It took evolution 500 years to move us from Neanderthal Man to Rennaisance Man. And only five years from New Age Man to Metrosexual Man to Retrosexual Man to Thinking Man. First we were informed it’s cool to be in touch with your feelings, then it’s like tooo New Age. Next, it’s a total must you groom yourself, then it’s like just not sexy – you need to be a little rough around the edges. Finally, caring for women is like, duh, of course!, but suddenly you hear female voices whisper that there’s nothing like a bit of a Cave Man.
Anthropologists, sociologists, psychiatrists are unanimous in their opinion that modern man has never had it so confusing. But, outside of these GQ-fuelled trends, the truth is, men are a pretty confused lot from the time they are boys. How many of us were told not to cry because it meant we were sissies.? Sissy became the greatest sin of all. The greatest affront to your Masculinity. And there we have it. The M word. The crux of it all. The monkey on every man’s back. That we try shaking off with the Men Commandments. I don’t cry. I don’t fear the dark. I will build my muscles. I will never take an English Elocution class. I will never read ‘Bridges of Madison County’. I must love adventure sport. I can hold my liquor. I love fast cars. And god help me if I am gay.
So, past the proclamations of the New Man by fashion magazines, pop sociologists, faux feminists and other assorted arbiters of the male zeitgeist, what should today’s man aspire to be? For that we have only to take a generational look at the boy child’s role models to understand, as an adult, how much he has to undo before he can actually start being comfortable in his own skin. Half a century ago it was Superman with his near-invincible powers. His Clark Kent avatar told boys that while they are all Clark Kents, they have it in them to be Supermen. They have it in them to fight injustice with a mix of muscles and superpower. (Did we ever ask why, with x-ray vision, super breath, telescopic sight etc. did he need muscles?) Equally problematic are the ideals this post-war hero propagated – patently chauvinistic, jingoistic and right-wing. Then in the 60’s, Super anything was out. Rebel everything was in. Rebel actor (Dean), rebel singer (Dylan), rebel warrior (Che), even rebel jeans (Levis). If you were happy, you shut up, scowled and rebelled without a cause. If you didn’t smoke, do drugs or drink you knew better than to let on. The greatest irony was, if you didn’t conform to the norm of non-conformism you were dead. Or even worse, uncool. In the 70’s, Adam West’s entertaining, safe, simplistic, ‘Batman’ television series, marked a low point in what was promising to shape this ubermensch into a more human hero with all the flaws and self-doubt that assail us. Every camp bam! and boom! set the evolution of the Dark Knight back two decades. The 80’s saw Superman with a darker spin with the advent of heroes like the Hulk – oppressed characters with powers not quite as impenetrable and a temperament not quite as even as Kal El. Characters that had to be pushed to the wall to unleash their inner beast. (Packs of soft, flabby American men went on male-bonding camps into the wild in an attempt to figure out how to unleash their inner beast. Latest reports confirm only two men ever having succeeded – Michael Jackson and Arnold Schwarznegger.). Even contemporary comic book heroes make for tricky role models. Brian K. Vaughan’s ‘Y The Last Man’ while seemingly lets men exhale (he’s skinny, bespectacled), really doesn’t offer any respite. Here is Yorick, last man standing in a world of women who still cannot get them to covet him. Such is his plight that he sets off looking for his girlfriend who had promised to have sex with him if he was the last man alive on earth. One day he is (atlast!), sought after by the women, only to find they want him for his pet monkey, Ampersand, who carries the cure to the extinction of the human male species in his genes.
The last fifteen years have seen more twists in the Maze of Masculinity. Neil Gaiman’s incredibly popular ‘The Sandman’ comic book series marvellously created an unforgettable portrait of a little-known bit player of the original Superhero team as an asexual figure whose desire within to connect with humanity faces a daily battle with a world at odds without. A look at other forms of popular culture echo a new order. Macho FPS (first person shooter) video games have succumbed to gaming like ‘Myst’ that places no emphasis on the sex of the player and seeks to create a world of riddles that have to be solved to succeed. But just when you begin to sense some consistency in the easing of the whole ‘you must be a Man’ thing, welcome to the world of the movies. Here the morning show asks you to walk like Vin Diesel, the matinee, to talk like George Clooney, the night show, to cry like Brad Pitt. The world of music is no better. Are we to be dream kisser Iglesias? Twinkle Toes Timberlake? Bad Boy 50 Cent? Or nerdy Chris Martin? Perhaps the answers are blowing in the wind. Opinion polls show, more than his good looks, Johnny Depp’s talent and eccentricity put him on the walls of a million teenage girls’ bedrooms. Bono’s stature as a role model grows inversely proportional to his physical presence. Noam Chomsky continues to be one of the most innovative, fearless thinkers of our time, beating everybody on an internet poll for the best non-political President of the World. Bill Gates would never win a Hunk of the Year award. And Mahatma Gandhi continues to be at the top of myriad lists of the heroes of our age. I feel a bit better. Till the next GQ men’s advisory, that is.