The man who coined the phrase takes a look into metrosexuality’s impact on masculinity.
This is an excerpt—the first half of the introduction—from Mark Simpson’s new book, Metrosexy: A 21st Century Self-Love Story.
“Straight lads are such bloody tarts now,” my mate Farmer Dave observed, gazing at a young skimpily-but-nicely-turned-out man, past my shoulder. “And it’s all your fault.” He didn’t seem to be complaining.
A warm Summer evening last year and we were enjoying a pint of mild outside a pub in the rufty-tufty rural market town in the North East of England – let’s call it ‘Trumpton’ – where I now live, after agreeing to a trial separation with London a couple of years ago that has turned permanent. In the big metropolis, far, far away, it was Gay Pride. But we didn’t feel we were missing out too much.
That’s because although we were hundreds of country miles away from all that oiled-up action, thanks to the triumph of metrosexual pride in the Noughties, we had plenty to look at. The cream of the local lads, in their fake tans, fashionably complicated jeans, sculpted hair, Soho beards, figure-hugging shirts and intricate, muscle-flattering designer tatts, were showing one another – and me and Dave – their hard-earned biceps, pecs and abs. While copping a feel. A particularly fragrant and buff rugby player from my gym turned up in a sprayed-on top, gave me a big smile, pec-to-pec hug and a sloppy kiss on the neck. Which was nice. Metrosexual pride is a touching thing – and it doesn’t happen just once a year. Earlier in the evening, a couple of other lads had insisted on showing us their shaved pubes and latest ‘private’ piercings. At the bar. In front of their girlfriends – who just rolled their eyes.
Dave and I appreciated, of course, the kind generosity shown by these straight lads with their bodies, but agreed that it meant we were pretty much redundant now. The only two gays in the village looked decidedly like non-lipstick lesbians next to this lot. A decade and a half after I first wrote about metrosexuals in the Independent newspaper in 1994, ‘Here Come the Mirror Men’, and eight years after I returned to the subject in 2002 for the American onlinemagazine Salon.com in ‘Meet the Metrosexual’ – this time actually persuading the rest of the world to notice them too – rather a lot of straight boys are better at the ‘gay’ thing than most gays these days. Not least because unlike most gay men in London, hiding behind their dreary cub-clone or bear-Mary look – and unlike, in fact, the uptight lesbosexual ‘daddy’ of the metrosexual himself – they’re not terrified of something that might look a bit ‘girly’. All they care about, along with half of today’s Premiere League, is looking hot.
Nor is it just a metropolitan thing anymore. Even in Trumpton these days far too many young straight men have better bodies, better skin, better clothes and just a better sense of male sexiness than men who are supposed to be full-time fans of it. At the end of the first decade of the Twenty First Century, metrosexuality, the male desire to be desired – by everyone, including and sometimes especially by other men – once regarded as pathological, perverted and definitely something to keep to yourself, is so commonplace as to be almost ‘normal’. Perhaps even – eek! – ordinary.
In fact, in their quest to be noticed in a webcammed, Facebooked world where so many young men seem to be aiming to be the next Men’s Health cover model, they have gone beyond metrosexual to become positively metrotarty. Hence all that sporno advertising of late involving Beckham and other sporting bucks, semi-naked on the side of buses shoving their Armani-clad giant packets down our throats. No wonder more than one straight lad in Trumpton has asked me if I can ‘get me a photo shoot with one of them gay mags.’ Gay erotica is, after all, the sensibility of metrosexuality: gay men were the first to fetishise and idolise the male form. Even if they’ve now been elbowed out of the way by straight men who want to do it to themselves.
Not everyone is happy with this state of affairs. Some gays, understandably, don’t appreciate being upstaged. Or being confused. And of course quite a few traditionalist heteros also hate metrosexuality along with the sexual uncertainty that it represents, and wish it would just go away, or have a terrible accident on the sunbed. Or they want to pretend that it never happened, that it was all just a bad, over-plucked dream. Such nostalgic determination not to see what should be as plain as the bronzer on your face is, in its way, quite endearing. But when media types start cooing as they have done lately about ‘retrosexuals’ that are just metrosexuals with shaped chest hair, I can’t help but roll my eyes like the girlfriends of the lads flashing me their shaved balls.
