Metrosexual? That

rings a bell....

By Mark Simpson

Independent on Sunday 22/6/03 [unedited version]

Earlier this week I had an odd experience of déjà vu. Well, déjà pense actually. I kept seeing an American ‘trendspotter’ popping up on telly and in the papers talking excitedly about this exciting new kind of man she’d discovered called a ‘metrosexual’. Apparently he's a ‘man with money and an interest in fashion and beauty who lives within easy reach of a city’. He's also the new dream target market of advertisers and David Beckham is the ultimate manifestation of the phenomenon.

Hmmm. This sounds rather familiar, I thought, but where have I heard it before? Media pundits and marketers throw so many new hyperactive buzzwords at us it’s so difficult to keep up, even when they’re as memorably silly as ‘metrosexual’. I go online and visit, a handy website devoted to tracking and documenting the appearance of neologisms and type in ‘metrosexual’ .

I get this result: ‘A dandyish narcissist in love with not only himself but also his urban lifestyle…. Mark Simpson invented this term in 1994 [in the Independent], but it has been picked up by numerous media outlets, including the Observer, the Herald and Maclean’s magazine.’

So that’s where I heard this one before.

Wordspy continues: ‘Here is Simpson’s description of the metrosexual type that appeared in online magazine [July 22, 2002; and which, funnily enough, cited David Beckham as the ultimate metrosexual]: “The typical metrosexual is a young man with money to spend, living in or within easy reach of a metropolis – because that’s where all the best shops, clubs, gyms and hairdressers are. He might be officially gay, straight or bisexual, but this is utterly immaterial because he has clearly taken himself as his own love object and pleasure as his sexual preference. Particular professions, such as modelling, waiting tables, media, pop music and, nowadays, sport, seem to attract them but, truth be told, like male vanity products and herpes, they’re pretty much everywhere.”’

As are, apparently, the people who want to screw him.

Some of whom are very big hitters. Marian Salzman, the ad-woman talking breathlessly about her metrosexual on breakfast television, is Chief Strategy Officer at Euro RCSG Worldwide, one of the largest advertising agencies on the planet. She is credited, by her own publicity at any rate, with coining the phrase ‘wigger’ and identifying the Bridget Jones phenomenon before Helen Fielding (though this may be news to Ms Fielding).

I wouldn’t dream of being so churlish – or foolish – as to get in someone like Ms Salzman’s way, and while I may quite possibly have been the first in print with the term – so far I haven't come across an earlier reference – it seems very unlikely that I was the first to ever utter the word. Nevertheless, I can’t help but point out that it’s every so slightly surreal, almost situationist even, to see metrosexuality now being talked about with such transatlantic earnestness and such multi-billion dollar seriousness.

Truth is, I was not being entirely serious when I first wrote about metrosexuality back in 1994, shortly after the publication of my book about contemporary masculine identity, ‘Male Impersonators: Men Performing Masculinity’. That’s to say, when I wrote about how male metrosexuality was coming out of the closet and taking over the world, I was being slightly satirical about the effect of consumerism and media proliferation, particularly glossy men’s magazines, on traditional masculinity. But then, this wouldn’t be the first time a satire on consumerism was appropriated by consumerism to hasten the process it sought to critique.

It was clear however even in the early Nineties that old-fashioned (re)productive, repressed, unmoisturised masculinity was being given the pink slip by consumer capitalism. The stoic, self-denying, modest straight male didn’t shop enough – his role was to earn money for his wife to spend – so he had to be replaced by a new kind of man, one less certain of his identity and much more interested in his image, that’s to say one who was much more interested in being looked at; because that’s the only way, these days, you can be certain you exist. A man, in other words, who is an advertiser’s walking wet dream.

Mind you, even I wouldn’t have dared predict back then the rise of Beckham and his sarongs and nail varnish. It’s clear though that, like metrosexuality, Becks is someone that if he didn’t exist so-called ‘late’ capitalism would have had to invent. Beckham is the metrosexual future, but also a way of adapting other, less ‘advanced’ 'retrosexual' specimens to that future. His boundless narcissism, proudly on display in newspapers, magazines, billboards and TV advertising not only persuades other men to buy but also encourages them to aspire (hopelessly) to the same level of corporate-sponsored exhibitionism - which can only make them even more likely to part with their cash.

