Photo by Jamie Taete
Venture out into the towns and cities of the UK on any weekend, and you'll find it hard to avoid the conclusion that young British men are in the midst of a crisis. A crisis of time and purpose, of maturity and masculinity. A crisis that, in their search for meaning, has driven many of them to become completely contradictory life-forms. The sort of people who wear face masks to bed but will happily neck a pint of piss for a dare. People who train all year round for Ibiza's party season, only to suck up legal highs they bought off strangers on the internet. Their heads are too small for their bodies, their shoulders are wider than a pub television, and they have shit Robbie Williams tattoos. They look dreadful and bizarre; they are the modern British douchebag—pumped, primed, terrifyingly sexualized high-street gigolos. They have no concept of subtlety and they don't care.
You probably know this already, especially if you've seen the TV shows The Only Way Is Essex and Geordie Shore, and any other primary documents of life in the UK. We all know that a lot of young British men now look like Ken dolls dipped in tea and covered in biro. What we don't really know is how and why it happened. It's easy to dismiss them as just a more extreme strand of lad culture—the Rancid to the lads' Green Day. But there are some vital differences between these two cultural types.
Most notably, douchebags don't have friends—they have wingmen. And while the lad might have to be cajoled by those mates into approaching a girl after a few beers, the modern British douchebag already knows every line he'll be using to snare his prey before he leaves the house for another evening of Monster cocktails and creatine. He has a far more cynical view of a night out. He's in it for the posturing, the posing, and the pussy, and he'll stalk the light-paneled dancefloors of the UK's shittiest nightclubs until he's proved it.
This is where I first began to notice them, during my many encounters with the bottom rung of the UK nightlife scene for VICE's Big Night Out series. At every event I ever went to (bar a goths-only social club in north London), there seemed to be at least three or four of these gym-bunny wankers patrolling their turf in T-shirts that looked like they'd been torn down the middle by a big angry dog. Emo nights, indie nights, student nights, drum-'n'-bass nights, nights out in Milton Keynes and Magaluf—the modern British douchebag was there at every one.
It's really fucking hard to feel sorry for them, but douchebags don't exist in a vacuum. Yes, assholes have always existed, but not this particular breed of asshole, and would that be the case if social mobility hadn’t taken such a whack in recent years? Would that be the case if young men didn’t feel constantly undermined? They're the sad, lost children of the metrosexuals and the miners. They are analog men in a digital age, imported via America. A Calvin Harris remix of a Springsteen song that just doesn't really work.
Photo by Jake Lewis
But they aren't going out without a fight, or going gentle into that good night—they're gonna get swole and dress sexy. It seems to me that, in a kamikaze attempt to assert their masculinity, our young man of today has repackaged himself as an erection in a vest. A walking, preening monument to the British masculinity crisis, a sports-science Übermensch with an indecent-exposure charge to his name.
Once upon a time, they would have been the ones that society looked to first in times of need. The ones who waged shitty wars in foreign countries, defended the honors of other people's wives, and helped old ladies cross the road. They caught man flu, not herpes, and they worked on the land. They were the strongest and most fearless, beacons of Northern European masculinity. The descendants of Lord Byron, Lawrence of Arabia, and Geoff Hurst. A great bunch of lads.
Now, though, those old ideals of male attractiveness—"the charmer," "the bit of rough," "the sullen thinker"—are almost dead, which is why, when Brits like Benedict Cumberbatch and Matt Smith are exported abroad, it feels like the death rattle of a heritage industry. It's probably why they're only ever cast in things set in the past. Nobody wants to be Sean Connery anymore. With their buff, waxed bodies and stupid haircuts, the modern British douchebag looks more like a model from an Attitude chat-line ad than a potential Bond.
It's easy to laugh at the heartthrobs of times gone by. Tom Jones and his chest medallions, Rod Stewart and his leopard-skin coats, David Essex and his perm, George Best and his crap teeth. But you got the sense that beneath it all these were rough-and-tumble guys who hid a kind of raw, natural, working-class sexuality beneath their velvet jackets and ridiculous hairdos. Compare them to the Wanted or Olly Riley or Joey Essex, and they look like Mormons during wintertime.
For most men, being sexy was something that used to happen by accident. Nowadays, your modern British male dresses like he's trying to fuck the world. He is a Razzle centerfold of a man. He smells like a solvent abuser's rag and is built like a flat-pack shithouse with luxury-ply bog roll. He asks for a number one on the sides and nothing on the top, his hair reaching to the disapproving heavens like the Tower of Babel. All his clothes are designed to reveal gratuitous channels of flesh, all shaved and shined so you can see your own hateful, jealous, paunchy face in the gap between his pecs. He is, in short, a complete slut.
