Does anyone remember the male midlife crisis?
There was a period of time which I think probably began in the 1970s and lasted about 20 years, in which a staple trope of sitcoms, soap operas, drama and even highbrow literature was the man aged around 40 to 50 with a couple of decades of marriage behind him, whose kids were growing or grown, and would suddenly become disillusioned with his life achievements and consumed with his lost youth. He would overcompensate by buying a leather jacket and an electric guitar, a motorcycle or a Porsche. He would typically have an affair with his secretary or leave his wife for a woman twenty years younger.
As a man who is now that exact age, I almost feel cheated. I was quite looking forward to a new guitar, at the very least. But the golden age of the male midlife crisis is long past. I’ve been struggling to recall the last textbook example from popular culture, and I think it was probably Kevin Spacey in American Beauty, released in the dying weeks of the 20th Century. Compare Walter White in Breaking Bad. Had this series been made in the 1980s, this would, I think, have been written as a midlife crisis story. In this century it was written instead as an endlife crisis. Tellingly, when Walter was attempting to disguise his new secret life, everyone assumed he was following the old script and was having affairs, just about the one moral transgression he wasn’t pursuing.
Yes, of course men still have affairs, buy expensive gadgets they don’t need, and human psychology hasn’t changed much. The manifestations, however, those with cultural salience, have changed. Today you are less likely to find the anxious 40-something man browsing the Harley Davidson showroom and more likely to find him in a gym crunching his abs in a desperate effort to restore a six-pack.
These thoughts were sparked by Suzanne Moore’s column today, in which she pondered the ways in which our culture processes the physical decline of the ageing male body in the era of TOWIE and ‘Sporno’. Although there wasn’t much in the piece I disagreed with, I found it a little frustrating, as if it stopped short of reaching its conclusion. In fact I think it ends just at the point where it gets really interesting:
This gap in our visual culture, though, is not accidental. The bodies we see least of are those who are in power: the ageing middle-aged man. It is almost as if they have something to hide.
I think the crucial word missing from Suzanne’s piece is ‘money.’ It is no coincidence that the recent resurgence of the male as physical object of sexuality and beauty (as a cultural trope, at least) has occurred at the exact same time as a decline in the pre-eminence of the male as an object of status, success and wealth.
Only a couple of generations ago, there was still a dominant popular notion that if a woman wished financial security for her children or full-blown wealth and status for herself, the obvious and usual way to attain it was to bag herself a man with potential or actual wealth. The income of a household was assumed to be entirely inseparable from the income of the man. We can still see remnants of this in, for example, the would-be WAGs hanging out in the clubs where they hope to meet a professional footballer, but it is a rapidly dying phenomenon.
I’m not suggesting that any of this (on the part of either men or women) is conscious, far less manipulative. Our ideas of physical attractiveness are very largely socially constructed. To a certain extent almost all of us adapt to what we perceive to be the attractive traits of the day, from the trappings of hairstyles and clothes up to our body shapes or the car we drive. Simultaneously, what we find desirable is, to a degree, what culture tells us to find desirable. I should add that (thankfully for the likes of me) trends are there to be bucked. Human attraction is immensely diverse and unpredictable and there will always be someone out there who is drawn to the big-eared, skinny ,ginger bloke with an emaciated wallet and a bulging bookshelf.
As a broad rule, the liberation of women’s careers, choices and lifestyles is, I am sure, directly culpable in the rise of male body perfectionism and the decline of the old-school midlife crisis. When a woman can secure her own income, conspicuous symbols of male wealth and status must lose their cachet. Men, unconsciously of course, have cottoned on to this and realised that given a straight choice, an attractive woman would now rather run her fingers over a well-toned torso than over the keys to a sports car.
As a well-meaning liberal who dwells on the problems of contemporary man, a lot of people expect me to furrow my brow and fret about the growing pressures on men to be physically perfect (or at least pass muster round the pool.) In truth I struggle to raise much concern about it, and this is part of the reason why. Yes, of course we have to be wary of the mental health consequences, self-esteem, eating disorders and all the rest, but almost anything is dangerous when taken to extremes. As a general rule, I think the resurgence in appreciation of male beauty is an inevitable and healthy consequence of an increasingly egalitarian society. If, as Suzanne Moore suggests, this will inevitably lead to the decline of male bodies being “obsessively charted,” then so be it. I think we can take it on the chin. Or more accurately, the paunch.