Gay men provided the early prototype for metrosexuality. Decidedly single, definitely urban, dreadfully uncertain of their identity (hence the emphasis on pride and the susceptibility to the latest label) and socially emasculated, gay men pioneered the business of accessorising – and combining – masculinity and desirability. After the rise of feminism and the fall of the nuclear family, straight men too were increasingly single, uncertain of their identity, and socially emasculated in a world where women were still regents of the private sphere but also competition in the public world. Little wonder that straight men began to adopt the neurotic strategies of gay men, both as a survival technique but also as a way of advancing themselves in an increasingly visual, aestheticized world where women were not only more discriminating but also more likely to be your boss.

New Man and New Lad, apparently antagonistic phenomena, were in fact intimately related – both were the offspring of glossy magazine culture. Both were also about a kind of commodified masculine self-consciousness that stemmed from insecurity and rootlessness – though, ironically, New Lad was much more successful in selling men fashion and vanity products than New Man. In other words, new men and new lads both had strong metrosexual tendencies, it’s just that new lads hadn’t come out to each other (or themselves) yet. It was Beckham the new mannish footballing icon and militant metrosexualist who outed the footie fetishising new lads.

Of course, this is all mere speculation on my part. Ms Salzman and Euro RSCG however have done some research. They have conducted a survey. In a report called 'Metrosexuals: The Future of Men' they declare that metrosexual men are no longer so self-absorbed and dandyish as they once appeared, and are 'much more family-oriented'. Apparently metrosexual men are also very fond of Felicity Kendal, a TV actress famous for playing middle class crumpet in the 1970s, and that in fact metrosexual man is “any straight man who has a salmon pink shirt in his wardrobe".

So the that dandyish young metrosexual about town is actually a nappy-changing, middle-aged local branch bank manager. Okay.... Perhaps Euro RSCG's peculiar results have something to do with the fact that their 'Future of Men' survey into 'metrosexuals' covered a rather top-heavy age range of 21-48 (the main target market of corporate sponsors of 'ultimate metrosexual' David Beckham, by contrast, are males aged 14-21). Many of the men they were surveying were simply too old to be metrosexualised. More puzzlingly still, this research into masculinity appears to have actually surveyed more women ('with a man in their life') than men; something which would of course have caused an outcry if the genders were reversed and it were presented as a major study into femininity. No wonder Salzman's metrosexual is so domesticated.

In their understandable and rather endearing haste to broaden the appeal and maximise the profitability of their metrosexual category - hence the repeated reassurances that the metrosexual is actually straight - the marketers seem to be in danger of rendering it at best meaningless and at worst, like a salmon pink shirt or Felicity Kendal, something that most metrosexuals probably wouldn’t be seen dead in.

Metrosexmania Update (August 2003)

On the day this article appeared a major feature on metrosexuals by Warren St John (‘Metrosexuals come out’) ran in the New York Times in which I was credited/blamed for starting the metrosexual epidemic back in 1994.

Being fingered by the NYT as the father of the metrosexual turned out to be a mixed blessing of course. The media gang-bang of the metrosexual continued to grow, rapidly developing into a case of full-blown global metrosexmania. Is there a single publication in the ‘developed’ world, other than Farming Monthly which hasn’t run the story? In the weeks after the article appeared I was bombarded with requests for interviews about 'my' bastard child from, amongst others, The Straits Times in Singapore, the Chicago Sun-Times, OM Russia, 60 Minutes Australia, the L.A. Times and CNN. On one especially strange afternoon I found myself being interviewed in my back garden by Russian TV. ‘What does a typical metrosexual wear,’ the interviewer asked in a very serious tone, ‘what does he eat?’

‘Search me,’ I replied. ‘Ask the marketers. Clearly I display some of the symptoms of male vanity, but I’m a rather bad metrosexual. As you can see from my un-ironed sportswear, I’m more of a lesbosexual.’ (Lord knows how this was dubbed in Russian.)

What I really meant to say was: I’m much more interesting than that bleedin’ nancy-boy metrosexual. Let’s talk about me instead of him. Sadly, the world continued to be much more interested in the frankenstein media monster with perfect skin stalking/sashaying the globe than the dowdy guy who apparently spawned him.

