How To Be A Man In 2016
Our columnist attempts to steer a course through the bewildering world of modern masculinity.
You know, I think I’m going to have to change the name of this column. The words “in a hurry” describe my life pretty accurately; I wouldn’t be typing this into my phone while sitting on the train if that weren’t the case. But “young”? I’m turning 30 in a few months. Does that still count? And “man” is giving me a bit of trouble, too. Does anyone actually know what it means to be a man any more?
Not the Booker Prize-winning author Mr Ian McEwan, by all accounts, who landed himself in hot water with the LGBT community earlier this month when he expressed his opinions on the controversial subject of gender: “Call me old-fashioned, but I tend to think of people with penises as men.” Well, I suppose they do call it your “manhood”.
I cried like a baby when the cotton-candy elephant with the bowler hat jumped out of the song-powered rainbow rocket wagon. Is that the sort of sentence a man would write?
In reality, he’d been guilty of nothing more than expressing an unfashionable point of view, which is that maleness seems intractably linked to the possession of a Y chromosome – and all the fleshy bits and pieces that go with it – and that gender isn’t something you should be able to decide upon willy-nilly, if you’ll pardon the term. Still, someone of his intelligence should have known better than to say it out loud. This is 2016. There are few topics as testy as testes, right?
The author acquitted himself well enough, stating in an open letter published in The Guardian that while his comments seemed to him biologically unremarkable, “biology is not always destiny”. But it was too little, too late. He’d already been roasted to a crisp on the pitchfork of public opinion. Not that he’ll be particularly bothered. As a fierce advocate of freedom of speech, he’ll surely understand that occasionally offending people or being offended is the price we pay for living in such liberated times.
And these are liberated times indeed. To think that I’d live to see the gay ballroom scene celebrated in a Lynx advert! Ms Jennie Livingston, director of the seminal early 1990s documentary Paris Is Burning, can sleep soundly in her bed tonight. Back when I was in the deodorant brand’s target demographic – which is, what? Twelve- to 14-year-olds? – its advertising strategy appeared to consist of attempting to convince me that the slightest whiff of Lynx Africa (Africa!) about my person would cause bikini-clad supermodels with future lower-back problems to queue up at my bedroom door like nerds at an Apple store on iPhone launch day. How things have changed. If the brand’s most recent campaign is to be believed, the market for sex-in-a-can is as broad and open to interpretation as sexuality itself.
A major corporation doing an about-turn and going after a demographic that it’s spent years pretending doesn’t exist? You can call it a cynical marketing ploy all you like; I call it a sign of the times. And to a man who has struggled over the years to relate to classical masculine norms – you know, hyperaggression, emotional detachment, a paralysing fear of homosexuals, that sort of thing – this newly inclusive, open-door policy to masculinity comes as nothing but welcome news.
It’s about time, after all, that we came to terms with the fact that certain ideas about what it means to be a man are laughably outdated. The Monty Python team called out the lumberjack as a ridiculous caricature of masculinity as far back as 1969, and yet we still wear plaid shirts and work boots and grow big, bushy beards in the hope of being mistaken for one on the coffee run. Because it’s manly, chopping down trees, isn’t it? Isn’t it manly? Grr.
Well, I can’t grow a beard and I have no idea how to wield an axe. I’m not particularly good at sport and it doesn’t bother me when I lose. I’m friends with gay men. It’d be a lonely fashion writer who wasn’t. I’ve been known to binge-watch RuPaul’s Drag Race, and Madonna’s Ray Of Light is one of my favourite albums. I’m prepared to go to pretty extreme lengths to avoid confrontation. I often struggle to contain my emotions. I watched Inside Out last week – an animated movie, for children – and cried like a baby when the cotton-candy elephant with the bowler hat jumped out of the song-powered rainbow rocket wagon. Does that sound like the sort of sentence a man would write? Maybe not, but I’m a man and I just wrote it. Deal with it, suckers!
That’s the wonderful thing about being a man in 2016: we get to decide what it means. And if it means agreeing with men like Mr McEwan, who believe that your gender is largely determined by the contents of your underpants, well, fine. If it means drinking beer and fixing motorbikes, if that’s what you’re into, then please, do your thing. If you’d rather spend the weekend rocking a pair of heels, well, mainstream society doesn’t appear to have much of a problem with that any more, so sashay on. It’s just another colourful scrap on the patchwork quilt of life. “Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist,” wrote the 19th-century essayist Mr Ralph Waldo Emerson, and while he might not have been referring to the convoluted gender politics of the 21st century, his words seem oddly appropriate here.
Anyhow, what about that name? Young-ish, cisgender hetero male in a hurry? Rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?
Illustrations by Mr Giacomo Bagnara