In an age of manscaping, metrosexuals, and high-end grooming, what does it mean to be a man? Jessica Bennett on the latest tale of confused male identity, Morgan Spurlock’s Mansome.
There are probably a few ways to get people to watch a pseudo-documentary about male grooming. One is to put Jason Bateman and Will Arnett in a bathtub together, with fluffy white facial masks and cucumber eye coolers.
“What do you think makes a man?” Arnett ponders, candlelight flickering in the background.
“Well,” Bateman says, “I wish I had your manly voice.”
Two men. One bathtub. A $200 facial scrub. Competing for who has the deepest voice. It’s perhaps the perfect example of the modern male contradiction.
And so begins Mansome, the latest film from Oscar-nominated director Morgan Spurlock (Supersize Me), which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this week, and will be released in theaters on May 18. (Full disclosure: I was interviewed for it. I did not make the cut.) Produced by Arnett and Bateman, the film aims to tackle what it means to be a 21st-century man through an unlikely lens—male grooming. That means everything from the philosophy behind the mustache to mandatory manscaping to the rise of the man spa, where dudes can watch ESPN while getting their nails buffed (it’s a manicure, right?).
As Spurlock describes it, male primping has reached a tipping point, of sorts—and indeed, The Wall Street Journal proclaimed it in a story just this week: “Men’s grooming has gone mainstream.” If you bother to compile the data, you’ll find that men spent $84 million on high-end skincare products last year; they make up an estimated third of spa-goers; and 900,000 of them underwent cosmetic surgery procedures last year, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. (Brotox, anyone?) And in tough economic times, some men are willing to go to even greater lengths: in a Newsweek survey, 12 percent of men said they’d consider cosmetic surgery if it upped their chances of getting a job.
“There’s been a real commodification of manliness in the last few years, and I think, over time, there’s been a kind of softening of men,” says Spurlock, who shaved his mustache during his film’s New York premiere. “And I’m sure there are still men who chop down trees and hunt things, but I think those people are few and far between.”
Spurlock, it appears, has suddenly discovered the metrosexual—albeit a few years late. Or perhaps it’s the more retro version: you know, guys who buy designer hunting gear, and cologne that’s scented like the woods. So while Spurlock insists he’s a “bar soap and water” kind of guy—save for his $50 La Roche-Posay facial cream—he set out to learn the ins and outs of male grooming habits across the country, with testosterone as his guide.
The male identity part gets lost along the way, but we do learn some interesting facts. For one, did you know that the world-champion beard grower is a dude from Walnut Creek, California? His red mane reaches to his belly button, and he will threaten to kill anyone who touches it (yes, really). Also: who would have known that male Mexican Molly fish have actual mustaches? Apparently it makes them more attractive to the lady Molly fish—or so explains science.
Deep down, every man wants to know what he looks like with a mustache.
“When you wear a [mustache], you project a totally different energy and purpose,” the cofounder of Movember (the month formerly known as November) explains. “Deep down, every man wants to know what he looks like with a mustache.”
It’s hard for Spurlock to go wrong when he’s got Arnett and Bateman in a tub. Add ZZ Top, Adam Carolla, and man-movie maven Judd Apatow to the Mansome mix, and you’ve got the frat boy’s documentary dream. Zach Galifianakis, seated in a forest, in a lumber-man’s jacket, tells us that his father smelled like “garlic and diesel fuel.” Judd Apatow makes sure we know that men “try to look good to meet a woman—or so that the woman doesn’t run away.” Which is pretty much what Spurlock’s 5-year-old son does, when he sees that his dad has shaved his beard. (Dad emerges from bathroom clean-shaven. Kid breaks down into hysterics.)
But Spurlock also introduces us to “regular” people, like the founder and CEO of “Fresh Balls” —it is what it sounds like—who explains simply, “I woke up one night, I had a problem, and I fixed it.” Or Mr. Carmine, a Yonkers toupee-maker with a thick Italian accent and a (very) full head of gray hair. We meet an extremely hairy pro wrestler who has his buddy help him shave his back—because hairlessness comes with the job.
And then there’s Ricky, a young New Yorker with what seems like a case of body dysmorphia—and the most artificially sculpted eyebrows known to man. He uses two separate razors to shave his face every day, so his skin is baby smooth. He tans, moisturizes, exfoliates, and buffs, and then gels his hair back, with a crisp white button-up. You can basically smell his cologne through the screen. “When I look good, I feel fearless,” the man tells the camera, taking one last look in the mirror before he heads out for the night.
Spurlock doesn’t bother to provide much context for such grooming habits—you know, the economy, men’s place in the world, the rise of plastic surgery, and all those stories about how men are in “crisis.” Nor does he give a reason for the sudden vanity. (Men’s magazines? Queer Eye? Photoshop?) What’s clear is that as women rise up in the world, they’re allowed to be selective—and let’s be honest, who wants a man who doesn’t groom? “Women can now afford to be picky; and men probably sense this,” says Helen Fisher, the biological anthropologist.
But what Spurlock will say is that men are facing what women have long endured: mass marketing, and constant pressure. “We’ve started to do to men what’s happened to women for years—which is to say, ‘you’re fat,’ ‘you’re ugly,’ ‘you need to fix this and that,’” Spurlock says. “And now suddenly all these guys who were incredibly confident just because we were men are saying, ‘Maybe I’m not good enough.’”
In other words: welcome to the club.