Men will be boys - it's safer that way

ALL THINGS CONSIDERED

With the rate of male anorexia up and Tom Hanks wanting to be a child in an adult's body (Big) and finally managing it (Forrest Gump) and Macaulay Culkin an approved male role model and Kenneth Branagh flaunting tousled hair, all the better to be cute as well as classic, and the Western sperm count in freefall, the writing is on the playpen wall - in crayon, of course: the boys are back in town.

Cue Sabrina: Boys, boys, boys, boys. Boys like Brad Pitt, Christian Slater, Johnny Depp, Tom Cruise,and Ethan Hawke, boys with different names but the same cupcake countenance: broad and open and, gosh, defenceless, with big, honest eyes, snub noses and full lips that idly promise sensitivity (actually self-absorption) rather than rugged sensuality, the stock-in- trade of such square-jawed "old" faces as Mel and Arnie and Sly - men's faces, mature faces, dinosaur faces being superseded by something that seems both unformed (how do you read a surface apparently unmarked by experience?) and ... fake. As well it might: this is, after all, the artificial face that 36-year-old Michael Jackson underwent several torturous surgeries to possess - imitation innocence via the knife and a denial of all the adult obligations a man was once traditionally supposed to tote.

Yet this isn't a face in the crowd. It is the crowd. Take That, East 17, Boyzone, Boyz to Men (not to be confused with the gay delivery service), even Damon from Blur and Brett from Suede, mistakenly identified as androgynous darlings but actually boys who just wanna have fun, what with huge, lolling heads perched on almost pubescent bodies, and their determined laddish larkiness: Park Life! Let's all go on the swings!

Look, it's even happening on thefootball pitch, one of the few arenas left to aggressive masculinity outside of war and Friday night poker. Two words: Ryan Giggs. How his minders squealed when he had his curly locks shorn, obviously thinking that this traditional rite of passage into the adult world would alienate the fans. But no. Being a thing of beauty, Ryan is a boy for ever and now resembles a barely weaned baby skinhead - he comes to us not gung-ho but defanged, an adorable cuddle bunny, a figure forever stuck between Neverneverland (clock the cover of his see-Ryan-kick, see-Ryan-jump autobiography) and ... what?

Not manhood, whatever that is in the time of Loaded and Escape for Men (Escape from Men, surely?). That altered state used to rely upon entering the workplace and earning a wage: a man's work is never done and so on. No longer. The Eighties, shifts in labour patterns and post- feminism put paid to that; women are ascendant in education and employment, leaving men all dressed up with nowhere to go. Except to raves, wearing baggy outfits that resemble romper suits that went wrong in the wash and a baseball cap on backwards because Mummy wasn't there to put it on the right way round.

It's camouflage, sweetie. If you're an endangered species, it's wise to adopt a pleasing, protective, not to say helpless demeanour. And what could be more helpless than a boy, no matter his age? Check out Hugh Grant (32), all bumbling sweetness in Four Weddings and a Funeral - the shy public schoolboy as sex symbol, shocked by the fact that his beloved has slept with 30-plus partners. Or you might prefer the class cut-up, an attention-seeker la Jim Carrey, a hyperactive ankle-biter roaming the planet in a 31-year-old body, making puns, making faces, making Pee Wee Herman seem as butch as Sean Connery. Or maybe a tough kid? A Marky Mark, or an entire band, say, MN8, who claim that they've "Got a Little Something for You" ... and make a big fuss about it, grabbing their crotches and wiggling their butts, as if they had that very morning just discovered their penises, which may be the truth. Which might also explain the recent outbreak of male nudity (peruse La Reine Margot, Color of Night, Les Parents Terribles et al); you know how little boys are about showing off their little somethings.

Of course, it had to happen. After the New Man and the Lad, Boy is only logical - a combination of luxury purchase (he's not a basic essential) and puppy (like a dog, you'll be keeping him - figuratively and possibly literally). It's the Nineties and Boy knows his best chance of survival is to be a good-looking consumer item you want to cuddle. You can spend endless nights discovering his inner child, safe in the belief that you have finally found someone who really needs you.

And he really, really does. You're the person who gives him permission to be irresponsible. A man might make a stab at accountability, but a boy isn't expected to, is he? A boy would be stunned if you even suggested it. Nearly as stunned as the Menendez brothers were at their trial for the cold-blooded murder of their parents. Referred to as "the boys" throughout ("the boys" are in their mid-twenties), Erik and Lyle couldn't quite grasp that the law saw them as grown-ups, even if they saw themselves as well below the age of majority. OK, they'd been naughty, right, but c'mon: they were boys, weren't they? Everyone knows boys can't help being bad.

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