Whatever happened to the term New Man?
- 30 January 2014
- From the section Magazine
The New Man was once a radical way to describe a male who wholeheartedly accepted equality in domestic life. But 30 years on, what has happened to the term?
The New Man rose to prominence in the 1980s like an exotic new species, happy to do the washing up or change a nappy.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the New Man was someone "who rejects sexist attitudes and the traditional male role, esp. in the context of domestic responsibilities and childcare, and who is (or is held to be) caring, sensitive, and non-aggressive".
Its first reference was a 1982 Washington Post article about Dustin Hoffman's cross-dressing comedy, Tootsie. "(It) has enough rowdy, inconsequential fun in it to take the curse off Hoffman's sentimentalized notion of The New Man, but it's also in the nature of a lucky tightwire act that comes close to tripping him up."
It's noticeable that the newspaper felt no need to elaborate. The term was presumably already in common circulation.
The dictionary also flags up as significant a reference in Kate Atkinson's 1995 novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum, whose narration looked back at earlier decades. "Bunty and I were in the Co-op mobile shop... when Mr Roper bounded on board, looking for washing-powder - a new man ahead of his time."
Martin Kelner, who contributes to BBC Radio 5 Live's Fighting Talk, had children in the 1980s and saw himself as a New Man. "I suppose I became a New Man by being entirely different to my dad. I was really, really hands on." He changed nappies "from day one", mashed vegetables for his children's tea, and got up in the night with a bottle.
Hardly radical stuff, a father today might respond. But it was a departure from previous generations, Kelner argues.
A conference at London's Southbank Centre this weekend - Being a Man - aims to shed light on where masculinity has got to. One panel discussion features author Nick Hornby, singer Billy Bragg and designer Wayne Hemingway talking about "being a bloke".
The Bloke like the Chap, Alpha Male, Metrosexual and Ubersexual are terms that have followed, with varying degrees of popularity. Another term that has cropped up on and off is "sensitive new age guy."
Today the New Man is like a relic of gender history. Times columnist Giles Coren says it became a cartoon-like figure of fun. "They were terrible limp men carrying babies around their chest. They ate vegetables and gave up drinking. They were around for a bit until they realised women didn't want to sleep with them."
When the New Man arrived in the 1980s gender roles and the labour market were in flux. Men were being laid off from industrial jobs in Western countries, while the service sector expanded rapidly.
"To me it mostly meant Athena posters of 'hunky' young men holding babies," says the writer Mark Simpson. The emphasis was on sensitivity as a reaction against traditional stoicism, although a lot of it was about marketing to women, he believes.
"If there was a real actual living 'New Man' in the 1980s it was probably Morrissey - and a big part of his appeal back then to a generation of young men and women was precisely his willingness to go against Dad-ish gender norms and express emotion and 'feminine' qualities."
Labels come and go. Soon the New Lad arrived. He was an amalgam of various cultural trends, evident from TV shows Men Behaving Badly and Fantasy Football, lad mags like Loaded and FHM, and celebrities like Chris Evans and Liam Gallagher.
In the UK at least, the New Man had gone as a media term, although presumably many dads were still changing nappies and mashing vegetables.
But by 2000 the Observer was predicting a return. "What is significant is that it appears that straight men are taking an interest in fashion, which is a sure sign that some New Man thing is about to kick in again."
It was the era of David Beckham - a man comfortable with wearing a sarong, not drinking alcohol and looking after his pecs and six-pack. It was the beginnings of the metrosexual, a term that Simpson may have coined in a 1994 Independent piece: "One sharply dressed 'metrosexual' in his early 20s... has a perfect complexion and precisely gelled hair, and is inspecting a display of costly aftershaves." Moisturiser was de rigueur.
Then the tide turned again. In 2007 Observer columnist Barbara Ellen wrote of metrosexual men: "Could it be that post-feminism has created its own Frankenstein's monster? The man who is so like a woman he's unfanciable?"
The term "man up" became common. It used to be a piece of staffing terminology. The OED cites a 1947 letter to the editor of The Times from Henry Strauss, a Conservative member of Parliament, complaining about man up as an insidious Americanism. "Must industries be fully 'manned up' rather than 'manned'?" Strauss asked. "Must the strong, simple transitive verb, which is one of the main glories of our tongue, become as obsolete in England as it appears to be in America?"
The recent usage has its own controversy, with "man up" today being a slight, however jocular, like "pull yourself together" but in terms that feminists might regard as macho. Some even use "woman up".
At the same time a small but committed band of men's rights activists has attempted to create a a male version of feminism. Although exactly what male activists are fighting for, when men still dominate so many important areas of society, bemuses many others.
Much of today's male movements seem to be about sartorial standards. The Chaps hold an Olympiad where they sport handlebar moustaches, pith helmets, tweeds and "immaculate trouser creases".
In 2005 Marian Salzman introduced a new term "the ubersexual" in her book The Future of Men. "Ubersexuals are confident, masculine and stylish, and committed to uncompromising quality in all areas of life," she said.
And since then advertisers and cosmetics firms have moved in with gusto.
Dirk Haeusermann, a creative director at advertising firm Draftfcb Deutschland, says the hipster movement has built on metrosexuality's foundations. "What I've observed is how men have rediscovered their masculinity without losing that care in their appearance. There's the return of the full beard as a hipster item."
It's all a far cry from the New Man. "I don't really know what that is any more," says Tim Samuels, presenter of Men's Hour. A lot of the virgin territory the New Man was said to be exploring is now just expected as part of the job of being a colleague, boyfriend or husband.
Instead those who don't come up to scratch in the US might earn the epithet "deadbeat dad".
Times columnist David Aaronovitch says New Man was useful "journalistic shorthand" for a muddying of the gender waters. "New man was a term of art like 'ladette' that suggests the discussion about crossing roles."
But today it's redundant. "That hugely defined male role has disappeared and so the need for something called the New Man has gone," he argues.
But just how much masculine and feminine have crossed over remains a source of debate. Channel Four newsreader Jon Snow, who is chairing a talk at this weekend's conference, has raised eyebrows with his admission that sex would be on his mind whenever he met a woman for the first time.
Kelner thinks some of the talk of gender convergence is overblown. For him the New Man was about being considerate to your partner rather than a sign that men have fundamentally changed. "There's always going to be that atavistic thing," says Kelner. "Males given a chance will revert to being what they were years before which was a bit prehistoric."
Men as a rule don't like talking about being men. There's a serious danger of metropolitan "navel gazing" at the South Bank, he says.
"If they were holding this conference in Mansfield they'd be lucky to sell a ticket."