The welcome return of some real men

People are becoming bored of the gentle metrosexual with his recipes and design flair
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The Independent Online

The life of everyday public figures is full of surprises, but it was nonetheless surprising to hear about Jeremy Paxman's interest in male circumcision. He was to be in the hot seat at Broadcasting House after the Woman's Hour unit had come up with the wild and zany idea of putting on a Man's Hour programme over the holiday period. Asked what male-centric issues he would like to discuss, Paxo opted for the issue of foreskin abuse.

The life of everyday public figures is full of surprises, but it was nonetheless surprising to hear about Jeremy Paxman's interest in male circumcision. He was to be in the hot seat at Broadcasting House after the Woman's Hour unit had come up with the wild and zany idea of putting on a Man's Hour programme over the holiday period. Asked what male-centric issues he would like to discuss, Paxo opted for the issue of foreskin abuse.

It proved to be a problem. Although Woman's Hour has reported on female circumcision in the past, this male version was thought to be inappropriate for broadcasting at a time when children might be tuning in. Paxman held his ground and was told that his services were no longer required. In a diary for that house magazine for the huffy middle-aged male, The Spectator, he complained: "While in the usual way, protesting their liberal credentials, they were worried about making it 'relevant and interesting' to the audience."

His replacement, Jon Snow, who has admitted to being what Arnold Schwarzenegger called a "girlie man", chaired a programme of suitably inoffensive topics: the caring side of Sven-Goran Eriksson, how to cook a partridge, the question of whether there should be a ministry for men, and so on.

There are, presumably, a number of men who believe the snip deserves exploration beyond the giggling "roundheads and cavaliers" discussion of small boys. Philip Roth delivered a well-known riff on the subject in his novel The Counterlife. Circumcision, he wrote, "gives the lie to the womb-dream of life in the beautiful state of innocent prehistory ... The heavy hand of human values falls upon you right at the start, marking your genitals as its own."

There are those, apparently, who have been traumatised by this heavy hand. Support groups have been set up under such names as Norm, the National Organisation Restoring Men, or Ouch, Outlaw Unnecessary Circumcision in Hospital, and have encouraged men to embark on self-help procedures involving weights, cones and tapes.

These are tricky, sensitive issues. It may well be that the bigwigs of Woman's Hour were right to spare Radio 4 listeners the upsetting image of Paxman moving curiously among the danglers, tapers, cone-wielders and self-restorers. But the row surrounding the decision reflects more than questions of squeamishness and taste. When the women deciding the content and character of Man's Hour opted for Jon Snow as presenter, and when subsequently Paxman went public with the story, they were pointing up a subtle sea-change in the area of masculinity.

Until recently, contemporary males were presented through the media as belonging in one of two categories. They tended to be either traditionalists, backward-looking types who clung to stereotypical views on matters of gender and much else, or they were New Lads, a group which confusingly contained both the blokeishness represented in a programme like They Think It's All Over and the sensitivity of a Nick Hornby novel.

The media world rather approves of gentle, caring men and soon the metrosexual - to quote Jon Snow, "a man in touch with his feminine side, who is not gay" - began to represent the acceptable face of masculinity. There was a move towards a genderless middle ground; the more laddish of TV programmes were deemed out of step with the spirit of the age and were quietly phased out. The presenters most in demand were either overtly gay or were nice, domesticated types one could imagine rustling up a paella in the kitchen while the lady wife took the weight off her feet - Alan Titchmarsh, Gary Lineker, Huw Edwards, Simon Schama.

Meanwhile, in the outside world, real men were fighting back. Male misbehaviour of the type that had once been associated with soap stars and footballers began to flare up in the most unlikely places. At The Spectator, Bonking Boris, Randy Rod and Sneaky Simon were at it, while Dodgy Dave was getting busy with the magazine's publisher. At the Football Association, two more respectable figures were discovered to have been straying into the penalty area at the slightest excuse.

The fact that these errant middle-aged men have not, on the whole, been mocked, that a certain amount of sympathy - perhaps even jealousy - has been directed towards them, suggests that a weariness with the exemplary New Lad has set in. People are becoming bored of the gentle metrosexual with his recipes, design flair, and keen sense of responsibility towards his family and kids and society at large.

Real men, as bloody-minded and truculent as ever, have been making a comeback. Screen bullies and tough guys, such as Simon Cowell, Kelvin MacKenzie, David Starkey, Andrew Neil, Jeremy Clarkson are in vogue. Even the bad guys - Donald Rumsfeld, Russell Crowe, Lord Black, Roy Keane - have begun to acquire a manly allure.

I suppose one should disapprove of this process and support the sensible decision to keep Paxo away from the foreskin activists of Ouch and Norm, but now and then "relevant and interesting" programmes presented by a respectable metrosexual can seem rather too straight and worthy for these gamey times.

terblacker@aol.com

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