Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Subsection: News Review
Wax or be damned
The rise of the pretty boy makes Elizabeth Farrelly wonder where have all the real men gone?
In the ancient cult of the earth goddess Cybele Mater Magna, young male devotees would fall into a frenzy, grab a sword and, in a dramatic public gesture, emasculate themselves.
Some versions have the freshly made castrati run through the streets, choosing the family whose honour it will be to support them by tossing their severed gonads onto the doorstep. But what is generally agreed, from Ovid to Lucretius to Catullus to Pausanius, is that the now genderless youths, known as galli (or, in Greek, galloi) lived and dressed thereafter as women, becoming Cybele’s priestesses, presiding at her worship and at ritual orgies in her honour.
This story might have nothing more than shock value, were it not for the obvious and unexplained feminisation of contemporary men. As Mal Meninga noted with disgust after a recent bloke-survey, “the nation’s iconic hard Aussie blokes are a dying breed. We’ve become a nation of pansies.”
Fifty years ago, an essay on men and maleness might have been a short work indeed, monosyllabic maybe, something like “ugh”. Now, men examine man-ness with the same vanity and fervour that women have always brought to examining woman-ness.
Fashion mags and goss-groups, body-waxing and eyebrow-plucking, pink shirts, perfume, rising suicides, falling sperm counts. It’s not castration, quite, but are men becoming more like women? If so, why? Is it what women want, or what men want? Maybe it is neither, just old-fashioned decadence, a civilisation’s sad endgame. Or a simple passing fad?
Late-shopping night. High above the main drag, a floodlit image dominates. It’s a young man, maybe 10 metres high, naked to the waist. He is tanned and hairless, muscled but slender, almost willowy. One hand is raised, offering a hint of vulnerable armpit. The other hovers suggestively at his crotch, in persuasive if unconscious parody of Botticelli’s Venus. In each golden lobe, a diamond glitters.
But the face is most telling. Gone is the square-jawed Marlboro man, the cool-eyed control of a Clint or a Kirk or a Robert. Gone is the entire, consciously unselfconscious uber-male ethos. In its place is a distinctly bedroom smoulder of the eyes; an insinuating, passive-aggressive come-get-me-who-dares kind of welcome. The boy – who would certainly flutter his eyelashes for you if he could – is, in all but anatomy, a girl. And proud of it.
Sure, it is Oxford Street, global gay-town. But it could as easily be any retail strip anywhere in the Western world, for this metro-sexuality is not especially aimed at the gay market. Not at all. Male prettiness is, it seems, as appealing to girls as to boys. Orlando Bloom, Justin Timberlake, Johnny Depp; today’s heartthrobs are every bit as pretty as the rippers and screamers.
Behaviour, too, emulates the female. Wherever you look, boofy footballer-types are accessorising with girl-stuff; proudly pushing strollers, being photographed naked with their newborns. The shopfront of Lockhart Menshed, in far west NSW, tells a poignant story. Here men can sit and talk, share problems and coffee, work the benches and lathes. But their product looks a lot like womb-envy; in a row, for sale, 20 bucks, a dozen or so neat wooden nesting boxes.
Even in overtly testosterone-based pursuits like sport and war, testosterone acts are treated like bizarre and unforeseeable accidents, rather than part of the deal. Barry Hall clocks an opponent on the field and is suspended from the Swannies. Nick d’Arcy thumps a teammate and is ejected from the Olympics, his career in tatters. Stuff that 10 or 20 years ago would have been dismissed with a boys-will-be-boys ticking-off is now punished harshly.
Courtship, too, is affected. Forty-five per cent of Australian men now use cleansers and moisturisers. The actor Daniel ‘Harry Potter’ Radcliffe was said to be searching Australia for his Cinderella, not because she was sweet but because she “had eyes that just looked at me like she wanted to pounce on me”.
This is classic “metro-warrior” behaviour. The metro-warrior’s defining behaviour, noted by the British journo Mark Simpson back in 2004, involves male body display for the purposes of attracting females and impressing (other, heterosexual) males; a precise mirror-image of the traditional female role.
In politics too – except the NSW Parliament which retains its thuggish norms – men have started to show feminine traits. Niceness, consultation, committee-mindedness; as such stabilising, feel-good behaviours become the order of the day both Kevin Rudd and Brendan Nelson make nationwide listen-fests their first significant acts of office.
In the metro-workplace, men gossip around the water cooler, forward silly emails and network frenetically, as these “feminine” behaviours are seen to be successful. Stumbling further into female territory, they even endure sexual harassment – from bosses of both genders.
Especially testosterone-soaked workplaces (mines, construction sites and trucking firms) seem especially affected, so corseted by liability, insurance and safety rules that traditional “male” virtues like courage and daring have virtually no place. The modern army, that ultimate male testes ground, presents itself like a nine-to-five office job, so that a soldier’s death – as happens in wars – seems catastrophic.
What does it all mean? How do these shifts of custom, which may be no more profound than the long hair and happy pants of the ’60s or David Bowie’s silver catsuit and face-paint of the ’70s, relate (if at all) to underlying realities; feminism, environmentalism and that old sperm count thing?
