The queering of the metrosexual

From Charles M. Blow’s NYT column on Saturday:

The New York Times reported on Thursday that a Republican “super PAC” was mulling over a plan to resurrect President Obama’s former pastor and spiritual adviser, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., as a weapon against the president.

… There was one description of the president that truly seized me:

“The metrosexual black Abe Lincoln has emerged as a hyper-partisan, hyper-liberal, elitist politician with more than a bit of the trimmer in him.”

This sentence is just so deliciously ridiculous, insulting and incendiary — perfect Republican fodder.

… First, there is the word metrosexual. It is usually defined as a man keenly interested in grooming and preening. Despite the sexual root, the term isn’t rooted in sexuality. In its truest sense, President Obama of mom jeans infamy — as he told the “Today Show” in 2009, “I’m a little frumpy” — is far less metrosexual than Mitt Romney of the perfect hair, copper tan and Gap skinny jeans.

But this term is rarely appropriately applied. On the contrary, it’s often delivered with a snicker to question sexuality and feminize the subject, and femininity in a misogynistic culture is the greatest of sins. Metrosexual has become a roundabout homophobic taunt.

Apparently, just a comparison to homosexuals is enough to taint the word.

The history of metrosexual is well known. From the Wikipedia entry:

Metrosexual is a neologism derived from metropolitan and heterosexual coined in 1994 describing a man (especially one living in an urban, post-industrial, capitalist culture) who spends a lot of time and money on shopping for his appearance. Debate surrounds the term’s use as a theoretical signifier of sex deconstruction and its associations with consumerism.

… The term originated in an article by Mark Simpson published on November 15, 1994, in The Independent. Simpson wrote:

Metrosexual man, the single young man with a high disposable income, living or working in the city (because that’s where all the best shops are), is perhaps the most promising consumer market of the decade. In the Eighties he was only to be found inside fashion magazines such as GQ, in television advertisements for Levi’s jeans or in gay bars. In the Nineties, he’s everywhere and he’s going shopping. (link)

However, it was not until the early 2000s when Simpson returned to the subject that the term became globally popular.

In 2002, published an article by Simpson, which identified David Beckham as the metrosexual poster boy and offered this updated, succinct definition:

The typical metrosexual is a young man with money to spend, living in or within easy reach of a metropolis — because that’s where all the best shops, clubs, gyms and hairdressers are. He might be officially gay, straight or bisexual, but this is utterly immaterial because he has clearly taken himself as his own love object and pleasure as his sexual preference. (link)

… Though it did represent a complex and gradual change in the shopping and self-presentation habits of both men and women, the idea of metrosexuality was often distilled in the media down to a few men — David Beckham, Sam Romano, and Brad Pitt were frequently mentioned — and a short checklist of vanities, like skin care products, scented candles and costly, colorful dress shirts and pricey designer jeans. It was this image of the metrosexual — that of a straight young man who got pedicures and facials, practiced aromatherapy and spent freely on clothes — that contributed to a backlash against the term from men who merely wanted to feel free to take more care with their appearance than had been the norm in the 1990s, when companies abandoned dress codes, Dockers khakis became a popular brand, and XL, or extra-large, became the one size that fit all.

And so retrosexual came into being. From Paul McFedries’s Word Spy site:

A man with an undeveloped aesthetic sense who spends as little time and money as possible on his appearance and lifestyle.

Genuine guys are sometimes known as retrosexuals, to distinguish them from metrosexuals, who are men with the good taste of gay men, only they’re straight. Metrosexuals are scrupulous about their grooming and are great consumers of men’s cosmetic products. They use hair gel. Retrosexuals are scared of hair gel. Some people think that retrosexuals automatically have Neanderthal views about women, but this is not the case. A retrosexual is simply someone who doesn’t know the difference between teal and aqua, and frankly couldn’t give a damn. —Margaret Wente, “I married a retrosexual,” The Globe and Mail (Canada), February 14, 2004

The indirect association of metrosexuality with homosexuality seems to have been enough to make metrosexual available as a slur on masculinity and sexuality.


3 Responses to “The queering of the metrosexual”

  1. Marc Leavitt Says:

    The neologism is unfortunate. Like most words, it has evolved. The GOP is obviously using it in the snarky, pejorative sense it has taken on. When I first saw it in print I had a “What the hell is
    THAT supposed to mean?” moment, and BEFORE looking it up, I understood it to mean, rightly or wrongly, a man with an undefined sense of his sexuality (whether hetero-, homo, bi- or trans-); someone who was effete, frivolous – you fill in the adjectives. But the sense has ALWAYS been negative, whatever its defenders may say. I don’t use it. I won’t. Can’t make me. And by the way, with luck, it will die out, and not a moment too soon!

  2. Jenny Says:

    I agree with Marc Leavitt that “metrosexual” is a negative word. If you want to compliment a man on how he dresses, words like “well-dressed” or “stylish” come to mind. I can’t imagine anyone using “metrosexual” as a compliment. It is an intentional stereotype, and therefore dismissive – a way of categorizing and thus dehumanizing people. People have been doing that to gays for a long time, so the convergence doesn’t exactly surprise me.

  3. micropolitans « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] The surprise here is the etymological connection to the Greek ‘mother’ word. A metropolis was metaphorically the “mother city” of some area, and then in English the combining form metro- was extracted from the word to denote urban centrality, and eventually mere connection to cities and cosmopolitan life, as in metrosexual (here). […]

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