So it’s another Friday night out with the boys, back to a friend’s house and blah blah, the obligatory warm-flat can of lager before bed. Some nightcap. Fuck, they never told me my twenties would look like this. By the time I arrive at mate’s place, everyone else is stoned and stone-drunk, watching cable TV, the room drawling alive with late night, pissed-up banter. Predictably, I notice once again, for I am a single man and we single men notice these things, there are no girls in the room. Sighing, mouthing the words ‘sausage-fest’ under my breath I grab a can from the fridge, predictably dirty, and scope out a prime spot near the TV, away from the testosterone charged play fight going on at the other end of the room: but predictably I’m foiled: no sooner than I’ve taken the first gulp of my beer, the adverts interrupt whatever show we were supposed to be watching, and I’m plunged into a near instant despair.
“This is precisely what I’m talking about!” I say, almost involuntarily, referring to an earlier argument in the pub. “It’s shit like this that’s emasculating us. They might as well just cut our dicks off!”
The example I’ve picked upon isn’t the best, but it’s late and we’re drunk and I’ve been annoyed by one of the cable channel’s trailers for some new show or other. It features, predictably, these cool, urbane, sexually-liberated women. Female empowerment, great, it sells – right? And once again, the ad people. have chosen in their infinite wisdom, decided to promote it by featuring a bored woman sitting in bed with a sleeping man, choosing television over her lover.
It’s a great message. It’s a message that says whilst the man could only last a few minutes, a girl’s night in watching girl’s TV could provide a whole evening’s worth of pleasure. Yet again, my entire gender had been compared to a piece of machinery, and condemned to be guilty of inferiority. The ad-men (or possibly women) have developed their own curious version of post-feminist society, one in which women’s liberation has been cashed in, re-packaged and sold to death. Another tired image of negative stereotype reinforcement.
Okay, so I may have been a little melodramatic in my assertion that this represented the apotheosis of male emasculation, but it was the end of a long night and the awareness that I was a) male and b) single again had risen slowly throughout the evening and now the final insult had been dealt. Okay, this shit is demeaning to women, too. But it hits men – lonely, angry, embittered husks of men – like me, and it hits us hard. Is this as far as we’ve come? Has a generation of children grown up with feminism only to find it being used to sell shitty product A, or shitty product B? Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus blah-blah, blah, but are we really so different we still have to have vapid magazines telling girls what to wear and boys who to fuck? Are we still so primal and chimpish that we haven’t grown out of the childish need to trip each other up in the playground and prove, once and for all, why we don’t need each other? Is the battle of the sexes still really in full swing?
Yes, it seems so. In the bizarre and twisted, acid-trip crazy world of advertising, the great project of the women’s movement to highlight unjust inequalities in society has been subverted and allowed to tripped up, turned on its head, and sold back to us in the name of commerce. From every bus stop leer images of beautiful women, usually models or celebrities, all chowing down on the corporate hob-nob, selling out to peddle a new shampoo, or moisturiser, or whatever – just another reminder to girls everywhere that they must appear beautiful and flawless at all times. And that their perfect image will always elude us imperfect men, too.
After all, men fare little better. Drink. Be vacant, a bland and blank canvas for a girl to imprint herself on you. While the lad-mag culture reached its apotheosis in the mid nineties, make no mistake – we are still feeling the aftershock. The divide between men and women has been exacerbated by years of telling women that they are supposed to be slim, successful and sexy whilst telling men that they can never aspire to being anything more than dumb animals. The advertising agencies have found a cunning way to co-opt these feelings of self-doubt and use them to appeal to our supposed identities, the ideal man, or ideal woman. Because all women like watching daytime TV, and all men like sitting round smoking weed and listening to music, don’t they? The more you deviate from this norm, the more divorced you feel from your gender identity. And the ad-men step in and offer an answer: buy this product and it will make you feel empowered. Men and women alike suffer. But men lack a feminist equivalent, we lack any kind of heterosexual, heterogeneous counter-culture.
