Like the original Madonna and child, the young woman on the Tube has her beloved draped around her, his head nestling on her shoulder. As he snoozes, she texts idly with one hand, while the other absentmindedly strokes his arm, soothingly, maternally. But this is no serene scene of mother and son — this is a couple. A couple of adults.
If you are forced to use public transport, you see them all the time. Soppy young blokes in skinny jeans, hair artfully arranged to mimic a guinea pig in a hurricane, being mollycoddled by a domineering, post-Spice Girls vixen who, if figures released last week are correct, also earns more than him. Or perhaps he’s stroking her, as though she were a cuddly toy or a security blanket. You half expect him to start sucking his thumb, or the corner of her coat. If he’s allowed to travel alone, he’ll be reading Harry Potter or playing with his phone, spreadeagled like a giant baby in its cot, scratching his crotch and yawning so brazenly you fear being sucked into the gaping chasm of his mouth.
And it’s not just young bucks. Men who would once have been called middle-aged are behaving like teenagers, faces nourished by some male-targeted unction (because he’s worth it), huddled over their Nintendo wii or iPhone, desperate to avoid the spectre of maturity tapping on their shoulder. Once the hair starts to recede, the only concession is to shave it all off — leaving a greying-templed baby-man with a risibly outsized watch on his ickle wrist, lager bottle in hand, clad in a T-shirt that declares Get Your Coat You’ve Pulled and drop-crotch, half-mast trousers that render him incapable of doing anything but stumble about like a toddler... Be still, my beating heart.
You’d think fatherhood would force these baby-men to grow up sharpish, but not a bit of it. Those who have acquiesced to their girlfriends’ demands and suddenly find themselves pushing a buggy fractionally smaller than a Hummer clearly struggle with their new role. I recently shared a train carriage with a man who spent the entire 25-minute journey jangling an iPhone in the face of his bemused-looking baby. It wasn’t hard to see who was having more fun. Who’s the daddy? Quite.
Just look at the success of the US series Mad Men. Aside from the sharp scripts and the faultless production values, what made it such a phenomenon? Dare I suggest that it was largely because it recalled a time when we still acknowledged a gender divide? When women were women, and men were men. Call me old-fashioned, but can you imagine Don Draper on his daily commute, earphones plugged in, knees akimbo, playing virtual football on a smartphone, pointedly ignoring the old lady teetering on a stick in front of him?
Which brings us to the golden age of Hollywood and the men who had studios chomping at the bit to sign them. Would Ava Gardner have been irresistibly drawn to Frank Sinatra if she’d clocked him shuffling past in shorts and flip flops, shouting ‘Laters!’ into his mobile? Would Richard Burton have proved so addictive for Elizabeth Taylor if he were a simpering, feminised mess, confused about his place in the world? I grew up in the Seventies and Eighties daydreaming of a future husband with an air of Robert Mitchum about him, but today’s baby-men need their women to provide a shoulder to lean on, not the other way around. The likes of James Stewart and Gregory Peck, while not overtly macho — you might say they were in touch with their feminine side, the casting director’s first choice for gentle, thoughtful roles — could never have been accused of being juvenile, or girly. And even those whom some might regard as verging on camp — Monty Clift, James Dean, Dirk Bogarde — were butcher than many of today’s heterosexual men, despite being comfortable with expressing their emotions. ‘You’re tearing me apart!’ was the howl of a wolf, not the bleat of a lamb.
These were real, red-blooded, grown-up men, whose turbo-charged testosterone made them the perfect foil to their glossy female co-stars. Strong, dependable, loyal — at least until another more pneumatic dame caught their eye — they drove women wild with starry-eyed lust, making them weak at the knees and sparking some primal longing within the female breast, while giving male fans something, however unattainable, to aspire to.
With the exception of Colin Firth, who fills the Peck/Stewart gap, and Cary Grant’s successor, that old-school playboy George Clooney, today’s big-screen role models are all eternal frat boys. Think of Owen Wilson and Ashton Kuchter. Ashton’s currently making headlines for allegedly cheating on his wife, Demi Moore, a woman 15 years his senior. But the whole affair is being treated as if he’s a naughty schoolboy who’s disappointed his proud mum — not a man who’s betrayed his woman. Maybe Ashton has decided he is finally ready to cut the apron strings and flee the maternal embrace? He should count himself lucky — not many thirtysomethings can afford to leave home these days. This, perhaps, explains a lot...
Women have a lot to thank The Female Eunuch for, but some lines have become catastrophically blurred since the Nineties rise of the Jack Daniel’s-swigging ladette. Remember E17? I think the rot might have set in there. They looked like they had borrowed their big brothers’ clothes and crooned: ‘If you’ve got to go away, don’t think I can stand the pain.’ Just like a child to his mother on his first day at school.
What a weird century. We fret endlessly about little girls growing up too quickly, while men regress back to the womb. Is it because in a society that’s all about boosting female confidence (‘Here come the girls!’), men are unsure of their role, ashamed of their testosterone? No one’s saying everyone should conform to a gender stereotype, or that men should be dissing their ho’s like some caricature of male aggression. But neither should masculinity be regarded as a dirty word. Isn’t it time to man up, boys?
Sophie Heath writes for the Daily Mail.