P. D. James’s 1992 novel Children of Men (and the electrifying movie of it) postulated a future, only 13 years hence, in which the human race had become sterilised by a universal but mysterious absence of sperm. We’re a long way short of that but scientists generally agree that both sperm count and sperm fitness are generally in decline, and have been for perhaps a century.
This trend may be strictly Western, or it may be simply that the science is focused there. Either way, it offers cause for concern.
Postulated triggers are mostly environmental. Mobile phones, smoking, alcohol, caffeine, pesticides, ozone, environmental estrogens and even the AIDS virus have been blamed. But one interesting branch of research suggests that low sperm count can be caused by the toxic exposure of a man’s pregnant mother or grandmother and can be passed to successive generations without damage to the DNA.
In theory, of course, heritable infertility should be strongly selected against. Then again, the inheritance of acquired characteristic without genetic mutation is so counter-Darwinian that perhaps natural selection is flawed, as a theory, or rendered inapplicable in such instances by the combined counter-evolutionary effects of modern medicine, reproductive science and the welfare state.
(The history of warfare offers a similar possibility; that since the machine-gun, war has stopped selecting for valour or heroism and has devolved into a random factor in human evolution. Add to this women’s apparent preference for caveman lovers and bank-manager or dentist husbands, and it seems possible to construct a theory that civilisation is selecting against maleness.)
One question that science seems reluctant to ask, however, is whether psychology could be a factor in male infertility. Psychogenic and psychosomatic infertility in women were commonly discussed by medics in the 1950s and 1960s. But contemporary fertility psychology deals almost exclusively with causality in the opposite direction; exhaustively exploring the mental effects of infertility, but not the fertility-effects of mind.
This is partly because major breakthroughs (like the discovery that stomach ulcers are caused not by anxiety but by a bacterium) have reinforced science’s natural tendency toward materialism and helped discredit psychosomatics to the point where the term itself is no longer acceptable. And partly because psychogenic disorders (as they are now called) are widely if wrongly seen as quasi-voluntary – as though mental events were somehow subject to moral volition.
And yet we know that mind can affect body, and not just short term, like the flight-or-fight adrenal reaction. We know that sustained stress is a factor in various cancers, that depression inhibits the immune system. But the relationship between psychological and physical health is still not well understood by science. Might mental and cultural factors influence male fertility?
We know – or are at least inclined to accept – that a woman’s emotional state can affect her fertility (the dears are so emotional). Could it be, then, that a contributing factor in male infertility rates is our failure – refusal may be a better word – to make a world that offers any noble model of maleness qua maleness?
I know, I know. Men still rule. Men run most governments and virtually all commerce. But we don’t like or admire them for it. We tend to see politicians as morally corrupt and captains of industry as psychopaths in disguise. To the extent that we do like them – Kevin Rudd, for example – it’s their female qualities, their clean nails and scrubbed good manners, that do it.
The wisdom of the era is female. The dominant movements – pluralism, environmentalism, new ageism, feminism – all encourage a broad, nurturing, networked approach. Men may make the decisions but women, or at least femaleness increasingly occupies the moral ground.
Of course, women have spent a century or so learning to dress, act and look more like men. Not to please men. Hardly. But because women craved the powers and freedoms that attach to such behaviours. So, you might argue, it is only reasonable that men should return the compliment and learn to be more like women.
Except the symmetry is not real. However women may infiltrate male domains, their own core territory, childbirth, remains undiminished. Men may ridicule as neurotic “female” behaviours like gossip, anxiety and over-nurturing, but no one advises women to seek out their inner male. Femaleness is a motherhood value.
Men have no such ground, no central keeping-house of essential male virtue, unless you count sperm production – which you wouldn’t want to hang your hat on, right now. As women’s ground has grown, men’s has simply shifted under them, from footy and sheds to pink shirts and perfume, which women also share.
Green consciousness has sucked the heroism out of cowboy culture, which depends on opposing, testing nature rather than nurturing it. Pluralism and multiculturalism have made weakness and difference OK, undermining the old brawn-based hierarchy. And feminism says women can do pretty much anything, even if it’s not true. Maureen Dowd’s book Are Men Necessary? was a little light-on in the thinking department but its point remains a sore one. Given test tubes, birth control and child care, are they, actually, surplus to requirements?
Of course, reproductive science, like weapon-science, is largely male-driven, so you might argue that men have rendered themselves unnecessary by waging war on nature, the planet and each other. In the Cybele cult castration was the Great Mother’s revenge on her lover, Attis, for his faithlessness with a comely nymph. So are we witnessing Gaia’s revenge for our feckless, testosterone-fuelled dealings with the planet?
Remember Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s patriarch in One Hundred Years of Solitude, who spent 20 years tied under a chestnut tree because he got so wild they wouldn’t let him in the house? It’s as though we have decided that, reproduction aside, maleness is no longer useful or wanted in the house, so we’ve ejected it, stapling a sign on the door telling anyone who wants admittance to contact their inner female.
Some men obediently self-emasculate, anticipating rewards within. Others withdraw hurt, self-medicating with on-screen violence or a good cleansing street brawl. Neither is really what women want; nor men, either.
Somewhere between is a middle way, waiting to be imagined.
This re-imagined masculine nobility is something we need, not least because the coming century is likely to test our civilisation to breaking point. And tests demand testes. Cojones, capiche?