Metrosexuality: A Struggle Over Meanings

Posted: July 31, 2011 in Uncategorized

I have recently been explaining how I see ‘metrosexuality’ as a contested site where people are struggling over its meaning. The concept of metrosexuality, and metrosexuals, is not based in academia, but in the media, and people’s everyday usage. The originator of the concept, Mark Simpson, is a journalist himself, and this is significant because he was immersed in contemporary media (including media marketed specifically to ‘men’) when he coined the phrase in 1994.  As Simpson has demonstrated so effectively, metrosexuality, men’s desire to be desired (within consumer culture)  is mediated masculinities. It cannot be separated from representation.

But now, in 2011, it is not just Simpson who feels he has an understanding of what ‘metrosexual’ means. People who discuss gender online use it, people who work in the fashion industry, ‘male grooming’ experts use it, as do other journalists, a few academics and others. There is not one agreed definition of ‘metrosexual’ though. Its meaning is created through usage. And the more people use it, the more meanings it will accrue.

Or rather, the more struggle there will be over its meaning. Because ‘metrosexual’ relates to gender/sexuality identities, and they are always contested within certain limits of our understanding. One of these limits is the ‘gender binary’- our concept of the difference between man/woman, masculine/feminine. In fact, metrosexuality is a direct challenge to our understanding of the gender binary, but it probably also reinforces it in some ways.

A great example of the ‘struggle’ over the meanings  of metrosexuality is a comment from my  Good Men Project piece:

‘Actually, why not make “gender roles” a *pair* of dualities? Instead of Real Man / Real Woman, why not Metro Person (Male or Female varieties available) / Retro Perrson (comes in the same two flavours)? This will allow for both tradition and innovation to co-exist, and who wouldn’t prefer to co-exist, considering the alternative?

You can’t go from male to female with too much ease, so why not allow for Metro/Retro to be two well-defined territories with porous borders? Fluidity doesn’t need to mean total fluidity, and a small amount of rigidity allows for a level of certainty that fosters a feeling of security. Best of both worlds? Maybe.’

The commenter is trying desperately to stay within the gender binary. And s/he can’t say ‘metros are girly’ and ‘retros are real men’ because that’s the myth I have just pulled apart.  My piece argues, as influenced by Simpson’s analysis, that the concept of the ‘retrosexual’, ‘real man’, who rejects the girly, unmanly metrosexual identity, is actually just a display of metro-anxiety and denial.

So the commenter comes up with a Metro/Retro binary that both men and women can fit into! S/he says you can have retro men and women, and metro men and women. S/he has embraced the idea of ‘fluidity’ but can only cope with it up to a point. Which could be an aspect of metrosexuality itself – fluidity up to a point. And the ‘best of both worlds’ s/he wants is not just the best of metro and retro, but the best of the worlds of binary essentialism and constructed/changing identities. Where people can be ‘porous’ in their identities but they still fit into two sets of ‘well-defined territories’.

My point is that whilst I do not think you can have two separate binaries of Retro Man/Retro Woman and Metro Man/Metro Woman, the fact that somebody else does, is interesting and important in contributing to the meanings of ‘metrosexuality’ in culture.

A note on ‘discourse analysis’: my academic training, and my PHD on gender, involved using a form of discourse analysis that interrogates how people form and contest identities in language. I was in part influenced by researchers and writers such as Widdicombe and Atari:

  1. Jay Fink says:

    I don’t see the metrosexual as the polar opposite of the traditional masculine male. Instead I see the metrosexual as this eras version of the macho man. They share a hyper-awareness and concern of how they project to others. The macho man wanted to be a “real man”, the metrosexual has his own set of insecurities. Both groups of men strive to be accepted and liked by others and generally are, especially women. Ironically men who are most comfortable in their skin and least image conscious are probably incorrectly perceived by others to be the least confident.

    • ‘They share a hyper-awareness and concern of how they project to others.’ – agreed. But I wonder if that ‘hyper-awareness’ isn’t the contemporary condition. I don’t see how anyone can escape it.

  2. figleaf says:

    “…whilst I do not think you can have two separate binaries of Retro Man/Retro Woman and Metro Man/Metro Woman, the fact that somebody else does, is interesting and important in contributing to the meanings of ‘metrosexuality’ in culture.”

    Yes, this is great. How does basically doubling down on gender binaries help when the problem is the binaries themselves?

    While I think the idea is bad I do think the commenter’s heart was in the right place: currently “manliness” is defined by how much of one’s humanity one can amputate, where the quintessential ideal of manliness is, basically, Dick Cheney, who evidently is literally living without a human heart.

    The commenter thinks it would be nice to widen the pool to include David Beckham too. And sure, any alternative to Dick Cheney as the model for men is nice. I mean, yeah, it’s sort of a “we have both kinds of cheese” way of looking at it, but again his/her heart was in the right place.

    Personally I’d prefer to drop the question entirely.

    For the record I got my definition from the old men’s theorist Herb Goldberg in, I think, The Hazards of Being Male. He recounted a story of one of the most famous matadors in Spain who, after dispatching a bull in a particularly dramatic way invited friends to his home for a celebratory meal. After dinner his friends were surprised when the matador put on an apron and started washing the dishes. When one of them asked if washing dishes might not be the most manly task the matador replied, irritated, “everything I do is masculine!”

    That sounds about right. The whole idea of questioning one’s own or anyone else’s masculinity is almost the only possible way to be “unmanly.” And lets not even get started with the whole metrosexual / personal grooming as men “discovering their feminine side.” Dear sweet mother of pearl, you use a bar of soap and suddenly you’re a girl? Same for people who tell women they’re “practically one of the boys” or “she can drink like a man.” Screw that. Want to get your chest waxed? Fine, men do that. Heck, want to not just wax your chest but get breast implants? Fine, men do that too. How about we just say there people who can spit, or drink, or who want breast implants, or have their first heart attack at age 37 and leave the gender crap out of it?

    Nice post, QRG.


  3. billsnshits says:

    You know what just struck me. I saw the other figleaf battle and just dropped my comment b/c I’m sick of nobody advancing fast enough,
    but I just thought that this post is like trying to own the definition of feminism. Except it’s about metrosexuality.

    And that I have to “choose” which definition of metro I want to subscribe to, despite the word itself being coined by simpson.

    So: simpson (men are gay and they all want to blow me, but I’ll just call them “free” and in self love so I can fantasize w/o being directly challenged).

    QRG (men have always BEEN gay and now they’re just free to be so but women will never catch them).

    popular among journalists (men are as sophisticated as urban gays used to be but they really, reeeeally, REALLY are not “gay” and stop using the word “gay” you plebs, you’re all homophobic and you need us to tell you to not be)

    popular among right wing journs, pols, and voters (whad’you say? “metrosex..”? what’s that? Oh? Oh, that’s just some weird retarded shit the socialist tree hugger euro fascists made up to distract from how they aren’t muscular like me. What? I’m just fat? And wanting to be muscular makes me gay? we’re done here…f’n pervert idiot)

    popular among the plebs (metros are preppy-to-business dressed males who do lots of exercise, or are just thin, neat and single. there is no more to it than that. at least nothing about which I have an opinion…just like i have no opinion about anything, generally).

    Now, they’re probably all correct to some extent, even that second last one. The question is, which one will I pick today?

    • whatevs billsnits. You’re just deliberately misreading everything anyone ever writes.

      The word ‘gay’ is one I use very carefully in a specific context. and if you want to know simpson’s views on the word you should read his book ‘Anti-Gay’

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