But this new epidemic of vanity isn't just skin-deep. It goes deeper than that—it has manifested itself in muscle tissue.
Photo by Kieran Cudlip
When did you first notice the swolification of Britain? For me, it was when I went to hang out with some old school friends, not having seen them for a year or so after we parted ways at the end of year 11. These guys, who weren't much bigger than I was in our school days, had all become enormous, seemingly overnight. At work, I realized I was spending more and more time with people who had bodies that you just didn't see once upon a time. Look through your Facebook friends, and I bet you'll find a lot of guys who seem to have swollen in the last few years—guys you'd never thought of as sporty or tough before.
The catalyst for it is, of course, creatine, or any of the various protein powders that I imagine will end up being considered my generation's thalidomide or asbestos at some point in the future. There aren't any stats that show just how many of us are using powder to get tonk, but it's one of the key products in a burgeoning sports-nutrition industry—one with an estimated value of more than $500 million in the UK alone.
Seemingly safe, its result is a strange one: guys who are big, but not hard. You can't help getting the impression that there's very little weight, bravery, or even violence lying below those nutritionally enlarged 'ceps. Really tough guys have sinew on their bodies, scabs on their face, and hate in their hearts; the modern British douchebag just has balloon-animal muscles and a waxed chest. They're pampered, meek behemoths who look good on the beach but can't fight for shit—a uniquely modern phenomenon.
Believe it or not, though, Joey Essex may have Neil Ruddock's aggy DNA swimming around in him. The most recent predecessor of the douchebag's macho vanity came in the form of metrosexuality, which was led into the mainstream by lads' mags like GQ and by Liverpool's "Spice Boys" in the mid 90s. It differed from other male beauty cultures in that it wasn't especially linked to subcultures or to looking unusual. It was just a kind of objective sexiness.
But in a fractured and uncertain time, the natural confidence of metrosexuality has been replaced by something far more flagrant. "Designer stubble" has become "alopecia from the neck down"; "open-neck shirts" are now "dick-plunge vests"; "chunky watch" has morphed into "Maori tattoo." Somewhere along the line, male sexuality went from being Jude Law on a scooter to Jodie-Marsh-with-external-reproductive-organs. And then everyone turned a shade of orange.
Photo by Jake Lewis
For my money, I think it comes down to a few factors. First, the rolling beast of the cosmetics and beauty industry, while still primarily aimed at women, has branched out to market itself to men too. The amount of powders, potions, sprays, and hot metal machines that women have been encouraged to use in the last ten years or so has massively increased, and their ease of use has probably intrigued men to the point where they want to form their own kind of beauty regime.
But while it's easy to scorn the banality—and the vanity—of the modern British douchebag, they're only products of their environment. An environment that has very little to offer them anymore, other than gym memberships, intentionally ripped clothes, alcohol, and creatine. The institutions that gave British men a sense of well-being have been ripped apart. Nobody trusts the police any more; nobody wants to join the army because no one believes in its wars; traditional industries have been decimated, and the only thing to replace them are stifling, mind-numbing positions in service and retail.
Because of this, British men have tried to reimagine masculinity, in a hyper-realized, childish, desperate way. A new kind of machismo, built on fake bravado and vanity. British men are looking up to faux-hawked, peacocking, rich maniacs like Mario Balotelli for inspiration, because they really have nowhere else to look. Their bosses hate themselves, and their dads hate them.
I can't help looking at this emergent culture and wondering if they've basically retreated from a world that doesn't want the young British male anymore. From ancient shit like the happy-slapping debate to the right-wing furor over NekNominations, to the NUS and the Guardian's ludicrous "Lad Culture Summit," there seems to be a narrative of an cultured metropolitan class wondering what to do with its young men.
And what the modern British douchebag is doing is basically trolling everyone's sensibilities with his actions. Because when nobody wants you, you can do what you want. When people feel anxious, unloved, and bored, they start to test the boundaries of decency. You've only got to look at prison or the lower rankings of the army to realize this.
Yes, it's easy to mock the modern British douchebag, with all his bizarre and contradictory notions of masculinity and sexuality. But let's not forget, it's the people who hate him most who birthed this weird social orphan.
Follow Clive Martin on Twitter.