Cultures of Consumption
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Cultures of Consumption

Frank Mort

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eBook - ePub

Cultures of Consumption

Frank Mort

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Examines the construction of images of masculinity and the effect they have on identity, sexuality and sexual politics. Influences from black and white culture are explored as well as the ironies of class, colour and sexuality.

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Part One
The Cultural Authority of Style

1 New Men and New Markets

The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, in his study of the academy and its intellectuals, has given a particular definiton of cultural crisis.1 Crisis moments, Bourdieu has observed, are essentially struggles over rival systems of classification. Positions are staked out, producing a number of clearly distinguishable camps and forcing participants to endow their arguments with a coherence which would not be required under more normal circumstances. Such moments are for Bourdieu not simply negative; they act as developers, stimulating knowledge and sites from which to speak. Bourdieu’s paradigm has principally been used to analyse intellectual systems in the narrow sense. Yet his understanding could usefully be applied to the eruption of discourses about masculinity which occurred in Britain during the 1980s. Just in case anyone still doubts it, observed Judith Williamson, writing in the New Statesman, in the autumn of 1986, ‘men are the most marketable category of the year’.2 It was, she noted, all part of the mood of the moment. As a feminist film critic, Williamson was far from positive about the flurry of interest in this long-ignored subject. But her remarks were part of a growing crescendo of argument. In journalism and fashion, in commercial and manufacturing culture, as well as in the political and social arena, men were at the centre of a wide-ranging debate. The forms which discussions took were as varied as their conclusions. Amidst all the energy, one motif occurred repeatedly. This was the figure of the ‘new man’. A hybrid character, his aetiology could not be attributed to one single source. He was rather the condensation of multiple concerns which were temporarily run together.
For the advertising and marketing industries, the appearance of such a personality was a symptom of growing commercial and cultural confusion. Journalist Phillip Hodson explained to the women’s magazine She in July 1984 that this new form of masculinity was principally defined by self-doubt. Confronted by the loss of traditional gender certainties, many men were now being forced to question their social roles.3 Such a sense of disorientation was having repercussions on traditionally stable consumer markets, especially among the young. ‘So what on earth is the young British male?’ queried an exasperated television production consultant, Steve Taylor, to the advertising world’s in-house journal, Campaign, two years later.4 ‘Advanced’ market researchers claimed to have solved the problem. Marketing consultants McCann Erickson’s Manstudy Report, produced in 1984, hailed the new breed of man as the ‘Avant Guardian’. Claiming statistical exactitude, their report insisted that the group covered precisely 13.5 per cent of all British males. With an ‘optimistic outlook on life’ and a strongly contemporary view of masculinity, these individuals were associated with premier consumer brands. But the report noted that they were also at the forefront of more serious discussions about the changing experience of gender.5 Other commercial commentators offered different, but equally specific, accounts. The new man was linked to the more progressive and caring versions of fatherhood, portrayed in the marketing of stores such as Mothercare. In a different vein he was defined as a metropolitan phenomenon, supposedly visible in a number of London locations associated with consumer style. ‘He’s a good first-tier fashion person’ enthused entrepreneur Bruce Isaacs, him self the owner of a successful West End restaurant, in 1987.6 Attacking these commercial posturings, media consultant and man-about-town Peter York was much more critical. A highly contemporary personality, York reported in The Times the following year that the figure of the new man was nothing more than the advertising industry’s dramatisation of its own self-image. His ethics and morality were based only on a ‘mean chic’, which was driven by ‘greed, competition and treachery’.7
The fashion industry believed that this confusion over representations of masculinity was entirely positive. For a sector in which diversity was its lifeblood, new personas were always to be welcomed. They were essentially a result of the growing proliferation of tastes and styles for men. The origins of the change were seen to lie in the current renaissance of British fashion, after the lean recession years of the late 1970s and early 1980s. ‘Are You Gauguin, New Colonial, or Savile Row?’ inquired Men’s Wear journalist Thom O’Dwyer archly, in his preview of the spring and summer menswear collections in The Guardian in 1987.8 It mattered little which image his readers selected, the point was that a greater number of choices were now on offer. Such a celebration of individualism was often simply reduced to the level of fashion trivia. But at times the arguments strayed into more political territory. O’Dwyer proclaimed that men’s fashion was ‘coming out of the closets’.9 Deliberately evoking the language of homosexual liberation, he implied that the appearance of the new man had much to do with the breaking down of sexual stereotypes, which was the direct result of a decade of gay politics. Journalists Brian Kennedy and John Lyttle, assessing the significance of the phenomenon for urban life and leisure, in the London listings magazine, City Limits, in 1986, took up the same point. They argued that in Britain, as in North America, the new masculinity had its origins in the growing power of homosexual men, who had at last forced a grudging recognition from the gatekeepers of public culture.10 This dissident reading was strenuously denied in more mainstream areas of popular taste, especially in the tabloid press. Forever on the look-out both to incite sex, and to police the perverse, The Sun produced its own interpretation of the new man, as part of a rhetoric of normative, but liberated, heterosexuality. From 1986, ‘page seven guys’, with unbuttoned flies and bared torsos, competed for attention with established female pin-ups: the famous ‘page three girls’. The paper announced that the new visual erotica of men’s bodies was available for the enjoyment of modern, fun-loving young women.11
