There’s a marvellous scene in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket when the brutal drill sergeant played by Lee Ermey asks the raw recruits what they know about (Texas spree killer) Charles Whitman and Lee Harvey Oswald. He goes on to praise their marksmanship, points out that they learned to shoot in the marines, and tells his young charges that before they leave the camp, “you will be able to do the same thing.”
I was reminded of this scene when reading Clive Martin’s piece in Vice today entitled How Sad Young Douchebags Took Over Modern Britain. I couldn’t help but be impressed by the vicious, murderous accuracy of the sniping, I just felt deeply uncomfortable about the morality of the choice of target.
Lined up in Martin’s telescopic sights were the young men one sees in bars and clubs, primped and pumped up with bench-presses and anabolic powders, inked with tatts and soaking up admiration, primarily of their own gaze. They were variously described as ‘erections in vests’; ‘a Calvin Harris remix of a Springsteen song that doesn’t really work’ and ‘Ken dolls dipped in tea and covered in biro.‘ Like I say, you have to admire the sniping.
Beyond the creative insults, there is some genuine insight. Late in the piece Martin acknowledges:
But while it’s easy to scorn the banality – and the vanity – of the modern British douchebag, they’re only products of their environment. An environment that has very little to offer them any more, other than gym memberships, intentionally ripped clothes, alcohol and creatine. The institutions that gave British men a sense of wellbeing have been ripped apart. Nobody trusts the police any more; nobody wants to join the army because no one believes in its wars; traditional industries have been decimated and the only thing to replace them are stifling, mind-numbing positions in service and retail.
Because of this, British men have tried to reimagine masculinity, in a hyper-realised, childish, desperate way. A new kind of machismo, built on fake bravado and vanity. British men are looking up to faux-hawked, peacocking, rich maniacs like Mario Balotelli for inspiration, because they really have nowhere else to look. Their bosses hate themselves and their dads hate them.
I can’t help but look at this emerging culture and wonder if they’ve basically retreated from a world that doesn’t want the young British male any more.
Boiled down, what we have here is Diane Abbott’s speech on the crisis of masculinity rehashed with added abuse for a hip, sneering audience, the MPs description of a Viagra and Jack Daniels generation served anew as ‘Monster cocktails and Creatine.’ Like her, the piece picks out a hugely salient but tiny minority and demands that they represent the grand themes of a generation. Where they differ is in their concerns. Abbott at least presumed to be concerned about the actual harm caused by her phantasms of moral panic – particularly the violence, abuse and exploitation of young women, but also the harm done to these men themselves. The Vice article does not even begin to make such accusations. There is no suggestion that the young men under discussion are abusive, criminal or violent, indeed they are mocked and denigrated for being fundamentally ‘soft’ under their muscle mass. Their only offence, it seems, is aesthetic. The author slates them as douchebags and arseholes, not because they have done anything to harm anyone, simply because they offend the author’s delicate sensibilities.
On first reading, I understood the piece as an exercise in arrogant, elitist, class-based anthropology. On closer inspection, I realised it was worse than that. At no point does the writer indicate that he has ever talked to the men he describes, ask them what motivates them, what their interests are. Does he even know that they are the ‘sons of the miners and the metrosexuals’ left in ‘mind-numbing positions in service and retail’? For what it is worth, the two guys I’ve known who most closely fitted the stereotype on display here were middle class kids with degrees, working on the creative design side of the media. Go figure. What we are presented with here is not social anthropology, but a sneering freakshow.
There are plenty of reasons to be concerned about the social consequences of a post-industrial neoliberal society, in which the traditional gender roles that once operated simultaneously as safety blankets and straightjackets have been ripped away. One manifestation of this might well be a superficially puerile, hedonistic narcissism that is more likely to nourish self-destructive depression than fulfilment or social progress. Another might be an individualistic, scornful self-righteousness, cultural snobbery and deeply divisive cultural circus sideshow peddled by Vice magazine.
There’s more than one way to be a douchebag.