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Though the term metrosexual, denoting a straight man with feminine taste in grooming and culture, was first used with intended irony in the 1990s, it was subsequently taken up quite seriously both by those sympathetic to the concept and by those who saw metrosexuality as a threat to the natural order. In the former category, for example, were those who claimed that metrosexuality was the future of masculinity and that it broke the barriers between straight and gay men. Sociologist Toby Miller theorized that the phenomenon of metrosexuality reflected a “historical shift that recodes the male body,” brought on, for example, by increasing pressure on men to look young and fit in order to stay employed. Most numerous in the metrosexual-enthusiast category, however, were marketers who eagerly tested for the existence of metrosexuals and found that a straight male demographic did exist for items such as high priced hair products.

For marketers, there seems to be a winning tie-in between sports stars and grooming products. Examples of metrosexual sports models are Brian Vickers, NASCAR driver, selling Garnier Fructis hair care products; David Beckham, British soccer star, with his own signature fragrance, “Instinct”; and, most recently, Derek Jeter, shortstop for the New York Yankees, lending his name to Avon’s “Driven.” In Jeter’s case, the ad campaign features a website with images of Jeter posing for the print ads and a section titled, “Meet Derek” that describes his “ambition, courage, and passion.” The question arises as to who the intended audience is for these advertisements. Is this notion of the passionate warrior a fantasy targeted toward women buyers, or is it a reflection of a shift in the monolithic definition of masculinity? Whether these qualities and this image are “real” or whether they are just a product being sold to women is up to debate, but it is also beside the point. The issue is burning enough to make it into the news and even, tangentially, into the 2004 U.S. presidential campaign, and that fact proves its power.

An example of the coverage of the metrosexual question is a 2006 Good Morning America segment that was devoted to reporting the demise of the metrosexual. But even as the text posted on their website claims the trend is over, it suggests that the metrosexuality marketing craze is based on an actual shift in the perceived role and position of men in society – real fears and obsessions about masculinity that govern actions, perhaps even buying patterns: “Leo Burnett, a Chicago advertising firm, conducted a global study of masculinity last year, which found half of men say their role in society is unclear and that they feel "less dominant" than in previous decades. More than seventy percent of men said advertising was out of touch with men's "reality," leading company executive Rose Cameron to recommend that advertisers "reassure men of their masculinity."

If men need to be reassured of their masculinity, presumably there has been some threat to it, though that threat is not defined. If the threat predates the invention of the label “metrosexual,” then metrosexuality itself may be a response to that threat, as Miller argues. If the threat referred to is the concept of metrosexuality, then the metrosexual is powerful indeed. In either case, it is significant.

The backlash against metrosexuality, exemplified by the Good Morning America segment, sometimes exceeds the inconsequential realm of marketing and fashion. Anti-metrosexual stories have even made headline news. One of the first counter-metrosexual responses was a marketing survey by Dodge Trucks conducted to prove that women prefer regular truck-buying guys to fashion-conscious metrosexual guys. As it turned out, in a poll of women, the so-called “regular guys” won by a landslide. In response, The Washington Times, in April 2005, ran a story on page one that far exceeded the ambitions of the original survey. The author, Amy Doolittle, wrote, “Women want the ‘man’ back in ‘manly,’ a Harris Interactive survey shows. The rough-and-ready attitude is in, women say, while the manicured ‘metrosexual’ look is on the way out.” The Washington Times chose to use a corporation’s piece of marketing due diligence as the basis for Darwinian claims that go well beyond fashion and marketing: What is natural? What kind of mate will a woman choose? Another interesting feature of the Harris survey used by Dodge is the fact that women were polled. Metrosexuality lost the Dodge Trucks contest, but traditional masculinity was forced to parade before the female gaze in order to win. The more referendums and marketing surveys there are on masculinity, the more of what sociologist Robert Connell calls “hegemonic masculinity” is challenged. In this roundabout way, the heralds of metrosexuality as a subversive arrival are correct.

