This essay seeks to analyse and unpack the underlying assumptions regarding gender, and specifically metrosexual identity through consideration of the portrayal of some central figures of contemporary masculine identity: David Beckham, who arguably embodies the metrosexual man, and James Bond, a character who may be approached as an embodiment of idealized masculinity.
The term ‘metrosexual’ was originally coined by Mark Simpson in Meet the Mirror Men, a journalistic article which, as he subsequently felt bound to point out, had been intended at least in part as a satirical appraisal of our increasingly materialist society, where identities and lifestyles are not only defined, but actually created, by conspicuous consumption. “Metrosexuals,” claims Simpson, “are the creation of capitalism’s voracious appetite for new markets.” (Simpson, 2002) Continuing a cultural process which has its roots in the 1980s, single men are increasingly being identified as an untapped consumer group, who are accordingly encouraged, through powerful media messages, to begin to view themselves narcissistically, as objects of sensuality and desire. (Simpson, 2002)
Indeed, the role of consumerism in creating and sustaining images of metrosexual masculinity can hardly be overestimated: they have been inextricably linked from the offset. This shift in contemporary masculine identity has been widely located within the proliferation of men’s fashion and lifestyle press that appeared throughout 1980s (Nixon, Mort, 1996), which will be returned to. Given this underlying link between the consumerism and the ‘new male’, it came as no great surprise to Simpson when, some years after Meet the Mirror Men was published in 1994, the notion of the metrosexual was appropriated, and arguably distorted, by the world’s marketing and advertising press, swiftly escalating into a world-wide media phenomenon. As Simpson himself points out, “this wouldn’t be the first time a satire on consumerism was appropriated by consumerism to hasten the process it sought to critique.” (Simpson, 2004)
But while metrosexuality swiftly became widely understood as a lifestyle choice achievable through consumerism, at its most fundamental level the change was one of perception. Metrosexuality is the process by which men become narcissistically absorbed in their own image. This is the salient element of metrosexuality which can be traced from what are arguably the beginnings of the trend in the 1980s
“Haircuts, the cut of jeans, ways of walking and being are points of comparison between young men, not now just as aggressive competitors, but as stylists in the same club. They encourage men to look at themselves and other men, visually and as possible objects of consumer desire, and to experience the pleasures around the body hitherto branded as taboo or only for women. The effect of all of this is to open up a space for some new visual codes of masculinity. What’s cool now is not the assertion of a fixed masculine identity, but a self-conscious assemblage of style.” (Mort, 1996, p.204)
The affect of this aestheticization of the male body upon masculine identity was to run much deeper than mere appearances, however. The metrosexual man of today, in common with his predecessors of the 80s fashion posters, can be understood not only as the product of astute advertising campaigns, but the transformation of traditional gender identities. The idealized notions of masculinity which are being marketed as lifestyle choices through labels such as ‘metrosexual’, ‘retrosexual’, ‘ubersexual’ and so on contain unspoken indications of how we understand contemporary masculinity, and moreover how we believe modern men should behave.
“The buffalo stylings were marked by the strongly narcissistic absorption or self-containment of the models. Posed usually alone, their gaze is often focused downwards or sideways out of frame, registering self-reflection…” (Nixon, 1996, p.184)
What was represented here was not the straightforward feminisation of the models: they remained “resolutely, stylishly masculine” (Nixon, 1996) Rather, the significance was in the fact that their gaze, their intention, had shifted from women upon themselves. The defining point of the metrosexual is, then, not his particular choice of clothing, or his sexuality, but the fact that he loves to be looked at. The shift represents a self-knowledge and consciousness of the male body as a desirable – and indeed commodifiable – object, and it was this knowledge that was to form the bedrock of metrosexuality.
