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Soft boys and bitchy bastards

...when all Jennie Bristow wants is a bit of passion

I will never forget the day I saw my first 'real man'. I was about 12 years old and impressionable; he was 40-odd, sweaty, noisy, passionate and not very tall. It did me no favours at school when I proclaimed myself Bruce Springsteen's biggest fan, but so what? Now I know that it didn't have to be Springsteen - Madonna in concert probably would have inspired me just as much, with that noise, that passion and that arrogance. Contrast it to the low-key concerts by Morrissey and the Beautiful South that I went to with my friends; skinny soulful men and women whispering into their mikes, almost apologising for being there. As I sat in the audience, bored and depressed, I realised that my own pop era had passed me by. The nineties, with its skinny-chested blokes in cardigans and its waif-like women with problems, was here to stay and so, unfortunately, was I.

'Sensitivity' is what the nineties has been all about, and if you haven't got it you will not sell many records or make many films. The aggression that was once the basic ingredient of good rock music became the angst-ridden keening of Nirvana and later, the cynical low-key bitching of Pulp and Blur. When dealing with the press, pop personalities go into sensitivity overdrive by recounting as many of their own life tragedies as they can remember. Ex-Neighbours star Natalie Imbruglia is on the way up, shocking many with her ability to be beautiful and sing, yet the pop-packagers promoting her know that talent and beauty is less of a marketing strategy than her much vaunted 'insecurity'. As the Guardian's Sam Wollaston pointed out in an interview on 15 May, when Nat says she is depressed 'all the time', by depressed she surely means 'a bit down'. Even my old heroes and heroines are not safe from the endless thirst for proven sensitivity: I read a horrible article in the Independent by Suzanne Moore on Madonna and her newfound vulnerability. Is nothing sacred?

And these are only the women, and this is only pop. All you need to know about men in pop is the rise and rise of Boyzone, the ultimate girly boy-band, when the only 'men' of the music world exist in the ironic, self-conscious, infantile cod masculinity of Oasis. In their quest to become acceptable, throughout society men are aping women and women are aping more 'feminine' women: 'feminine' meaning vulnerable and emotional. Young men and women, growing into a world of enforced girliness, are the clearest examples of the new values in action: and if you don't believe me, just go to a university.

When I started my degree course at Sussex University in 1993, I remember feeling kind of stunned. You look around your fellow freshers and you simply cannot tell the difference between the lads and the girls. Skinny, clean, shy and generally vegetarian, they all go to the pub together to chat about their personal problems and none of them wants to walk home alone. In seminars about women's writing or feminist theory, the men are by far the most vehement critics of their own sex; in seminars about anything else they try to talk about women's writing and feminist theory. Women's studies courses, where girls go to talk about their feelings and emotions, are ever popular and now, apparently, there are men's studies courses in American universities where boys can do the same thing. Sussex is, admittedly, painfully right-on and hippyish, but go to Bath or Birmingham or Bristol and it's no different. Mixed-sex halls of residence might as well not be, because students are a) androgynous and b) not having much sex. And that's another thing.

When your friend, who happens to be under 21, gorgeous, intelligent and generally brilliant, tells you that her problem is that she always fancies bastards, what picture comes into your mind of the said bastard? A macho hunk, maybe, or a cold and haughty Adonis. Certainly not the same person that your friend is talking about: the nineties bastard.

The nineties bastard treats you badly...but does it by behaving like a girl. The nineties bastard goes out with you for a fortnight before running off because he is too mixed up at the moment, he needs to sort his feelings out, he doesn't want to get too committed. The nineties bastard goes out on a date (you buy the drinks), then refuses to sleep with you because he doesn't want to get too committed. The nineties bastard bitches about you to his friends - who are generally girls. And so it goes on. That sly, manipulative prick-teasing that used to be the prerogative of women has now been adopted by new, 'nice' men who have had all their macho bastardness educated out of them.

The problem I have with this adoration of girly girls and wannabes, is that I've done it all before. As a teenage girl with a diary and friends with diaries, I spent seven years getting emotional, obsessing on my own problems and everybody else's, blowing the most minor inconvenience or humiliation out of all pro-portion. It took all of a week at university and six months reading the papers for me to realise that this sad, petty, narrow world of the teenage girl had been a blueprint for the society I grew into. If Springsteen was my own symbol of thinking big, acting tough and taking on the world with confidence and passion, the world in which everybody loves Bridget Jones's Diary and where pop stars get credibility through their angst represents the opposite: thinking small, behaving like a wimp and letting all your problems overwhelm you. In this sense, it really is a little girl's world.

Reproduced from LM issue 112, July/August 1998

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