At the end of July 2006, scientists at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig announced one of the most intriguing breakthroughs of modern science. Using sophisticated sequencing techniques, they had discovered it would be possible – at least in theory – to piece together fragments of DNA preserved in ancient bones and thereby construct a living, breathing replica of Neanderthal man. The opportunity to clone a barrel-chested, long-faced primitive man, one excited university ethicist told a reporter, would be a little like rescuing an endangered pocket of exotic wildlife. “If we learn this is a species that was wrongly pushed off the stage of history,” he argued, “there is something of a moral argument for bringing it back.”

While German scientists were floating the idea of cloning a caveman, the finest minds in a very different laboratory of human endeavour were hard at work wondering how that caveman might look holding aloft a cold beer. Suddenly, it seemed word had gone out from the media and the advertising industries that the touchy-feely adult heterosexual they had begun to call a metrosexual had been rugby-tackled by a new kind of hard man. Much in the same way that the preening, sarong-sporting David Beckham was head-butted out of the limelight by Zinedine Zidane in the World Cup, the metrosexual had been replaced by something more solid – a man’s man.

In the publishing industry, America’s hottest new literary genre emerged as “fratire”, a male literary riposte to the “chicklit” novels aimed at women. Where the latter has given us tomes such as The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing, Fratire has brought titles such as Real Men Don’t Apologise, The Alphabet of Manliness and I Hope they Serve Beer in Hell. The last is a good example of the genre – written by someone calling himself Tucker Max, its plot details apparently autobiographical experiences of getting drunk and laid as often as is humanly possible. Buoyed by regular dispatches on Max’s website, I Hope they Serve Beer in Hell sold enough copies in the US to make The New York Times best-seller list earlier this year. Citadel Press, his publisher, must be gloating – on both sides of the Atlantic, young men are the gold dust of the publishing world, more or less written off as philistines who can’t be persuaded to buy books.

It was not only in the bookshop that the caveman seemed to be making a comeback. In a series of Miller beer advertisements playing on US television during the spring and summer, a group of actors and celebrities called “The Men of the Square Table” argue about what it takes to be a real man. The Men of the Square Table are an unlikely bunch; they include Burt Reynolds, the moustachioed actor chiefly famous for his road movies and his comeback as a porn mogul in the film Boogie Nights, and Aaron Ralston, a rock climber chiefly famous for cutting off his hand while pinned under a boulder. In the ponderous, rather earnest ads, known as the “Man Laws”, they sit around a long table and rule like Pharisees upon what can or can’t be done as a man. In between necking bottles of Miller Lite, they lend their attention to issues such as how long a guy needs to wait before dating a friend’s ex-girlfriend; whether, when toasting with beer, he needs to clink the top or the bottom of the bottle; and the delicate matter of whether crushing an empty beer can on his forehead is still socially acceptable.

In America, this backlash against the metrosexual seemed to be moving at such a pace that both Time magazine and The Boston Globe announced a few months ago that we might be on the brink of a “menaissance” – a new era in which we would relearn the art of being a man. Bearded male models, it was pointed out, were filling up the runways at this spring’s New York Fashion Week. Further evidence of the resurgence of masculinity, it was argued, came in the new crop of heroes being sent our way by Hollywood. Superman Returns, a knowing, post-September 11 bet on whether we were still capable of taking the testosterone-fuelled superhero seriously, was a huge success. And it was not the only macho film franchise to sneak its head back above the parapet – Michael Mann also saw fit to rehabilitate Miami Vice, which had long been ridiculed for its suntanned, shiny-suited brand of machismo.

The “Man Laws” ads were perhaps a symptom of the belated realisation by the advertising industry of the need to reconnect with their male customers. Last year the advertising agency Leo Burnett researched American male attitudes and found that 70 per cent of US males felt advertising did not portray their everyday reality or attitudes. At the beginning of July this year, the British trade magazine Campaign even accused the advertising industry of portraying men as “castrated dweebs” – clueless nincompoops who don’t know how to fill a washing machine or walk the dog, and who appeal to neither men nor women. Slowly, ad agencies appear to have taken this on board. Advertisements in Britain and the US for the new low-calorie Coke Zero drink, for example, have been firmly aimed at men. Indeed, they are so full of laddish swagger that the drink has been nicknamed “Bloke Coke”.

There were even some political overtones suggested in all this. If Spiderman was a Democrat, said the wags (think of all that teenage angst about doing the right thing) then Superman is most definitely a Republican, the kind of superhero you can count on in a war on terror. In one interpretation, the backlash against metrosexuality could be traced back as far as 2004, with the appearance of that iconic picture of a war-weathered, bloodied American soldier puffing on a cigarette in the aftermath of the American attack on Falluja in Iraq. In the same year, the governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, furious with the state legislature for holding up his proposed budget, accused the Democratic opposition of being “girly men”. Marian Salzman, a New York trend-spotter and executive vice-president of JWT, the advertising agency, believes that the backlash against metrosexuality has already taken its toll on American political life, and will continue to do so in the future. “The more masculine man is perceived to have more depth and breadth, and we are entering an age where he will be the new role model. Think Jeb Bush for president, for example, since it is clear that no John Kerry metrosexual candidates will be elected in the US.”