Returning to Simpson’s original definition of the metrosexual, the defining feature of this figure was his narcissism: “the single man living in the metropolis and taking himself as his own love-object”. (Simpson, 2002) The metrosexual is essentially a man who loves to be looked at, whether by other men or by women, and who above all loves to look at himself. In itself this symbolises a crucial break in terms of gender theory, whereby men are increasingly becoming aligned with traditionally feminine characteristics (Murphy, 2004). Traditionally, for example, throughout the culture of the west it has been the female form that has comes under scrutiny, been objectified and used to sell. The “sexualisation of the male body”, which was inherent in the advertising of the 80s onwards, can be seen to echo the “standard techniques of the sexual display of women in advertising over the last forty years. But now the target is men.” (Mort, 1996)
With this fundamental definition in mind, it was perhaps unsurprising that when the metrosexual became a major preoccupation across Britain, some years later, David Beckham – one of the most photographed men in the world – was deemed the epitome of the figure. With his semi-clad figure adorning billboards across Britain, he became the “poster boy” of… metrosexuality. His hero/role model status combined with this out-of-the closet narcissism and love of shopping and apparent indifference to being thought of as ‘faggoty’ (Simpson, 2002). Sexual orientation is not of consequence to the metrosexual, because, first and foremost, he is in love with himself.
Beckham featured in a gay lifestyle magazine, professing himself to be quite happy to be a gay icon, simply because he welcomes any and all adoration and admiration (Simpson, 03). It is perhaps for this reason that Beckham was able to pass through the scandal of his extra-marital affair with his public image more or less unscathed.
Beckham is an excellent embodiment of the metrosexual because he has successfully fused traditional masculinity with traditionally feminine traits, and has amassed millions of pounds from it, through endorsements. He is a professional footballer, married to an ex-Spice Girl and the father of three boys. He also frequently changes his hairstyle, wears women’s clothes and takes a prodigious amount of interest in his appearance.
Again, this chosen behaviour can be viewed in terms of the blurring of gender boundaries between men and women. Whilst Beckham had fulfilled a traditionally male role as father, husband, and world-class footballer, he frequently chooses to adopt a female-oriented, passive appearance as a public persona: “there is a submissive photophillia to Becks. A certain passivity or even masochism about his displays for the camera.” (Simpson, 2003) Simpson has pointed out that the positions he assumes in advertising shots are often submissive, featuring him in “Christ-like” vulnerable poses reminiscent of the crucifixion. Indeed, the cover of Esquire had him ‘crucified’ on the Cross of St. George. (Simpson, 2003)
The wider implication with regards to gender exchanges taking place here amounts to a move, albeit a limited one, towards behaviour that is commonly associated with the feminine: the passive and the vulnerable. Indeed, as we have noted above the very act of display, the objectification of the body as sensual and desired, in itself is more often associated with women.
The limited nature of this blurring enables Beckham to use his appearance to associate his public persona with the female and, as a consequence, the sensitive. Chapman identified this practice of heterosexual cross-dressing as a way by which men may temporarily appear more sensitive and emotional through appearance alone:
“The assumptions are that being female is about what you wear. You put on emotions with a dress, and women are all about emotions and sensitivity: ‘If they dress up as women, it isn’t because they want to be women, but it lets them release their emotional side’. This is a new and insidious kind of masculinity. It allows men to hijack femininity, to have it when they want it, and dispense with it when they don’t.” (Chapman & Rutherford, 1988, p. 241)
Here, the act of assuming certain female-identified attributes at will is seen as far from a progressive form of masculine identity. Rather, the metrosexual man is viewed with a certain suspicion that men may choose to “hijack” female attributes to create the artificial façade of sensitivity, purely to retain power (Chapman & Rutherford, 1988). Many have raised the concern that, while men are increasingly aligning themselves in a kind of self-conscious sexual objectification which is more commonly associated with women, this will cause irrevocable damage to traditional masculinity. The crucial point of the metrosexual is the look. The “paradigm shift from activity to passivity, from desiring to being desired, which traditional masculinity cannot survive” (Chapman, 1988, p.235)
