My Saturday column in The National (online edition), July 4th 2015. All comments/shares welcome.
Spornosexuality, Peak Beard and Narcissus 2.0
THE current posters for Magic Mike XXL, the sequel to Steven Soderberg’s thoughtful 2012 movie about male strippers, would stop a bloke dead in the street. (As for the other sex, I won’t presume your reaction). The dancers come at you like condoms stuffed with, if not quite walnuts, then more than a few plump cashews — all the while throwing hip-hop shapes like it’s 1999.
One side of my brain responds with an army of concepts about current masculinity, the identity of the “worker”, the growing consumer power of women, etc. All that to be explored later. The other side is at first intimidated, then contemptuous, but finally has to admit: I have also mildly aspired to the same state of shaved-ape sleekness.
I’ve only been a gym bunny about twice in my life — once in the mid-nineties, after a first child had settled into school and some hours had opened up in my freelance day. And about seven years ago, when a relaunch of the band required me to shrink waist, not stretch pant. A steadily increasing cascade of twinges and muscle-pings eventually made it grim rather than energising.
But more off-putting, to be honest, was the regular proximity to other gym bunnies. I’ve heard the most sulphurous sexism in locker rooms, conducted at full “awright-big-man” volume, presuming a general consensus. And when I took my place at the running machine, I faced a mirrored wall that presented back to you some puffing, grimacing version of myself. Who was that guy?
Alongside me, others ran like robot warriors of the future, or took what amounted to purposeful strolls. Anyway, there we all were, self-judging and judging others, with racks of muscle-fibre-wrenching machinery ahead of us, and a detailed work plan to execute. It felt like Las Vegas had moved into prison-management. I’ve rarely been back.
Were there positive physical results? Sure. I remember a few music tours when I felt myself leaping around the stage like a rabbit on uppers; when narrow suits aspired to, were in fact neatly occupied; when performance challenges were taken on and overcome.
But I also remember, sneaking up on me, a general impatience, even an anger that came quickly to the surface. I realised I had quietly adopted a moral high-ground, joined the one true church of the cardiovascular. That also had its toxic consequences for those around me. Now I’m solely a long-walks man, listening sedately to Radio 4 podcasts for an hour.
So I know from the inside, at least a bit, what the wider significance of Magic Mike’s males-performing-for-women means. The feminist critique that I remember from my university years was that it was women who have historically performed their femininity for the male gaze, thus reflecting (and reinforcing) their lower power status in society.
That the gaze has been so dramatically flipped around with movies like this — which sit within an easily identifiable trend of the objectified male body, from David Beckham to Calvin Harris — indicates that a power redistribution between men and women must be going on.
Yet the male anxiety of a performing media and music career has been with me from the moment I left college. Are you selling yourself properly? Are you hitting the performative mark? To be an 80’s-90’s musician was to have a very early training in what has been called, for the last decade or so, “metrosexuality”.
But with these near-superheroic bodies now almost a norm for men at the heart of popular culture — music videos, reality TV shows, adverts, taps-aff celebrating footballers — we are moving beyond the search for the ultimate moisturiser.
The coiner of “metrosexual”, cultural critic Mark Simpson, has come up with an terrible term to describe the current pecs spectacle: Spornosexuality. Meaning it’s sports, but it’s also pornography, that is setting a new bar for male physical appearance. I know what he means — but I don’t think it quite explains what’s going on.
The current standard model of capitalism says that persuasive communication, sensitively designed services and “seducing the customer” are what gets your business ahead. So for workers in that “affective” capitalism, it becomes a competitive advantage to combine inner and outer attractiveness. As much as women, men get caught up in that process, er, willy-nilly.
But what is fascinating is not just that this self-regard can become excessive — Narcissus 2.0 — but that these excesses have contrary pulls. Why do many men both pump themselves up to an Adonis-level — which delivers the ultimate self-confidence in the modern, display-oriented workplace — but then often embark on a frenzy of tattooing and body-marking? A primitivism that curls up over the sales-floor neck collar, or sneaks out from beneath the cuff?
I want to combine this with the Peak Beard phenomenon. You know: comely young men deciding to let their pearly chops erupt with mountain-man growths, so dense you could store house keys there.
Between the abs, the tats and the beards, it seems obvious to me that these are wee cultural ripples in the continuing long wave of masculine status-anxiety — an anxiety generated by feminism consolidating its gains, and advancing on the remaining inequalities. So doth these plastic patriarchs protest too much? Yes. But as a protest, at least it’s at the cute end of the style spectrum.
Will all this stuff settle down, eventually? Will men and women be able to be cool about both their equality, and their differences, their norms, and their chosen deviations? Will they be able to live relaxedly with each others’ sexual personae, without any asymmetry of power being implied?
I know — and, no doubt, you know — that in many places, whether in organisations or in urban spaces, that is already the case, particularly with younger generations of workers or fellow citizens. Whatever span of humanity comes under the letters “LBGTI” (and the acronym seems to get longer all the time), they compel a respect for diversity and idiosyncrasy. This has only had good effects on the “straight” world (or “heteronormative”, to show off my credentials). We live in a moment of advanced civility which is worth celebrating.
And while the crowds go off to Magic Mike XXL, I will only observe that I have been enjoying a different spectacle of partially clothed women, performing strenuously for an audience glued to their screens the women’s football World Cup finals. I’ve always been an intrinsic fan of women’s football — a combination of enjoying the tenor and pace of women’s games, and also being a father of two daughters, with whom I regularly enjoyed down-the-park kickabouts.
But I hardly need to overstress the cultural conjunction. From the First Minister and her cabinet down, I am very happy to live in more womanly times — in a Scotland which should be aware of all the future benchmarks it could achieve, beyond the strictly constitutional. However, between Tatum Channing’s dance moves in his furniture workshop, and Carli Lloyd’s spot kicks for the USA team, I will allow myself one piercing shaft of body anxiety.
Stepping away from the summer cheesecake, now. Slowly.
Pat Kane is a musician and writer.