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'Hug it out, bitch'*

Why 2004 was the year of the girly man


This year's presidential race was essentially a battle of butchness. John Kerry copped the Purple Heart angle, and George Bush made his legs warp to ever-greater degrees of bow-leggedness as he loped around his Texas ranch. Their testosterone-fueled tussle became a defining moment in a year that saw a tug of war for the American male soul.

On the one hand, we had meta-guys like Hollywood action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger taunting the nation's girly men. But, on the other hand, 2004 gave us an abundance of straight-up, unabashed sissies, and lo, it was good.

A small but popular movement was afoot, full of navel-gazing dudes expressing the kind of sensitivity and vulnerability formerly reserved for chicks. You saw this at the Georgia State University exhibition "The Man Show," in which local artists grappled with the pressures of fatherhood and body anxiety. You also felt it when looking at pictures that Atlanta photographer Fiona Buttigieg took of men in the bathroom. These images made you feel like you were peeking through a keyhole at the insecure, soft and squishy center of the male animal.

In film, uber-guy archetypes like surfers and rock stars wondered what the hell it all meant. Spirituality, male friendship, fear and parental abandonment cropped up in the wave-catching doc Riding Giants. And in Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, the heavy metal chest beaters embraced family and children while questioning the hard-rock ideology they once wholly embraced. The monster of the film's title? Machismo.

Perhaps the most critically lauded film of the year, Sideways centered on a wine-supping divorcee licking his emotional wounds over a failed marriage and a nose-diving, last-ditch try at becoming a novelist.

The year's ultimate chick flick? It wasn't Bridget Jones redux, but Alfie, in which the titular, tomcatting lothario gets schooled in responsible dick ownership. All the while, seeming -- in his devotion to fashion and his realization that a solid, nurturing relationship is the key to happiness -- very much like a girl. Guys just may be the new chicks.

This development signaled a cultural shift of sorts. The dawn of the new millennium brought us a lad revival: the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Leonardo DiCaprio hitting the Playboy mansion, cigars, a plethora of men's magazines, and man-chicks like Jenny McCarthy and Carmen Electra. But now it seems we've entered the age of the contemplative man. Suddenly showing your feelings with chick-style sensitivity isn't just for pussies anymore. In fact, it has become a badge of honor, the saline river that separates real men from their overinflated pretenders.

Some of the most powerful assertions of men claiming the emotional territory once reserved for women came from country music. Kenny Chesney's "There Goes My Life," Tim McGraw's "Live Like You Were Dying," Alan Jackson's "Remember When," and Keith Urban's "Tonight I Wanna Cry" offered odes to the heart-expanding properties of child-rearing, mortality and heartbreak. Jingoistic, love-it-or-leave-it country anthems endured. But they were supplemented by tunes showing that those guys with the receding hairlines in the 10-gallon hats have their fingers on the pulse of the post-Sept. 11, economic-downturn, neo-vulnerability vibe.

Feminism's emphasis on personal freedom and the artificiality of gender roles seems to finally have reached men. Many now feel free to shrug off the straitjacket of manliness and embrace things like empathy and nurturing as man's work.

But the men-acting-like-chicks thing wasn't always good. Sometimes it offered evidence that marketers have been successful in making men believe, as fully as women, that better skin and slimmer thighs will ensure romantic happiness, spiritual well-being and a place on the idiot box. Bravo's soul-sucking himbo-safari "Man Hunt" applied the nefarious, antediluvian institution of the beauty pageant to men. These buff and tan guys competed for the questionable title of the most model-y, and it had the effect of reducing them to self-doubting sacks of girly neuroses.

"Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" -- which initially came off both as an endearing display of male insecurities and an admirable plea for detente between gay and straight men -- turned into a blatant, exploitative marketing ploy. It asserted that, rather than dwell in the ill-groomed, tighty-whitey gulag of male loserdom, American men better get wise and strap on the Calvins.

The effect of this consumerist trend was markedly different from that of the sensitive guy renaissance. For gussied-up, metrosexual pretty boys, it's about ego and consumerism, not connectedness; instead of caring and consideration, their bag is shopping.


* As spoken by sharklike Hollywood agent Ari (Jeremy Piven) in a male-bonding moment from the hit HBO comedy "Entourage."

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