The Rise and Fall of the Metrosexual

11 August 2011

In the first of three reviews of gay-themed books out this summer, I look at Metrosexy, a collection of essays by cultural critic Mark Simpson, coiner of the term “Metrosexual”.

I’ve been a fan of writer Mark Simpson since his witty, provocative articles in Attitude magazine in the mid-1990s. A reviewer once described him as “the gay Antichrist“, which perfectly described his dark talent – a mixture of upbeat misanthropy and Cassandra-like prophecies about the ascending trashiness of gay culture.

In an environment where most gay publications were relentlessly upbeat and encouraging of the gay experience, as if to compensate for gay men’s fragile self-esteem in a homophobic society, Simpson went in a different direction. His work was the antithesis of Bronski Beat’s 1980s anthem Smalltown Boy, in which the bullied gay teenager escapes his homophobic background and comes to the big city. Simpson preferred to dwell in the shadowy recesses of gay culture: celebrating the joys of casual sex, the difficulty of prising open the sphincter muscle, and warning against the domesticating influence of mainstream gay rights movements. He heroised pseudo-queer icons like singer Morrissey – gay men who were, like him, ambivalent at best about their sexuality – to whom he devoted a slim volume of worshipful cultural commentary, Saint Morrissey.

After years of admiring his writing (and his Genet-esque author photo, all big gym-pumped muscles and a military buzz-cut), I interviewed Simpson by phone in 2003. We had a very nice chat about masculinity, Freud, and his secret love of Joan Crawford. We spoke for so long that he told me later he’d had to piss in his kitchen sink midway through the conversation.

I met him shortly after arriving in London in 2003 at a pub in Hampstead, where he generously offered to buy me my first English pint. I hate beer and seldom drink it, but I played along to try and look butch, and was seen through immediately. Afterwards, he took me on a walking tour through the gay cruising area in Hampstead Heath. We later compared notes on the lack of availability of satisfyingly working class trade. “It’s always the same,” he said morosely. “You go looking for a scaffolder in trackie bottoms with dirt under his fingernails, and you end up meeting a fucking TV producers in suede loafers.” He left London not long after – nothing to do with my arrival, he reassured me, but to find a more affordable part of the country in which to live as a freelance writer. He wished me well, and we shook hands in a most manly way. It was to date our first and last meeting.

Since that happy day, Simpspn attained an unusual type of fame as the first writer to define the word “metrosexual” – first in a 1994 Independent article, “Here Come the Mirror Men”; and later introduced to America in 2002 via, “Meet the Metrosexual”. In recognition of his trend-defining efforts, he is now dubbed “Father of the Metrosexual” – or the snappier and far more preferable nickname, “MetroDaddy”.

Metrosexuality attempts to describe a radical shift in masculine identity, in which mostly urban-dwelling straight men start assuming the “passive” role traditionally performed by women, and start to “desire to be desired” – by women, sometimes by other men, but mostly by themselves. The Metrosexual “might be officially gay, straight or bisexual“, he writes, “but this is utterly immaterial because he has clearly taken himself as his own love-object and pleasure as his sexual preference“.

In Metrosexy, Mark has collated a decade worth of writing of the rise and progress of the Metrosexual, noting its early diagnosis and case studies, through to what he calls “metrosexmania” – the wholesale commodification of metrosexuality and its absorption into mainstream consciousness.

In the early articles, Simpson, a dedicated Freudian, is insistent that metrosexuality is a pathology – a kind of low-level narcissistic personality disorder, to be precise – and like any pathology, it manifests in anxiety. As the metrosexual becomes more self-conscious about his new status as the object of desire, he takes on the same insecurities and self-consciousness that were the once the unhappy preserve of women. Cue a new obsession with sculpting, plucking and perfecting the new “tarty” male body, so that it’s acceptable for public consumption.

For Simpson, this wasn’t an evolution, but a cynical strategy created by late 20th consumer capitalism. At some point during the 1990s, heterosexual men were identified as an untapped source of consumerism, and were set upon in much the same way as the cosmetics industry targeted women. Advertisers like Calvin Klein and Abercrombie & Fitch started to display the male nude – muscled, waxed, airbrushed into impossible perfection – and paraded a version of physical perfection, against which the un-six-packed Joe Public could compare himself and feel insecure. Into this crisis of identity came consumer products promising a better body and a more shaggable sex life – gym memberships, bronzing clinics, protein shakes, moisturiser, cosmetic surgery – and so a new consumer group was born. This process fitted neatly with a post-Thatcherist shift in ideas about personal identity, in which individuals learn to think of themselves as products and market themselves accordingly. “Personal advancement“, Simpson says, “or even just survival, depends on using – and working – everything [we] have.”

