, stinging chords of their first number ‘Bodies’ (‘I’m not an animal!’) hit, an epiphany happens. The crowd is instantly transformed from a bunch of well-behaved, plump thirty-ish people with mobile phones standing around minding their own business into pogo-ing accountants and civil servants, full of bad attitude. It’s intoxicating. We feel rowdy, we feel dangerous, we feel important. We feel like someone we used to know. 

And the sound – the real Pistols were never this good. They were too drunk, stoned or fucked. The rolling attack of this guitar noise is enough to spike your hair without gel – but it’s professional. Nowadays, they really do mean it, man. This is Punk-lite. But when they strike up ‘Anarchy in the UK’ the crowd goes completely doolally and, having been born too late the first time around, I finally realise a lifelong ambition – to slam-dance to the Pistols with Johnny mewling and spewling the best lines in rock ever: ‘I wanna beee an-arr-keee!… Well, the best lines after, ‘There’s no few-cher, no few-cher/No few-cher for you!’ (‘God Save the Queen’). Which, in turn, are the best lines after, ‘We’re so pre-tay/Oh-so pre-tay/Vay-cuhnt… And we don’t caaarrre!’ (‘Pretty Vacant’).

Yes, it’s definitely fun pretending you’re angry, skinny and happy again. It’s especially fun when you’re British but now you’ve an excuse to actually touch other people. But twenty years on you’ve got to conclude that you’re not so pretty or vacant anymore and that there are, actually, far too many things you care about. 

Like the fact that someone just pogoed on your lovely new trainers.

(Details magazine, June 1996)

Prince Charming – Adam Ant’s Pop Apotheosis

Some years back I posted a piece called ‘The Prettiest Punk’, about the most fetching three minute wonders. Scandalously, Adam Ant appeared nowhere in the list.

Perhaps this oversight was an unconscious censorship – because otherwise none of the other candidates would have stood a chance. Or more likely down to the fact I was born a bit late for punk and so only remembered Adam Ant in his much more successful, much more made-up new romantic ‘dandy highwayman’ phase, which twas technically new wave musically, but very much new romantic visually, and ideologically.

When he transformed from a punk Cinders into a glamorous, baroque butterfly, drowning in lip gloss.

Born Stuart Goddard in 1954, and raised in an unplumbed two-room north London slum, this art school ruffian chose the punk name ‘Adam’ because ‘he was the first man’, and ‘Ant’ because ‘they will survive nuclear war’. He personified more than anyone else (even, dare I say, that other London boy made good, D**** B****) the open secret that British youth cults of glam, punk and new romanticism, although they officially hated each other, were all part of the same aesthetic rebellion.

One that eventually culminated (or degenerated, depending on your point of view), via the assimilation/proliferation of glossy magazines, consumerism and advertising, and the increasingly mediated nature of masculinity, in metrosexuality.

The tongue-in-cheek but seriously extravagant by the standards of the time ‘dandy highwayman’ promos for ‘Stand and Deliver’ and ‘Prince Charming’, both shot in a day and released in 1981 (forty years ago next year), were at least as influential in shaping the sensibility of the 1980s as Paul Schrader’s more ‘adult’ Hollywood feature film and young Richard Gere panopticon, American Gigolo, released the previous year.

‘Stand and Deliver’ was a pitch perfect pop song, noisily celebrating male narcissism and declaring, with wailing warcry, a national uprising against naffness – while holding grown-ups to ransom.

“It’s just stealing people’s attention. I’m a very big history fan of certainly the Georgian era and I like the flamboyance and sexuality and bawdiness of the time. I’ve seen films like Tom Jones and I grew up going to Saturday morning pictures and seeing all these other influences. I put them all together and Stand And Deliver was just purely grabbing people’s attention and using the whole sort of classical English highwayman feel as a theme.”

