A few months ago, I was walking down 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan and was surprised by a magazine cover being prominently displayed in the clear side window of a newsstand.
Had the generally male-centric Details magazine really put Kelly Clarkson on its cover? There was a svelte brunette with those token beautiful eyes staring at me from the magazine. When I got closer, I realized that it was really a picture of Zac Efron, the teen heartthrob of "High School Musical" fame. But in my defense, he looked downright girly.
What this indicates, though, is a significant shift in how America views and defines masculinity.
More recently, in the music video for the smash hit "Four Minutes" by Justin Timberlake and Madonna, Timberlake sashays around Madonna, jumping and twirling, as the leather-clad babe shows off much more labor-intensive dance moves (a role reversal in music videos, given that women are usually the more decorative dance partner).
Sure, the gender confusion could be the age dynamic and the talent imbalance – Timberlake might as well be a hyperactive puppy next to the cool entertainment industry matriarch Madonna, who is also a classically trained dancer. But I think that this music video says something much deeper about the state of gender roles today. Timberlake is part of a broader celebrity culture that has shifted the male ideal from being gnarled and brusque and violent, to being polished and lightweight and almost feminine.
Living in New York City, I'm amazed by the number of men who display some very stereotypical female behaviors; I am always seeing otherwise "normal" guys presenting grocery baskets filled with Luna bars and vanilla soy milk to cashiers at the grocery store. I stand behind at least two guys in line at my tanning salon every time I decide to fake bake. The last time I peered in a date's medicine cabinet, I found more beauty products than I own – and I honestly hadn't taken him to be the kind of guy who owned apricot scrub.
Five years ago, the term "metrosexual" was a flattering term to refer to a well-polished young man. Today, young women casually use terms historically applied to women, like "pretty," "cute," or even "slutty" to describe the guys they know, and such language is very intentional. Flirtation and romance have always been a tango of masculine and feminine interacting but what's a modern girl to do when guys start stealing her moves?
I am more than aware of the dangers of pressuring men to conform to a rigid definition of masculinity. Men's studies, a new branch of academic gender studies, uses feminist basics to examine how today's men have been raised to conform to caging gender roles.
The John Wayne and Arnold Schwarzenegger ideals of masculinity that have presided in the past illustrated that men should be violent, in control, and completely unemotional. In fact, some have pointed out that Schwarzenegger's body is idealized in the "Terminator" as a literal killing machine in the trilogy. Not so much any more.
A generation of guys who sport eyeliner, pink polo shirts, and spray tans should be considered a triumph, given that boys have traditionally been raised in a male culture of "no pain, no gain." Except that now guys apply that mantra to getting waxes, rather than lifting weights or running their umpteenth lap on the track.
There has to be a balance. In an era where sexism teaches girls to do aggressive things like some guys – whether it's girls fighting at school, or 20-somethings yelling in the office – I'm equally concerned about a culture that is teaching men to adopt some unflattering feminine behaviors.
Despite the fact that men are being allowed more lenient interpretations of masculinity, nothing has changed in terms of how the genders interact. Young women are still expected to be amenable to guys and to cater to their guy's needs, and guys are still encouraged to be withholding from women and aloof.
Men today still have the upper hand in society and in relationships – even if men aren't exactly adhering to masculine ideals.
We've gone from making fun of men who push the gender boundaries to accepting them in theory. But what does that mean? Are we at a better place? Or have we just gone from one extreme to another?
While I was out the other night, I encountered many men who were tanned, waxed, and in extremely tight clothing; I think a few of them might have been wearing bronzer. Perhaps the guys were taking the example set by Timberlake a little too literally.