I don’t know about you but I am sick and tired of our culture’s definition of ‘Man’. Look around at all the men on posters and billboards, in music videos and movies, in books and magazines, and what do you see? One of two portrayals: either the men are rippling Supermen with the body of a Greek sculpture, their every physical and visual fibre luridly crafted to moisten as many vaginas as possible, their mental and professional capabalities and accomplishments dwarfing the output of Newton and Einstein, and their sexual prowess outmatching in technique, duration and pleasurability even the mightiest of vibrators; or, the men are floppy and comical, their physical deformity forcing them into a one-dimensional comedy relief role, their failure to attain the Olympian level of the Supermen consigning them to lonely, pointless existences serving as both entertainment and a warning that this fate may befall any of us who are not Supermen. Also, this latter class of men are usually very fat and/or ugly.
Now, half of all the human beings I see are male, and I must confess I have never seen more than a precious handful of either type of man on a day-to-day basis. The odd one or two loveable fat guy waddles by with his group of friends, grimacing at their relentless weight jokes, and on the other side of the corridor the chiselled pretty-boy pretends to not notice the stream of girls eye-fucking him and saving his delectable body for their later porn-talk around lunch and coffee tables. Sandwiched between these two weird individuals is the bulk of men walking to class, or walking to work, men who are neither uber- nor -untermensch.
The average man stares in wonder and bewilderment at these two choices he must make. But it’s not a choice to go one path or the other, but to stay as one type or progress to the higher level. Because most men have soft, oblong-y bodies, thin and not very interesting hair, boring but acceptable fashion sense, detailed knowledge of their chosen subject/profession but only a reasonable guess at every thing else, a bathroom cupboard containing only shaving utensils, deodorant and a toothbrush, an apartment or house without any co-ordinated decor but still a genuine lived-in vibe, and a sexual ability that is only as developed and satisfying as a handful of relationships/one night stands can possibly develop. It’s not Christian Grey, it’s not Edward Cullen, it’s not Johnny Depp or Robert Downey Jr. or George Clooney, no no no, and it never will be.
And do you know what’s most frustrating? It’s that in the last five to ten years the majority of men have recognised the importance of their half of a relationship, whether that be with a partner or a friend, and thus dedicate much of their time to attaining even a piece of the Superman ideal. We work out, we buy dozens of ‘grooming’ products, we dabble in art and culture, we read articles and advice about fashion and landscaping, and, you know what, we actually like it. We like broadening our horizons and shaping our bodies to our own satisfaction, and we are learning more than ever how to explore and open up sexual experiences, something women’s magazines have fantasised about us doing for decades. We like it, and we know you can tell and you are happier because of it.
But the problem is that Western culture makes no allowances for our shrewd and mortal attempts to create ourselves. Every man must be sexy, every man must be able to look good in a business suit, every man must be a bohemian artist with the hair of a preteen boy, every man must be absolutely clean and tidy and sterile. Even the comedic fat guys are still ‘sexy’ in a weirdo, pitiful sort of way; why else do people like Seth Rogen get to fuck people like Elizabeth Banks and Katherine Heigl? In Britain, the ‘real man’ stereotype adds in that the guy must be a complete idiot and have a childlike lack of common sense about things even a toddler could understand.
How is any of this supposed to be positive? In the 21st century, since the total oppression of women is finally and viciously being destroyed and women ascend to the potential and greatness they have always possessed but never been allowed to enjoy, it’s men who take their place as sexual objects and personality-free ciphers whose only purpose is entertainment. Of course this doesn’t mean the degrading objectification of women has not stopped – far from it – but it is having less and less the traditional effect of silencing women who are standing up for themselves and keeping them out of the male-dominated positions of power – one need only see the magnificent women elected to the US Congress a couple of weeks ago. But there has been a definite emphasis on creating a ‘perfect man’ quite different from before.
The ‘perfect man’ of the 1940s – the beginning of the tv age – was a rugged, dogged soldier, a powerful and intelligent workhorse achieving his goals by sheer manly determination regardless of ability or technique. In the ’50s the Man became ever more controlling, having every member of his family under his thumb and deciding virtually all of their major life decisions for them. Of course, he was universally and unquestioningly respected, idolised and worshipped. In Susan Faludi’s brilliant book ‘Backlash’ the man of the ’80s, when the next wave of anti-feminism and misogyny infiltrated Western society, was a pale Xerox of the ’50s Man, except ’80s Man had a lot of money and had traded a stable family life for a slick sexual odyssey across all levels and types of women. Another 30 years on, and Whatever-The-Hell-We’re-Supposed-To-Call-This-Decade Man has dropped all intellectual and physical capabilities to become a perfectly sculpted, lifeless, masturbatory set of images, a Man who doesn’t speak, doesn’t smile, doesn’t create, but just stands and poses, his impossibly constructed body glistening with water to get your own body to start sweating at the thought of it.
I don’t want that. I hate walking down a street full of men wearing clothes so thin the Indian sweatshop children must be weeping over the time they used to take a whole ten minutes to make a t-shirt. I hate seeing men with hair trimmed and pruned exactly like a magazine photo to prove their individuality. I hate men who take more Facebook pictures of themselves than their partners, and who don’t actually get drunk any more but still end up screwing the sexy girl who’s just spent the whole night having a deep and meaningful conversation with the non-sexy guy who’ll go home by himself. I see men and boys adrift in the new world. As women start getting used to having real power for the first time and exercising it with phenomenal results, the male half of the species, so used to eons of messages and cultures telling him that he was naturally perfect and naturally superior and didn’t need to work for anything because everything would simply come to him, is now paralysed into static confusion. What do you do when centuries of praise and hero-worship suddenly dissipates into commands to spend your whole life becoming a Superman?
In the history of civil and human rights, from the campaign for votes for women, to the wave of identity politics in the last couple of decades, there has never been a strand dedicated to providing a realistic depiction of men. I don’t mean ‘men’s rights’, which is a highly reactionary and misogynistic non-movement of a bunch of self-hating men whose only futile purpose is to bully women into staying away from their newly-asserted economic, political and social rights. But there needs to be something there to destroy the prurient objectification of the ‘perfect man’, someone to stand up and say that the extraordinary advent of progress and achievements women are experiencing is right there for men to enjoy as well. The feminist movements always knew that when women finally entered into the real arenas of power in the world that a great many ordinary men would feel ostracised and inadequate and emasculated because women were occupying positions ‘higher’ than them. Large numbers of men felt like that with every peak of every generation’s women’s movement, but now it seems that this subtle but relentless pressure on men is the new norm.
One that must be as urgently destroyed as any and every other social, political and economic barrier.