In 1823, the Rev William Buckland found a very old skeleton in south Wales. Obviously, this deceased person was significant: the burial was ceremonial, and the bones were dyed with red ochre and richly surrounded with ornaments. Rev Buckland decided that the skeleton must belong to an ancient Roman prostitute.
Later researchers figured out that the 'Red Lady of Paviland' was no lady at all – and not because she followed the oldest profession. The skeleton was male, about 33,000 years old, and the 'ivory' geegaws turned out to belong to a mastodon. What had led the good Reverend astray was the assumption, natural to his time and place, that real men didn't wear all that jewellery.
What 'real men' do has changed a lot over the years. Nothing on the planet is more arbitrary than gender roles, as anthropologists are fond of pointing out. And almost nothing humans can do is capable of causing more anxiety than an attempt to challenge those roles. Let's take a few historical examples – all from that narrow band of human history known as 'Western Civilisation' – and ask ourselves a question: just why do these behaviours make people nervous?
Call it Macaroni
In the mid-to-late 18th Century, a form of male fashion emerged that would have made the Rev Buckland flinch, had it persisted. Wealthy Englishmen who had been abroad for the Grand Tour – a sojourn on the European continent, designed to add education and 'polish' to a young person – returned claiming to have been hopelessly continentalised. Why, they had to have their favourite food served to them, the exotic dish they had become addicted to in high-toned Italy. That is how they got their name: macaronis. This is why an extreme fashion movement bears the moniker of a comfort food loved by children1.
What did a macaroni look like? He wore high-heeled shoes. He wore silk stockings. He sported knee breeches, like everyone else, but of finer cut and quality. Brocaded vests were all the rage. So was facial makeup, including the all-important stick-on beauty marks. But the crowning glory of the macaroni was his wig: a magnificent confection of dyed horsehair that often reached dizzying heights. An entire lifestyle went along with this fashion. Macaronis were expected to be cool, not easily impressed – yawning with boredom, in fact – and arrogant to the point of rudeness to anyone not a macaroni. They peered at people aggressively through their lorgnettes2.
Macaronis were actually just an extreme expression of existing elite fashion in England at the time. So why were some people outraged by them? In other words, why were macaronis provocative? For one thing, the macaronis disputed the right of women to be the most gaudily dressed people in the salon. For another, they somehow challenged contemporary ideas of masculinity by introducing foreign, 'un-English' tastes and ideas. How can we tell that the dispute was about gender roles and not, say, the challenge to building standards with those four-foot wigs? We can look at what people said about them.
Detractors used words such as 'effeminate' and 'epicene' to describe the macaronis. They implied that they didn't really like women. The introduction of the Italian concept of the cicisbeo – a man who squired a lady around town without having an affair with her – lent fuel to the widespread suspicion that macaronis were gay. In matter of fact, most of them weren't: the movement probably had roughly the same percentage of heterosexual and homosexual men in it as, say, the Royal Navy. But macaronis got labelled as 'girly-men'.
Obviously, something had to be done about this, and by the Regency, something was done about it. Beau Brummell came along and got rid of the wigs. He also saddled men with dull business suits, and promoted the cravat, ancestor to the choking tie. Generations have failed to be grateful.
Taking Your Terrapin for a Walk
For the next challenge to the male role model, we must move to 1840s Paris, and let the French lead the way, albeit slowly. There, the fashionable thinking men of the City of Lights decided that modern man, in addition to being uninterestingly dressed, was too busy. The new image of the strong male in society was the industrialist: a fellow who strode around, always in a hurry. Time was money, he had People to talk to, he had to make, do, accomplish, consume. So the protestors against the pigeonholes of life invented the flâneur.
A flâneur was a fellow with all the time in the world. Dressed to the nines, he strolled – flâner means 'stroll' – in leisurely fashion through the parks and along the boulevards of Paris. He took his time. He thought about things. He talked to people, not People. And he didn't window-shop, or haggle, or buy. To make sure everybody got the point, the 1840s flâneur took along his pet tortoise. On a leash. The tortoise set the pace for these leisurely walks.