Then, the day before we were due to appear on the same CNN programme to discuss the metrosexual, where he came from and where he's going, the trend spotter Marian Salzman emailed me - in a much friendlier and more flattering tone than my article above might have been expected to provoke - to ‘correct a misunderstanding’. She confirmed that my article ‘Meet the metrosexual’ of last year was indeed the original source for the metrosexual concept – which ‘we updated, based on a more commercial take on the now’ – and that this had never been a secret: despite the impression of conveyed by some of the interviews with her, she had always been careful to credit my ‘genius’ and ‘inspiring’ work in her briefings on metrosexuals to the media.

Flattery may be cheap, especially from the advertising business, but I have to confess it comes very close to being my price. Maybe I’m more metrosexual than I’m willing to admit.

Convicts and sodomites (January 2005)

Metrosexual completists, and those interested in a glimpse of how the global media works, may find the story of the appropriation of the ‘m’ word in the Southern Hemisphere entertainingly instructive.  You might be forgiven for thinking that Australia is one of those few remaining strongholds of retrosexuality; a Continent of Crocodile Dundees where men are men and sheep are nervous. 

If you did you’d be very much mistaken.  Australia, which in the last couple of decades has become rapidly urbanised, middle-class and service-economy orientated – as well as highly mediatised – fell headlong in love with my bastard son with impeccable grooming. 

But not with me.

The first Antipodean sighting of the term was, I believe, in an article called 'Rise of the Metrosexual' which appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald and its sister paper The Age in March 2003, some months after ‘Meet the metrosexual’ ran on Salon (July 2002).  This article is  clearly somewhat ‘influenced’ by ‘Meet the metrosexual’, right down to the title and the picture of David Beckham used to illustrate the piece.  However, there are some indisputable differences: it’s more Australian (it mentions Ian Thorpe) and there is no mention of his Pommie, badly behaved bugger dad.

Oh, and it’s not very funny; it’s much more commercially focussed. And there’s nothing more serious than marketing (note also the mention of Euro RSCG).  Given the glut of derivative metrosexual articles that appeared in 2003, and the fact that I have, quite rightly, no legal ownership of the word, this wouldn't be worth mentioning, except for the fact that a) This was one of the very first, as well as one of the most widely read: The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald both being respected newspapers with an online global presence, and b) I had myself offered The Age a version of 'Meet the metrosexual' some months previously. They turned it down, but were apparently happy to run a piece based on it but which didn’t mention me (or sodomy - admittedly something I do mention far too often). 

Speaking of Australians and their plain-dealing reputation, later that same year 60 Minutes Australia wanted me to appear on their show to talk about metrosexuals.  Fancying a free trip to Oz I agreed (if my bastard son can travel all over the globe, why can't I have one trip at his expense?) but then of course was punished for my attempt at media whoring: they repeatedly changed the dates of my trip at the last minute.  As a coup de grace the flaky Aussies finally aired the show without me, without any mention of me, and best of all without even telling me that I wasn’t going to be flying out to Sydney after all.  

Hilariously, I only found out the piece had aired because the editor of one of the Oz papers that had printed the dodgy ‘Rise of the metrosexual’ article finally sent me an email defending the derivative piece in which he sniffed: 'I notice that 60 Minutes Australia ran an item on the metrosexual last night without any mention of you.’ Apparently Australian journalistic unprofessionalism in one medium is the perfect alibi for more Australian unprofessionalism in another.

No apology, no explanation – and no cancellation fee – was forthcoming from 60 Minutes Australia. Crocodile Dundee's word may have been his Bondi Beach but with modern Australians, especially those that work in the media, make sure you get everything in writing.

Mind you, if 60 Minutes Australia's metrosexual item is anything to go by, Australian media metrosexuals are lying mostly to themselves. The segment that aired consisted largely of a rather anxious Australian metrosexual saying over and over again that he fancied women, okay?, and complaining that he didn’t like the ‘sexual’ part of the word – probably because, it reminded him of ‘homosexual’ – and that in fact metrosexuals should be called ‘metromachos’. Clearly, even if he couldn’t quite admit it to himself, he was aching to join The Village People. 

No wonder Australia decided she/he could live without me.

© Mark Simpson 2005

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