Born in the 1980s, I grew up during a period where the most macho masculinities were esteemed. From Rambo to Rocky, Die Hard to Lethal Weapon, men were portrayed as all-action heroes whom neither bullets nor armies could vanquish. Professional wrestlers appeared almost understated in their gendered performances compared to the display of masculine bravado found in movies and revered in the wider culture.
This machismo was accompanied by a pervasive and enveloping homophobia. The rise of the so-called moral majority and the AIDS epidemic meant that homosexuality was incredibly stigmatized in the 1980s and early 1990s. As a result, men went to great lengths to avoid being socially perceived as gay. The most effective way of doing this was to deploy homophobia. Accordingly, masculinity became not just a show of physical strength and emotional stoicism, but also of anti-gay animus. It is for this reason that leading sociologist Michael Kimmel argued that masculinity was effectively a performance of homophobia.
And yet things have changed beyond recognition. The British boy band One Direction, who recently topped the U.S. charts, are a pop sensation who have eschewed such forms of masculinity. These young men’s gentle tactility and open displays of emotion are part of what has made them so famous. As a Sunday Times journalist who interviewed them wrote, “They tousled each other’s hair and jostled and caressed one another like a bunch of frolicking puppies.” What’s more, homophobia couldn’t be further from their lips, as they thank their army of gay fans and perform at gay venues such as London’s G-A-Y.
One Direction are just one example of a vast number of famous men to embody this softer, more inclusive masculinity. Yet crucially, such behaviors are not limited to celebrity elites. Rather, these men both model and mirror the gendered behaviors of today’s youth. In my book, The Declining Significance of Homophobia, I found that British youth are redefining masculinity for their generation. Undertaking ethnographies of three British high schools and hanging out with the male students, it was evident that the homophobia, violence and emotional illiteracy of the past have vanished for these young men. Toxic behaviors have been replaced with hugging, cuddling, and loving.
Perhaps the most startling change is the soft touch between boys. One day in an assembly, for example, I observed a popular student Steve seated behind Liam. Unsolicited, Steve leant forward and gave Liam a back rub. Liam turned, smiling, and said, “That’s great, just go a bit lower.” Less popular boys did this too. Ben and Eli were standing in a corner of the common room, chatting. They were casually holding hands, with their fingers laced together. Ben then moved his head towards Eli’s ear, speaking to him for about a minute, his mouth so close that he could have been kissing Eli. If students in the busy common room noticed, they didn’t care. These behaviors were not extraordinary—they are how young guys demonstrate their friendship and express their emotions.
It is my argument that the changes in behavior so evident among these young men are the result of a significant shift in attitudes toward homosexuality. Put simply, young men are rejecting the homophobia of their fathers and are embracing gay rights instead. In my research, this was evident from the inclusion of gay peers, the explicit condemnation of homophobia and the support of gay marriage. Where homophobic language was once rife in schools, these boys are complaining that they didn’t know any openly gay teachers.
It is likely that many of these changes are more advanced in the UK than in America. Yet progressive attitudes are undoubtedly developing in the United States as well. Much of this change has been documented by Professor Eric Anderson, and quantitative research demonstrates a similar story. For example, a recent survey of over 200,000 first time college undergraduates across 270 colleges in the United States found that 64.1% of male freshman support same-sex marriage; a statistic more startling when one considers that this does not account for those supporting civil partnerships. American culture might not have its own One Direction, but it has been quick to embrace the British band.
It is my intention that this blog will be a portal to examine these changes to masculinity in British and American culture. From looking at decreasing homophobia and the profound changes in attitudes and behaviors among male youth, to examining why men today are going for bikini waxes, this blog will provide an entertaining, informative, and research-based discussion of masculinity. It’s my hope you will join me for what promises to be an interesting and often surprising conversation.