Quiet Riot Girl examines the intersection of men, metrosexuality and disability.
Steve Sparshott is a writer who lives on a rather fashionable street in London. He is forty years old. He likes clothes, and seems to have a particular penchant for snazzy retro trainers. He enjoys photography, and some of his photos on his Flickr are of himself, often looking pretty dapper.’ I’d say Steve was ‘metrosexual’. He, like most of us, is aware of his ‘desire to be desired’.
But Steve also has disabilities.
In 2003 he suffered a brain injury during a road accident, and now has very limited mobility, and some problems with functions we all take for granted like speaking (I know it is more complex than that. I am just stating the basics). Here is Steve in his own words:
‘Let me tell you about my “wheel-chair”…It’s electric–I don’t even have the dignity of a cool titanium-framed carbon-wheeled manual chair, because my right arm has no function at all; I could propel a manual, but only in circles. So I hum along, steering the thing left-handed with a little joystick. It’s correctly called a powerchair. People call it an “electric chair”, and we laugh, or a scooter, and I correct them. If I had a pound for every time I’ve seen someone park one of those mobility scooters, hop off, extinguish their cigarette and stroll into a shop, I’d have enough money to buy a pair of American Apparel underpants.’
There has been much written by feminists on pressures on women caused by ideals of feminine ‘beauty’, as promoted by the media. Ever since Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth (1991) it has been accepted that we should be critical of how women’s Body Image is affected by representation. But less thought or attention has been given to men in this regard.
According to Mark Simpson, originator of the term and key theorist of ‘metrosexuality’, it’s not about flip-flops and facials, ‘man-bags’ or ‘manscara’. Or about men becoming ‘girlie’ or ‘gay’. Metrosexuality is about men becoming everything. To themselves. In much the way that women have been for some time’.
So if men are starting to enjoy being ‘objects of desire’ just like women, it is likely that they are also becoming subject to the pressures of the ‘body beautiful’, just like women. How do these pressures manifest themselves, particularly for disabled men?
Metrosexuality could be described as narcissism as enabled by consumerism. And people with disabilities care about how they look and consume products like everyone: they buy shower gel, they wear American Apparel underpants, they browse tumblr for fashion ideas.
But metrosexuality is also about ‘mediated masculinities’. It’s about imagery. And the images of men that look back at us when we switch on the TV, open the newspaper, glance at a billboard, browse the internet, all seem to fit a certain model of ‘masculine’ bodily perfection.
As Simpson has explained, these ideals of masculine bodily perfection have been particularly sold to us via a phenomenon he identifies as ‘sporno’, where ‘sports and porn meet’.
‘Sportsmen on this side of the Atlantic are increasingly openly acknowledging and flirting with their gay fans, a la David Beckham and Freddie Ljunberg…Both these thoroughbreds have posed for spreads in gay magazines and both have welcomed the attention of gay fans because they “have great taste.” More than this, they and a whole new generation of young bucks are actively pursuing sex-object status. In other words: they’re not just sports stars, but sporno stars.’
The images of ‘ideal’ metrosexual, commodified masculinities, which are also sold to us day in, day out, by Men’s Health Magazine, by men’s fashion and ‘grooming’ media, by reality TV, by advertising, don’t just present problems for disabled men, they put pressure on all men, to look a certain way. This pressure largely goes unexamined, as we are continually told by feminism, that we live in a culture that objectifies women, not men.
One group who have examined men’s body image critically, is gay men. As this writer points out, some gay men try to fit the ‘muscle man’ ideal of masculinity, in order to ‘pass’ as straight, as normal:
‘I often run into the skinny, soft boys I knew from queer youth groups in Hayward, Berkeley and Oakland, newly transformed into hulking Adonises. I even occasionally see some of them at the gym, where I seem to be spending as much time as they do…After years of trying to be “real men” in order to be accepted by heterosexuals, we gave up and ran for the hills of San Francisco. There, we learned the same lessons over again that were drummed into our skulls as kids: If you want to make in the world, kid, you’d better turn that swish into a swagger.’
And this man is concerned about how gay pornography puts pressure on gay men to fit the stereotype mould of masculine perfection:
‘For many gay men their introduction into sexuality is still through the purview of pornography, and yet I question whether the images in today’s gay male pornography teach anyone anything about sexuality that isn’t, fundamentally, a lie: bodies that are never big enough, aggressive enough, sexy enough, suppressed of enough emotion.
