So what does the word “masculinity” mean these days, anyway? It has morphed so much in the last twenty years that the word itself has been emasculated. Is masculine Channing Tatum or Joseph Gordon-Levitt or Tom Cruise? Is it Brad Pitt or Kevin Spacey? Kanye West or Justin Timberlake?
The idea of a benchmark American alpha man isn’t just dead; his brand of old-school masculinity is now buried beneath a mountain of hair products, face products, everything-for-men products, metrosexuality, skinny jeans, manorexia, gym memberships, second-skin T-shirts, designer clothes, wild colors and prints, and carefully curated scruff. Men appear to be being recast as—oh no!—the new women? The Marlboro Man is turning in his grave. Even the ghosts of he-man-movie machos like John Wayne and Steve McQueen are spooked.
“Yes, when it comes to gender, we live in strange times,” says anthropologist Wednesday Martin, author of Primates of Park Avenue. “There’s a whole recalibration of masculinity going on.” The trans movement, gender fluidity, the media glomming on to the term “bromance,” men flooding yoga classes seeking long, lean bodies—all this has made men embrace full-throttle their emotional, spiritual, and health-conscious sides. “Men used to use wealth and power as their sex symbols,” says Martin. “Now they have to look amazing, too.”
The word “metrosexual,” first coined by British author Mark Simpson in 1994, took hold among us Yanks after a 2003 New York Times article titled “Metrosexuals Come Out.” But at this point, metrosexuals of the last decade seem positively Cro-Magnon. The new post-metro man is not just having mani-pedis; he’s wearing guyliner and even mascara, and favors black toe polish and silver fingernails. He might shave the side of his head or stripe it blue. He knows the brand names of both clothes and grooming products, and he knows the difference between Restylane and Juvederm. Bracelets? He wears three—and a necklace.
“Years ago, my male clients just trusted me to pick their clothes,” says super-stylist Jeanne Yang, whose clients have included Cruise, Christian Bale, Keanu Reeves, and George Clooney. “Now they know all the labels, the fits, the color variations—and what photographs well.”
Simpson himself acknowledges that the game has changed: “We live in a hyper-visual, social media culture where you have to advertise yourself and become a ‘brand’ that is bought and sold online,” Simpson told me by phone from London. “As a result, straight men have taken gay men’s love of male beauty and buffed it up. So much so that it actually hurts to look at men now. Opticians now advise you [to]wear shades when scoping men.”
According to Simpson, mild-mannered metrosexuality has been taken over by something called “spornosexuality” (a term referring to both sports and porn that he created to describe selfie-taking gym buffs like David Beckham). I myself used the term “ stromo” in the Hollywood Reporter in 2015 to refer to straight-seeming homos and homo-seeming straights—gay – ish – neither of which can be told apart anymore.
Perhaps most potently of all, men, according to Simpson, have discovered the pleasure—and power—of being looked at and objectified. “Passivity can be very pleasurable, not to mention profitable. And they want more, please. Our culture is full now of images of male desirability and ‘objectification.’ Spornosexual sluttiness is now everywhere, from TV ads to mags to Hollywood movies to the Olympics. Those male divers in their thong Speedos taking lingering, sensual showers in front of billions, showing off their cum gutters.” (His term—not ours!)
“Men are discovering the power of being objectified. Passivity can be pleasurable, not to mention profitable.”
Meanwhile, plastic surgeons, dermatologists, and medi-spas are seeing an absolute tsunami of men diving into the lift-and-load high-maintenance world. “Their wives are sending them, but that’s not all,” says Beverly Hills plastic surgeon Dr. Lawrence Koplin. “They’re competing with younger men at work. They finally figured it out and aren’t squeamish about it anymore. Of course, gay men led the charge.”
“I’ve been saying men are the new women for a long time,” says Jamie Sherrill, better known as “Nurse Jamie;” her medical spa Beauty Park on Montana Avenue, is one of the most popular in Los Angeles, with a steady stream of celebrities who don’t even hide their faces when they leave. “I have more male celeb clients than women now, and they’re doing the same treatments—fillers for angles and jawline. The pressure is that men feel the need to look younger now too. When billionaires are under forty and look like kids—like Mark Zuckerberg—they want to look like that too.”
And now serious men’s makeup enters the maintenance mix. CoverGirl just named their first male makeup model: seventeen-year-old makeup / social media star James Charles. Given Charles’s almost one million followers on Instagram, it was clearly time the makeup giant took notice. Another Instagram star, Alan Macias, eighteen, told Marie Claire, “I’m a boy in makeup. I’m not trans. I’m not a drag queen. I just really enjoy the art of makeup.” His beauty tutorials feature smoky eyes, bold lip colors, and intricate contouring—all on his own face.
Of course, all male celebrities are wearing makeup on shoots and the red carpet, but now many are wearing it off-duty, too. Benedict Cumberbatch has praised under-eye concealer and bronzer for fixing his jet lag, and there are entire lines of male-oriented concealers and bronzers by brands called MËNAJI, KenMen, and Formen. MAC has been doing makeup for men for a few years, including a 2015 special collection with the flamboyant Brant brothers OF NYC, Harry and Peter.
Like everything in this age, social media is at the heart of the matter.
“We have entered an era where—thanks largely to psychosocial phenomena like social media and the selfie culture—aesthetics have become [the]currency upon which men measure and evaluate themselves,” proffers LA-based therapist Andrew Oldershaw, who specializes in a male clientele. “The modern male assigns and acquires value based on his appearance. Selfies and social media have created a permissive drive to prune, posture, and ‘peacock.’”
And why shouldn’t they, when the male of the species in the animal kingdom has always been the more flamboyant of the two sexes? “If we hold this emerging set of behaviors against the natural world,” Oldershaw observed, “we can see how these performances mirror the animal kingdom, where males attempt to satisfy and seduce mates.”
So what does the word “masculine” mean now? About the same as the word “feminine”—and by that, I mean everything and anything. And maybe that’s the way it should be.