The reactionary response to protect the status of hegemonic masculinity has a long lineage. It has been observed for decades that “contemporary,” (post-1970s feminism) men are derided as “soft” in comparison to the rugged men of yesteryear, in particular in comparison to the 1940s warrior or the 1950s breadwinner. Even many liberal and progressive men like John Baynon and R.W. Connell, those who advocate equitable sharing of housework and childrearing between men and women, have somehow managed to maintain a nostalgia for a mythic past when “men were men” and oppose that to the fallen state of “narcissistic, fashion-driven” contemporary masculinity, of which metrosexuals would be the ultimate example. In one view, men in modern society can be excused for bending traditional gender roles and embracing the feminine side of their “natures.” Nonetheless, in finding the feminine, they become divorced from essential sources of masculine nurturance. This is the case laid out in Robert Bly’s Iron John. The concept in Bly is that it is natural for men and women to have both male and female “energy”: “In every relationship something fierce is needed once in a while: both the man and the women need to have it.”

In Performance Anxieties: Reproducing Masculinity, David Buchbinder explicates the way in which Bly’s text is subtly hostile to women and men who are homosexual, while protesting that it is neither. Bly asserts that men must gain access to a mythic Wild Man order rooted in the past. Another more conservative view maintains an absolute division between male and female gender traits. From the absolutist position, it follows that men who share in child rearing or take on traditionally feminine roles are weak, with again the belief that men once had their place and must return to it. They have crossed a line, as always conceived of in terms of what is natural. Contempt for such “sissies” is strongly encouraged. What is new is an increasingly defensive posture taken by models and modelers of dominant masculinity, and when all metrosexuality did at the outset was function as a joke and a boon for the marketers of hair care products. Those horrified by the challenge to hegemonic masculinity must marshal their own avatars of masculinity to compete with the metrosexual.

Of these avatars, two stand out, the “regular guy,” as in the Dodge Trucks ad campaign, or the “badass” macho man, the epitome of the hegemony of white, heterosexual masculinity. One of the differences between these two masculinities is the items each is used to sell. The regular guy sells things like trucks and beer. The badass sells, as will be examined, war and the American way, among other things. Metrosexual masculinity, by contrast, is most often visible as the married or clearly heterosexual sports figure selling grooming products. This marketed set of alternative identities for men – regular, badass, metrosexual – undermines the notion that masculinity is a natural, essential category. There is little enemies of metrosexuality can do to erase the notion that these identities are as easy to exchange as clothing. How hollow it sounds when Stephen Perrine, editor-in-chief of Best Life magazine, proclaims, “The new macho is the old macho…. It is about being competent and feeling traditional, filling traditional male roles.” When the “old macho” wins out over the metrosexual, one set of trivial surface attributes attractive to women is exchanged for another, while fundamentally what has been achieved is the wide acceptance of masculinity as a shifting, contingent construct.

The origins of the anxiety and backlash surrounding the metrosexual concept can be traced to the time surrounding the 2004 U.S. presidential election and the escalation of the war in Iraq. From a celebrity-driven and fashion-focused phenomenon emerging in the late 1990s, the concept of the metrosexual had gained wide enough recognition for a book titled The Metrosexual Guide to be published in 2004. From there the term seeped into the 2004 presidential campaign where Dean claimed to be a metrosexual and Kerry fled from the label. This marked the apex of interest in the metrosexual concept. After 2004, marketers became more and more worried that the metrosexual might be on the way out and mounted a series of marketing surveys such as the Harris survey used by Dodge trucks and the “worldwide” survey on masculinity conducted by the PR firm Leo Burnet, but whether the term metrosexual achieves any lasting prominence or not, the notion that different brands of masculinity is up to a vote indicates a shift in our understanding of masculinity. That metrosexuality is “out” implies that it could, like the goatee, “come back.” A line has been crossed, and that probably occurred with the 2004 presidential campaign, which while obviously not a referendum on metrosexuality did feature the term. Metrosexuality is claimed by Mark Simpson, a writer for credited with inventing the term, to be the ultimate instance of the “queering” of the codes that define gender. Thus, it isn’t Bush as real man and Kerry as not, as sissy. It’s Bush and Kerry each representing different versions of masculine drag.

