Paul Mescal and The New Cool
Paul Mescal, Barry Keoghan, Jude Bellingham and a whole crop of new stars are finally making being a man cool again…
Men have been under the microscope for some time now. Post-MeToo there has been a toxicity around the very fact of being a man: accusations, drifting into a pop cultural acceptance, that men are practically a different species, biologically and socially doomed to be hard, unpleasant, aggressive, violent, harassing, dominating monsters. It is interesting to note that many of the extremist male influencers agree with this idea, and work their angles trying to monetise such low opinions, and revelling in it, trying to hustle their followers into believing this makes them a bad ass and not the slick cheeseballs they are. However, they compound the con by peddling the idea that men behaving in any other way are not really being men at all.
Not true of course. Well, of course it is possible for men to be that toxic way and you might say that within the construction of a patriarchy, whereby men have simply had most of the power for a very long time, has afforded them more of an opportunity for doing so.
Yet it is far from the only story.
You only have to glance at history and note anyone from Oscar Wilde to Gandhi to David Bowie to see how many men have changed the world without fulfilling the old male cliches. Indeed any glance at different cultures around the world, at family and friends and colleagues, at the different circumstances we can find ourselves in on any given day, shows that there is far more to being a man than we are often led to believe.
But sometimes we need to be supported in this, actively taught how to free up received understandings of behaviour in our families, schools, peer groups, cultures, the world. And we also need to be visibly reminded of this, to be inspired by leading men and the way they behave. We really do, because a lot of men’s mental health problems, a good deal of the terrible male suicide statistics, is down to men feeling like they are weak and worthless because they don’t fit into the idea of being a man that’s in their heads and on their screens.
We’d nearly given up on this struggle, in truth.
The Book of Man has to say that we thought attempts to reassess what it means to be a man had failed. That wave of extremist male influencers were spouting old school dictats around traditionalist behaviours, masquerading their conservative ideas as rebellion and regressing aspirations for young men into depressingly backwards entropy. It seemed they were winning and no-one cared.
And then over the past months, there has been hope.
Led by the burgeoning mental health chat among men all across the country, which has opened up entire new conversations about not just helping with mental health but masculinity, there has at last been the emergence of a new sensibility.
And importantly – because we live in a pop culture-heavy, image-steeped society – we are now seeing the emergence of a crop of public figures who are doing things differently. Actors, sportsmen, writers, musicians, thinkers, who are stepping out of the man box and enjoying the freedom beyond gender constrictions.
They embrace vulnerability, display their ‘softer’ sides, support other genders, and are comfortable with their sexuality. They dress differently, have integrity and they do all this with a smile on their face, and a good deal of charm.
They are cool.
They have been called ‘babygirl men’ by Vogue, which feels a bit retrogressive to us. We like to think of them as Men+.
Not a regression into the cool of years past, as we saw during the Mad Men days of the 2010s, which brought back 50s clothes and attitudes, but a look forward, guided by men who are doing more with being a man. As the ‘+’ also suggests, these men are very positive influences.
And yes, they are making being a man cool again.
Here is our guide to some of the leading lights in this, along with a look at Old Cool versus New Cool.
Oh, and why should cool matter? Well, it’s aspiration, it’s a way of handling yourself in the world, it doesn’t mean you lack emotions or heart, it means you are able to display these things without shame and embarrassment. Cool? Cool.
Cynicism. Carelessness. Sentimentality, particularly around themselves. Self-help guides to winning. Apprentice-style entrepreneurialism. Jobs for the boys. Dressing to fit in. Solo work-outs. Burn out. Coke. Aggression. Control. Anger. Alpha. Me first. Traditional.
Optimism built on cynicism. Knowing your worth. Helping yourself through knowing yourself. Mixed friendships. Side hustles. Mushrooms. Classic style mixed with flamboyance. Group classes. Tolerance. Support. Well-being. Others first. Idiosyncratic.
Purveyors of The New Cool:
A leading example of Men+ in the way he has built something new and cool on the shoulders of the classic hunk actors before him. He has a certain weight to his manner, a heft to his body, and rugged charm, but carries it with a freedom to operate on his own terms. Meaning, he is giggly fun, relaxed about his sexuality – both on screen (in the new film All of Us Strangers) and off (his flirtation on Graham Norton with his co-star Andrew Scott) – and he takes the American workwear of hunks of yore, and adds a certain flair on top: colourful cardigans, open shirts and earrings.
He also loves sport, showing you don’t have to shed all classic male behaviours to be a Men+, but in the manner of our new tag loves Gaelic football but hates the Premier League for its shallow individuality over teamwork (as he told Louis Theroux in his podcast last week). He has values, keeps his private life out of the public eye, wants to work with the right people, worries about making good choices in career and life, and likes to laugh at himself. He’s just grounded in the right ways, he os connected to his heritage, which brings a certain confidence of the self which allows him to operate in a decent level. Alright, look, we don’t have to go on about Paul Mescal anymore, but what a fine example he is for men.
