Cover

HE’S COME UNDONE

After all their ‘evolving,’ men run the risk of obscuring the meaning of male altogether

CHARLIE GILLIS October 31 2005
Cover

HE’S COME UNDONE

After all their ‘evolving,’ men run the risk of obscuring the meaning of male altogether

CHARLIE GILLIS October 31 2005

HE’S COME UNDONE

Cover

After all their ‘evolving,’ men run the risk of obscuring the meaning of male altogether

CHARLIE GILLIS

THE VILLAGE of Saint-Emilion is located in a corner of rural France where the wines are robust and so are the men. It was described to me thus by Michèle Pujos-Gautraud, a physician and “andrologist” who plies her trade there, counselling the sons of southwestern Bordeaux should they ever encounter difficulty in the bedroom. French males in general are Pujos-Gautraud’s area of expertise. She can reel off their sexual tendencies with the clinical dispassion of a botanist describing grapevine roots. But when the topic turns to another, increasingly common variety of men—the preening boy-toys proliferating throughout the Western world—her detachment evaporates. “These men I see on television and in magazines, they are like women!” she marvels. “With their facial lotions

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and coloured shoes. It’s quite stunning.” Frosted hair. Body waxes. Manicures and rubdowns and handbags that look like purses. Pujos-Gautraud ticks them off like Julie Andrews singing My Favourite Things, leaving an impression of modern manhood as one big shopping trip down the Champs Élysées. On a scientific level, she’s intrigued. But as a 5 3-year-old woman accustomed to Gallic males in all their swarthy, skirt-chasing glory, she finds the trends disconcerting. “A few years ago, I might have said that men didn’t take care of themselves enough,” she says. “Now they’re doing so more and more— maybe too much. With these men, I could not fall in love.”

It’s become almost cliché to portray men as being in some state of socio-sexual chrysalis,

slowly emerging from a few millennia of male hegemony and discovering the woman inside themselves. The post-feminist era has unleashed no end of books, studies, surveys and essays charting this trajectory, in most cases portraying it as a rise from primordial incivility to a more advanced state of being. Like primates developing opposable thumbs, men were supposed to be acquiring traits to better serve them in a world where gender lines don’t matter. Aggression would give way to sensitivity, ruggedness to style, stoicism to “emotional intelligence.”

But faith in this doctrine of social progress has ebbed recently. A few years ago, the American feminist Susan Faludi surprised the intellectual world with Stiffed, a book arguing that contemporary society has deprived

men of useful roles, treating them disrespectfully. The source, more than the argument, gave pause: Faludi’s previous volume, Backlash, had been a kind of manifesto for women raging against the patriarchy. If someone like her pitied us, we must really be in trouble.

Now, social scientists and medical reseachers around the world are taking up the cause. Pujos-Gautraud was among several experts in human sexuality who spoke at a symposium titled “The Male Ravaged by Daily Stress” during last summer’s annual World Conference of Sexology in Montreal. Together, the academics described a gender once secure in comfy archetypes like breadwinner, protector and head of household tacking on a host of unfamiliar roles like

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nurturer, homemaker and—yes—sex object. Male ambitions are noble, they acknowledged. Surveys suggest more than three quarters of men believe family time is more important than money, power or prestige. And growing numbers see paternity leave as a respectable, attractive option. But we’re not following through. Recent studies indicate fathers actually spend less time on household chores than they did 15 years ago, while women still bear the brunt of child-rearing duties. Assuming men are honest about their desire to repurpose themselves as more considerate, family-minded humans, this failure to produce results seems like a foolproof formula for self-loathing.

Ditto our growing preoccupation with appearance. A 1997 survey by Psychology Today found that 43 per cent of American males were unhappy with their looks, up from about 14 per cent in the late 1960s. If you subtract breast augmentation, men account for nearly half the cosmetic surgery being performed in the United States. “We’re not quite as screwed up about appearance as women,” concludes Michael Kimmel, a sociologist at State University of New York at Stony Brook, and author of a forthcoming book titled Guyland. “But we’re closing the gap. We’ve been seduced into the same sorts of consumption patterns that women were much earlier.”

Tote all this up, say experts, and what you get is stress. Stress that leads to depression, stress that causes marital problems. Among the most disturbing indicators at the Montreal symposium was the number of researchers, at least anecdotally, linking rising anxiety levels among men to erectile dysfunction. Laurie Betito, a clinical psychologist and sex therapist from Montreal, says she’s been treating more and more men for performance anxiety in the past five years— some as young as 18 and 19. “We’ve heard women complain for years that they’re just too tired to have sex,” she says. “Well, the same holds true for men. Sometimes, they just shut down.”