It isn’t always apparent that this queering is taking place, and the boosters and detractors are often working out of the same assumption that metrosexual or traditional male roles represent an outward manifestation of a stable, inward psychic reality. Michael Flocker, author of The Metrosexual Guide, does not intend to bring about change through challenging traditional gender roles on the basis of a critique of performativity. He claims to be describing an evolution that has already occurred, a return to a more natural way of being. Metrosexuality is justified as an authentic lifestyle choice, one that expresses a man’s essential self. The notion of authenticity is called on frequently throughout Flocker’s text. In the realm of fashion, for example, Flocker’s advice is to dress in a way that expresses oneself: If you want to be the Midnight Cowboy, go for it. The key lies in making the decision consciously rather than simply dressing obnoxiously to bring attention to yourself. In the final analysis, however, it is far more impressive to express your sense of style through small touches as opposed to garish choices.”

Flocker is opposed to performance. He does not condemn a way of dressing that marks the wearer as ambiguously gay, as in the Midnight Cowboy reference. However, he advocates that men adopt a dress that is more neutral, that “avoids ridicule.” He cautions, “identify which styles look best on you.” Here, the sexuality of the “you” is neutral, or at least, does not matter.

Much of the advice in The Metrosexual Guide about behavior has to do with having good manners and good taste. A word on music, books, and film, for example, in Flocker’s words, “Whether you’re living in a New York penthouse or holed up in a cozy little trailer by the sea, the world is at your fingertips and it’s your responsibility to explore it.” The metrosexual man explicitly avoids shows of violence, a hallmark of traditional masculinity, because his self-proclaimed authenticity is not in question. As Flocker explains, “One of the defining characteristics of the metrosexual man is that he is beyond sexual stereotypes. He knows who he is and what he wants. For that very reason, he feels no compulsion to defend his masculinity through posturing or threatening others. The metrosexual man knows that in order to be comfortable with himself, he needs to allow others to be themselves. The heterosexuality, bisexuality, or homosexuality of anyone else does not concern him, unless of course he is romantically interested in that person. Then he needs to know.”

This emphasizes the metrosexual’s neutrality, not his emasculation. The guide forwards a non-violent approach, one in which several ways of performing gender can exist at once without “threatening” each other. In accepting this plurality of performances, metrosexuality opens the door for a performative theory of gender without actively endorsing such a theory.

There is, however, some confusion on the performativity issue in The Metrosexual Guide. It asserts that being straight is not the same thing as looking straight, in the traditional macho sense, but that masculinity is nonetheless tied to being straight. Flocker writes, “Secure in his masculinity, he no longer has to spend his life defending it. He has options. The sexual revolution is old news and the new man is free to enjoy his single life and his youthful appeal. If he is married, it is by choice, not by necessity, and the walls separating straight men from their gay, fashion-forward brothers are beginning to crumble.”

There is an inherent logic here that is not explicit in the text, but that is apparent upon closer examination. Being secure in masculinity is, as tradition has it, synonymous with being secure about being straight, but elsewhere in the guide it is asserted that appearance is supposed to be a natural expression of self. So if appearance is gay or neutral, and the performer is straight, sexuality has become separated from self, from what is natural.

Simpson, or “MetroDaddy” as he has called himself, has an explanation for this splitting of self from sexuality. He describes the metrosexual as disempowered by the entry of women into traditionally male roles. He refers to the Sex in the City female metrosexuals who are active, while the male metrosexuals are the passive objects of their conquest. “Nowadays straight men are also emasculated….No longer is a straight man’s sense of self and manhood delivered by his relationship to women; instead it’s challenged by it:” here Simpson implies that the response from some men has been to become what women want them to become – metrosexuals. Metrosexuals are emasculated through being cast in a passive role. While he backs off this claim in a later article, the active/passive dualism remains prominent in his description of the phenomenon of the metrosexual.

Picking up on this threat to masculinity represented by a connection to the passive, is a guide-book parody titled The Badass Bible. It portrays the threats posed to traditional masculinity, or “badass” masculinity as he terms it, by modern culture. Many of the rules set down in this handbook deal with the necessity to act spontaneously and naturally, just as in The Metrosexual Guide, but by virtue of the fact that the book is a parody, the notion is mocked. The text, like much humor, is Janus faced, both inviting criticism of the nostalgic attitude toward traditional masculine values and making that nostalgia seem logical. In this ambivalent fashion, the text reveals some of the cultural underpinnings of the subject it targets, the rugged individual and the allegedly crumbling culture that threatens his existence. The author, S.K. Smith, writes, “The badass is all about fundamentals. That’s what makes him stand out like a sore thumb in today’s culture of excess – the badass sticks to essentials….Like the Yeti, the badass is hairy, mysterious, seldom spotted. But one sighting will change your life. The badass offers us a glimpse of an earlier, wilder time. It’s an encounter with our undiluted, brutal origins.”