Adam ant

The promo, directed by Mike Mansfield, begins with us enjoying in close-up a fully-made-up but apparently naked Adam gazing smolderingly at himself in the mirror as he applies his ‘war paint’ – while the hunting horn sounds. The ‘threesome’ mirror-shot that invites the viewer to gaze on a beautiful young man gazing at himself is a trope which has become a cliche in the decades since, in a world where metrosexuality is completely mainstream and corporate, and social me-dia is rampant. In 1980 however, it was still an arresting vista.

I'm the dandy highwayman who you're too scared to mention
I spend my cash on looking flash and grabbing your attention

Mr Ant is entirely upfront and personal about his ravenous desire to be desired. In fact, he wields it as a weapon. Instead of holding up travellers with a pistol he holds a mirror to their faces. (Perhaps inspiring 1980s Taboo nightclub ‘door whore’ Mark Vaultier’s infamous habit of holding a mirror up to hopeful punters, asking:”Would you let yourself in?”).

Stand and deliver your money or your life
Try and use a mirror no bullet or a knife

Tossing the phallic pistol and replacing it with a mirror is a provocatively fey gesture, as befits the ravishing passivity of male vanity. It also perhaps references the raucous Sex Pistols-style guitar chords that open ‘Stand and Deliver’ (who also styled themselves as ruffians).

Working class Adam completely embraced the nascent medium of glossy, aspirational pop promos, coming up with many of the grandiose ideas himself – as well as the medium of glossy, aspirational self-love. Both of which were of course abhorred by ‘proper’ punks and the ‘serious’ music press.

The devil take your stereo and your record collection (oh-oh)
The way you look you'll qualify for next year's old age pension 

Which is why, in addition to being enormous fun, ‘Stand and Deliver’ went to No.1 in May 1981, and refused to budge from its pole position in the hit highway for five weeks, relieving nearly a million teenagers of their pocket money. But then, unlike most pop singles, it did contain useful fashion advice:

It's kind of tough to tell a scruff the big mistake he's making

During the ‘hanging’ sequence (which was banned by the BBC) accompanied by the divine Georgian gibberish chorus of ‘Qua qua da diddley qua qua da diddley‘, we are regaled with knee-clasping stylised shots of stylised Blitz Kids. There’s more than a nod in this video to The Dame’s seminal ‘Ashes to Ashes’ promo of the previous year, at the time the most expensive ever made, which also featured eminent denizens of London’s hyper-cool Blitz nightclub, paying homage to their prophet.

‘Stand and Deliver’ ends as it began, just you, me, Adam and his reflection sharing an intimate moment: a close-up on mirrored glossy lips again, as if (re)discovering their own irresistibility.

And frankly, has anyone worn lip gloss and full foundation better? Blondie’s soft-focus kisser looked crusty in comparison. Even Tim Curry’s iconic smackers as pouty Frank ‘n’ Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show seem drier than a Weetabix discovered behind a radiator after Mr Ant’s spangly lusciousness.

If ‘Stand and Deliver’ was Adam Ant’s glamorous gospel, ‘Prince Charming’ was his shining apotheosis. It is quite the most perfect promo ever made – delivering him straight into pop cultural heaven.

The track has a repetitive, terrace/school playground chant-like quality to it, like some of the best glam rock singles. But unlike glam rock it doesn’t really exist separate from the panto pop promo. In fact, ‘Prince Charming’ is more pop promo than song. This is not a criticism. It is part of its historic achievement.

It starts with Adam as Cinders, his bandmates singing to him:

Don't you ever, don't you ever
Stop being dandy, showing me you're handsome

It’s a touching image of male camaraderie in the British youth cult tradition, and reminds me somewhat of Bowie’s ‘When you’re a boy/Other boys check you out‘ line from ‘Boys Keep Swinging’.

His fairy godmother turns up, played by camp icon Diana Dors – on a cloud, surrounded by toned oiled-up topless young black male dancers. With a wave of her wand he is transformed into a sexy Beau Brummell – something I suspect Mr Brummell never actually achieved himself. (Check out those tight breeches and the way they reflect the light – gadzooks!).

