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Pink Powder Puffs

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After a huge intake of strong coffee during writing binges, I have to read something before lying down to sleep. In the past week, I have had the pleasure of re-reading the x-gossip of Kenneth Anger in Hollywood Babylon (1975, 1959). While the usual stories entertained once again (Fatty Arbuckle, Erich von Stroheim and Mary Astor especially), I noticed something else this time around, namely the quoted article on “Pink Powder Puffs” in the chapter on Rudy Valentino.

This July 18, 1926 editorial in the Chicago Tribune rages against powder vending machines in the washrooms of a public ballroom. For men. And they are used. By men. Another attack on masculinity is a public display of hair combing – with pomade – in the office elevator. Young men are obviously degenerate. The article continues: “It is time for a matriarchy if the male of the species allows such things to persist. Better a rule by masculine women than by effeminate men. Man began to slip, we are beginning to believe, when he discarded the straight razor for the safety pattern.” (p. 157) The effeminate style is linked to masculine cosmetics, sheiks, floppy pants and slave bracelets and has Rudy Valentino as the prime model of American masculinity. Opposite this horrible youth culture is the real man; as the article rhetorically asks: “What has become of the old “caveman” line?” (p. 158).

Although Anger describes the style as that of “a bunch of Clark Street faggots”, I am reminded of the metrosexuality debate of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Now, the content is straight out of the gay twenties: masculine cosmetics, sheiks, floppy pants and slave bracelets –  as well as Valentino’s gold jewelry, “heavy perfumes, chinchilla-lined coats and pronounced Italian coquetry” (p. 163). Today, the sleek style of David Beckham (the current Valentino poster boy) has more tattoos, kimonos and nudity. But it seems to me there are some interesting structural similarities, as the masculine ideal is tweaked to promote not only to promote a new kind of man, but also the products to get there. Valentino had Valvoline Face Cream, Beckham has Instinct. In both cases, “metrosexuality—do I really have to spell it out?—is mediated masculinity”, as Mark Simpson writes (http://www.marksimpson.com/pages/journalism/MetroDaddy_v_UberMummy.html).

In essence, what I thought was rather new, namely the focus on both liberating and commodifying masculinity over the past 15 years or so (seemingly as a reaction (in part) on the heavy focus on liberating-and-commodifying femininity in the post-war West) has older roots. The same can be said about the intense hatred of these pink poofs in older generations and more conservative segments. Now, the scale of it all is of course magnified immensely: the Beckham’s work with “clothing designers, health and fitness specialists, fashion magazines, perfume and cosmetics manufacturers, hair stylists, exercise promoters, and spa and recreation companies” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Beckham). In the same vein, I think more men follow these new masculine ideals today – elite culture is democratized (or “proletarized”), just like cocaine. But the basic description of the young urban male with money to spend on personal grooming and style, lead by a core of beautiful movie and sports stars, seems to mirror the twenties rather well. As does the fact that these new males are invariably associated with homosexuality.

So perhaps we should stop discussing the “culture war” of the caveman vs. the metrosexual (or the spread of “gay” in popular culture) as something without history. Valentino did it. Chicago Tribune did it too. And it didn’t start in 1994. It definitely didn’t start in the twenties either, but at least we have a hundred years of effeminacy to analyse.

Written by Jesper

March 7, 2010 at 23:47