The joke works because of the juxtaposition of the serious note of concern, “in today’s culture of excess,” the melodramatic “undiluted brutal origins,” and the absurd “Yeti.” Humor is generated through the techniques of exaggeration and juxtaposition. In the text at large, a depiction of the badass, the avatar of hegemonic masculinity, is combined with snatches of half-serious gripes about globalization and illustrated with absurd cartoons that depict a square-headed badass with a perpetually serene smile.

Smith exploits the comic potential of the unattainability of badass stature. A disclaimer at the beginning of the book reads, “This is a joke book, you moron. Don’t try this stuff at home.” The Badass Bible makes it clear that being a badass is all about being ready for a fight, not necessarily starting the fight, but being ready to physically retaliate for the slightest cause. Smith’s “badass bar skills” scene, familiar from numbers movies, is revealing of the nostalgia for the notion of justifiable violence. Yet it’s not designed to be taken seriously. We start to laugh as soon as we see it coining. The text advises, “when you feel some bad mojo coming from the dude at the end of the bar with the Cat Diesel hat on, start by not taking it personally.” Then it proceeds with steps that move from “offer to buy him a drink” to “Mr. Wise Ass blows it big time. He does stupid and makes another derogatory comment. Blood flows.”

This apt parody takes aim at a very real phenomenon, America’s love affair with the rough-and-ready man of action. During the 2004 U.S. presidential election, both Kerry and Bush vied for the role of what Smith’s satire would call, the badass. The term metrosexual came into play more than once. In a falsified news article on Fox’s website, John Kerry was quoted as bragging that he was a metrosexual. Kerry struggled with this throughout his campaign and clearly would have preferred to be seen as a macho war hero. The battle for the role of badass candidate, which both Kerry, with his purple hearts, and Bush, with his proud claim of being a war president, strove for, was aptly parodied in the popular web short “This Land” in which Kerry was depicted simultaneously killing Vietnamese with a hand grenade and metrosexualizing himself by getting sorts of Botox. The short was so contagious on the internet that it jumped the boundary between mainstream and web media, portions of it appearing on television new and talk shows. The central joke in the parody centered on Kerry’s intellectual well-schooled manner lampooned in opposition to Bush’s tough-guy persona. The Bush caricature sings, “You’re a liberal sissy.” Kerry returns, “You’re a right-wing nut job,” with nut job, illustrated by camo-wearing Bush riding in a tank, clearly referring to Bush’s militarism.

The term metrosexual came into play earlier in the campaign leading up to the primary when Howard Dean called himself metrosexual at one fundraising stop while campaigning for the Democratic nomination, then backpedaled saying he wasn’t really sure what the term meant. Gossip columnist Karen Croft, writing on, quipped, “It means you know about hair products but you still like sports, Howie.” As Eric Lichtblau reported in “Fox News, Citing ‘Bad Judgment,’ Apologizes Over a Made-Up Posting about Kerry” printed in The New York Times, a later Fox attack on Kerry "quoted" him gloating over his success in the debates, saying “Didn’t my nails and cuticles look great? What a good debate!...I’m metrosexual – he’s a cowboy.” The taunt “sissy” that lurked within Fox’s fabricated news story was evident in an article from August 2004 in the Chicago Sun Times in which the author states her theory that despite the current hype about metrosexuals, women prefer manly men and that her theory will be proven by the election. In other words, if Bush wins, metrosexuals lose. Berman states, “Though we may find some secret satisfaction in the idea of men obsessing over their looks as much as we do, it seems that most women would agree: When it comes down to the battle of the men, evolution does not favor the metrosexual man yet. Let’s see what happens in November.” Thus, in the eyes of the gossip-columnist pundocracy, the election became a referendum on the metrosexual versus the badass.

