Dying breed?

Thursday night last I went to a product launch at Aesop in the city. The product was a new range of shaving products which was being celebrated with a few drinks and a shaving demonstration. I went along expecting to find a room full of some of the better presented suits in town, popping in after work for an interesting diversion. To my surprise suits were very much in the minority – perhaps 4-5 in a crowd of about 50.

I had come from home, and though I was dressed stylishly I was also dressed casually. Most in the crowd seemed similar, or with a bit more glam: oversized scarves, interesting headwear, imported jeans were all the go. Ticking my name off at the door I entered, picked up a glass of wine (a shiraz viognier from Yering Station: excellent), and found myself a spot by the wall in the narrow shop. I sipped my wine and cast my eyes around as I waited for things to begin.

Next to me were a couple of gay guys in black conversing loudly in camp tones. Though it was largely a visual check, I figured that 40% of the crowd were gay, maybe more. Beside the token female, of which there were maybe 3-4, the balance were all metro-sexual, in a variety of configurations from dry (me), to dripping wet (many). There was not one bum or scruffy outfit amongst them. Many of them had hair styles that more closely resembled avant-garde sculptures, which, no matter how artful they were, seemed hardly to belong on a human head. The rest had a variety of carefully groomed, coiffed, or slicked back hair. Perhaps I was the only one with hair approaching the au naturel. Needless to say, just about everyone was dressed in black.

So the demonstration took place, conversation started, red wine and guinness flowed, and olives, nuts and marinated feta did the rounds.

I spoke to the girl next to me initially, a staff member, asking her if she had learned anything from the demonstration. Given she was a girl I thought it unlikely, and she confirmed that she rarely had occasion to shave – her face anyway. Then I spoke to a couple of blokes in my vicinity, one a graphic designer, the other a younger guy who had some role at Melbourne Uni. As it so often seems the case today I led the conversation, prodding and prompting, suggesting conversation and ultimately putting my 2c worth in. I wasn’t sure, but I thought the graphic designer was probably gay; the younger guy I was certain was just a kid still discovering the world. Then there was me. I didn’t stand out, but I was different to them, and within the context of the room, markedly different.

I brought this up with my hairdresser on Saturday. Our conversations often veer into interesting dinner party territory (as opposed to boring dinner party or bland hairdressing territory). I complained, as I often do these days, about the generation after me. On this occasion I took aim at the blokes.

Standing there on Thursday I felt of a different order of masculinity. I was confident that if an investigation had been called for that surely mine would be the biggest balls there. It’s not so much about what I’ve got, but what others seemingly haven’t – which is old fashioned male juice. Growing up I was pretty normal. I played sport, I played up, I got stuck into the girls and booze and life in general and none of it was particularly remarkable (though it was pretty good). I get regularly described as manly, but the truth is that in our prime I was not much different to my peers. I was more aggressive than most maybe, but none of us were shrinking violets, and all of us possessed the traditional masculine traits.

Times have changed since then, and many of the traits I may now seem to be applauding have become unfashionable or have fallen into some disrepute at some stage. That wasn’t a bad thing altogether. Every man needs some feminine in him to be balanced and sensitive. No-one likes the boofhead knob, the drunken yobbo, the insensitive boor – all classic male types. As always though – and as I may be guilty of now – we tend to make judgements based on the extremes rather than on the usual. We were masculine, and though we had yobbo moments (as you should), none of us were ugly or stupid with it, all of us were good natured and reasonable. If we were a model of something then it was a model that didn’t need changing.

It has changed though. Men these days have lost a lot of that manly edge. That’s a big statement, but you’ll find a lot of agreement with it these days. Just on the weekend I read of someone saying how ‘pansified’ society had become. I guess it calls into question how you define masculinity, which is difficult. When I was coming into my own I attached myself to the concept that a man is someone who takes responsibility for his actions. It has a nice ring, but it’s more a philosophy than a way of being, and regardless of sex you’d hope it to be the default. So then, what is masculinity?

