Having previously written books called Next and Buzz, Marian Salzman and her colleagues call themselves “international trendspotters and advertising world superstars”. The Future of Men, according to Salzman's website, “leverages the success that Salzman and her colleagues had in 2003, when they popularized the concept of metrosexuality”. Well, it is a breezy look at men over the last few decades; but it's also an infuriating and ultimately fairly tiresome book, and not just because the authors use the word “societal” a lot. The truth is, it doesn't offer any real insight.
The authors observe men's behaviour and quote what a range of journalists and ordinary people say about them, in books, in the media and in interviews, but just reporting these things without going deeper can simply lead to confusion. They're happy enough, for instance, to let us know that
Where once, ideologues and professionals tried to persuade us that there was no essential difference betweenâ€¦ male and femaleâ€¦ the last few years have seen the resurgence of certain biological “truths” and the reemergence of the idea that gender difference are innate not learned
But this idea goes nowhere. They fail to think through whether this trend has any social consequences, let alone to what extent it might be true. The inverted commas around “truths” perhaps explain why: these authors are so concerned with media and marketing that, deep down, they believe those forces “culturally construct” masculinity:
â€¦what we would consider “macho” behaviors aren't necessarily in synch with definitions of masculinity in other societies. In reality, the Western version of masculinity is fairly modern and geographically limited
Nonetheless, they're happy elsewhere in the book to “explain” the phenomenon of the toy-boy in a one-liner about changing evolutionary pressures.
But enough about its lack of intellectual rigour. The fundamental idea behind the book is that as the “image” of man has changed over the last fifty years, man himself has changed, too. In that sense, the book is less about the future of men than about their present and past, and it's the book's treatment of the past that I find most annoying actually. I think Salzman and her colleagues stereotype the past, constantly talking in broad-brush terms that make it sound as though every marriage in the mythical “1950s” was a Taken in Hand style one—they're happy for instance to quote, uncritically, the British writer Paul Fraser:
In 1950, a real man was the breadwinnerâ€¦ He was loved and feared by his wife. She wouldn't talk back
It seems to me what's happening here is over-generalisation and wishful thinking, as Fraser and the authors enjoy drawing a sharp contrast between then and now. My own view, as a man who very much wants a wife to love and fear me, is that my and her active desires for this (hey, where is she by the way?) are thoroughly modern, postfeminist desires. The 1950s are a great fantasy for us, a cultural reference (and I love a vintage suit more than most guys who don't love guys) but I suspect many men and women were trapped in unfulfilling marriages then, as now, and were much less able to express their need for security and control than we can now. It's the sheer selectivity that bugs me about this book's take on history. “Once upon a time,” it tells us, “leading men in American movies came with an imposing physique and a square jaw: John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, Lee Marvinâ€¦ Nowadays, for every Russell Crowe there is a baby-faced, effeminate Tobey Maguireâ€¦”
It makes a neat contrast, but hang on! Have Salzman and her friends never heard of Cary Grant? Of Montgomery Clift? Of Dirk Bogarde? Again, we're offered an airbrushed, fake monochrome past—the kind of past imagined by people who probably think everything that appears new, really is.
As women have become more independent, the authors argue, they have gained control of masculinity. They now define it, approve it or criticise it, with increasing help from gay men, and straight men have adapted to this change by becoming more “female-friendly”, which means they try to talk about their feelings, to dress nicely, and to do grooming. Hence the metrosexual fad of a few years ago, which as I've said Salzman claims credit for spotting (and naturally, the book mentions England soccer captain David Beckham a lot—he really does seem to be global metrosexual number 1).
The one thing that's interesting for us here is the next step in the argument: Salzman and her colleagues say there's now a backlash against all this. At a number of points, women are quoted complaining about a certain kind of narcissistic man who spends more time on grooming than she does, or has more expensive shoes. In fact, the book has a clearly ambivalent attitude to the poor old metrosexual: Salzman clearly doesn't know whether her Frankenstein's monster fills her with pity or horror. At times he seems idealised as a modern, sensitive guy (Metrosexuals—dontcha just love ”em?), at others, an embarrassing blip that real men have moved on from by now (Metrosexuals—arentcha sick of ”em?). It's doublethink worthy of the Private Eye fake columnist Glenda Slag, whom British readers may know.
Women aren't being made happy by men who are vulnerable and needy, we learn, and both men and women are looking for something else. One Dutch woman is quoted speaking in very Taken in Hand terms: she likes her man to be the main decision-maker and head of the household, to be in control—because all this makes her feel like a woman. The authors mention The Surrendered Wife, of course, as one expression of this backlash, and make a point of saying that surrendering responsibility to her partner can be liberating for a woman. So maybe the tide of trend is with us!
Where the book gets really a bit silly is in its invention of homo postmextrosexualis. Salzman and Co. think there's a new type of manly man: what he's got is called “M-ness”, and he's called the übersexual.
This is a man whose defining qualities are passion and styleâ€¦ these men are the most attractiveâ€¦ most dynamic, and most compelling men of their generations. They are supremely confidentâ€¦ masculine, stylishâ€¦ Like the metrosexual, the übersexual enjoys shopping, but his approach is more focusedâ€¦ They are men like George Clooneyâ€¦ Theyâ€¦ do not go out of their way to get women's acceptance or approval (though they almost always get it).
So Clooney's your man (which makes me quite smug to have once been called “the thinking woman's George Clooney”—by a gay man, I'm afraid). There's still a fair amount of ambiguity about this character, though: the übersexual also has to be touchy-feely:
We're talking about men being able to have open and loving platonic friendships with their male buddies. We're talking about men not being ashamed to admit they like the feel of cashmereâ€¦
I love that last bit; I think men really will be in crisis if they start bonding with each other over knitwear materials. But the authors soon get back on track, conjuring up the image of the oh-so-sexy übersexual.
Being a Real Man today means knowing and doing what it takes to get what you want, when and how you want it.
With a possibly endearing lack of irony, the authors seem to have forgotten that they've already, nearly two hundred pages earlier, quoted Paul Fraser's cutting critique of exactly this kind of fantasy:
In 2005, a real man has a six-pack stomachâ€¦ he is successful. He is single, with a succession of model girlfriends. He is George Clooney. He is a media invention.