In short, this process began when the male gaze began to turn upon itself. The metrosexual desires only to be admired – whether the admiring is done by men or women is beside the point. Metrosexuality is the product of decades of significant changes and shifts that have taken place within ‘traditional’ gender understandings, resulting in uncertainty and insecurity. The metrosexual is a confused blend of traditional and liberated masculinity. He was able to feature within gay lifestyle magazines, being a gay icon, without casting aspersion upon his own sexuality because of his own status as a husband and father. Simpson explains that “he might be officially gay, straight or bisexual, but this is utterly immaterial because he has clearly taken himself as his own love object and pleasure as his sexual preference.” (Simpson, 2002)
What metrosexuality amounted to in terms of gender, however, was the blurring of gender boundaries traditionally associated with masculinity and femininity. This process has been located mainly as a result of the feminist movements of the 1960s and 70s (Tolsom, 2004), whereby increasingly the role of women is being changed and brought increasingly in line with characteristics which are traditionally associated with masculinity. Simpson suggests that “female metrosexuality is the complement of male metrosexuality, except that it’s active where male metrosexuality is passive. No longer is a straight man’s sense of self and manhood delivered by his relationship to women; instead it’s challenged by it.” (Simpson, 2002). A reaction to this vagueness in masculine identity can be seen in the concept of the retrosexual.
As we have seen, the feminist movement had a significant affect of masculinity. Not only were the gender boundaries surrounding femininity being challenged and pushed from the 1960s onwards, with more women entering the workforce, planning their own families and generally becoming more liberated (Tolsom, 2004). but feminism also entailed a direct challenge of existing patriarchy and masculinity.
“For men from [the feminist] generation sexual politics has forced itself into their world view in a major way…. [M]en have been asked some awkward questions about the power they hold, their identities, sexuality and desire. One of the biggest questions is this: how can we negotiate a new settlement around sexual relations, a settlement which problematises men’s identities and lays the ground for a different version of masculinity?” (Mort, 1996, p194)
Traditional masculinity was therefore being increasingly found to be outdated and unacceptable to liberated women from the 1960s onwards. But with men becoming more like women and women becoming more like men, there had to be some kind of a backlash – a turn in the tide of gender bending. And this came as ‘retrosexuality’. As the word itself suggests, retrosexuality entails a return to the more traditional ‘male’ attributes. This has been evident through the use of comedy through advertising.
A large part of the metrosexual came as a response to the fact that traditional masculinity was becoming increasingly unacceptable within contemporary society. For example, WKD adverts feature a stereotypical set of retrosexual men; everyman figures who are gleefully partaking in homosocial, laddish activities. It is interesting that the product that is being made to appeal to such a laddish-identified consumer group is a bright blue Alco-pop. One advert featured a woman relaxing in a bubble bath with candles and soothing music in the background, relaxing in a stereotypically female-identified haven. Her husband bursts in the room, switches on the light and proceeds to go to the toilet whilst she’s still in the bath! (WKD advert). Once again aligned with comedy, the underlying message of the retrosexual is clear: men have had enough with political correctness, and are banding together to become men once again (Sharkey, 2000). Rush Limbaugh suggests that “this is what men were before feminism came and neutered them” (The Observer, 23/10/05).
James Bond, a character held as the embodiment of all that is desirable in British heterosexual masculinity, can likewise be seen as an indication of underlying changes and assumptions taking place within society regarding masculinity. Since first appearing on our screens in the sixties, Bond’s persona has altered to reflect wider changes that have taken place within society with regards to our understanding of ‘ideal’ masculinity. In short, within Britain at least, Bond has always been a role-model of heterosexual masculinity and the introduction of Daniel Craig as the latest Bond, arriving in the midst of this preoccupation with contemporary masculinity, was seen by many to embody the ideal of manliness:
“It was clear that the film [Casino Royale] and Daniel Craig were going to have a massive impact, even from the first trail. Everyone is being inspired by it; he’s what men aspire to be like. Fashion is becoming more masculine; hair is getting shorter; there is less emphasis on the feminine side. I think that is what women actually want, for men to be men.” (Anon)
Given the wider debates that had been taking place with regards to contemporary masculinity, and the status afforded to Bond as a figure who embodies ideal masculinity, Casino Royale and Daniel Craig were to come under a good deal of scrutiny in this respect. Whilst on one hand the latest Bond was thought to represent a ‘back to basics’ return to Fleming’s original text and a correlative return to the ‘authenticity’ of traditional rugged manliness (and consequential rejection of metrosexuality). In short, Daniel Craig’s Bond was both thought and celebrated to represent retrosexual masculinity; the return of the ‘real man’.
