Ten years ago, men were metrosexual, but now I’ve lost track. Currently, the spornosexual, a more body conscious and sexually explicit version of the metrosexual, is vying with the check-shirted, bearded lumbersexual for top spot. Nattily dressed and neatly bearded, the “dandy wildman” and the hipster also abound, too.
These are men’s consumer lifestyles. If you want to be a spornosexual, you buy gym membership, protein and some expensive photography equipment to spruce up your Instagram feed. To be a hipster, go to vintage clothes shops, buy the most obscure craft ales, and some beard oil.
In the last 30 years, the number of men’s lifestyles on the market has grown exponentially. My ongoing PhD research explores this phenomenon, trying to understand and explain the appearance of new “marketed manhoods”. Having held focus groups with young men around the country, I have found new marketed versions of manhood have taken hold to vastly differing extents in different areas.
One participant from Doncaster described Sheffield as “like a different country” in terms of how men behave, while another from Taunton in Somerset suggested that, in rural Devon, men’s fashion is “ten years” behind that of his hometown. The more urban and metropolitan the area was perceived to be, the more likely that manhood is to have changed.
Unprompted, many participants linked these masculine dividing lines to those that characterised the vote to leave the European Union in June last year, with one participant summarising, in terms of geography, “Brexit’s just blown stuff up”. They’re not wrong. The places that stood out as bastions of Remain were urban areas, notably London plus Bristol and Brighton in the south, but also northern cities, such as Manchester, Liverpool, York and Leeds. Personally, I don’t think this is a coincidence.
Some of the analysis of the Brexit vote argued that people in rural parts of the country felt their employment was under threat from migrant labour from the EU. This was an argument that came up in many of my focus groups, too, with one participant arguing that “if they see immigrants as threatening that employment, then it’s almost, yeah, threatening their manhood, their masculinity”.
This analysis is somewhat misguided, as there is little evidence that migrant labour actually does negatively affect employment prospects. But there is a strong sense in which many men, in this country and the Western world generally, gather their own identity from their worth in the workplace. And the type of work that men do is significantly affected by the function of capitalism.
The last 30 years hasn’t just moved men in a different direction, but also altered capitalism, too. A lot of people refer to this era as neoliberalism, a specific form of capitalism that leaves markets free of regulation. One of neoliberalism’s central achievements has been a significant decline in the type of manual labour once dominated by working class men, from coalmining through to factory work. As a result of this decline, more men are now freelance, in office-based jobs, or working for service companies rather than doing manual labour.
These different types of work involve non-physical investments, such as aesthetic and emotional commitment to your work. If “what it means to be a man” is so dependent on labour, this would suggest that as labour changes, so too does manhood. Now required to do more than physically exert themselves, men need new ideals of manhood that teach them such skills. Fashion-conscious metrosexuality and hipsterism, body-conscious spornosexuality — these are men’s lifestyles that, like the work in the service sector that many men now do, demand daily upkeep of appearance. With the decline of manual labour, the masculine ideal has changed.
But, as my research shows, men’s consumer lifestyles have not had universal geographical acceptance across the UK. In areas that used to be more reliant on manual labour, such as Durham, Yorkshire, and large parts of Wales, men have struggled to deal with its decline. Why? Capitalism has for a long time focused development and renewal in urban and metropolitan areas, an aspect that neoliberal capitalism has magnified. As a result, the resolution of new forms of labour with new manhoods have taken hold to a much greater extent in more urban and metropolitan areas.
So, instead of providing men in less urban areas with the investment and skills to engage in new forms of labour, the market simply forgot them. The American sociologist Michael Kimmel calls this “aggrieved entitlement” — men who thought they were entitled to these jobs feel they have had their futures taken away from them, and, frankly, it’s made a lot of them quite angry.
The point of this is not to “blame men” for Brexit, and nor is it to suggest that what rural Yorkshire really needs is more hipsters. In the short term, it’s certainly a good idea to invest more thoroughly in the harder hit former industrial areas of the UK. But none of this would be a problem if masculinity were able to sever its association with employment. The view that men obtain their worth from their employment exacerbates already existing geographical divides. To fully address those divides, men must begin to question whether they are more than just their employment.