If even the presidential election could be read as a referendum on metrosexuality, there are many other more explicit referendums in marketing. The Dodge Trucks marketing survey, for example, spawned the creation of “Dodge Dakota Ultimate Guy.” Although Ultimate Guy was meant to represent the naturalized epitome of masculinity, his masculinity was under challenge, and he had to prove himself eligible through being nominated by his wife. Like the Ivory Girl of the 1970s, the Dakota Guys were sponsored by their mates, as in “I think my guy is an Ultimate Guy because…” The press release announcing the winner is explicitly about their own staged referendum having shown that “ninety percent of U.S. women surveyed prefer a regular, capable and laid-back guy to just five percent still wanting the hip, fashion conscious ‘metrosexual’ male.” The release quotes the winner, David Neumann of Valley Mills, Texas, as saying, “I plan to spend the summer enjoying my new Dodge Dakota, camping with my wife and two daughters, dove hunting, and picking up materials for projects around the house.” The press release quotes his wife saying, he is the kind of guy who always “takes care of the people in his life.” Ultimate Guy is caring, all around nice, good natured, and dependable. Although, unlike the presidential candidates, he does not have access to claims such as having killed people or having started a war, Dodge chooses to toughen up his image a little by throwing a prize of an ultimate sports day into his Ultimate Guy prize package.

Every response to the metrosexual is revealing of the panic that ensues when gender is defined as fluid rather than fixed, or as contingent rather than natural. In her groundbreaking work, Gender Trouble, Judith Butler describes the way in which this troubling disconnection is related to compulsory heterosexuality. When confronted with bodies such as the metrosexual that disrupt “the regular fiction of heterosexual coherence, it seems that the expressive model loses its descriptive force. That regulatory ideal is then exposed as a norm and a fiction that disguises itself as a developmental law regulating the sexual field that is purports to describe.” Thus, when the metrosexual who does and does not act straight, is proven by marketing surveys to exist, badass defenders rush to reclaim masculinity as an essential category and to deny the possibility of this other masculinity. Specifically, they aim to delegitimize metrosexuality, with its self-conscious performance of gender, by showing that metrosexuality is feminine and has no claim in the realms of political power or sexual or military conquest that legitimize hegemonic masculinity.

Mark Simpson, arguably the inventor of the term metrosexual, observes that metrosexuality is “passive where it should always be active, desired where it should always be desiring, looked at where it should always be looking.” Simpson has argued in Male Impersonators from Freudian theories of sexuality, positing that the metrosexual inverts the binaries of active/passive and male/female. The idea of metrosexuality is that a man, without the excuse of being gay, performs masculinity. Masculinity becomes an act, and the response to the performance is often the argument that men should behave differently, in a manner that calls to mind a “real” man. In this way, metrosexuality sets a trap. Where hegemonic masculinity involves our accepting as natural certain ways of being and doing, the defensive response to metrosexuality (act this way, not that way) makes clear that “real” masculinity is just another version of drag – “retrosexuality,” as Simpson has called it.

Hegemonic masculinity demands a binary hierarchical view of gender in which masculinity is equated with power, action, dominance, and so on, and femininity with their binary opposites. Within this logic, the badass masculinity portrayed in movies and advertising is easily absorbed into the hegemonic ideal. Logically, it seems that the regular guy and the badass support hegemonic masculinity, and that they have been put into service in support of the very real power and world dominance that it represents. Within the popular culture vehicle of marketing, however, these masculinities have been put on stage to parade before a female audience alongside metrosexual masculinity. Even as George Bush wins the election, perhaps carrying with it a confirmation of the dominance of badass masculinity, the door has been opened for Americans and others to conceive of his performance of masculinity as an act, directed by his political handlers. In the same way, as consumers of popular culture, we are aware that Brian Vickers is posing as a metrosexual for money. His spring green racing car emblazoned with the Garnier Fructis unisex hair care logos are a means to riches, even as they have earned him the metrosexual label. Bush’s cowboy attitude is admired by many Americans, but suspected by an almost equal number as an insincere attempt to curry the favor of those disposed to vote for a badass candidate. Although the metrosexual will probably fade from the stage as quickly as he arrived, the terms upon which he was evaluated were his. Desperate as the anti-metrosexual response has been, much of it has been conducted upon terms set by the metrosexual. Badass masculinity, like the feminized masculinities it is supposed to dominate, must compete for female approval.

August 2007

From guest contributor Margaret Ervin, Assistant Professor of English at West Chester University

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