The History Of One Direction: Volume One*
Some academics and writers have better PR teams than others. Eric Anderson and Mark McCormack of Winchester and Brunel Universities seem to have a crack one. They and their research on declining homophobia have been everywhere recently. Exposed as shamelessly as a member of One Direction’s chest, Anderson and Mccormack have appeared in articles including in the Guardian/Observer, features on radio four programmes, a Huffington Post piece and more. So excuse me if this review of McCormack’s latest media offensive comes across as a tiny little bit envious. I am, of course, an Ardent Simpsonista, so you may understand the source of my chagrin.
On Sunday the Observer ran an ‘editorial’ about McCormack’s research into ‘straight’ teen boys at three UK secondary schools. The editorial editorialised:
‘It started with a kiss. Not the exuberant embrace that US Marine sergeantBrandon Morgan gave his partner, Dalan Wells, on returning from a six-month deployment in Afghanistan. That homecoming, snapped by a friend, has become a global phenomenon, posted on Facebook, with more than 40,000 clicking the “like” button and very few expressing homophobic views.
The kiss that marks an even more profound change is that which over the past few years has been shared in moments of sporting glory by heterosexual males on the football pitch. Such behaviour from a sport noted for its vicious anti-gay sentiments is having a far wider impact as Eric Anderson, a university lecturer in sociology, discovered when he interviewed 145 university students. The vast majority said they were happy to kiss another man on the lips in friendship – an attitude reflected in research in the US and in other cities in the UK.
That finding has now been taken further by Anderson’s former PhD student, Mark McCormack, a sociologist at Brunel University in London. He spent a year in three diverse secondary schools, including a faith school, for his book The Declining Significance of Homophobia, published next month. In the book, he charts how prejudice and discrimination have markedly declined among young people, replaced by genuine affection and respect between pupils whether gay or straight. “Many young people see ‘gay’ as normal,” Dr McCormack says. “It’s the politicians and institutions who are slower to change.”‘
I like some of the messages that have come from Anderson, McCormack and colleagues’ research. Even Mark Simpson greeted their last project findings about straight men UK students showing each other increasing amounts of physical affection, with a big wet sloppy kiss.
But on reading their work more closely I have found the theory that backs it up, of softening masculinity unconvincing. Basically, McCormack and Anderson rely on a feminist model, known to many a stuffy academic as ‘hegemonic masculinity’. They may couch it in contemporary terminology, and touchy-feely ideas around young men’s declining machismo and growing sensitivity. But their main argument is still based on the idea that patriarchy exists – or did exist – and a minority of heterosexual, ‘butch’ men hold/held power over everyone else, including ‘effeminate’ men (which often means gay and bisexual men), and women.
One of the aspects of Simpson’s work that I think challenges Anderson’s ‘school of thought’ that may be (even) less well known than his theories of metrosexuality, is that even in ancient history (such as the 20th century) ‘femininity’ in men has not been limited to gay, bisexual, non-macho men. Simpson unearths the ‘fag within‘ of even the most powerful, macho, heterosexual forms of masculinity. So the concept of hegemonic (straight, ‘masculine’) masculinity and its successors just doesn’t sit well with me.
Someone else who has challenged McCormack’s research on a more methodological level is @Bourbons3. On twitter he made the following observations:
I have to say I agree. Anderson and McCormack seem to conduct their research in places that are convenient and familiar to them, such as universities, schools and sixth form colleges. That is fine. We can’t all write Street Corner Society. But they should be more ‘reflexive’ about the bias and limitations this brings to their findings.
In a Huffpo article about teenage boys that is basically a promo for McCormack’s book he wrote:
‘The boys at these schools want to look good. They dye and gel their hair and argue about the best type of conditioner. Their t-shirts, a size too small, are worn to highlight their physiques, while low-slung trousers reveal their underwear — stylish fashion accessories with designer labels on show.And the boys are happy talking about their looks, too: When discussing an audition for a television show, Kai said, “They’ll just see my style and know they’ve got to have me. I mean, who could turn this down!” With homophobia no longer serving as a policing mechanism of gendered behaviors, these boys are able to dress and style themselves as they want.’
And here I lost respect for his work. Because, the phenomenon he is referring to, of young men wanting to ‘look good’, wearing ‘designer labels’ and ‘talking about their looks’ is blatantly, obviously a reference to Simpson’s theories of metrosexuality.
In the Guardian earlier this year, Simpson ‘defended’ men’s ‘self-love’, including how they are more open about talking about their appearance and their bodies, like women do. Which he says is probably healthy.
Also, Simpson, unlike Mccormack and Anderson, seems to want to find the REASONS for changing masculinities and the decline in homophobia. His work is a delight to me for a number of reasons, not least because it acknowledges and explores HISTORY.And the history of changing masculinity is, in my view, and in Simpson’s, the history of metrosexuality.
In one of his many articles, McCormack referred to the band One Direction (above):
“Teenage boys,” he says, “are redefining what it means to be heterosexual. They are more open with their feelings, more tactile, less afraid of showing love and fear.” One Direction, the straight boyband, he adds, is the modern model of masculinity. The lack of an uber-macho image to defend also means there is less need for “real” men to find a gay victim to “prove” their toughness; a virtuous circle is developing’.
Well, this is what Simpson has been saying for YEARS! And far more eloquently too. If One Direction are now a ‘modern model of masculinity’, then in that case the ‘model of masculinity’ has evolved from Tony Curtis and Elvis, The Monkees, David Cassidy, Take That, other boybands such as Blue, Eurovision and Eric Saade . And is totally metrosexual and totally rooted in popular ‘mediated’ culture!
According to Mark Simpson, (as he wrote back in 2010) we are reaching the end of heterosexuality as we’ve known it. Metrosexy, his 2011 book is about ‘the end of sexuality’. His work is crucial to understanding contemporary masculinities and Mccormack and Anderson are wrong to ignore it.
Another teen pop star who represents a ‘masculine ideal’, a globally popular one (unlike One Direction), is Justin Bieber. A researcher at the ‘Cool Hunting’ organisation Science of The Time, identified Mark Simpson’s work as part of the generation baby bieber. Bieber was born in 1994, the year Simpson coined the concept of the ‘metrosexual’ and published his classic text Male Impersonators.
So to conclude, for now, for I will return to this when I have read McCormack’s book, I think he and Anderson are on the right lines. But they are lines that have been drawn previously, by Mark Simpson. And they should read and reference his work.
*title from Foucault’s The History of Sexuality: Volume One.