On March 18th, 1936, from London, England, Theodor Adorno, Marxist Cultural Philosopher wrote to his friend, Walter Benjamin, another Marxist Cultural Philosopher:
‘If today I proceed to convey to you some notes on your extraordinary study [‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’], I certainly have no intention of offering you criticism or even an adequate response. ‘
He then went on to give Benjamin a heartfelt, enthusiastic but also detailed and rigorous critique of Benjamin’s now classic essay.
It is in that spirit that I came up with a criticism of the work of my esteemed gentleman scholar associate, Mr Mark Simpson, after reading an interview (with someone else this time) about his latest book, Metrosexy.
This is my note:
Dear Mr Simpson,
It has been illuminating for me reading your interview with Grooming Guru about Metrosexy, as for once it was not me posing the questions! It showed to me some aspects of your work that I have some small but significant misgivings about. And I state them here, as Adorno stated his criticisms of Benjamin’s The Work of Art In The Age of Mechanical Reproduction, with no other intention than to strengthen your thesis and your arguments. And to ‘serve our general line, which is now so clearly discernible’ as Adorno put it in his letter to Benjamin.
In the interview you say:
‘Instead of men becoming ‘more like women’ what we’re seeing is men being less inhibited in their behaviour by worries about what’s ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, ‘gay’ and ‘straight’. In much the same way that women have been since the feminist revolution of the 1970s.’
And it is on this question of whether or not women are ‘less inhibited in their behaviour by worries about what is masculine and feminine’ in particular that I must take issue with you.
Women, in this ‘post-feminist’ age, are indeed able to wear trousers, snog their friends when they are pissed, take up jobs previously reserved for men, and even fart and belch like truckers. But this does not mean they are not just as anxious about masculinity or femininity as ever.
You know my phrase ‘mumsy cupcake feminists’. Well, that concept represents the current trend, particularly amongst middle class women, to expect to be given equal rights and opportunities, in the workplace etc, whilst also maintaining their position of queen of the castle at home. And in that castle, women expect often to have a male partner, and a nice home, and a talent for baking, and lovely clothes, and plenty of shoes, and hopefully a couple of sprogs running around to finish off the picture. They are also expected to have certain opinions that best befit a lady, such as a liberal attitude to sex, unless it is the ‘wrong’ kind, for example that carried out by sex workers or porn actors. And they are expected to be very judgemental about the ‘excessive’ aspects of men’s sexualities, including sexual aggression and open displays of homosexuality and bisexuality.
My point is, dear Mister Simpson, that women who do not fit this model of femininity, who are ‘too masculine’ in their behaviours, who do not have children and nice homes, who do not wear classicly elegant clothes, who do not turn their noses up at people who work in the sex industry, or who work in the sex industry themselves, they are seen as ‘lesser women’.
I understand there was a ‘feminist revolution of the 1970s’, as I was born out of and into the belly of that revolution. (There is a question of how ‘universal’ the impact of that ‘revolution’ has been by the way. Sometimes I wonder if it only really happened in my tiny, women’s lib activist, urban middle class corner of the world). I know that feminism has enabled women some freedoms of gender/sexual expression that until recently have been denied men. But I think it is misleading to suggest women do not still demonstrate considerable anxiety (which can also manifest itself as ‘homophobia/misandry/transphobia’ for want of better words) about gender and sexual identities. In understanding this point, you will not only see more clearly the conceptual relationship between ‘men’ and ‘women’ in society, but will also be in a stronger position to examine how metrosexuality in men, actually has not eradicated men’s own anxieties about masculinity and femininity(and hetero/homosexuality). It could be that in some ways it accentuates some of these anxieties. You may be suffering, as Adorno suggested Benjamin did about the proletariat, a bit of ‘romanticism’ about the liberating potential of metrosexuality for men.
Also, I think actually that men are becoming more like women. In the sense that men, as subjects and actors within consumer capitalism, are being treated by corporations/advertising etc, almost exactly as women are. If, since consumer capitalism took hold of our society, the consumer has traditionally been positioned as ‘woman’, then men are now occupying that position, and doing so very fetchingly I might add. I agree it is irrelevant whether ‘men’ are actually like ‘women’ or not, as men and women are quite useless concepts to describe how people actually are. But ‘men’ are becoming more like ‘women’ in terms of how they are positioned, and how they respond to social forces, in a materialist sense I think, to use Adorno’s terminology.
I believe you to be the leading expert and scholar in the study of men and masculinities working today. But I think your unique position in relation to men, is not quite matched by your interest in and understanding of women in contemporary culture. I know when you are challenged about your lack of knowledge of/reference to/interest in women you tend to retort that a) you are not interested in women either sexually or sociologically and b) feminism has made sure women get prioritised in any discussions of gender, so , seriously, what about the men?
This might serve as an acceptable response, except as we know, gender is only and always the sets of interactions and comparisons between ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ identities in a social context. And it always involves men and women as actors. As the quote from your interview above indicates, when you theorise men and masculinity, you cannot help but do so in relation to women and femininity. Therefore both sides need to be investigated with some degree of rigour. So maybe now you have completed your masterwork, Metrosexy, you may consider spending some time thinking about this issue of how femininity (and masculinity) as demonstrated by women, relates to men’s identities. I believe this will deepen your understanding of metrosexuality, and its conflicts and contradictions. And you know I am always here to give some perspective, even though I have my own ‘issues’ with women/femininity. My issues come from being one of those vile creatures so I have no choice but to face up to my ‘monstrous feminine’.
To conclude, I quote Adorno in his letter to his friend:
‘I feel that our theoretical disagreement is not really a discord between us but rather, that it is my task to hold your arm steady until the sun of Brecht* has once more sunk into exotic waters. Please understand my criticisms only in this spirit’.
Your ardent Simpsonista