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Lost boys will be boys

Something's bugging modern man. He's confused, he's irresponsible, he's immature. Mark Simpson argues that our culture offers boys no inducement to grow up
In his next movie, major box-office draw Robin Williams is to play a boy with an accelerated ageing disease. For an actor who began his ascent to fame playing the childish naif alien Mork in Mork and Mindy, and has since been a 40-year-old Peter Pan in Hook and a boy imprisoned inside a board-game for 30 years in Jumanji, this latest boy-trapped-in- a-man's-body role is entirely predictable and entirely in character. More surprising, perhaps, is the news that more men are finding themselves playing Robin Williams.

In a post-feminist, consumerist age in which being a man is an uncertain business of uncertain worth, Peter Pan-itis, a condition where grown men behave as if they had never grown up at all, has become a benign evolutionary adaptation, filling the world with men whose bodies have passed through puberty but whose minds clearly have not.

Hollywood, naturally, has been riddled with it for some time. All the biggest male stars are textbook examples. In addition to the juvenile antics of Robin, there's Arnie, the middle-aged man with the boyish grin, obsessed with body building and big guns, who, along with his buddy Sly, does his best to promote permanent adolescence as a lifestyle. Then there's Keanu and Brad, the boy-men who don't look as if they've started shaving yet (Brad's goatee looks as unconvincing as Burt Reynolds's hair). Meanwhile, at the back of the class, there's Jim Carrey putting string up his nose and pulling it out of his mouth, and tongue-tied, bashful Hugh Grant, whose menage a trois with Divine Brown and the LAPD was so funny because it was so unlikely (unless you happen to know any British public schoolboys).

That other mass medium - pop music - must bear a great deal of the responsibility for spreading Peter Pan-itis. Beginning by worshipping youth and turning it into the commodity of the late-20th century, it has ended up by populating the charts with ghastly mummified spectres like Mick Jagger and Cliff Richard, performers who became stars when they were young but now employ all the technology thatroyalties can buy to slow the maturation process.

This is not to mention the self-styled "Peter Pan of Pop" himself - Michael Jackson, the child-star who resolutely never grew up, made himself an orphan by becoming his own special creation, and who dubbed his ranch full of fairground rides and exotic animals Neverland. However, the global triumph of Peter Pan-itis seems to have had a peculiar effect on British pop and the new batch of young(ish) acts. The only way to get attention in British pop these days, apparently, is to be derivative and deferential to your ancestors. Bands like Blur and Oasis sound like Q readers singing karaoke. Paradoxically, in a world where boyishness is now preferred to manliness everywhere, Britpop seems to have decided that the best way to avoid becoming your Dad these days is to impersonate his heroes.

The continued success of boy bands and the Biblical proportions of the deluge of grief from women of all ages which greeted the demise of Take That - a band that was rapidly becoming less and less "boy" and more and more "mutton dressed as boy" - illustrate the enormous marketability of boyishness and how attached women have become to young men who seem only too willing to portray themselves as eunuchs refusing manhood in the service of keeping women happy.

But as evidence of how far things have gone, Peter Pan-itis has even infected the world of business. The Microsoft Corporation is looked to as a sort of template for the future, and its managing director, Bill Gates, is lauded as a culture / economic guru. The oft-told narrative of Microsoft's slaying of the IBM Goliath is also the story of how manhood has been vanquished. The sensitive boys who refused to come out of their bedroom and "mix it" with the other boys, building instead a womb-like world of computers and cyberspace to hide in, have been vindicated by the alienating and infantilising effect of technology and media on us all. The geeks have indeed finally inherited the Earth.

In fact, consumer culture has built a Neverland for us all to inhabit. Those who refuse to dwell there are at best deemed anti-social. Now, when I become a man and put away childish things, I put thousands out of work. Consumer culture has a great deal invested in keeping men immature. The search for pleasure and new experiences, which is an essential part of consumerism, is irreconcilable with the stoicism, self-sacrifice and instinctive distrust of novelty associated with traditional models of manhood. Real men don't eat quiche, the saying goes. Well, we don't need real men any more, replies consumer capitalism in general, and quiche manufacturers in particular.

Moreover, as productive practices change, and part-time / temporary work becomes the norm, the man who laboured five days a week all his working life to bring home the bacon for his family is fast becoming extinct. Changing reproductive practises, meanwhile, are phasing out traditional manhood too - more families are being raised without fathers. Since we remain basically childish until we take responsibility for another life, this is, in turn, likely to produce more Lost Boys.

This certainly appears to be the view of Robert Bly, author of Iron John, the American men's movement's central text. He argues that boys don't grow into men anymore because they have lost the institutions of fatherhood that initiated them into manhood. "Misguided feminism", which fails to distinguish between masculinity and patriarchy, and "Pied Piper" popular culture have trapped males in basically juvenile behaviour.

Whatever the truth of this, it certainly seems that even in politics, a world traditionally dominated by Big Daddies, the Peter Pans have taken over. Today, the The Most Powerful Man in the World is a baby-boomer from a broken home, who, despite his grey hair and all the pomp of office, still seems to be the chubby boy photographed eagerly shaking hands with President Kennedy (or even the fat boy who played the tuba at High School, as PJ O'Rourke put it). His arch-enemy, Newt Gingrich, also from a broken home, displays the same boyish eagerness, albeit with a barmy streak of egomania. On this side of the pond, meanwhile, the future appears to belong to Tony Blair, a man who looks and sounds like every granny's favourite grandson - the library monitor in the Christian Union with a university scholarship lined up.

And in everyday British life, the males who appear to be in the ascendant are those who appear to have renounced the onerous duties of manhood, whatever they might be these days, and opted instead for the mischievousness of boyhood. Nothing symbolises this better than the runaway success of "lad" culture.

Originally a reaction against the goody-goody image of the New Man, who was portrayed as a nappy-changing "feminist" chap, New Lad celebrated naughtiness and irresponsibility. Not for nothing was the phenomenally successful new men's magazine Loaded sub-titled "For Men Who Should Know Better". New Lad is and was a purely adolescent idea of masculinity, but one aimed at adult men. In the world according to New Lad, football, beer and babes - the signs of masculinity for a 12-year-old boy - became the measure of all things.

The New Lad version of Peter Pan-itis fed on the class division of British society, which had designated working-class males "lads" rather than fully formed men with fully formed responsibilities, and yet also bestowed on the class that worked by hand rather than brain the claim to a more "authentic" masculinity, which middle-class "ponces" like David Baddiel attached to themselves by becoming New Lads. It was also in working-class culture that the habit of calling your wife "Mum" was most pronounced, as was the Andy Capp stereotype of the irresponsible hubby who escapes his bruiser spouse by going boozing. Implicit in the New Lad view of the universe, for all its apparent celebration of masculinity and denigration of women, is the acceptance of the idea that woman - or "Mum" - rules the world.

Neverland is booming as males are taking advantage of the opportunity presented by the current "crisis of masculinity" to come out of the toy- closet and declare themselves a boy trapped in a man's body. But this new-found freedom for men leaves women as full-time child-carers. Do women really want to spend their lives alternating between Mrs Capp and Wendy?

"I don't want to be a man. Wendy Mother, if I was to wake up and feel there was a beard!"

"Peter," said Wendy the comforter, "I should love you in a beard"; and Mrs Darling stretched out her arms to him, but he repulsed her.

"Keep back, lady - nobody is going to catch me and make me a man!"

Mark Simpson is the author of `Male Impersonators: Men Performing Masculinity' published by Cassell, and `It's a Queer World' published by Vintage in April at pounds 8.99