Academics have also started to join the masculinity revival. Earlier this year, Harvey Mansfield, a Harvard professor of government, took a break from writing his usual tomes on democracy to write Manliness, an examination of masculinity in history, psychology and literature and an anguished attempt to reclaim it from what he considered to be its quaintness and obsolescence. Mansfield argued that the values and pursuits we associate with manliness are increasingly ridiculed and pathologised. Essential differences between the sexes should, he thought, be accepted and celebrated. The values which he associates with manliness are stoicism, strength of character, assertiveness and decisiveness, the confidence to take risks and the ability to be a gentleman whenever necessary. “A manly male,” according to Mansfield, “seeks and welcomes drama and prefers times of war, conflict and risk… he isn’t sensitive; he doesn’t care what you’re thinking, but he’ll be faithful.”

Mansfield is not the only thinker battling away in the men’s corner. For some years, Lionel Tiger, a professor of anthropology at Rutgers University and author of the controversial book The Decline of Males, has been railing against the rough deal men receive in the family law system. According to Tiger, the system tends to make men “outlaws rather than in-laws”, withdrawn from domestic life and, in return, chased by the authorities for child support. Tiger is in broad agreement with the thrust of Mansfield’s thesis but believes that it does not go far enough in challenging the topsy-turvy turns in gender politics over the past couple of decades. “There is no original sin that men need to apologise for,” says Tiger. “There are lots of violations of woman’s dignity still around, and there is no reason to be lax in finding a solution for them, but the idea that these violations are a uniquely male speciality is simply wrong.”

So where are men now? Tiger paints a sorry picture of boys failing at school, and of men meekly taking refuge from the changing weather of sexual politics by quietly indulging themselves in pornography, or burying their heads in endless sports coverage. Many men, he says, are now reluctant to marry, because of the perception that divorce works to their massive financial and emotional disadvantage. There is evidence to back his assertions up. In America, boys are now less likely to complete high school than girls. According to a nationwide study published earlier this year by the Manhattan Institute, about 72 per cent of American girls in the class of 2003 left with a diploma, compared with only 65 per cent of the boys. The imbalances continue into early adulthood. Young American men, according to statistics recently published by the US Department of Education, are less likely to finish their bachelor’s degrees than their female counterparts, and also tend to get worse grades. Meanwhile, a report published in August by researchers at the University of London suggested that single households in Britain are growing at an alarming rate. The fastest growth, they found, is among young men aged 25 to 44 – and in particular, single, never-married men aged 35 to 44.

Tiger cites recent high-profile divorce cases in whose wake lawyers expressed concern that the rulings might dissuade men from getting married at all. Has he noticed signs of a resurgence of male morale in the gender wars? Something is happening, says Tiger, but it is less of a backlash “than the acknowledgment that women’s self- righteous certainty has now been undermined in the sex wars, that they are no longer given a free pass on every subject”. All this advertising stuff is epiphenomenal, he says – “a shift in the description rather than the situation”. Structural changes on the ground show no signs that a dominant malehood is on the way back.

Perhaps manly man has not, after all, dropped in like some 21st century Zorro, just in time to see off girly man. By last year, James Blake Miller, the soldier whose rugged image seemed to signify the steely resolve of the US mission in Iraq, had been discharged from the Marines and was giving newspaper interviews about his post-traumatic stress disorder. Even the purportedly blokey “Man Laws” ads are pregnant with angst about what being a man is. The ads were apparently inspired by a 2001 article called Man Code in lads’ magazine Maxim, which tried to enumerate the unwritten rules of being a man – a fruitless exercise which surely defeats the point. Five years later, even the same gobby lads’ mags are feeling the pinch. Circulation figures published in August by the British Audit Bureau of Circulations provided evidence of a malaise in the male magazine market. Maxim was the biggest loser, shedding a full 35.8 per cent of its circulation year-on-year.

The metrosexual may have drowned in his own bathroom products, but the reality is that no one is quite sure what to put in his place. The traditional role models of advertising-mediated masculinity – the muscle-bound Gillette model, the Milk Tray romantic commando or the rugged, all-weather Marlboro cowboy – are laughably out of date, but replacing them is not easy. And if the most macho gesture that today’s supermen can muster is to whinge about their image in the media, you have to wonder about the future for the male of the species. Because there is nothing more girly than that.

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