By Gareth Ellis, Planning Partner at O&M London
Not so long ago two types of men existed: gentlemen and players. Gentlemen acted in a chivalrous, courteous and honourable way (from the old French, Gentiz Hom). Every self-respecting gentleman knew how to behave. He learned the rules from the Court, or the Club, or a courtesy book like Baldassare Castiglione's, The Book of the Courtier. Birth, privilege and a mastery of manners kept gentlemen apart from the rest: the uncouth; the hoi polio; the players.
Castigilone believed a true gentleman exhibited sprezzatura: the art of nonchalant achievement. In the twentieth century, sprezzatura lived on in style icons such Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, James Bond (old and new) and, more recently, Tom Ford. As late as 1952, only gentlemen captained England’s cricket side. Lords even had two changing rooms, one for gentlemen and one for the players.
Then the unexpected happened. The players decided to make their own rules. In the 1960s and 70s, young men rejected the drab uniforms of their fathers (and grandfathers). Mods, Teddy Boys, Rockers and Hippies ripped up the rulebook. Punks ate theirs. Masculine identity broke free from a stifling conformity. Men could try on new personae on for size. Today, modern men, especially in the West and parts of Asia, can forge their own identity. Hipsters, Spornosexuals, Lumbersexuals, Geeks, Emos, Chaps or just plain Normals jostle for position. And whilst men welcome the freedom, they face a very modern dilemma: what sort of man am I?
Men answer this vexed question in different ways. Some retrench into traditional constructs of masculinity, returning to a time when real men never cried. Psychologists warn against this, believing machismo (or hyper-masculinity) is bad for your health. The last thing we should do, they say, is tell boys to ‘Be a man’, as it stunts their emotional development. Alexithymia, the inability to have feelings or form relationships, contributes to substance abuse, mental illness and early death. At the other end of the spectrum lie herbivore men, retreating from the world by adopting a passive and sexless existence. 70% of Japanese men under 30 consider themselves as herbivores. This has led some commentators to talk about a crisis in masculinity. They urge us to ‘Save the Males’. Not everyone is sympathetic, pointing out we still live in a patriarchal society, where abuse of power is all too common. Positive psychologists also question if we should focus on toxic masculinity. Surely it is better to explore the liberating possibilities of masculinity redefined?
Irrespective of this debate, new narratives of masculinity are emerging. Men are becoming more self-aware, reflexive and emotionally literate. They recognise the limitations of thinking and behaving like cavemen. A recent survey found UK men would rather look into themselves, than the gym mirror. Millennial men, creatures of the network, are more relational than their forebears. Their sexuality is also more fluid: less that half of young British men now say they are exclusively heterosexual. Even our superheroes, a cultural touchstone of manliness, are less stoic and more sensitive. Captain America, once a muscle bound imperialist, now frets about his leadership skills, and the Avengers’ team dynamic.
Today, many brands struggle to connect with modern men. This is not surprising. Modern masculinity is in flux. John Berger memorably wrote that the culture industries insist ‘men act and women appear’. Now the gaze is on men and they – and the culture industries – are not always sure how to respond. Some brands try and advertise to men by appropriating codes from beauty categories. This risks the retort: ‘I am a man, why do you talk to me like a woman?’
Others try and pin down masculinity, defining what it means for their audience. Trouble is, men find idealized expressions of masculinity contrived, and one-dimensional. They dislike the pressure it places on them to conform. Modern men don't what to be told who they are. They want to find this out for themselves, becoming the hero in their own movie. For them, masculinity is a journey. The ups and downs, the wins and losses, the triumphs and the disasters, define who you are, and who you might become. Ultimately the journey is more interesting than the destination. Being a man is a work in progress, and that’s ok. Life may not turn out how you expect, but you can always look forward to meeting your future selves.