Ridicule is nothing to be scared of

Quite so. Male vanity only really works if it is unashamed and fearless. Ridicule is a form of attention, after all. And frequently a form of envy.

At the ball that Cinders/Adam attends, the chanting and the arm-crossed synchronised dancing is wonderful, but also slightly Satanic, in a thrilling Dance of the Vampires sense, despite or perhaps because of the childish panto theme. As Adam mounts the cloudy staircase towards a landing mirror, the revellers freeze and fade away to nothingness and our hero is left alone, with his Orphée-esque reflection – and our gaze.

He smashes the mirror with a handy candelabra, fragmenting himself, and we see Adam as a series of male pop cultural icons: the Man with No Name (Clint Eastwood), Alice Cooper, Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan (Rudolph Valentino) and Adam in his dandy highwayman garb from ‘Stand and Deliver’. It’s the drag sequence in Bowie’s ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ promo, but this time cross-dressing in the clothes of the same gender. Metrosexuality is, after all, about accessorising attractiveness.

With admirable arrogance, this slightly odd-looking, very tiny man from the humblest of backgrounds imaginable has, via the powerful transformative magick of pop, inserted himself into the immortal iconography of male celluloid stars. His desire to be desired made famous flesh.

Cinders has found his Prince Charming – in himself. At his coming out ball.

Mind, he is only really convincing in his dandy highwayman role and as Valentino. His Valentino is actually quite devastating – a revelation, both in terms of Valentino and Ant. Besides, the fact that he knew and understood the long-dead silent screen star’s importance as one of the first male sex objects, let alone coveted it, is an indication of his close study of the subject.

But there is a ghost in attendance at this ball. The ghost of Johnny Depp Future, who was only 18 when this video was made. Depp credited Keith Richards with inspiring his criminally successful Pirates of the Caribbean ‘Jack Sparrow’ character – but curiously didn’t mention Adam Ant’s dandy highwayman. Which, visually at least, it clearly references. Perhaps he didn’t because Ant did it even prettier.

Some of Adam’s (much) later looks also put one in mind of Depp. Maybe it’s because facially they do share some genes. Or perhaps it’s because they are both, for that reason, stealing styling tips off each other – seeing each other as their respective reflections.

Call me a biased Limey, but I think it’s pretty clear that in all essentials, Adam is the original and Depp is the copy.

I posted a brief piece about Adam Ant and ‘Prince Charming’ on this blog many years ago – but it seems to have mysteriously vanished. Much like the revellers at Adam’s ball...

Pure XS & Impure Teacakes – The Problem With ‘Objectification’

The Narcissus myth about the beautiful, doomed youth who falls for his own reflection continues to be a mainstay of  this Millenium’s advertising – albeit re-written with a ‘happy ending’.

For example, this Pure XS Paco Rabanne TV ad set in a kind of Big Brother bathroom, stars a young, athletic and voluptuously beautiful man (Francisco Henriques) undressing/stripping for a bath, using the gold tap as a phallic signifier – while admiring himself in the mirror. All the while observed by young women through peepholes and two-way mirrors – admiring his admiration – and camply swooning to the floor as one at the end of the ad when he squirts the product at his groin.

Stinging nads to one side, the ad is a canny comment on – and exploitation of – the starring role of male vanity and ‘objectification’ in our 21st Century selfie-admiring, cam-show culture.

Thanks to a mediated world where everyone carries around a multiplying mirror in their pocket called a smartphone, Narcissus no longer wastes away unable to possess his reflection. He can reproduce himself endlessly on social media, become a sporno hero – and find himself reflected in the gaze of others. Male beauty and male tartiness, once stigmatised as ridiculous or perverted, are the shining, Immaced inspiration of our age -0 the very symbol of ‘sexiness’.