Indeed, there are several elements within this film to suggest a certain uncompromised ruggedness in the characterisation of Bond. More so than any of its predecessors, Bond is depicted as a violent and brutal killer, and moreover one who is not afraid to get his hands dirty. The obligatory chase scene that takes place at the beginning of the movie features Craig in pursuit of an adversary who is cat-like in his agility, speed and grace. Craig, on the other hand, pursues him by virtue of his brute strength, bulk and stamina, crashing straight through walls where the other man had pounced through them. Bond is described as a “blunt instrument” and a “thug” (Casino Royale, 2006). He speaks little throughout the film, his silent, brooding demeanour also harkening back to values associated with the stereotypically masculine. Accordingly, what these features appear to suggest is the (re-)construction of a British hero of masculinity whom many recognise to be an increasingly endangered and compromised figure in this metrosexual age. Bond has been interpreted (and, perhaps more significantly, welcomed) as an example of retrosexual masculinity.
However, despite these appearances, there are some very important elements within Casino Royale which illustrate an important discontinuity with the traditional male stereotype. Drawn into the Bond debate, Mark Simpson has argued that metrosexuality has always been a defining feature of James Bond since his characters conception, and moreover his metrosexuality is no doubt part of his appeal. All Bonds have been elegantly dressed, with excessive fake tans and penchants for rather elaborate, fussy cocktails. It would appear that the ideal manliness of James Bond is not quite as unimpeachable as some might imagine.
The problematisation of gender was taken even further in Lazenby’s interpretation, where “Bond’s masculinity was undercut by having him pretend to be gay, which also made his seductions of the women at Piz Gloria seem somehow disingenuous, although amusing” (Simpson).
Indeed, upon examination it would appear that the masculinity that is on show in Casino Royale is a transformed sort, where Craig’s ruggedness is qualified, nuanced.
The choice of Daniel Craig, an actor who had previously featured in a gay scene as Francis Bacon’s lover in Love Is the Devil, caused something of a furore amongst the British tabloids before the film was released (Simpson). Variously deemed “bland” “Superwimp” and “wuss” (Daily Star), reports abounded of Craig’s inability to even handle the manual gears on an Aston Martin (Guardian interview). It is clear that something was found lacking in the kind of masculinity that Craig embodied. He leaves a woman (gangster’s wife) who is literally waiting for him in bed. Sexuality no longer such an issue? “As Bond, Craig tilts his head forward like a boxer, an impression reinforced by his smashed nose and sandpaper skin. But those irradiated blue eyes make him more than a bullyboy. This Bond is haunted, not housebroken, still constructing the persona.” (CBS, NYC, 12/11/06)
“He makes mistakes. He’s vulnerable and falls in love. He’s everything Bond isn’t supposed to be. It appealed to me – showing him screwing up, bleeding and getting hurt… If he’s just action, action, action, and then he falls in love, the reaction’s gonna be, like, ‘Ah, bullshit'” (Craig). Craig suggests that the image of the indestructible male hero is simply no longer relevant to contemporary society: people want to see a model of masculinity which is ‘real’ not because it harkens back to some antiquated stereotype, but because Bond is shown to be fallible, human and indeed vulnerable. One thing Craig does do is remove his shirt, often, to disclose a ripped torso on which he spent a great deal of gym time. For all Roger Moore’s other achievements, when he took off his safari jacket he never elicited the cry: “Give me a piece of that!” With Craig, it is otherwise. “I wanted to be like, if Bond takes his shirt off, the audience thinks, ‘Oh he can do those things, those mad stunts and violent scenes'” (Craig).
