Mr. Metrosexual has been out-fashioned. His toppling begs a different question: is society frivolizing itself to death?
Twenty years ago, Mark Simpson walked out of Britain’s first style exhibition laser-beamed at men—GQ had sponsored “It’s a Man’s World”—and, on the evidence of the stockpiled face creams and the tailored Armani suits, declared that the age of Metrosexual Man had arrived. (“I’d seen the future, and it was moisturized,” Simpson reminisces.) Men were finally set free to be vain, to trumpet with perfumed pride that both fellow men and women admirers be damned; nothing would come between themselves and their reflection.
A few years later, when Simpson had expanded his argument and identified David Beckham as the poster boy of the phenomenon, “mextrosexual” entered the cannon of the chattering classes’ vocabulary, and the Aughts found us familiarly, unblinkingly rubbing shoulders with the specimen.
By 2012, they’d come of age, when data revealed that (British) men outspent women—on shoes. And the Telegraph’s 2013 report that the British military’s base stores had struck a record deal to bring posh face scrubs, eye creams, and moisturizers to its shelves, to help British soldiers in their fight against blackheads.
But men evolve! And Simpson, from his front-row seat at the runway of male social trends, this summer declared that decades of encouraging men to take themselves as their own love-object has spawned a much hipper version of the original metrosexual. This newer new man has untangled himself from the (still enjoyable, sure) distraction of clothes to focus with unadulterated purpose on himself—naked, chiseled, and glistening. Simpson would like to make our acquaintance official with this individual. Meet Mr. Spornosexual.
The Gentrification of the Spornosexual
Curiously, Simpson’s recent introduction of this new “mirror man” seemed to generate little attention. This could be a product of our hashtag attention span; a side effect of a world concentrating its seriousness on solving (with hashtag activism?) the grave political and economic difficulties currently in play. Or it could have something to do with the fact that, this time around, Simpson’s announcement was perhaps a little bit après le fait, and that the habits and attitudes he attributes to this dubiously-named person (softened a little, to be sure) sound remarkably like those of our cubicle mate, our next-door (apartment) neighbor, perhaps even ourselves. Surely, this exaggerated cliché is not Us.
Who—and what—exactly is this “spornosexual”? As described by Simpson, the “spornosexual” is a man who has become everything to himself, and then given a one-ticket exhibition in the Louvre. He is his own inspiration, his own disciple, his own jealous lover. The image of himself upon which he expends so much attention and effort holds his admiration; the product of countless hours of consuming “selfies, social media, and porn,” his body is essentially himself “photoshopped in real life.” But the phenomenon is something beyond simple egoism, preening, or dandyism instagrammed and selfied. It is its component of physical exhibitionism that distinguishes it as something new and remarkable:
With their painstakingly pumped and chiselled bodies, muscle-enhancing tattoos, piercings, adorable beards and plunging necklines it’s eye-catchingly clear that second-generation metrosexuality is less about clothes than it was for the first. Eagerly self-objectifying, second generation metrosexuality is totally tarty. Their own bodies (more than clobber and product) have become the ultimate accessories, fashioning them at the gym into a hot commodity – one that they share and compare in an online marketplace.
This new wave puts the ‘sexual’ into metrosexuality. In fact, a new term is needed to describe them, these pumped-up offspring of those Ronaldo and Beckham lunch-box ads, where sport got into bed with porn while Mr. Armani took pictures.
The Washington Post hit at a more expansive description when it characterized this new class of men as the equivalent of “the trickled-down cultural derivative of the sporno.” Not everyone can achieve the status of the new jock—the combination of porn plus sports star, the sex symbol turned sports star and sports star turned sex symbol dubbed with the conflated moniker by Simpson (again) in a 2006 article. The majority of us haven’t won enough Olympic medals, Nike endorsements, or multi-million dollar contracts, or crushed enough calories to be featured on ESPN’s annual “The Body” issue (initiated in 2009, it features or “celebrates” the naked body, in male and female form, of numerous athletic celebrities, to cut into Sports Illustrated’s lucrative swimsuit issue market) or the like. But just as other habits of celebrities and other popular culture heroes become aped and embedded in daily life, so this phenomenon has trickled down to the urban masses.
Perhaps in England, where Simpson resides, this trickled down version only manifests itself in the “spornosexual,” with all its implications of being more couture and less college frat house. But a sweeping visual of America’s sidewalks, cubicles, gyms, and watering holes indicates that the phenomenon has trickled down into a second, less posed, much more familiar, and seemingly harmless, form. This second form often looks awfully similar to a superannuated frat boy, and smells remarkably similar to the “bro.”