Which makes it all the more unforgivable that I missed the ad when it first aired last year. I was probably fastforwarding to the latest instalment of Love Island or Bromans. But not to worry, some 120 people complained to the Advertising Standards authority about it, getting it into the news this week.

Shockingly, they weren’t complaining about the fact that it ends too soon.

It seems that most were upset about the Pure XS ad ‘objectifying’ the young sporno featured voyeuristically in it, claiming it was sexist and offensive for that reason. Apparently objectification is a bad thing.

Fortunately for the future of spornosexual advertising, the ASA rejected these complaints, and ruled that it was ‘unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence’ – which seems ‘objectively’ true.

However, the basis of the ruling was pure doublespeak. According to the ASA the ad – which like many ads today goes to enormous trouble and glossy expense to serve up the young man as a all-singing, all-dancing SEX OBJECT – even helpfully showing him being perved over by young women – ‘did not objectify the male character’.

But the ASA itself admitted that the commercial:

‘was heavily focused on the physical appearance of the male character. The ad featured multiple shots in which the male character was topless and his expressions when looking in the mirror suggest he was admiring his own physique and attractiveness. We considered that this and the reactions of the women to him placed a strong emphasis on the attractiveness of the male character.’

Well, quite. You could hardly say otherwise. But they then go on to say:

‘However, we noted the scenario depicted in the ad was not realistic and the tone was risque but comedic and farcical. We considered the ad showed the male character’s attractiveness in a light-hearted, humorous way, rather than in a degrading or humiliating manner… we considered, for the above reasons the ad did not objectify the male character.’

It’s certainly true that the scenario depicted in the ad was presented as comedic and farcical – as well as sexualised and objectifying. The ‘light-hearted’ presentation of the ad (and I’m not really sure that sexiness, or multi-million pound fragrance advertising, is ever really ‘light-hearted’) does nothing to change the fact that it glories in presenting the man as a (very willing) sex-object. The humour may make it more palatable to some, including apparently the ASA, but it does not do away with ‘objectification’. There would be no ad without it.

What the ASA seems to be saying is that the male model was not objectified because it’s not bad objectification. Good objectification, according to the circuitous reasoning behind what is anyway a loaded term, can’t be objectification – because objectification is necessarily bad. When in fact, objectification can be… wonderful. Which is part of the reason why so many young men today work so hard to turn themselves into sexy things.

Which raises the issue that got this ruling a lot of attention in some sections of the press this week, and alerting me to the existence of the ad. It seems likely XS was complained about by people who are not really offended by it but pushing an agenda, or as they might put it, concerned about double standards.

A double standard that seems to hold that objectification of men is either impossible or is good if possible, and objectification of women is bad – by definition. A double standard that, on TV at least, seems to now be the dominant morality – in part because TV tends to be watched more by women than men. Even BBC costume dramas these days are all about the gratuitous topless male tottie. Indeed, things have got so bad of late that I am tempted to actually watch one.

The double standard appeared to be underlined by the ASA’s simultaneous ruling – after just one complaint – that an ad featuring an attractive young female tennis player was ‘objectifying’ and therefore upheld the complaint.

The poster ad for Tunnock’s tea cakes (which was placed near a tennis tournament in Scotland) showed an athletic young female tennis player holding a tea cake in place of a tennis ball at the top of her thigh with her skirt raised at the hip. Text underneath stated: ‘Where do you keep yours?’ Then beneath an image of the product the endline: ‘Serve up a treat.’


Explaining why they upheld the complaint the ASA said:

‘We considered the phrase “serve up a treat” would be understood to be a double entendre, implying the woman featured in the ad was the “treat”, and considered this was likely to be viewed as demeaning towards women…’.

‘We considered that although the image was only mildly sexual in nature, when combined with the phrase “serve up a treat” it had the effect of objectifying women by using a woman’s physical features to draw attention to the ad.’

‘In light of those factors, we concluded that the ad was likely to cause serious offence to some consumers and was socially irresponsible.’