Our fathers and grandfathers would undoubtedly find this amusing: a generation of men deflated by—what? Multi-tasking? Compared to the Manichaean struggles of earlier times—industrialization, war, economic depression—such fears sound pathetic. But men in the 21st century face a challenge. It is less a test of their masculinity than a search for masculinity itself.

drives a city bus; and Sean, a 34-year-old newlywed who sells real estate.

As the beer flowed and baseball highlights flickered from the 17 television sets overhead, Patrick, the father of three, acknowledged the crushing weight of domestic responsibilities in one’s prime earning years —the pressure of salting away as much cash as he can to secure his family’s future. “I want to be the guy who participates in household decisions, who’s there to help raise the kids,” he says. “I purposefully chose a career that would give me that flexibility. Even then it can be tough.”

Patrick and Tom, the mortgage broker, agree that in general women determine how guys should look and behave, a fact that leaves them with a vague sense of irrelevance. They now dress, think and act to satisfy their wives, or professional standards set with women in mind. The fashion industry is a sore point. Asked their thoughts on a spread from a popular style magazine for men—it featured a pouty, effete-looking model wearing heavy tweeds, a floral print scarf and fuchsia socks—Tom snapped the

and visceral, reaction to the way men are represented in the mass media. They resent depictions like those helpless buffoons in Swiffer ads who are just learning to dust. And when asked to name men in the public eye whom they consider role models, they couldn’t think of any. Author Kimmel, who for the past 20 years has been polling his male sociology students on their role models, says the reaction is increasingly common. “When I started the survey in ’85, they’d give you who you might predict—athletes, movie stars, rock stars,” he says. “Back then it was Michael Jordan and Bruce Springsteen.” By the mid-’90s, however, less than 20 per cent were citing popular figures, he says; many were naming their own fathers instead.

Now, says Kimmel, young men say they don’t have any role models. “It’s the most common answer I’ve gotten in the past two years. Politicians are out because they’re all seen as corrupt. We know far too much about steroid use and cheating by athletes, and they see big-screen heroes like Vin Diesel as buffoons. All the guys who used to be in

WITH THIS IN MIND, Maclean’s recently convened an unscientific panel of four not quite middle-aged men at a sports bar in Toronto and asked them to discuss their anxieties, hopes and frustrations. Or, put another way, their feelings. They were Tom, a 39-year-old mortgage broker raised in a traditional Greek family; Patrick, a 40-yearold Toronto business consultant and father of three; Scott, a single 39-year-old who

magazine shut in disgust.

Sean, who arrived in a conservatively cut suit, looked baffled. “I have never seen a guy dressed like this in my life,” he said. Scott, still wearing his short-sleeve bus-driver shirt, seemed to take the whole thing literally: “You know just looking at this guy that he doesn’t work.”

Part of this seemed simple macho posturing. But behind the bluster was a sincere,

that pantheon are seen as compromised.”

On the surface, this makes a certain amount of sense. As the modern male’s challenges shift from work and career to, say, childrearing, it seems only natural for him to eschew old role models. But everyone, from church leaders to native elders, agrees that young men need ethical beacons in the hormone storm of adolescence. If men in their 30s and 40s are feeling this jaded, what does it bode for the next generation?

IF YOU’RE A WOMAN, this is probably the point where you’ve had enough bellyaching about role models, time constraints and unreasonable social requirements. Puh-leeze, you’re thinking. Stretched by the conflicting demands of career, homemaking and parenting? Welcome to womanhood since, oh, 1975. Upset by unrealistic ideas of masculine sexuality? Try spending one week in a set of four-inch heels and a push-up bra.

But according to some researchers, women bear some responsibility for the current male malaise, because they’ve been sending conflicting signals about what they want from men. Take physical appearance. For decades, heterosexual women have told pollsters they’re attracted to a variety of feminine attributes in potential mates, from delicate facial features to a “sensitive” personality, notes Ira Matathia, a marketing expert and co-author of the recently published The Future of Men. But as males remake themselves accordingly, many women seem to miss the crackle associated with stereotypical sexual roles. Perversely, they gravitate toward the granitejawed chauvinists of old, whether as bedmates or husbands.

This is one of the reasons why the most recent male prototype, the “metrosexual,” enjoyed a shelf-life of only a couple of years

before culture gurus began declaring him obsolete. Matathia and his co-authors, Marian Salzman and Ann O’Reilly, helped usher the term into the popular lexicon in 2003, defining it as the just-gay-enough fellow who blends physicality, sensitivity and fashion flair to create a woman’s dream date. Now, they see metrosexuality as a discredited brand. The reported philandering of its standard-bearer, soccer star David Beckham, is one reason. But the archetype suffered more from what Matathia calls “emo boys,” guys whose preoccupation with emotion and style devolved into whiny, mincing narcissism. Women (understandably) recoiled, and “metrosexual” became a term of derision, connoting little more than “selfabsorbed wimp.”