It’s a blend of things. There is a certain up and at ’em male vigour, an appetite to try things, to do things, to strive, to explore, a perspective that looks outwards and forwards. It’s a degree of confidence, of boldness, of ambition and belief; which in turn inspires that in others. Certainly there’s a primal element to it which you’re hard put play down at times. I would argue that true masculinity is gentle and sensitive too. The men I’ve admired most in the world are those I’ve respected for their character and strength, and loved them for their gentle affection. It’s often misconstrued, but the truest men are those reconciled to the feminine inside them, and have no fear of showing that. It’s only the softcocks who feel the need to prove how masculine and tough they are, and betray instead the opposite. Let’s face it there are things we associate with masculinity, that whiff of testosterone, that competitive/aggressive edge, an attitude that expresses itself in how a man stands or walks, in the undertone of his voice, the look in the eye. So much is unspoken, which is the classical masculine way.

Now I’m not saying all this is great – there’s a lot to argue about, and certainly to excess you find the ugly characters most of us have come across at some point in our life. But in moderation, sensibly blended, this is who we are – or should be – as men. It’s our cultural birthright as much as it is biological, and there’s absolutely nothing to apologise for. I’m glad I’m a man. And I like the amount of man that I am.

Why would you want to be anything else? It’s hard sometimes not to feel a kind of disdain for these boy-men. They seem so irrelevant and slight, so insipid in nature and thought and opinion. My hairdresser agreed with me, explaining how she and her friends find men these days lacking in ‘force;’ and masculinity. They’re almost too nice, too general, so much so that they have become blurred and indistinct as male figures. I sometimes think that’s why I do so well with the girls, because I still have some of that old school masculinity – and the hairdresser agreed. I have become the exception, rather than the rule.

I may get disdainful, but ultimately there is no pleasure or profit in that. These are our future leaders. We expect and need more. I know that great leaders will still step forward, though perhaps less often; and I know that many will change as they mature and experience more of life, and will become the men I miss. But for now? The loss is as much theirs as it is ours. Being a man is a wonderful thing. It’s like you’ve been born this marvellously powerful toy to play with all your life. You could argue it’s much too powerful, but that’s really the test of it, and you. It roars like a Harley Davidson and has 5 speeds plus overdrive and will go wherever you point it, though no guarantee it won’t crash. What pleasure it is to be in control of such a powerful beast! This is the joy of being male. This is the responsibility we’re forced to take on. We’re born to let ‘er rip; all the fun is in flooring it, going off-road and figuring out what we can make this thing do. And yet, seems to me, too few these days go beyond 3rd gear.

We laughed about it on Saturday, the hairdresser and I. Here I am sounding like one of those crusty old men bitter about how things were different in ‘my day’. How true.

On Thursday we talked affably and drank wine and laughed every so often and everyone was friendly and civilised even if not ‘manly’ and later one sent me a warm email. I spoke to others, and another girl about what was so good about parsley seed, before she went off and returned slipping some sample packs in my pocket with a wink. I left saying my goodbyes, a goody bag thrust in my hand, a pleasant evening behind me. I may have thought these things on the tram home, or else wondered which girl I met I liked most: I don’t remember. End of day we are what we are. Perhaps I can change as much as I say others should. The world is as it is.

I’m certain that things have changed, that a kind of caution and throttled down perspective has become normal. They are the times though, and people become what the times shape them to be. If there is any blame in this then it is mine and my generations for lowering the bar. Maybe thats it. You have to earn these things we now give away. We could go on and on about the reasons, but I don’t have the patience. I think things will change back at some point. I’m sure there will be a reaction and the pendulum will reverse. That’s the story in history. And in truth I don’t want to be tarring a whole generation with the same brush. The crowd on Thursday was hardly representative, and all of them seemed pleasant and considerate and blandly vacuous (notwithstanding the hair stylings) – that’s not the issue. There are many men still who retain that manly edge. It’s just rarer than it used to be.

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