Simpson also tracks metrosexuality as an inevitable response to feminism. As women gradually abandon their traditional role as caretakers for men and appropriate traditionally male behaviour, like having jobs, getting drunk and actively pursuing sex, men have been forced to change their tune. “If women won’t be women for men anymore“, he argues, “why on Earth should men be men for women?” As women become economically independent from men, men’s status as breadwinners becomes less certain, and they have to consider, possibly for the first time in human history, how to please women. Narcissism, Simpson suggests, may be a survival strategy for men whose wives and girlfriends now demand that they fulfil female desire, rather than the other way around. Likewise, the rise in metrosexuality has been made possible “in large part by the decline in the stigma attached to male homosexuality”, making it ok for men to attempt traditionally “feminine” behaviour, like self-regard.

The pinnacle of metrosexuality is David Beckham, the straight working-class boy who combined a traditional masculine success story (wealth and fame as a professional sportsman, a celebrity wife) with the good looks of a model and a conscious enjoyment of his status as an object of desire to both men and women. Simpson is obsessed with Beckham – at least 20 of the articles in Metrosexy refer to him directly – and rightly so. His celebrity almost single-handedly normalised metrosexual behaviours in the UK – wearing diamond stud earrings and sarongs, posing in his underwear for commercials, and spending as much time on his hair as his tattoos. Beckham is the epitome of man-as-product: avowedly straight, but attracting power and forming his identity through his desirability to others.

Simpson is fascinatingly ambivalent about whether or not metrosexuality constitutes some kind of social progress. He concedes that the brave new world of boys reading fashion magazines and kissing each other hello is “probably a good thing, and probably better than what went before and is mostly to be welcomed” and that metrosexuality might signal a welcome end to “creaky 19th century discourse” around sexuality. But in terms of his personal taste, he seems unconvinced. He describes the Metrosexual with the contempt with which homophobes once used to describe drag queens: “tarty”, “a trifle distasteful”, “occasionally downright nauseating”, or “not very sexy after all”.

This may have something to do with Simpson’s upbringing in Yorkshire, Britain’s former industrial heartland in the north. Simpson is old enough to remember the North as a place of entrenched gender roles, where men mostly worked in hard labour, barely opened their mouths except to have a drink or smoke a cigarette, and shunned any sign of self-consciousness or vanity. It’s a world Simpson can’t help but nostalgise, even though he’s the first to admit that homosexuality is given short shrift.

He describes with horror a return to Yorkshire after feeling jaded by “the frantic LOOK! AT! MEEE!! artifice” of London, and becoming nostalgic for “something a little more retro and rural”, only to discover that things have changed. Even the straight lads in his local pub have been metrosexualised, he said, with “fake tans, sculpted hair, Soho beards, figure hugging shirts and intricate, muscle-flattering designer tatts”. They happily showed off their shaved pubes and genital piercings at the bar, and begged Simpson to help them get a naked photo shoot in a London gay magazine, a sure way to launch their careers as professional tarts. Working-class boys, he points out, are perfect bait for the allure of metrosexuality, as they “are used to only having their bodies to sell”, so they now “work on those bodies in the gym instead of sweating over someone else’s property at the factory.”

As funny as Simpson is, it’s here that he betrays his limitations. His tendency towards nostalgia for the good old days when everyone was a bit quieter, butch and a bit less gay comes perilously to the internalised homophobia of Quentin Crisp. Mr Crisp’s personal tragedy was that he loved straight (ie butch) men who, by definition, could not love him in return. Simpson seems to suffer from much the same problem, though as a butch top who fills out a tight black t-shirt nicely, he fulfils more of the masculine stereotype that passes for “sexy” in gay culture. His theory of men’s transformation from flat cap-wearing workers into pomaded effetes is also culturally blinkered, and don’t work as well when describing men from non-Anglo Saxon backgrounds. Heterosexual men in Continental Europe  dress well, use face cream and are aware of their own beauty, without any of the sexual anxiety Metrosexuals are supposed to suffer from.

Like Dr Frankenstein, Mark seems to want to kill the monster he’s created. “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”, he notes, in a nice homage to Oscar Wilde, the granddaddy of homosexual narcissism. He knows that he’s fighting a losing battle. Once the sphincter has been pried open, there really is no turning back to the good-old-bad-old-days of repressive heterosexuality.

In his introductory essay, “Metrosexual Reflections” – the only piece of new writing in the collection – Simpson wearily admits defeat. Metrosexuality, which began life as something “pathological, perverted and definitely something to keep to yourself“, is now a commonplace part of masculine identity, accepted apparently without question or regret.

The sadness of Metrosexy is that it suggests that Simpson has critically theorised himself into a corner, with very few new directions in which to go. The effect of reading fifteen years’ worth of essays about the same topic are that he starts to sound a bit repetitive. Metrosexuality becomes a kind of cash cow, the one great idea he had that he’s now destined to keep pointing out, while he reminds readers that he first came up with the term.

As much admiration as I have for Simpson, Metrosexy demonstrates that he may well be yesterday’s gay Antichrist. It may take another writer – probably someone younger and with less nostalgic interest in outdated masculine codes – to be able to track sexual politics in the post-Metrosexual age.

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