These critiques are valuable but I find their focus on gay men leads to a kind of pathologising of gay men. I am a bit wary of studies, such as this one, which present illnesses such as anorexia as a ‘gay men’s problem’, and very wary of books such as The Velvet Rage which present every aspect of being a gay man, bodily and psychologically, as some kind of ‘disease’.
Again, Mark Simpson had his finger on masculinity’s pulse, when he explained how the muscle culture is no longer just affecting gay men but all men. And that issues like steroid use are a direct result of, and a contributor to, the changing ‘metrosexual’ models of masculinity in our society:
‘The key to this mainstreaming of steroids is vanity. If you want to get into people’s bloodstream these days, promise to make them like what they see in the smoke-glass gym-mirror. According to the surveys, the large majority of young men using the gear are not doing so to be stronger or faster or scarier – all traditionally acceptable ‘masculine’ ambitions – but to look more attractive. To look shaggable. Or just make you look’.
He also points out how steroids and muscle, are becoming part of men’s identities, when they are not able to gain a sense of self from old-fashioned things like economic stability, job and career satisfaction, or traditional gender roles:
‘Steroids are the metrosexual hormone – they make men saleable and shaggable in an age that doesn’t have much idea what else to do with them.’
As I wrote in my last piece for the GMP, The Myth of Real Men puts pressure on all men. In this critical context, it is worth re-examining ‘metrosexuality’ and its potential for improving men’s lives:
‘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’ – Mark Simpson, Meet The Metrosexual Salon 2002
Issues such as steroid use, anorexia in men, and disabled men’s lack of access to the ‘body beautiful’ as presented by Sporno and gym culture, make me think that though a nice idea, a man’s relationship with ‘pleasure’ as ‘his sexual preference’ must be pretty complex.
This photo by Steve Sparshott, sums up some of those complexities quite profoundly. The caption he posted with it reads: ‘Damn My….’
Because ‘vanity’ is riddled with issues of self-doubt, insecurities and feelings of inadequacy. It’s an interesting aspect of feminist analyses of ‘women’s objectification’, that they portray women’s desperate desire to ‘keep young and beautiful’ as the result of outside pressures, of the oppressive ‘male gaze’ and of ‘patriarchy’. But men are seen to be bringing their problems on themselves with their own ‘vanity’ and ‘macho’ desire to seem strong and ‘manly’.
Again, Sparshott makes a witty comment on the complexities of gendered objectification and disability, with this simple photograph:
Underneath the caption reads:
‘Ladies: When you see me in my wheelchair, remember –
I’m not just a human being, I’m a piece of meat too. (Edit: 90% of the ladies, 10% of the gentlemen).’
Sparshott’s photo relates to the fact that a clichéd, but sadly very real aspect of disabled people’s experience is that of being rendered ‘invisible’. From not seeing images that reflect your body types in adverts, to seeing hardly any disabled characters in film and television, to being literally ignored in shops, restaurants and on the streets, to being denied the opportunity to become objects of desire, disabled people often are made to feel as if they don’t exist. In terms of metrosexual imagery of men, I would say this is particularly true. How many adverts have you seen featuring disabled men? How many men’s fashion blogs? How many blockbuster films?
Some recent historical films such as Thor have taken this ‘armour’ image of masculinity, not from medieval history but from the legions of men, walking round our city streets, their breast-plates gleaming in the sun, their ‘swords’ hidden tastefully in their sheaths. There are many reasons for it, but I think a topless woman will always seem more ‘naked’ than a topless man. She just doesn’t have his invisible shield of masculinity to protect her, to hide behind.
And, I don’t think disabled men do either. They have to be hyper-aware of their bodies at all times, not just because of the physical challenges they pose, but because they are ‘out of place’ in culture. It could be argued that disabled men face some of the same challenges as ‘queer’ men. Or that queer men used to face. Disabled men are simultaneously ‘invisible’ and ‘in the way’. They are the ‘other’ that is necessary for men to feel normal, but also serve as a reminder to men of their own frailties.
And that’s why I like Steve Sparshott’s work. He refuses to be invisible. And, maybe because he does not have access to it in the first place, he refuses the ‘invisibility’ of masculinity. His writing and photography shows up masculinity as the charade that it is. And, unlike most representations of tits and absified male bodies, he manages to make masculinity seem interesting.