Being a guy used to be easy. Now it’s just confusing. Are you an ultra dad or a lumbersexual? And who’s the better role model – David Beckham or Louis CK? Max Olesker asks what’s happened to masculinity, and if it has a future
In the far-flung misty past, being a man was a simple thing. You left school, got a job, got married, had children, drank heavily, played golf, had an aborted affair, never spoke about your feelings under any circumstances, and died of a heart attack aged 56. Easy.
But we’re well into the 21st century and the rule book for men (now an ebook) has been torn up (corrupted). These days, things are different. I am a feminist. I am also a man. I care passionately about feminism, but I also want to know what it means to be a man in 2015, and that can feel like a difficult subject to address. These days the very discussion of male identity can end up aligning you with swivel-eyed men’s rights activists or the misogynistic Red Pillers on Reddit who spend their time discussing how women have it so much better.
I’m not sure when I first heard the term “mansplaining” – the act of a man explaining something condescendingly to a woman – but I do know that as soon as I became aware of it I felt terrified that I’d inadvertently done it at some point. So, too, with “manspreading” – the unnecessary splaying of one’s legs when sat on public transport, as though attempting to clench a large invisible Swiss ball between your thighs. The word was popularised recently when papers (and Twitter, and the blogosphere) picked up on the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s awareness campaign encouraging subway riders to consider other people’s personal space (“Dude… Stop the Spread, Please” ran the ads).
And there’s more – a whole new world of pejorative “man-” prefixes. There’s “manterrupting”, “manstanding” and “manslamming”. Oh, and “bropropriating”. Each word defines an instance of men using their privilege – intentionally or otherwise – in a manner that is patronising or obnoxious. Collectively their role is surely to highlight “mantisocial” behaviour, as perpetrated by “mantagonists” (you’re welcome, sociologists of the future).
At their best, such terms can be used to highlight the boorish behaviour of self-important or oblivious men. At their worst, they present a conversational “Esc” button that renders discourse impossible. But on the whole, that’s not for men to worry about. I mean, we should all be trying not to be pricks – that’s truly basic stuff, and the words used to highlight prickishness shouldn’t really matter. It’s easy for reactionary old duffers to respond to such new ideas by spluttering something incoherent about “feminazis”, but they’re wrong. Conversations about male behaviour feel necessary because, on the whole, men feel lost.
“Basically,” says author and journalist Mark Simpson, “no one really knows what masculinity is, or is for, these days.” I can’t help but agree. It feels as if, as the traditional ideals of the 20th-century man – strong, stoic, repressed – begin to fade away, nothing has stepped in to replace them. In today’s pop-culture landscape there’s no single archetypal ideal that we’re supposed to emulate.
A brief survey of prominent contemporary male figures – both fictional and non – on film, TV and the internet offers extremely mixed results. Whom should we aspire to be like? Christian Grey, the unpleasant, controlling billionaire with a penchant for rough sex and dubious attitudes towards consent? The impossibly perfect ultra-dad that David Beckham has become since his latest firmware upgrade? The resurgent Dapper Laughs, with his bantz-errific lad drivel? The bewildered, incredulous everyman played by Louis CK in Louie?
Perhaps Rob Delaney’s character in the fantastic sitcom Catastrophe – a guy who gets a woman pregnant after a one-night stand and wants to make good on his responsibilities – comes close. He seems like a nice dude, determined to do the decent thing in trying circumstances. Personally, I’ve developed a man crush on the suave polyglot Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, who I choose to believe spends his evenings wryly lifting weights and playing chess at the same time, while also cooking his wife a three-course meal. With his mind. But how can any of us hope to become Varoufakis when he won’t even return my tweets?
There is an argument that masculinity is in crisis; Labour MP Diane Abbott expressed it in a 2013 speech, describing today’s generation as being “caught between the ‘stiff-upper-lip’ approach of previous generations and today’s cultural tornado of male cosmetics, white-collar industry and modernised workplaces”. In 2014 the Southbank Centre hosted its inaugural Being a Man festival, a weekend of inward-looking discussion about the changing nature of masculinity – contributors included Jon Snow, Billy Bragg and Grayson Perry (it’s taking place again in November). This year the Male Psychology Conference, which proposes a dedicated Male Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society, will convene for the second time at University College London.
