Mad about the boys
Young men, says Mark Simpson, have replaced young women as society's crumpet of choice. Meet the Nu-Buck, the tough yet tender, smooth-cheeked and pert-bottomed sex symbol for the Nineties (but don't worry girls, you can be Nu-Bucks too)
Sunday 22 March 1998
Welcome to the world of the Nu-Bucks. Like the rather sexy material somewhere between suede and leather they take their name from, they're soft-but- tough, smooth and nubile males somewhere between childhood and manhood that are meant to be worn close to your skin. There's no getting away from it. Nu-Bucks have supplanted women as the image of desirability and seductiveness. This is partly because these passive play-things acknowledge and appeal to women's new sense of power. And partly because they appeal to men frightened by women's new sense of power. Girl-Power begets Boy- Power. Pliant, rather than fierce, eager-to-please rather than in-your- face, Nu-Bucks are all the things that girls aren't supposed to be anymore. Who would you rather wake up to? Ewan MacGregor, or Geri Spice?
In an era of the worship of youth, Nu-Bucks are as inevitable as unhappiness. Young men better represent the ephemeral beauty and fickleness of youth than young women - and deserve such a fate too. Young men are androgyne. Young men are naive (or so we hope). Young men have stupid skin - always the most attractive kind. Young men are hopelessly now to the point of being premature. Young men do not carry the future inside them as young women do. Young men are as blank and as serious and as silly as buttocks.
In years to come, Diana's death will be seen as the turning point. With the pagan goddess gone to Mount Olympus, the world's attention turned to her teenage son William, the genetic and spiritual inheritor of her seductive beauty, and realised that her English blue blood had finally lifted the German Curse of the House of Windsor - which decreed that all male issue must be born middle-aged - and given us our first royal Nu- Buck.
How do you spot a Nu-Buck? Firstly, of course, they're young - but not that young. They're pre-adulthood, but post-pubescent. Tempting tit-bits, not jail-bait. They must look as if they're between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four - hovering in that fleeting, doomed space between manhood and boyhood like a cheque that can never be banked or a promise that will never be kept. Early Nineties Nu-Bucks like Keanu and Brad are out of favour now because they're not sexy boys any more - just talentless, immature men who won't go away. Secondly, Nu-Bucks are attractive to both men and women and it's clear they're tarty enough to want attention from both men and women. Thirdly, although they're vain and pretty they're keen to prove their manhood; they're a puppyish blend of softness and hardness (see especially Leonardo DiCaprio and Marky Mark). Fourthly, they're usually male but not necessarily so. Because they're now the image of desire, many women want to be Nu-Bucks too. Nu-Buck girls include Demi Moore (in Striptease as much as GI Jane), Geena Davis (the prettiest pirate you ever grappled with), Alicia Silverstone (the leather-clad tom-boy who goes motorbiking with male Nu-Buck Chris O'Donnell in Batman and Robin), Mila Jovovitch in The Fifth Element and any female in a Paul Verhoeven movie. As pretty guys with female genitals and big chests they are naturally irresistible to straight men (even though Nu-Buck girls have to be rather tougher than Nu-Buck boys).
Finally, Nu-Bucks are fit, but their bodies mustn't seem purely functional: they have to be aesthetic too - even and especially when they're professional sportsmen. Just as in Ancient Greece the young male athlete has become the acme of beauty, young footballers happily rent out their bodies, parading down catwalks and hawking shampoos. Oddly, the most famous of them - Ginola, Giggs, Cantona, Beckham, Redknap and the sainted teenager Owen - have all played for Manchester United or Liverpool. Apparently, the North West is the new Sparta.
David Beckham is a Nu-Buck par-excellence. Much, much more beautiful and better bred than his squeeze, Posh Spice, Cockney Beckham has the kind of handsome-yet-pretty, strong-yet-delicate looks that are the hallmark of the Nu-Buck. Even his sweat looks less functional than decorative (but always honest). The fact that one day he'll buy a wine bar in Southend, grow a pony-tail and fill his wardrobe with white loafers only makes his current beauty all the more poignant.
Smoothness is perhaps the most important signifier of the Nu-Buck (goatees are excepted because they're really joke beards that always look as if they've been stuck on). The smootness of the Nu-Buck advertises two things their admirers want to know about them: that they like to be looked at, and that they are boys not men.
In a sense this is a return to pre-Christian, "pederastic" aesthetics. The Ancient Greeks devoted much of their art to the praise of the beauty of the adolescent, beardless athlete and considered the worship and pursuit of such boys a sign of virility in a man, rather than a sign of deviance or a passion for disco. Apollo, the built, bisexual young god of sun, music, poetry and prophecy, the one-man boy-band of the Hellespoint Hit- Parade, is the template for all the Nu-Bucks.
The last great pre-Christian Roman Emperor, Hadrian, a big-time Hellenist, openly loved a fit Greek adolescent called Antinous and after his death had him made into a god. Temples and statues to him were erected around the Empire in an early forerunner of Calvin Klein's Marky Mark campaign. The flat-bottomed Early Christians cast a jealous eye on Antinous' geodesic marbled behind and made a mental note to suppress such non-reproductive shamelessness when they ran the show.
Which, excepting one or two slip ups, such as the Renaissance and a few sonnets by William Shakespeare and A.E Houseman, they succeeded in doing. Until, that is, the arrival of Hollywood - that Sodom and Gomorrah with valet parking which Christians are so right to lambast. In the buttoned- down, buttoned-up Fifties it brought us the Gladiator Movie, James Dean, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and a thousand all-American boys doing their manly duty for democracy against the Nazi and the Jap (whom we knew had no chance against GI Joe because they weren't nearly as cute). And ultimately, Elvis Presley whose adolescent hussy hips and lips changed the world and who dyed his hair black because he had a crush on the young Tony Curtis, the Fifities fore-runner of a Nu-Buck and now just an Old Goat.
In the post-Christian, neo-pagan Nineties the beautiful boy now dominates the image industry in almost all its manifestations - cinema, television, advertising, music and sport. Apollo not Christ walks amongst us today. But in keeping with our times, the beautiful boy is less an ideal and more a commodity. Marketing is now more inspiring than aestheticism - the purity of the Ephebe has been replaced with the dollar-sense of the Nu-Buck. There's a scene in Titanic where DiCaprio leans over the prow of the ship, opens his arms and yells into the Atlantic wind. This is the victory cry of the Nu-Bucks, who have sunk bourgeois-Christian pomposity and are now the figureheads nosing us into the twenty-first century. Once sailors looked to images of beautiful women to guide them safely to the New World. Now our culture now looks to pretty young men to lead the way.
Mark Simpson is the author of `Male Impersonators' (Cassell) and `It's a Queer World' (Vintage)
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