Four years ago, I went to a wonderful wedding on an island in the Thames, between
a hot young MBA and a hotter, younger stand up comic turned newspaper columnist.
The columnist, protocol be damned, decided she was going to give a speech at
her own wedding, and gave a corker. The highlight was when she started to talk
about her new groom’s bathroom cabinet, and whether she’d ever manage to get
any space in there for herself. She recalled a conversation with her father:
"Don’t worry, I said, you’re not losing a daughter. You’re gaining one."
I would like to think that this wedding constituted the impetus for the coinage
of America’s latest buzzword: after all, everybody knows that the US imports
everything cool from the UK. But, alas, although the word did indeed take root
in England before crossing the pond, it had already been around for five years
when the wedding took place.
Still, the meme took off incredibly slowly. Its first significant appearance
in the US came in July 2002, when queer theorist Mark
Simpson, the man who’d first introduced the term in the Independent in 1994,
article in Salon called "Meet the metrosexual". One year later,
by Warren St John headlined "Metrosexuals Come Out" appeared in the
New York Times, and the meme metastasized from snowball to avalanche, helped
along by a report from advertising agency Euro RSCG called "Metrosexuals:
The Future of Men".
In the meantime, it’s undergone an interesting emasculation. Simpson says
that when he invented the term he "was being slightly satirical about the
effect of consumerism and media proliferation, particularly glossy men’s
magazines, on traditional masculinity". Now, we get Dan Peres, the editor
of Details, opining
humourlessly on the subject at washingtonpost.com. In the introduction to
the chat session, the editors define a metrosexual as "a new kind of male:
one who takes care of himself — pampers himself — and is not ashamed of getting
facials, buying grooming products and shopping", but by the time the chat
is over, Peres has said that "if you feel comfortable and confident with
your own taste and sense of style, then yes, you may well be a metrosexual",
and that really, what we’re talking about here is nothing more or less than
being a gentleman.
Yet going back to Simpson’s Salon piece, we find this:
Mr. Beckham, candid to the point of blatant exhibitionism as he is, is not
being entirely honest with us about his sexuality. Outing someone is not a
thing to be contemplated lightly, but I feel it is my duty to let the world
know that David Beckham, role model to hundreds of millions of impressionable
boys around the world, heartthrob for equal numbers of young girls, is not
heterosexual after all. No, ladies and gents, the captain of the England football
squad is actually a screaming, shrieking, flaming, freaking metrosexual. (He’ll
thank me for doing this one day, if only because he didn’t have to tell his
It’s clear what has happened here: as the term has become more mainstream,
it’s, well, become more mainstream. At this point, if you believe Peres, it applies
to anybody who "knows the difference between a daisy and a daffodil";
Simpson himself quotes the marketing report (of course, it’s the marketers who
have really pushed this concept) saying that a metrosexual is "any straight
man who has a salmon pink shirt in his wardrobe".
Maybe something got lost in translation: after all, pretty much every
straight man, in the UK at least, has a salmon pink shirt in his wardrobe. John
Major used to wear them the whole time, and he’s about as far from a metrosexual
as can be imagined. The only men I can think of who only wear white shirts are
bizarre zealots like Ross Perot and John Ashcroft, who aren’t so much anti-colour
as they are opposed to any sign of sexuality whatsoever.
I think what’s going on here is that a debate which has long been going on
in the gay community is being expanded into the straight community. Metrosexuality
is a response to sissyphobia,
which is the idea – common to men both straight and gay – that there’s
something offputting about effeminate men. As Patrick puts it on the Gothamist
comments board, "the guys who get the most shit are not necessarily
those who are gay but rather those who act gay, a high percentage of whom are
Why did the joke at the wedding get such a big laugh? Because caring about
personal appearance, owning lots of Product in the bathroom, is considered effeminate.
And that’s precisely what keeps a large proportion of straight men from buying
designer clothes or investing in their appearance, even if the basest of men’s
magazines – I pick up the copy of Loaded I have lying around
from my July 19 entry –
have pages and pages full of grooming products along with £280 ($445)
leather Hermes sandals.
So while Peres is keen to place clear blue water between metrosexuality and
the success of Queer
Eye for the Straight Guy, I’m not so sure: both are phenomena which
have caught on across the country and which have served to increase the country’s
general comfort level with effeminate heterosexual men.
On my recent trip to California (yes, that’s why this site hasn’t been updated
in so long), I met extremely straight, suburban, Republican men from towns like
Tustin and San Jose. All had heard of metrosexuals, and none of them seemed
perturbed by the concept, although they might never swing that way themselves.
I doubt they’ll be booking themselves in for manicures or shelling out hundreds
of dollars for designer trousers any time soon, but that’s not the point. The
point is how they will react when they meet men who do fall into that category:
will they respond with fear and aggression, or will they be more likely to embrace
such predilections as just another lifestyle choice, like a preference for ice
hockey over baseball?
As Simon Dumenco writes
in New York magazine, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy "brings
gay style—and wit—to the hinterlands. The show makes homosexuality
and shopping nonthreatening for straight men (the latter may be the bigger achievement)."
The real agenda at play these days is, of course, the Buysexual Agenda. As
in: You are what you buy (not who you sleep with). It’s a uniquely American
idea that the nation that shops together stays together. If homos and heteros
like the same moisturizers and the same jeans, why can’t we all get
In short, memes can make a difference: as metrosexuality becomes more widely
understood, it makes the world (or at least America) safer for gay and gay-acting
men. And if it takes increased sales of $1,000
messenger bags in order for that to happen, then surely that’s a small price