Retrosexual, or just misogynist?
There is still a long way to go to full equality, and we have seen the culture regress in some ways
Men: it's time to throw away your razor, start fashioning a handlebar moustache, get a crate of beer in and begin referring to women as "the little ladies". In the past few weeks there has been an outbreak of nostalgia for an old-fashioned understanding of masculinity. First, there was the ludicrously overblown launch of the new James Bond novel, Devil May Care, involving a Navy destroyer, helicopters and a willowy blonde model in a catsuit, all celebrating the return of a character who may be a new man in this latest tome - I haven't rushed to read it - but whom Pierce Brosnan described as "sexist, completely". Then there was Jeremy Clarkson, boasting that the fastest he has ever driven "on the public roads" is 186mph. And then came publication of The Retrosexual Manual: How to Be a Real Man, heralded with a spread in the Daily Mail. "Still mincing along to book clubs thinking you're going to pull a quiet one who's a screamer in the sack?" asks the cover. "Well, it's time to go back to basics - back to when men were men and women made the bacon sarnies after a night of your unbridled passion."
Of course, the idea of manliness being all about booze, birds and dominance has been around for decades. Before the onset of feminism, such sexism was expressed straightforwardly; since then, exactly the same ideals have been presented under the veil of "irony" - that slippery concept that apparently can be used to excuse anything. This version of masculinity has been celebrated in magazines such as Loaded, and also in the recent US publishing trend "fratire". Examples of this highly successful genre include I Can't Believe I'm Still Single, by Eric Schaeffer, who has said that men are "wired to see a woman, smash her on the head with a bone, drag her unconscious body back to our apartment by the hair and fuck her". He also says modern men should be given credit for bucking that evolutionary trend, but for some reason I feel inclined to withhold a great big round of applause.
Another fratire bestseller, The Alphabet of Manliness, suggests that when picking up a woman, a man should "listen for a faint whistling noise coming from between her legs, as if wind were passing through a large, hollow cavern. If you hear this sound, your prospective woman may have a condition commonly referred to as 'whore'." The author suggests that "it's OK to make fun of women in the way I do . . . [because] for the most part men realise it's not OK to treat women as they've been treated in the past. Perceptions have changed, and for the first time in history there's a woman who might run for president."
Yet, as Andrew Stephen's shocking analysis in this magazine pointed out (26 May), when said woman does run, it becomes obvious there is no real distance between "ironic" sexist humour and genuine misogyny. Tens of thousands have joined a Facebook group called Hillary Clinton: Stop Running for President and Make Me a Sandwich. Male protesters interrupted one of her speeches by holding up signs saying "Iron my shirt". A souvenir range of Hillary nutcrackers has been all the rage. There seems little doubt that these attitudes have had an effect on her campaign - even if there are also strong, rational reasons why people might vote against her, including a credible and inspiring rival candidate.
But the nastiness that often accompanies all the retro-sexist shtick emerged again late last month when the writer Jessica Valenti posted a video on YouTube about online misogyny. A typical response was a comment from a man who told her to make him a sandwich (as did many others) before threatening to "c*** punt" her.
Women are meant to laugh gamely at all this, because the line goes that we're now in control, that the feminist revolution is long complete, and men are the ones in crisis. Yet 167 women are raped each day in the UK, one in four will experience domestic violence in her lifetime, and the number being killed by their partners - two each week - remains intransigent. True, through sheer hard work girls often outclass boys at school and university. And what happens next? They are paid 17 per cent less than men for full-time work, or 36 per cent less for part-time work.
There is still a long way to go to full equality, and we have seen the culture regress in some ways: The Retrosexual Manual jokes that overseas there is often "a refreshingly honest attitude to pros titution. Many countries' enlightened policies recognise that a man will quite often get so desperate for sex that he's willing to pay good money for time with an emaciated Dutch heroin addict, a Vietnamese ladyboy, or a 19-stone peasant grandmother."
In a country where one in ten men admits to visiting prostitutes, where lap dancing clubs have doubled in number in the past four years, and where consumption of the very nastiest porno graphy has spiralled, it doesn't raise a laugh. In fact, I wish Retrosexual Man would just head straight back to the 20th century and stay put.
Kira Cochrane is women's editor of the Guardian