My own particular loathing is for adverts which reinforce these blunt stereotypes more than vain chauvinism ever can. One could be forgiven for developing an inferiority complex: it’s reached saturation point. For every empowered, sexy New Woman the media creates, there’s an equal and opposite man who’s portrayed as a blundering, emotionally retarded idiot who falls asleep after sex and snores until morning. “Me Tarzan, you Jane…” Fuck off. We have feelings too. Just nobody ever told us how to express them.
From the glossy pages of the magazines through to the salacious carbon copy popstars on the music channels, the media portrays girls as empowered but generally at the expense of men, who are made to feel inadequate, and that inadequacy isn’t just limited to the bedroom. Fierce questions arise during any relationship. Once upon a time, when I was a teenager and I dated teenage girls, they wanted to hear the words “I love you” and it was an instant key to the bedroom, if not to the soul. Now I wouldn’t even advise you to say those words to a girl you’ve dated for months. Would she see it as coming on too strong? Is it an indicator of passive male dominance, the enforced reciprocity of love under the disguised threat of a messy break up? Are men allowed to express any feelings any more, or have they become prisoners of their own loutish, mid-nineties caricature? The age of the thinking, feeling man is dead.
This is the legacy of female empowerment: a bright young generation of smart, independent girls who aren’t afraid to talk about their feelings, whilst we as men are no longer allowed to make passionate declarations of intent, there’s no more sweeping girls off their feet, and no matter how much they may swoon over Colin Firth and tell us they’re looking for their knight in shining armour if you try to sweep a woman off her feet these days, chances are she’ll tell you to fuck off back to the nineteenth century. Men aren’t men any more, we’re piss-poor parodies. Cut off from any chivalrous image of himself, what is our modern man to do?
The answer seems to be that we must retreat into our own brutish stereotype, reclaim it as our own – after all, we’re too confused about how to relate our own feelings of masculinity to the minefield of the modern, post-feminist battlefield of the sexes. So our typical response is to shut up about it, to buy into the media portrayal of ourselves as emotionally stunted, sexual beings without the attached feelings. So we become the lads, sitting together on a Friday night, girl-less and watching cable TV, swilling our warm cans of lager. Hell, I know I do. And I still hate myself for it.
Nobody mentions it when a girl is rubbish in the sack and it’s rarely ever spoken that there’s more to good sex for boys too than just lying together on the bed and hammering away. The brain, as Jackie Treehorn says, is the largest erogenous zone on the body. Even on me. But with the laddish stereotype of the man who’s never heard of foreplay, girls seem to find it increasingly okay to give bad sex, because the instant assumption is that this is all men are capable of. We’re in danger of becoming the shallow, stupefying idiots we are portrayed as, and forgetting that we have feelings and dreams and occasionally overpowering bouts of emotional intensity too. It’s no coincidence that suicide rates are highest in men aged eighteen to twenty-six. Men frequently feel as though there’s no-one they can talk to.
It seems as though some sort of reclamation of masculinity is in order. As Leopold von Sacher-Masoch put it over a century ago, ‘the moral of the tale is this: whoever allows himself to be whipped, deserves to be whipped’. If we are brutes in the streets and boors in the pubs, then we should become brutes in the bedroom too. If relationships are nothing more than power relations, as some have claimed, then it is time to stake out our claim with a healthy dose of good old fashioned male dominance. Men! Stand up for yourselves! Fight back! Tired of being portrayed as a drunken ape leering at short-skirted permatan girls in clubs on a Friday night? Then may I make a suggestion? Go home now to your girlfriends, carry them off to the bedroom, handcuff and spank them until their bottoms are red raw! Maybe it won’t help us to express our feelings – unless we buy into the whole existentialist thing. But I’d still like to see the agencies turn that into a fucking advertisement. Men – you have nothing to lose, except your penises!