“Surely, though, it is at least ungallant for James Bond to have a bigger bust than his leading lady. And surely it is symptomatic of something or other (the mores of post-feminism; the commodification of homoerotic allure; the inflated vital statistics deemed necessary for the plausible spy in the new millennium) that not only are Bond’s boobs bigger than ever, but his body is fetished more than hitherto and that he is deployed mostly naked more than anyone else in the film. Even the hotsy-totsy women keep their kits on. Straight men will be yearning for more airtime to be devoted to his leading lady’s body for the next Bond film in two years’ time. Only then will we find out if Bond, made cynical by his experiences with the diverting Vesper Lynd and her disappointing cleavage in Casino Royale, will become incapable of love and more like the 007 of old – a boyish sex pest with all the sexual maturity of a breeze block” (Guardian).
Traditionally men have removed themselves from the gaze of women and other men, thereby protecting themselves from objectification and criticism. In Casino Royale, the infamous Ursula Andress scene from Dr No (1963) is replicated by Daniel Craig, who emerges from the sea in a small, tight pair of swimming briefs. The scene is literally re-enacted over forty years on, yet this time it’s the male body that’s there on show. This should not be seen as coincidence.
But if we know what Craig’s doing wet in so many of these pictures, the mystery still remains: how come he’s so nearly naked in the pictures? How come he’s naked for so much of the film? What’s happened to all the women? Who decided to turn the Bond brand into a hymn to male beauty? (The Guardian)
In other words, the women had to update. But now Bond’s updated so much that there are no women to be seen. Essentially, Craig is the woman. With this shift in perspective we see that Bond is revealed as an aesthetic and fetishised object that falls in line with a continuation of a culturally defined image process that has been taking place since the 80s. As Nixon suggests, “this invited complicity in the model’s narcissism is focused upon men’s bodies that are at once highly masculine and openly sensual.” (Nixon, 1996, p.185)
As we have seen, whilst it would be going too far to claim that fetishisation of the female body is absent from Casino Royale, there is a marked increase in scenes where Craig’s is the body on show. Women in both Casino Royale and Die Another Day occupy positions of power and agency arguably equal to their male counterparts, and M, Bond’s boss, is now also played by a powerful, matriarchal figure. Essentially, the way that women are played within these films is linked to the way that masculinity is staged.
The suggestion implicit within all these classifications are that retrosexual and metrosexual are lifestyle choices: they have been appropriated and marketed as such by the media and markets. For instance, heteropolitan (coined by Men’s Health): “The survey builds a picture of a man who can’t be pigeonholed as either a binge-drinking, skirt-chasing new lad or a preening metrosexual who spends more time in the bathroom than his girlfriend. Today’s man is a ‘heteropolitan’, trying to balance looking good with pub culture, and career success with a happy family life.” (Morgan Rees, Editor of Men’s Health magazine)
It should be said, however, that these views of masculinity are highly exclusionary, failing to take into consideration the experiences of men who are not white, middle-class, The name in itself, with its emphasis on ‘metropolitan’ centres of commercial power, would suggest the exclusionary nature of this figure, and his various permutations. All of these classifications amount to the process of ideologically purging masculinity of its negative qualities: slovenliness, vanity, chauvinism, effeminacy, thuggishness, feebleness. However, one cannot fail to notice that these are often contradictory qualities, suggesting that the process of labelling and creating instructive terms for maleness is far from over. Whilst the increasing diversification of masculinity is opened up by these shifts, their seems to be a cultural need to fix and label these new male identities with false terms such as metro sexual, ubersexual, retrosexual etc. Essentially, metrosexuality is, according to Simpson, the act of allowing advertisers and the media to sell your own identity to you. Whether this identity is labelled ‘retro’ metro uber or otherwise (Simpson, 2002).