By Mark McCormack
With One Direction topping the US music chart, and David Beckham to be the first man featured on Elle’s front cover, images of men have changed dramatically in recent years. The softening of masculinity is a good thing, and shows no sign of abating.
Born in the 1980s, I grew up during a period where the most macho of 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 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. When researching for my latest book, 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 around, 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. And 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 change 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. While homophobic language was once rife in schools, these boys were 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, for example, but it has been quick to embrace the British band.
These changes are profound and require us to rethink how we talk about masculinity and sexualities. We need a more holistic approach to sex education, where we recognize young people as mature enough to discuss issues of homosexuality in intelligent and informed ways. The social sciences tell us a great deal about sex and sexuality and we should ensure that this knowledge is included so that the more inclusive attitudes of young people can be nurtured and flourish.
Mark McCormack is a qualitative sociologist at Brunel University in England. His research focuses on the changing nature of masculinities among British youth. In this book, he examines how decreased homophobia has positively influenced the way in which young men bond emotionally and interact in school settings.