The Tunnock’s tea cake ad is, like the product itself, very 1970s. It is not nearly as glossy or expensive or indeed as playful or as knowing or well made as the Paco Rabanne ad. And it isn’t, for my money, very funny. I’m not sure though that any of these points are sufficient reason for calling it ‘socially irresponsible’.

You could perhaps argue that it is ‘more’ objectifying than the Rabanne ad because of its disembodied nature (the shapely thigh has no face) – and because of the history of female objectification.

But the ASA doesn’t argue this. It doesn’t accept, remember, that the Rabanne ad is objectifying at all. Difficult not to conclude that the main difference that the ASA seems to be interested in here is that one objectifying ad features a man, the other a woman. Indeed, if the tennis player had been a man wearing a kilt with the same text and the teacake in the same place I have a hunch the ASA would not have upheld the complaint. Or at least, I certainly hope not.

It upheld the complaint about the Tunnock ad on the grounds that it ‘uses a woman’s physical features to draw attention to an ad’. But that is precisely what the Paco Rabanne ad does with a man’s physical features – and at greater, HD length. Though granted without the cringe making copywriting.

Perhaps the strongest grounds the ASA has in censuring the sticky ad and not the smelly one is that it ‘bore no relevance to the advertised product’. Paco Rabanne, like most fragrances, is associated – or tries very hard to associate itself – with sensuality and sexuality. But this doesn’t seem to be a major part of the ASA’s ruling. And anyway there are all sorts of products pushed in prime time by attractive, mostly naked young men in ads that don’t bear much relevance to the product – or tin mining in 18th Century Cornwall.

Interestingly, some of those 120 complaints about the aftershave ad claimed it was ‘sexist’ because it ‘depicted women as powerless and weak and therefore reinforced stereotypes’.

These complaints were also not upheld. The ASA’s explanation points out that the women are ‘in a position of power over the male character’ because they are voyeuristically watching him, possibly unseen. Again, admitting in effect that the young man is objectified – despite asserting in their first ruling that he is not.

‘We considered because the women were seen to be watching the man, perhaps without his knowledge, it suggested they were in a position of power over the male character. We noted as the ad progressed and the male character was in various stages of undress, it was evident from the reactions of the women depicted they were increasingly being overcome with excitement. We further noted during one of the final scenes, all of the women were seen to have fainted and collapsed at the sight of the man spraying the fragrance towards his groin.’

The ASA ruled that the surreal and farcical nature of the ad meant it was unlikely to reinforce stereotypes of women and concluded it was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence. Which essentially means: only an idiot would take the fainting seriously.

I would add that the women’s voyeuristic enjoyment of the young man and their very visible arousal over him show that

a) The ad is depicts the women as having very active, almost perverse, sexual appetites, which is about as contrary to stereotypical portrayals as you can get

and

b) Their ecstatic response to his tarting shows that being ‘objectified’ can be very powerful. Which of course further undermines the ASA’s notion that it’s necessarily ‘bad’.

I’m not sure that I should be bringing any of this up though. All drawing attention to the possibility of a double standard here is likely to achieve is the banning of male objectification as well as the female variety – for the sake of ‘equality’.

And that would be horribly cruel. Narcissus really would wither away then.

Postscript: My chum Simon Mason helpfully pointed out something I’d forgotten – that the Pure XS ad is rather similar to a German ad I wrote about a few years back, which features a young sporno taking a bath, spied on by the camera/us, a voyeurism he seems to approvingly acknowledge towards the end:

Update May 2019

Jose Arroyo kindly pointed out the soundtrack for the ad is the Habanera from Bizet’s Carmen – an aria that Carmen sings in answer to the young men flirting with her outside the factory where she works:

Love is a rebellious bird
That none can tame,
And it is well in vain that one calls it,
If it suits it to refuse.
Nothing to be done, threat or prayer;
The one talks well, the other is silent,
And it’s the other that I prefer;

He’s silent but I like his looks.

Love! Love! Love! Love!