Why was this sort of public statement a challenge to the status quo? Because the value of men had shifted from physical prowess to business acumen. Being busy was a sign of success. Deliberately slowing down and basking in the sunshine was, well, just unworthy of a privileged male-type person in a modern world. It was downright unpatriotic and unmanly, so there. Contrary to the Zeitgeist, the flâneur encouraged people to stop and smell the roses. He strolled his way through Paris, while the driven, 'manly' men scurried to their offices and factories to worship Mammon.
We suspect the tortoises enjoyed the walk.
One of the problems of Western male self-definition is getting the women to go along with the model. By the early 20th Century, Western middle and upper class males had two choices, if they wanted to be considered 'manly': either become a Captain of Industry, a successful businessman, or take up an outdoor pursuit, such as lumberjacking, forestry, big game hunting, or cowboying. Of course, one could also be Theodore Roosevelt and do both – be a world leader one day, and shoot elephants the next. This masculine image might have been entirely satisfactory, but for one thing: women failed to be impressed.
In the 1920s, two terrible challenges to muscular maleness reared their brilliantined3 heads. The first was Rudolph Valentino, fresh off the boat from Italy. Women screamed and swooned over Rudy. They thought he was impossibly sexy as The Sheik.
Valentino got the Sheik gig because Sessue Hayakawa had had enough. Hayakawa, the highest-grossing Hollywood actor in 1915, was a renowned heartthrob, a gifted performer, and... Japanese, from an educated samurai family. Hollywood didn't know what to do with a Japanese star, so Hayakawa played 'exotic' characters ranging from Burmese to Mexican to American Indian. He balked at playing an Arab, though, so with typical California logic, the studio hired an Italian. Why not? To the producers4, all these 'foreigners' must have looked alike. The problem with their attraction to the female audience was twofold: 20th-Century racism, and what postcolonial scholar Edward Said calls 'orientalism', the tendency to see other cultures as less valuable than our own. Said also points out that this criticism of other cultures is often gendered. In other words, the men in other cultures aren't 'real men', they're just, well, 'girly men', because calling a man a girl is the worst insult there is, right? (And these guys wanted women to like them?)
The other challenge on the male-posturing front was the home-grown menace of another Rudy. Rudy Vallée was an all-American boy: a veteran of World War I5, a Yale graduate (philosophy), and, to the disgust of red-blooded American males, a crooner. Crooners like Vallée sang melodiously and did not posture or flex their muscles. This endeared them to the 'fair sex'. As journalist HL Mencken noted, Vallée was 'catnip to women'.
So, of course, rumours abound to this day, that both Valentino and Vallée were gay. Valentino most probably was not. Vallée may have been bisexual. This, of course, is nobody's business, and has nothing to do with their work. But the fact that critics of their styles speculated on their sexual orientation is relevant: why should crooning, or being emotionally romantic, be the antithesis of masculinity? Why did Valentino have to challenge a Chicago Tribune writer to a boxing match in 1926?
Well, it was the 'pink powder puff' remark. In 1926, an anonymous Tribune writer was annoyed by the appearance of a 'facial powder dispenser' in the men's room. This was obviously the end of civilisation, and the writer knew who to blame: Rudolph Valentino:
Hollywood is the national school of masculinity. Rudy, the beautiful gardener's boy, is the prototype of the American male. [...] Why didn't someone quietly drown Rudolph Guglielmo [sic] alias Valentino, years ago?
– 'Pink Powder Puffs', Anon, Chicago Tribune, 18 July, 1926.
So what happened when Valentino demanded satisfaction? The pusillanimous wimp of a writer refused to show himself. Valentino – coached by his friend, boxing legend Jack Dempsey – took on the cowardly writer's proxy, sports columnist Jack 'Buck' O'Neill. Oh, you want to know how the bout came out? Valentino floored him, of course. That put an end to the 'pink powder puff' nonsense.
Of course, this is all quaint, old-fashioned lore, right? Modern Western males are far more secure in their masculinity, isn't that true? Nobody would ever worry about minor matters of taste, behaviour, or metrosexuality? Are we sure of that?