As I spent the majority of my teenage years travelling the UK as a professional wrestler (I performed as Max Voltage, the Human Dynamo), it’s likely that my male role models were different from yours. I grew up in awe of the larger-than-life men I watched on TV – cartoonishly giant alpha males with names like Macho Man Randy Savage or Brutus Beefcake. I gradually moved away from wrestling full time, but I retained my fascination with gym culture and the male identity – which is what led me to Mark Simpson. He has been one of our most prescient commentators on the male condition for some time. He was the first to chronicle the mainstream move towards “metrosexuality” in 1994, and more recently he’s identified “spornosexuality”: a portmanteau word he coined to describe men who aspire to the toned, ripped proportions of a sportsman-slash-porn-star.
It’s the inevitable successor to the metrosexual, for the sporno sculpts not just his hair but his very physique. He’s a V-neck-sporting, perma-tanned, vascular, hairless, HD-ready embodiment of 21st-century male vanity. He’s the bloke doing the “guns” pose in the middle of the club while holding two Jägerbombs. He’s the guy on your newsfeed who seems firmly committed to becoming the Samuel Pepys of daily ab-selfies. He’s the cheeky lad going out with your younger sister – he’s got a firm handshake, a good line in “chat”, and you secretly hope that he’ll die in a fire.
The sporno is as fixated with whey protein, creatine and fat-strippers (the hyphen there is crucial) as he is with clothes and grooming. This jacked, pumped, shredded look is far and away the most physically demanding aesthetic that men have ever embraced en masse (I speak from experience; I briefly attempted to attain the look and can report that it’s hugely draining and time consuming). It’s what Diane Abbott identified in her speech as “Viagra and Jack Daniels culture”, an impossible, pornified ideal that lads feel they must aspire to in the absence of anything else. Anything better.
If the spornosexual has his way, then masculinity’s future is undoubtedly orange (and hairless). But it might not be. In recent months a new potential successor has emerged: the “lumbersexual”. He’s the bearded, flannel shirt-wearing, rugged outdoorsman type, who always appears to have emerged from his mountaintop log cabin to work as a “creative” in an east London advertising agency. It’s about having a raison d’être that is practical, or seems practical – “a metrosexual grasping at masculinity”, as Denver Nicks, self-professed lumbersexual, writes in Time. The ultimate lumbersexual pin-up is Ron Swanson, the meat-powered, post-ironic male throwback from Parks and Recreation, and its mecca is almost certainly a shop on the Hackney Road called Barn the Spoon, which is run by a bloke who whittles spoons by hand from foraged wood and once lived in a forest full time.
“It’s surprising how many people have so much invested in obsolete but reassuring notions about masculinity,” says Simpson. “Even groovy ‘progressive’ C4 recently told us repeatedly that ‘real men’ are all about skid marks and killing your lunch with your own hands [on Bear Grylls’s reality TV show The Island] – the hunter-gatherer cliché from not even Victorian times but 12,000 years ago. I wonder what would have happened if they had aired a reality show that tested ‘real femininity’ by locking up a group of women in Mothercare or the kitchen.”
In historian George Mosse’s The Image of Man, masculinity in western culture is closely tied to the fears and hopes of modern society. As our own hopes become more amorphous, so too does the “purpose” of masculinity. Young men have given up on the dream of the job-for-life, house, kids, Alsatian and quadruple gold-plated pension, and for older men this once-inevitable set of circumstances appears increasingly shaky. It’s a cultural shift with very real repercussions. A report by the Office of National Statistics, published last month, shows that male suicide rates are at their highest since 2001 and have increased steadily since the recession of 2007; in England and Wales, men are more than three times as likely to kill themselves than women. Men still feel under immense pressure to be the breadwinners, whether or not that’s expected of them, and the most at risk are 45- to 59-year-olds – those more likely to have been raised with entrenched traditional values, and to have been in the full bloom of their careers when the credit crunch struck.
Charities such as Calm, Muted, Sane and the Movember Foundation exist to fight the stigma surrounding depression and mental health, but men remain far less likely to talk to someone about their feelings (be it a professional or their mates) than women. So perhaps this, above any antiquated notion of manliness, is what we need to address. Both the gym bunnies and the faux woodsmen are acting on the same impulse: to find an identity and a set of values they can subscribe to. “When people talk about a ‘crisis of masculinity’ they’re usually talking about their own,” says Simpson. “They’re dealing with the fact that modern masculinity isn’t what they want or expect it to be. It’s changed. Tremendously. And it’s going to change even more.”
Personally, I think that a fundamental change in masculine values is just the flip side of equality. Just as men must fight for, support and celebrate female progress – with initiatives such as HeForShe, launched last year – we must help one another as we enter the next stage of our cultural evolution. If we do, maybe our personal masculine crises will give way to personal masculine identities all of our own. What have we got to lose by trying this? Nothing but our ever-increasing sense of worthlessness.
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