‘Sky’s Out, Thighs Out’ Bro Culture
A defining characteristic of Simpson’s Spornosexual Man is his proclivity to swap the high-end urban mall—the metrosexual’s haven—with the gym. It’s not just as superficial a link as Mr. Spornosexual pumping iron next to the “bro” in the gym that marks the two of them as offspring of the same parent. Both are overwhelmingly single, younger, professionals, and urban dwellers. But where the metrosexual has seen well-cut and expertly tailored clothes as a visual art experience to patronize as also to indulge in, the two iterations of the spornosexual see clothes as a fine indulgence of frivolity compared to the art of their own body, which is best exhibited nude. Or nearly nude.
On the “bro” side of the spectrum, the increasing exposure of the manly hairy thigh has become something of a commercial and cultural phenomenon. With a tag line of “Radical Shorts For Men” and a “Sky’s out, thighs out” official mentality (and unofficial motto—just google the phrase), Chubbies—a line of short shorts aimed at men—have conquered the male clothing market. In the second three months of 2012, sales of Chubbies shorts skyrocketed 600 percent. The success of the mid-thigh, elastic-waisted shorts since then continues, and has spawned a type of virtual fraternity: the “ChubsterNation,” with its own phraseology and set of facts to live by. (Its influence has also moved upwards, with couturiers this summer attempting to make the male “short suit” an office staple.)
“Men have objectified women for ages,” said founder Rainer Castillo. “We’ve flipped the game. Now women will objectify them.” While Chubbies’ culture is explicitly fratty (its official Instagram account announces, “Retro badasses, bacon, and occasionally shorts;” beer is a given) and is gleeful and boastful about the Chubster’s supposed knee-weakening effect on women, the conversation, the language, and the culture are explicitly self-referentially male.
As Castillo explained to The Wall Street Journal’s David Colman, “We spend too much time in the gym to hide under frumpy shorts that say, ‘I don’t care how I look.’” Colman himself has been a chronicler of men’s shortening shorts, with the rise of Chubbies’ popularity prompting him this summer to comment that “if men’s shorts were a glacier in Greenland, scientists would be freaking out.” In just a few short years, the 15-inch inseam has retracted to the 11-inch knee-length look, only to make a decisive jump to 9 inches, after which it tried out the “quadriceps-exposing 7 inches” and didn’t stop until reaching “the newly fashionable thigh-flaunting 5 inches.”
I could walk too fast among the metropolitan commuting classes to notice gaggles of women swooning over the newly-liberated male thigh, or am frightfully unobservant, but it doesn’t seem that Chubbies and their like have become the Pied Piper of females. A small surface-scratching of the Chubbies culture, in particular, and the “bro” culture, in general, reveals that it’s not at all about women, despite the posturing. It’s a retreat of men into the Tribe of Maleness, where a requisite irreverent attitude is matched with the “classic fraternity loves like patriotism, drinking and matching outfits with…an excess of enthusiasm.”
Frivolizing Ourselves to Death
There are too many hysteric screeds written against men, blaming them for everything from climate change to a bad hair day. This essay is not meant to join those ranks. What it is, is an essay, an attempt, to understand cultural features of our present society that seem to make both men and women treat society itself as one great big scam, joke, or horror. The very surfaces of that culture, in things as seemingly harmless or trivial as clothes and workout regimens, tell a troubling tale of deep boredom and unhappiness.
Society seems hell-bent on encouraging the tribalization of itself and the nation. Women blame men for the world’s ills, and make masculinity impossible. They huddle together, and the worst aspects of their femininity are exacerbated the closer they do so—why else do even highly educated female lawyers, doctors, and other professionals commonly refer to their female friends as bitches and whores? If only to get away from the screechiness and the bitchiness, men retreat either into the man-cave of the perpetual fraternity, or beyond even that, into the cave of spornosexuality.
Clive Martin wonders whether the intense, religious need to incorporate a workout regimen so liturgically in our lives is not a symbol and a symptom of the lack of meaning and purpose that the modern world gives off like the odor from a post-workout jock. When love of family, love of country, and love of God have all been mocked and legislated out of public existence, what greater thing than oneself is one supposed to love, sacrifice for, and protect? So our workouts become more grueling and strenuous. Like the despairing adolescent who slashes her wrist to make material and palpable her mental anguish, we flock to tough mudders, Crossfit, and the like to know that we have accomplished something, conquered something.
Within this context Mr. Spornosexual makes perfect sense. Yet: “Pity the world, or else this glutton be—/ To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.”