Notes on the Hairless Man
Today's American male is distinctly boyish.
Not only has the mainstream gone gay -- remember the quaintly controversial IKEA commercial featuring two thoroughly domesticated gay men picking out items for their home? -- but gay life has gone mainstream. The course of this change can be seen in Hollywood movies. It was just a few years ago that the gay hit The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, a bawdy and occasionally hilarious movie from Australia, inspired a mediocre American imitation starring tough-guys Wesley Snipes and Patrick Swayze -- hairless men both. In 1997's My Best Friend's Wedding, Julia Roberts's gay pal, who is her cover date for the wedding, seems to be the only character capable of romance; a faux-heterosexual tic has him stealing all the scenes he is in. Amidst so many public displays of friendship to support the comedy's bland premise (the possibility of good friends' getting married) the gay character refreshes the movie by leading the rehearsal dinner in a round of "I Say a Little Prayer." It's a weird throwback moment in which the movie's greatest display of devotion -- a scene that could have been stolen from an old Gene Kelly musical -- is romantically meaningless. It's also a reflection of the question at the center of the movie: Is love just an intense form of friendship?
Well, yes, according to various pop-culture trends of the '90s. The super-successful girl pop band the Spice Girls were practically a propaganda squad detached by the friends of friendship to demote eros to the status of a lower passion. Two of the most popular sitcoms of the decade Seinfeld and Friends were both predicated on the elevation of platonic love, one cynically and the other in a way that was painfully cute. Ross from Friends, the show's one regular male character of serious romantic intent, doesn't even merit being called a SNAG. His whiny boyish mannerisms suggest he can barely live up to the guy part. Men who really do love women have been, if not written out of television and Hollywood, playing second fiddle to their emasculated brothers.
In her famous 1964 essay "Notes on Camp," Susan Sontag, the voice of New York's then cultural vanguard, felt compelled to explain the obvious overlap between the self-consciously theatrical style described in her essay and homosexual taste, which, she wrote, constitutes "the vanguard of camp": "The camp insistence on not being 'serious,' on playing, also connects with the homosexual's desire to remain youthful." In September 1996, New York magazine published a prescient article describing the decline of the other defining characteristic of gay life: militancy. Referring to the "'Hallmarkization' of gay sensibility," the author, Daniel Mendelsohn, argued, "If you take away the edge and the kitsch, there's not much left -- and what remains isn't all that different from what you find in straight culture."
This seems to already overstate the difference between the sometimes campy and sometimes edgy singles culture of gays and the less campy and less edgy singles culture of straights. Traditionally, big cities are magnets for both gays and young people who are looking for careers first and spouses later. In places like New York, the romantic lives of a young straight and a young gay -- both divisible into units of temporary attachments -- aren't really that different. The difference between young married people and young unmarried people is far greater. If an icon of gay sexuality like the hairless male has gone mainstream over the last decade, it is because mainstream America wasn't intrinsically hostile to gay visibility to begin with.
What has been lost as the hairless man, an eternal boy, has become our male ideal? Real romance, for one significant thing. The hairless man is perhaps searching for romance, but only insofar as it supplies self-fulfillment and steers him clear of the burdens of love and family. Which is a pity. In order for real romance to occur, there must be some connection with matrimony. The hairless man would have to be robbed of his adolescent affectations and forced to mature. Defenders of a traditional culture have been overly fixated on gay characters, openly gay actors, and gay love stories. Such entertainment will succeed or fail on its merits as entertainment. Yet, it is the embarrassment of heterosexual love that should concern us.
Manliness cannot, after all, be reduced to a hard body, high income, and regular exercise. And yet, a pretty boy, the hairless man, has become the signature of American romance, thus mistaking the acorn for the tree, potential for the final product, leaving us with too many suitors and too few fathers, and stories about sex and love that never end in marriage and family. The problem, to paraphrase C. S. Lewis, is that we cannot raise geldings and expect them to be fruitful. We cannot turn middle-aged men back into boys and expect them to be leaders, elders, the carriers of what wisdom that comes with age. We cannot erase general notions of manliness from popular culture and expect today's boys to be tomorrow's protectors and providers. Where can one find reflections of manliness, if everywhere you turn, the American male seems boyish, hairless, shorn of any sign that he is an adult?
David Skinner is an associate editor at The Weekly Standard
Volume 4, Number 38; June 21, 1999