You see, when I first used the word ‘retrosexual’ back in 2003, I just meant men who were not metrosexual. So-called ‘regular guys’. Remember those? But at the dawn of the second decade of the Twenty First Century, masculinity has been rendered so self-conscious in our mediated, mirrored world that even ‘regular guys’ are apparently just a fashion fad – this season’s accessory. We’re all like my post-op MTF transsexual friend Michelle (formerly known as the male stripper ‘Stud-U-Like’) complaining: ‘Where can you find a REAL man these days?? I’m so SICK of all these metrosexual PHONIES!’ Though probably with less self-irony.
What else could explain the squealing eagerness with which the media seized upon the confected character of Mad Men’s Don Draper as an example of the return of the ‘retrosexual’? An impossibly pretty and impeccably well-turned out Army deserter with identity issues – and a hidden, shameful secret – who works as an advertising creative and is the unwavering object of the camera’s voyeuristic gaze. We’re so metrosexualised now that this is what ‘old-time masculinity’ looks like to us. Put another way, metrosexuality is masculinity mediated, aestheticised and (self) fetishised. Even if it looks fetching in a trilby.
If I’m honest, when I moved to Trumpton I was feeling a bit nostalgic and jaded myself, half- hoping to find something a little more retro and rural after the frantic LOOK! AT! MEEE!! artifice of the metropolis. Instead, I just found that the Physical Training Instructors from the local garrison look like male strippers – but with more convincing combat trousers. Or to paraphrase Quentin Crisp: There is no Great Dark Man – just an orange one with big tits. And I think I can now finally live with that.
I don’t blame people who have a love-hate relationship with the metrosexual. His daddy has had one too. Most of us would like to kill the thing we love from time to time – probably with our bare hands. I have certainly thought about it. As you’ll see in these selected writings from the metrosexual Noughties, I’ve sometimes said some very unkind things about my offspring. Although, probably, I was just jealous of all the attention he was getting and the company he was keeping. In the end – especially when I saw him being queer bashed in the media in the mid-Noughties – I had to admit that, on the whole, he’s probably better than what went before and is mostly to be welcomed.
And yes, the word has been bandied about so much, so globally, that it has lost some of its original value. Male vanity is, as we’ve all seen again and again and again – at the pub, at the beach, the gym, the office, the garage, the bloody supermarket – so mainstream, so every day that the word should be redundant by now. The metrosexual is dead – long live metrosexuality!
But, interestingly, the word itself doesn’t quite die. Every few months marketers and journalists try to kill off the metrosexual and replace him with something always presented as being ‘less vain’ and ‘less gay’. But they always seem to fail. The ‘ubersexual’, the ‘heteropolitan’, and the ‘machosexual’ to name but a forgotten few, have all come and gone unlamented by everyone who doesn’t live by focus groups. While the ‘m’ word seems to persistently remain in circulation.
Perhaps this is because people generally know when they are being sold something twice. The usual recycling of consumerism we’re over-familiar with: something old repackaged as something new to sell it all over again. Now that masculinity has been commodified, why not repackage men – regularly? But marketers being marketers, they usually can’t help but make their metro replacements too goody-goody to be true. Or even likeable. Perhaps these solicitous attempts to sell ‘improved’ metro replacements fail because men, generally, recognise this marketing flattery as being really designed to make them feel even more anxious and inadequate than they do already. And besides, in airbrushing away his vanity and queerness, the marketers airbrushed away the very things that made people interested in him in the first place.
These marketers are usually, it has to be said, American, and it was America which went craziest for the metrosexual in the early Noughties. In fact, it had some kind of national nervous breakdown over him – exhibiting what can only be described as full-blown multimedia metrosexmania: legions of articles were written, TV spots and documentaries aired, and books published. A metrosexual makeover TV series – ‘Queer Eye For the Straight Guy’ – became a smash hit. As a sign of his supreme cultural importance, an entire episode of South Park was devoted to lampooning the metrosexual. No wonder at the end of 2003 the National Dialect Society declared ‘metrosexual’ ‘Word of the Year’. But it almost goes without saying that for the most part this metrosexmania – Oooh! Facials! Oooh! Sack and crack waxes! – drowned out any serious discussion or examination of metrosexuality, and the masculine revolution it represented. Ironically metrosexuality was anything but skin deep, whilst metrosexmania pretended that’s all it was.