The debate continued in a more serious vein within the arena of sexual politics. For progressive men, working in anti-sexist organisations and consciousness-raising groups, the growing concern over masculinity, however confused and chaotic, was to be supported. It was viewed as the culmination of a series of much broader initiatives, which were breaking open masculinity’s best-kept secret; forcing men to look self-consciously at themselves and their identities, rather than as the concealed norm of power and privilege.12 It revealed a point of vulnerability which was a potential source for change. For those men who also held some allegiance to more traditional forms of politics, especially to socialism, the implications went further still. In microcosm, the problem of men was bound up with the contemporary crisis in political culture itself. Inasmuch as formal politics was underpinned by a particular version of gendered privilege, the question of masculinity raised the long-repressed issues of subjectivity and language, and the ways in which such factors shaped political allegiances. A day conference in London, organised in the summer of 1987 under the auspices of the Communist Party journal Marxism Today, debated these and other themes. Yet the enthusiastic tone of the discussions was not shared by the majority of women. Feminist responses to the new men’s politics were invariably more mixed. For those who rejected a biological or social essentialism about men, the process of shifting masculinity – crucially in relation to women – was seen to involve extensive and often painful change. It was, as Lynne Segal termed it in the title of her book on masculinity published in 1990, inevitably men in slow motion.13 The Guardian’s feminist columnist, Polly Toynbee, doubted that the transformations which had taken place in men’s experience were sufficient to merit the title of new man. Sum ming up the current debate in 1987, she remained wholly unconvinced:
I have heard tell of the new man. For many years now there have been books and articles proclaiming his advent, even his arrival. I have met women who claim that their sons will be he, or that their daughters will marry him. I have met men who claim they are he. False prophets all, the new man is not here, and it does not seem likely that we shall see him in our lifetime.14
If the new scripts about masculinity had not changed the lives of the majority of men, as Toynbee argued, the new man was certainly not a mere chimera. In the 1980s the debate over men’s changing roles was concretised in a wide variety of settings. But it was in one area in particular that the issue was given its most extended hearing. This was in the sphere of consumer culture. In all the exchanges, commercial debates over the identities and consumption patterns of younger men loomed large. Such discussions were urgent and energetic, and they competed for attention with the more sententious claims of sexual politics. For during the decade the dynamics of the marketplace occupied a privileged place in shaping young men’s wants and needs.
Commercial interest in young men was canvassed across many different sectors. But attention was most intensely focused around one specific commodity. This was the attempt to produce a general-interest, or ‘lifestyle’, magazine for men. The quest to crack this product became something of a cause célèbre, especially for the media industries. Frequently referred to as the ‘holy grail’ of publishing, the search for a successful formula was approached with all the vigour of a latter-day masculine crusade. The urgency which surrounded this project was an expression of large-scale ambitions, which extended well beyond the media. Successfully established, a men’s magazine could provide the anchor point for a huge variety of goods and services. It could present the vision of masculine consumer society, in much the same way that the women’s press had long done for female readers. The implications of this initiative were not lost on advertisers and marketers. As Zed Zawada, advertising director of East Midlands Allied Press Metro Group (EMAP) and an influential player in the debate, saw it in 1986:
Publishers look at women’s magazines, their circulation figures and bottom line and they think: ‘If we put together a road test of a new Porsche with an in-depth interview with Giorgio Armani and some stuff about personal finance, then we’ll hit some sort of composite male who has all these interests.’ If that were possible, it would be like finding the Holy Grail.15
Zawada’s cynical analysis was both shrewd and practical. Focused on prestige consumption, it emphasised the need to assemble a type of synthetic male personality out of the flotsamand jetsam of contemporary commodities. This, he insisted, was the key to unlocking the men’s market. Yet as he pointed out, competitors in the race needed to beware of growing uncertainty in the world of publishing.
Strictly speaking, the idea of a general-interest publication for men was not wholly new. The claims to innovation made in the mid-1980s need to be qualified in the light of much earlier post-war experiments. The most important development in this genre was Man About Town. Established in 1953 as a gentleman’s tailoring magazine, it was restyled and renamed in i960, on its acquisition by publishers Michael Heseltine and Clive Labovitch. About Town, later abbreviated to Town, ran until 1968, with an ambitious mixture of photography and journalism. Paralleling the newspaper colour supplements of the period, the title blended fashion, politics and arts coverage, along with reports about international celebrities.16 In the late 1960s the picture was further complicated by the brief appearance of three publications aimed explicitly at homosexual men: Timm, 1968, Spartacus, 1969 and Jeremy, 1969. Picturing the world from a gay point of view, the magazines worked with a similar focus on upmarket consumption.17 Yet these precursors were rarely acknowledged by later editors. What was emphasised in the 1980s was the supposed originality of the men’s magazine format.
Reviewing the publishing sector at the end of the 1980s for the advertising journal Media Week, Brian Braithwaite pronounced the decade as having been the most turbulent since 1945.18 As publishing director of The National Magazine Company, he argued that the origins of this instability were both economic and cultural. The enforced introduction of new work disciplines and technologies, first seen at Rupert Murdoch’s News International press at Wapping, had been coupled with significant shifts in retailing and distribution. The growth of supermarkets as major outlets for magazine titles, the rise of postal subscriptions, along with an upsurge in the number of free local papers, had radically reshaped the expectations of many consumers. But Braithwaite also drew the industry’s attention to more specific influences. These were driven by the recomposition of key markets and their styles of journalism. Most especially, it was among the publications for women and young people that change had been most hectic. Anxieties about falling sales and magazine closures had been offset by a series of spectacular breakthroughs. The successful launch of a number of women’s weekly and monthly general-interest titles across the market range, coupled with the influx of foreign competitors (notably from Germany, France and Spain), had posed fresh questions about the future direction of consumer magazines. Editorial format and visual style, as well as journalistic content, were all under scrutiny. Shifts in women’s publishing had been paralleled by transformations in the teenage market. A fresh generation of magazines, targeting girls and young women, were in the...

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