This doesn’t mean the metrosexual creature is dead. “These guys certainly aren’t going to throw out their designer cologne and go out and buy Old Spice again,” says Kimmei. But some reliable barometers of female preference suggest the drift toward a more feminine male is indeed reversing. Take Hollywood’s current crop of leading men: while such sensitive, limpid figures as Leonardo DiCaprio and Hugh Grant struck a chord with women in the 1990s, the movie industry has for some time now been back to banking on testosterone machines like Colin Farrell, Viggo Mortensen and the hawkish Daniel Craig, who recently won the role of James Bond.

The tug-of-war played out symbolically last fall in Closer, a dark comedy which pitted winsome Jude Law against swarthy Clive Owen in a competition for female attention. Owen’s character—a chauvinistic yob whose idea of seduction is asking Julia Roberts if she “fancies a poke”—landed him on People magazine’s Most Beautiful People list in 2005.

THE AVERAGE SCHLUß could draw a number of inferences from this. First, that women want different things from different men. Second, that brutish males awaken something in many women’s subsconsciousness (who hasn’t been floored by the sight of a normally discriminating female leaving the bar with an utter bastard?). But it also suggests a more nuanced view of gender roles on the part of both men and women, where the notion of reforming the sexes is seen as archaic. Yes, most men now accept women’s right to self-determination. But just as not every woman needs to shoot for the executive suite, not every man should feel deficient for transforming himself into a domestic diva. As Matathia puts it: “There’s something that feels fundamentally right about the way things are between men and women.”

So he and his co-authors are floating yet another prototype of the reconstructed male, which is distinctly a throwback to such debonair types as Frank Sinatra or Cary Grant. The “übersexual,” as they call him, is more polished than the average hetero, more masculine than a metrosexual. He is dedicated to style and quality in all aspects of life. “The men in this category have defined themselves, their goals and their needs, with very little reference to women,” says The Future of Men. “They have good relationships with women, but do not go out of their way to seek women’s acceptance or approval.”

Unhelpfully, the authors cite the likes of actor George Clooney and real estate mogul Donald Trump as specimens of this new breed—as if anyone who could afford to wouldn’t dress well, buy nice things and decorate himself with beautiful females. In the real world, men cannot buy their way to a new identity. To find happiness, they still have to make themselves useful to women.

OUR FATHERS AND GRANDFATHERS WOULD HOWL: A GENERATION OF MEN DEFLATED BY-WHAT? MULTI-TASKING?

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This struck home with our unofficial men’s panel. “I don’t care what most guys say about sex,” announced Sean, “because I know they’re all full of it. I’m interested in what women say. What do they like in bed? What turns them on?” Spoken like a newlywed, the others laughed. But it was one of several such remarks Sean had made through the evening that seemed to strike the intellectual balance required to navigate modern sexual politics. He’s no “emo boy.” But he’s truly attentive to the women in his life. He doesn’t expect any woman to remain in his orbit unless he makes her happy.

So much, then, for dispensing with our need for feminine approval. But what of the more immediate problem? If the pressure to change is tearing men apart—and if women continue to be the driving force behind that change—what are the options? The few an-

swers on offer seem inadequate. You can medicate the symptoms of stress, but who wants his manhood measured in dosages of Zoloft, or Viagra? You could join the legions of men throughout the Western world pressing for paternity leave, which would make stay-at-home dad a bona fide vocation. But even full paternity benefits would best serve men with secure jobs, or with high-earning spouses. Besides which, most men remain the chief breadwinners in their households, meaning extended leave for fatherhood is simply not an option.

A few years ago, Kimmel formed a threepronged theory about how American men were protecting their outdated ideas of masculinity. They sought to exclude others, such as women and homosexuals, from their fraternal world, he said. Or they tried escape— “lighting out,” as Mark Twain would have it,

on hunting trips, or mythopoetic retreats, à la Robert Bly. When all this failed, Kimmel believes, they retreated into themselves, focusing on appearance and their ability to shape their own bodies.

As Pujos-Gautraud’s reactions illustrate, this may prove the most dangerous outcome of men’s current malaise. Yes, their experimentation with appearance—remaking themselves on ever more feminine principles—has torn down weary stereotypes. It may even help them understand life from a woman’s point of view. But men now run the risk of obscuring the meaning of male altogether, of robbing the sexes of that ageold friction that, however frustrating, happens to be the stuff of life. If the views of one open-minded, middle-aged Frenchwoman are anything to go by, that would be one evolutionary rung too far.