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Of Mad Men and Spider-Men

From the November Zeitgeist…

What do fictional characters and celebrity ambassadors say about the state of masculinity today? The last twenty years have arguably seen a dramatic shift in terms of representation in these fields, from a black president to a different type of action hero.

Indeed, we have gone from a period of filmic portrayals with Arnie and Stallone to a complete absence of testosterone-fuelled role models; Christian Bale toplines the Batman and Terminator franchises, Robert Downey Jr. is Iron Man and Tobey Maguire is Spider-Man*.

Does metrosexuality, a word that Microsoft Word refuses to accept as real, now rule? The term suggests a love of the arts, of music and the theatre; it also seems to suggest a narcissistic obsession with personal appearance and general aesthetic. Russell Brand would seem to epitomize the more questionable side of this relatively new sexuality. Does he epitomise the direction manhood is heading?

Mad Men has become something of a cult hit in the UK, as well as Stateside where it has a bushel full of Emmy and Golden Globe awards. The show oozes style, cool and a love of the finer things in life. It also reminds the viewer of a time when men were [seemingly] far more in control; unquestioned, dictatorial, bitter, frustrated, introverted, promiscuous, manipulative.

Women were confined to the home, save for the most perfunctory work roles. Rather than illustrate a desire for males to return to this period of dominant bliss, what this show and its niche popularity really demonstrates is a wry enjoyment of seeing this tongue-in-cheek depiction of a world that once was, or might have been. Of indulging vicariously in a world without wars in the Middle East, without energy, water and food scarcity, without climate shocks and without gaping budget deficits.

The programmeʼs tone has undeniably bled into popular culture; the rounded collars and square pockerchiefs favoured by Zeitgeist have now become very au courant, as everything from clothing to luggage to scotch glasses becomes imbued with a touch of refined minimalist – but robustly masculine – elegance. The fictional lead, Don Draper, was recently voted the most influential man of the year by AskMen, ahead of such luminaries as Obama, Clooney and even the great Roger Federer.

Cultural depictions of men have clearly evolved over the last two decades to a less overtly aggressive portrayal. Are men more comfortable without these fantastical images? Perhaps a new pragmatism has arrived, one where men are willing to accept that moisturising may be as important as teeth brushing, and one where a superhero is not a ripped Arnold Schwarzenegger but rather a weedy, more accessible Tobey Maguire.

*UPDATE: Even Maguire is deemed too much of a man now, as Sony has scrapped plans for Spider-Man 4, instead returning the series to Peter Parker’s high-school days.

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