Boys keep swinging

People’s ideas about masculinity seem to be shifting, and Matthew Valentine looks at a book which shows how design and media affect the changing concepts.

Masculinity, we are frequently told, is in crisis. Men, bless ’em, no longer understand what they are supposed to do all day. Their jobs are increasingly performed by machines, and they are no longer strictly necessary for breeding purposes. They are confused as to how they should walk, talk, dress, eat and behave.

“Traditional” macho behaviour is no longer acceptable, but many are confused as to what exactly has replaced it as the social norm. Sociologists would have us believe that herds of unemployed, disenfranchised men are wandering aimlessly across the landscape, unsure whether to pick flowers or beat each other up. The truth is, of course, a little less dramatic. Life, and the roles we play in it, has always changed and always will. Design, advertising, entertainment and fashion change along with it in a chicken and egg relationship. There will always be extremes of behaviour, but most people just get on with things.

Material Man – Masculinity, Sexuality, Style, published next month, takes a look at how fashion, design and the media play a part in shaping concepts of masculinity. The book comes from the Fashion Engineering Unit, a multidisciplinary research structure supported by Pitti Immagine, an Italian trade fair for men’s fashions. It is edited by author and curator Giannino Malossi.

The book features an entertaining selection of illustrations to show various views of stereotypical masculinity. They combine to create an ironic picture library of testosterone: Sean Connery as James Bond, leaning on the bonnet of his Aston Martin DB5, bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno as the Incredible Hulk, Liberace leaping for joy and John Wayne walking on to the set of The Alamo, followed by a prop hand carrying a glass fibre horse.

There are also photographic studies of ancient Greek statues and modern day Mexican wrestlers, plus reproduced advertising campaigns from a host of brands judged to have challenged our perceptions of men. The writing is a more mixed bag, however. Contributions are from a selection of authors, and some have more to say than others.

The chapter most obviously related to design would appear to be Sex Objects by industrial designer Anna Lombardi, a piece illustrated with famous examples of product design. Unfortunately, it trots out such familiar glib stereotypes about fast cars, and Freudian theories about pretty much any object longer than it is wide, that reading it becomes a bit of a chore.

Odysseus and Male Cunning by Ugo Volli, a look at myths and images in Western culture, is a more interesting piece, at least being based on something more concrete than Lombardi’s.

Former I-D writer Alix Sharkey looks at The Lost Paradigm of Male Normality, and there are studies of gender icons, gender and musical styles and a host of other subjects. Many of the articles are written in a dry style, which again seems at odds with the illustrations. This may be due to the quality of translation as much as the writing, as many of the writers are European academics.

But, for such a qualified bunch, the writers are coy about revealing new theories. If you read a broadsheet newspaper there are few arguments about the “crisis” in masculinity that you won’t have heard before.

And there is little mention of individuality. In a society where we are all encouraged to be different, to stand out, what need is there for a “one size fits all” ideal of what a man should be?

Material Man – Masculinity, Sexuality, Style is published by Harry N. Abrams in March, priced £25.00

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