The British should be proud to have a sissy and a nerd as their male icons
Drive down an American highway and, at five-mile intervals, your view will be blotted out by Mount Rushmore-sized billboards featuring a four-eyed geek posing in a scarlet velvet suit. It takes one sighting of Austin Powers' moronic expression and awkward pose for you to burst out laughing: "What a nerd!"
Don't laugh too loud, though: from sea to shining sea, Austin Powers now stands beside the effeminate Hughie Grant as the archetypal British male.
Celia Brayfield in last week's New Statesman described how Richard Curtis's view of Britain is the one we are exporting to the rest of the world. No disgrace there: Curtis's land is a fabulous, feel-good fantasia worthy of Walt Disney. The more popcorn-crunching movie audiences buy into that dewy-eyed view of a truly "Great" Britain, the better. A nation of grocers is one thing; a nation of bright young things is quite another.
If Curtis's phenomenally successful films, Four Weddings and a Funeral and now Notting Hill, sell to the world an appealing image of a nation of self-deprecating, attractive professionals who live in Conran interiors and National Trust piles, they also promote a floppy-haired effeminate as the representative Englishman. Grant is pretty enough - no girl would deploy great physical violence to get him out of her bed. But then, she wouldn't have to: Grant is a narrow-shouldered, limp-wristed chap, many iron-pumping sessions removed from the likes of those Hollywood machos, Arnold and Bruce.
The cult comedy Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me has a buck-toothed bespectacled goofball as its own anti-hero. Mike Myers plays the English photographer-cum-spy as a bumbling eejit, a sex-starved sixties geek who uses cringe-making lingo such as "shagadelic!" and "groovy!".
Where Grant is all angelic dimples and Max Factor lashes, Myers is one long anecdote of square-eyed ineptitude. In classroom parlance, it's a case of the sissy and the nerd.
A jolly poor show, really, for that once unimpeachable icon, the British man. Not so long ago, the ambassadors of British malehood were suave David Niven, bit-of-rough Michael Caine and sexy Sean Connery. They were tough guys (even Niven, beneath that immaculately starched exterior) with an indomitable will, men of action who demolished foes with a knuckle sandwich or a withering put-down. They oozed power and genuine self-confidence.
Those stars were not just crowd-pleasers; they were ego-boosters for a nation that had seen its place in the sun usurped by other empires. During those years of self-doubt, when Britain stumbled through postwar poverty, debilitating strikes and the bully posturing of Mrs T, the nation had to resort to film for its feelgood factors. The celluloid image-makers thus fashioned the invincible, irresistible Brit, who could bed the blondes and belt the baddies.
Times have changed, and so has national morale. Sterling is strong, Tony Blair led the world in Kosovo and his Third Way talk has found a willing chorus among left-wing leaders on both sides of the pond. What better measure of collective self- confidence than to allow Austin Powers to spoof the once-sacred 007? We don't need James Bond to fight our patch across the multiplex any more. We don't need Niven, the perfect gent, or Caine, the loveable rogue, to fly the flag from pole to pole. Our celluloid heroes can be cut from ordinary cloth once again.
Let the Yanks, uneasy with their Clintonian legacy and the newly powerful EU, try to restore their self-image by minting musclebound action heroes who shoot before they speak. We don't need that. We'll make do with unimpressive chaps - even a sissy and a nerd.