“Retrosexuals”: The latest lame macho catchphrase

A trend piece about "Mad Men"-style macho guys is silly, but it points to a troubling identity crisis for men

Topics: Gender, Broadsheet, Love and Sex,

"Retrosexuals": The latest lame macho catchphrase

As the androgynous days of the hipster draw nigh, what terrible new archetypes will rush to fill the powerful sucking of the trend-piece vacuum?

I woke up this morning to discover my local paper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, peddling a story about America’s new favorite model of man: the retrosexual. Normally I ignore almost everything in my local paper, but this, in combination with a recent article in the New York Times about the sequel to “The Official Preppy Handbook,” has got my knickers in a bunch.

The retrosexual is a clever play on that other dusty gem of modern trend masculinity, the metrosexual. Unlike metrosexualism, which encouraged men to worry about their appearance and spend copious amounts of money on beauty products and clothes to mask the kinds of insecurities normally pushed on women, the retrosexual trend encourages men to worry about their appearance and spend copious amounts of money on products and clothes to mask more traditional masculine insecurities, like being gay, or a broke loser, or a gay broke loser.

That’s right, fellas — put away your eyebrow tweezers and cancel your appointment at Aveda; it’s time to return to the barber with his butch-ass straight razors, listen to jazz (hopefully the authentic Negro kind), shop at Brooks Brothers, and wear “authentic 1960s Florsheims” and a “trilby cocked just so” (whatever that means). But wait, being a retrosexual is not just about dressing like a fictional character from a popular period-themed TV show (of course, I’m talking about “V”), it’s also about returning to a time when men were men, and women were proud to be frog-marched around town on their squires’ Houndstooth-covered arm. That glorious time when men could chivalrously open doors for women (especially attractive ones) without fear of vicious reprisals from angry door-holder-hating feminists. A simpler time when it was clear what it meant to be a man and what his responsibilities were. Come on, I know lots of guys who wear Brooks Brothers clothing and listen to jazz; they just don’t have any pretensions about what it means for their masculinity. 

I find it hard to believe any guy beyond the schmucks in this article would actually be dumb enough to identify themselves as “retrosexual.” Then again, I find it hard to believe that Donovan McNabb plays for the Redskins, so what do I know? But the currently nostalgia, or at least longing, for a time when gender roles were more clearly defined is undeniable. Take a look at the recent spate of advertising targeting guys’ manxiety, all those stories about the crisis of men, and the popular idea that we need to reclaim our inner asshole or some other intangible manly quality that has been taken from us. Or to quote the article:

“For thousands of years, being a man meant being honorable, having courage, having competence,” said Brett McKay, 27, a law school graduate turned blogger who writes “The Art of Manliness” from Tulsa, Okla. “Till the 1950s, manliness meant action and a force for good.”

Then, feminism disturbed that order. “We created this new world where men and women were equal,” McKay said. “A lot of men were confused. What was my role now?”

This statement has obvious problems (I didn’t realize courage and competence were gender-specific), but I don’t think it’s an uncommon view for many young men, and I think there is a growing desire to pick up where our grandfathers left off — if not in fashion, at least in attitude. I have to wonder: Are we so ill-equipped for any competition that we have to point our fingers at those advancing and say they’re the reason we fell behind? Is our only answer to lay blame at someone else’s feet and try to turn back the clock? What, exactly, are we trying to recapture?

I have a great deal of love and respect for my grandfather. He was a B-29 pilot in the Pacific during WWII; he became a potato farmer when he returned home from the war. He always took care of his family and his responsibilities, but he was not an easy man for his family to be around. For all his amazing qualities, he was as deeply conflicted about his life and what he had done with it as many of my male friends are today. For all his “manliness” he was not a particularly happy or fulfilled guy.

Sometimes it can feel like my generation of men was raised by wolves, and that we are trying to cobble some approximation of what it means to be a man through vague and intentionally incomplete recollections of an increasingly distant generation — or, worse, from media’s portrayal of the men who came before us. We want to remember them as giants of masculinity completely unconflicted about who they were. How could we ever hope to live up to that unachievable standard? It is so easy for us to forget that for every John Wayne that stalked the earth a Noel Coward was treading on the same hallowed ground, and they spent equal amounts of time in hair and makeup.

It is also important to remember that as brave as these men were, as many sacrifices as they made, as many challenges as they faced, many of them were unable to rise to the challenge of even a modest leveling of the playing field between them and their wives and sisters and eventually daughters. The confusion of my generation and my father’s generation regarding their role and what is expected of them is a testament to that fact.

Buried in this ridiculous trend piece is a truth: Men are at a crossroads. Do we have such a lack of imagination, are we so afraid of figuring out what it means to be a man in 2010, are we so uncomfortable in our own skin, and with our own sexuality, and the new sets of responsibilities we’ve been confronted with, that we have to pretend to be from a different, more magical time? Because that’s not actual being your own strong man. That’s not forging your own path. That’s just cosplay, and we all know what that looks like. It’s just creepy dress-up.

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