Meet the Bronies
In 2010, the Hasbro toy company revamped its 30-year-old line of toys for little girls, and relaunched the sales campaign with a new animated TV series called My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. As part of that series, veteran actor John de Lancie – best known internationally as Q in the Star Trek franchise – did a voice-over role as Discord, a sort of trickster-villain loosely based on 'Q'. The actor thought nothing further of it until a few months later, when his email inbox was flooded with comments on the show. He was puzzled:
So I called out to my wife and said, 'What do you know about My Little Pony?' She said, 'It's a cartoon that you voiced about three months ago. It's a cartoon for little girls.' 'Well,' I said, 'These are not little girls.'
– John de Lancie, online interview, 7 April, 2014.
What gave de Lancie pause was the fact that My Little Pony – a cartoon series aimed at ten-year-old girls, with a colour palette in which pink and lavender predominate, with a character named Twilight Sparkle in it, for heaven's sake – had a fanbase that included young adult men. This was certainly a surprise, even though de Lancie was aware that television often attracted unexpected audiences, such as the large female viewership of Star Trek, which originally targeted a male demographic.
What de Lancie didn't do was to announce loudly that he found this trend disturbing, and that he wouldn't let his two sons go anywhere near such girly stuff. This was the same actor who first learned that he had a Star Trek action figure when his younger boy announced, 'Oops! I left Daddy in the sandbox.' Instead, de Lancie met with producers and fans, and used crowdsourcing to finance a documentary about the phenomenon. The result, subtitled The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony, introduced the world to 'Bronies'. The word 'brony' is a composite of 'bro[ther]' and 'pony'.
Bronies go to conventions. They sometimes make original videos to share on Youtube. They do laser light shows. They also organise charitable efforts. Are these mostly young male fans of a 'girly' show aberrant individuals? Well, some of them are in the US military. They aren't all from the US, either: one of the leading online remixers is Israeli, and there are fans around the world, including Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK. Bronies appear to cover the gamut of young adult male humanity.
Of course, there is an anti-Brony backlash. For every social action, there is a reaction, apparently. Do criticisms of Brony fandom centre around the inability of other adults to comprehend why anyone would enjoy looking at this colour palette? Yes, that pink and purple is so striking that some of us may require Dramamine when overexposed to it. But tastes differ, and the series teaches tolerance, loyalty and friendship, gosh darn it. Where does the hate come from?
Would it surprise anyone to find that critics accuse Bronies – without a scrap of concrete evidence – of being overwhelmingly gay and/or sexually deviant? Of course it wouldn't. The Rev Buckland might have thought the same thing, although as an early Victorian, he couldn't have said it out loud. The Chicago Tribune of the 1920s might have made snarky comments about 'pink powder puffs', and gotten the writer challenged by some battle-hardened Iraq veterans. Instead, a modern Tribune writer is more sanguine about their masculinity:
Other generations of young men have used appeals to kindness and sensitivity to get girls into bed. And some may still have those old Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan albums lying around the house.
– John Kass, 'Bros Filling the Void', Chicago Tribune, 9 August, 2013.
Rather than concentrating on the masculinity issue, Kass worries that 'Bronies are trying to create a moral universe out of a cartoon and Hasbro toys.' This argument takes the phenomenon seriously, and does not support the assumption that 'men do this, women do that, and if they don't, civilisation is about to collapse'. Perhaps this is a hopeful sign? Has Western Civilisation finally learned its lesson about gender? Perhaps. We'll know when the young men come up with their next shocking fad. Mimosa brunches, anyone?
For Further Reading
Here is possibly everything you'd ever want to know about Paviland Cave, an 'Aurignacian Station'.
Does Rudy Vallée set your heart a-flutter? Binge listen to these old 78s.
Curious about the statistical 'Brony' demographic? Look no further. The 2014 State of the Herd Report goes into exquisite detail. And you know what? They're a really representative sample of human beings.
The US Library of Congress regards phenomena like Bronies as folklore. This interview in The Signal, the Library of Congress publication, seeks to understand what 'born-digital primary sources folklorists, and others interested in studying digital culture, are making use of for their scholarship.'
Want to read some Brony fanfic? This site has plenty of original stories. There is fanfiction available for just about every topic and figure discussed in this Entry, with the possible exception of Sessue Hayakawa. We leave the discovery of these works to your ingenuity.