I exist on ‘Roman time’, a curious affliction of time-keeping that means I am liable to arrive somewhere between an hour late and Thursday. Though I have made my peace with it (others, less so), it means that I am often in the right place at the wrong time… but not today. Two hours after landing in Rome, I was recommended the ‘business lunch’ at Alfredo alla Scrofa. I wasn’t sure exactly what business I was supposed to conduct after a feed of Fritto Misto, Fettucine Alfredo and Tiramisu, but felt confident that a litre of house white was the secret to finding out… It wasn’t, and with said business not forthcoming, I wandered aimlessly in that peculiar haze after a wine-drenched lunch, when you’re just a little too pleased with yourself, and stumbled upon the Marcello Mastroianni exhibition at the Ara Pacis Museum.
Mastroianni is an actor perhaps best known for being Federico Fellini’s alter-ego in films like La Dolce Vita and 8 ½. Less well known but probably equally important, is that he is also my alter-ego. Well… sort of. He’s more like the dashing, debonair Italian uncle I never had, who was too busy wooing Catherine Deneuve to come to my fifth birthday party.
Growing up, Mastroianni was the definition of nonchalant masculinity. Heavy on talent yet somehow heavier on charm, he oozed a quiet certainty that required neither approval nor applause; an allure absent from modern culture outside of every Ryan Gosling movie ever. Even now, Mastroianni seems to exist exclusively in black and white, and his tailored suits, slim ties and ubiquitous Persols, are not only the quintessence of Italian sartorialism, but how I believe all men should dress.
For many, James Bond was the benchmark for men, but for me, it was Marcello. Perhaps because he was the personification of Italian insouciance, perhaps because he embodied that je ne sais quoi of savoir faire and sophistication… or perhaps it’s because of Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita, calling, “Marcello? Come here,” as she wades into the Fontana di Trevi in a black dress that defied all laws of God and nature… okay, let’s assume that I am in fact not that shallow, and that it’s definitely those first two things.
Obviously, people wanted to be Bond – he’s basically a superhero. Marcello’s only superpower seemed to be the ability to wear sunglasses at night and not come off as an absolute numpty. He was iconic, but not especially handsome. Street smart, but not especially tough. His whole was more than the sum of his parts and he did it with style. Not swagger. It was effortless. And he didn’t require the respect of other men to respect himself. Marcello was a man in the middle; a masculine icon, damaged but wise enough to acknowledge his imperfections. Yet despite the self-loathing and existential doubt his characters tended to be swamped by, there was always something inherently quixotic about the way the man carried himself. And that ‘best yet imperfect self’ felt within reach, because (and you can take this to the bank) most of us are just trying to ‘pass’, pretending to be a little tougher and a little cooler than we really are and hoping nobody has any follow-up questions.
Today, the concept of masculinity and even the word, has become loaded and divisive. So much so, that a Gillette advert promoting the idea that masculinity need evolve, is all it takes for every Johnny Lad from Ladtown, Bantershire to have a collective breakdown. I have long felt the ‘alpha-male’ to be a self-indulgent and self-fulfilling fallacy, existing only to excuse a variety of inadequacies such as illiteracy and bed-wetting. But even the cynic in me was stunned by the sheer vitriol with which these uber-manly flowers were offended. To recap, the advert suggested that men should a) not sexually harass women and b) not allow young boys to be bullied… That was it. No, really.
Apparently in today’s world, this qualified as ‘virtue’ signalling. Yes, this absolute garden variety minimum of what society can expect of a person… is now a virtue. What happened to us? And no, we’re not going to pretend that this was not a calculated effort by Gillette to monetise social justice and the #MeToo movement. It’s profitable… right now. The same way Tiger Woods was profitable all those nine years ago. Is it a little on-the-nose? Yes. Does their ‘Best a Man Can Be’ slogan have such clunky cadence that it could be the maxim for Melania’s next anti-bullying campaign? Absolutely. But is that the point?
Even if you object to a multi-national corporation acting as moraliser-in-chief, where’d your bravado go, brah? How thin-skinned an alpha-male do you have to be, that a shaving utensil suggesting you cut back on the ol’ sexual harassment sends you into a hissy fit? How fragile. How weak. How ignorant and unprepared for a fairer future do you have to be, to think that ganging up to kick seven shades of shit out of the kid with the dust allergy is some kind of rite of passage? Since when was masculinity synonymous with picking on those weaker than you?
It seems that in 2019, “I’m a masculine man, and,” is the new, “I’m not racist, but…” Let me save you the suspense… what follows the ‘and’ is the loud part. Yet there is nothing inherently toxic about masculinity, or men for that matter. The problem isn’t masculinity… the problem is the absence of it. These ‘men’ know that whatever masculinity is – they don’t have it – and the more they realise they don’t have it, the more they overcompensate. That is what’s toxic; so they posture and pontificate, while the black hole where their masculinity should be, does what black holes do: swallows everything in its path… things like brain cells and the ability to hear oneself out loud.
If the concept of an empowered woman frightens you, then that doesn’t make you masculine, but it does make you a giant pu– I may have undercut my point. Still, it’s mystifying that the notion of not sexually harassing someone or not rejoicing at the shit-kicking of a nine-year-old, is somehow politically correct? Or liberal? How can this be our conversation? And how can Piers Morgan, a used tennis-sock filled with mashed potato and lies, suddenly be the spokesman for ‘masculinity’? What happened to our heroes? What happened to us?
Admittedly, there are more questions here than answers. Yet, the idea that men should try to be more chivalrous, more courteous, or more conscientious of someone else’s feelings is not new – it’s old fashioned – y’know, that thing these chaps all purport to want. Except they don’t. They want to behave obnoxiously with impunity because that is their identity – an identity they’ve been towing around their entire lives and calling a personality. That’s what’s really at stake, because how will they feel like men if they can’t yell, “Show us your t**s,” out of the moving window of a Ford Cortina?
But Johnny-the thin skinned-alpha is right about one thing. Culture matters. And for better or worse, advertising is a part of that culture, often playing a role in what people want and who they want to be. So, it is refreshing that a mainstream advertising campaign has taken a break from telling women they’re too fat, too thin or too stupid (now buy this blender), to say that we should try to be better men… because we should all be trying.
Marcello is largely an invention of our own making. Self-described as an ‘empty canvas’ that a director creates on, we lay our own neuroses and aspirations upon him. Pull at the thread of the man himself and I’m sure the legend struggles to withstand the scrutiny of the modern lens. But that’s not the point of dead heroes. They’re meant to inspire us to do better and be better in our time. Our heroes are not roadmaps. Which is probably for the best because it’s got to the stage where if I see a world-class musician trending on Twitter… I just hope they’re dead.
We could all stand to be a little more Marcello: the imperfect Gentleman, right now. So have respect for others and yourself. Pull out her chair. Offer your jacket. Stand up to bullies. Wear sunglasses in the dark if you have to – but be the kind of man you want to see more of in the world – because the willingness to be better and do better, is a sentiment so badly needed in our society, that it shouldn’t matter whether it comes from a legendary star of the silver screen… or Subway. Just as long as it doesn’t come from Jared the Subway Guy.