Mescal’s co-star in All of Us Strangers is a heavyweight with a populist feel. As adept at playing Hamlet on stage as he is Moriarty in Sherlock, or indeed the ‘hot vicar’ in Fleabag. All of Us Strangers has him playing a character dealing with grief and sexuality is a remarkable and moving way but Scott has always downplayed his own queerness, saying it’s not “a talent, like playing the banjo. It’s just a fact.” Matching his dignified approach to all matters, the 47 year old’s style is classic Hollywood suiting with contemporary flourishes. Hey, if GQ can get away with saying things like that, so can we…
Who doesn’t love Saka? A smart kid, kind kid, humble kid, who also seems to have no fear on the pitch when he can take on the world’s best. So many of the crop of English players who have emerged under Gareth Southgate can be held up as great examples for young men. They have grit, determination, flair and personality. This latter quality is where things are really at when it comes to these sports stars. It’s not enough to try really hard and run really hard and have the old bulldog spirit, which was primarily what was demanded of English players of the past. This, as we certainly saw in that past, does not make for winners. You have to be able to express yourself, like Saka and a certain other player…
The true elite sports stars – from Maradona to Michael Jordan – have a relaxation to them which allows them to truly flourish in games and lift teammates to greater heights. Everything about them says, ‘It’s, I got this.’ Jude Bellingham has this exact quality. The maturity everyone talks about comes from belief in himself. Surely something we can all aspire to, whatever age we are and wherever we are from. He has the kind of arrogance that is likeable, a cheekiness that appeals. Yes, it’s that personality thing again, and this is what Men+ are all about: not uptight worry about what people might think, but an open expressiveness that grabs uneasy situations and turns them into wins.
The Irish actor is perhaps an unlikely heartthrob, given he specialises in playing messed-up urchin maniacs. But it seems he is the hottest thing around in every sense, and fair play to him. Keoghan famously grew up in foster care after the death of his mother, and was a pretty troubled and broke kid by all accounts. He first properly gained attention in The Killing of A Sacred Deer (2017) alongside Colin Farrell, who is something of a mentor to him (incidentally, there is another piece to be written here about the older, reformed wild men who are helping the Men+’s, and are pretty cool themselves, having touched the worst of being a man and are trying to help others steer away from the same) and starred with him again in Banshees of Inisherin (2022). But of course it’s Saltburn that has made him the talk of TikTok. His turn in that, as Oliver Quick, was unforgettable to say the lease: unhinged, outrageous, but never out of control. He was dangerous, deranged and quite fit. Well, if you like a bit of ‘salty’ bathwater guzzling. Anyway, Keoghan’s willing to go the extra mile (see also the grave-humping scene), which is an entirely commendable and fearless and fairly mad way to approach things. All wonderful things. He’s got a neat line in femme-ish clothes too.
The one-man creative sensation, in music as Childish Gambino and in TV and films and comedy as Donald Glover, is there anything he can’t do? What is best about him, that elevates his best work above anything else – including Atlanta, the excellent upcoming series Mr & Mrs Smith and of course, the song and video to This is America – is that he allows his idiosyncrasies to shine. As Lena Dunham, who worked with him in Girls once put it: “At least 20 people have told me, ‘I’d like to make something like Atlanta. And I say, ‘Oh, you mean a show that toggles between painful drama and super-surrealist David Lynch moments to take on race in America?’ That’s not a genre – that’s Donald.” Quite. You don’t have to work in the creative industries to find him inspiring: following your unconventional instincts in the face of convention is the best route to innovation.
Jeremy Allen White
Clearly the man of the moment after his Calvin Klein advert stopped traffic and seemed to cause apoplexy in just about every woman we know. But also the man of the moment because he is genius in The Bear, as the tortured genius chef Carmy, picking up the pieces – and the peoples – of a downbeat sandwich shop owned by his older brother, who had killed himself. A muscular actor (“I’ll say!”) but one willing to strip it all back. There can’t have been an actor as adept at playing vulnerable since Dustin Hoffman, or even James Dean. We particularly liked the way he handed the sexiest shoot of all time, stressing that he had to eat and train specifically for the shoot, not some god given unachievable body; it was work. Oh, and his style, of gonzo American workwear with a sex club twist? We like. No two ways about it, the guy is the future.
The Booker nominated author for Real Life (2020) was followed up last year with The Late Americans, a story of a group of college students trying to discover who they are in a volatile modern setting. In dealing with identity, sexuality, race, class, dissatisfaction and hope, reading Taylor is like receiving a dose of truth right in your jugular vein. Men+ are fearless, and here’s a prime example. We like that he writes fast (Real Life took him five weeks) and that he grounds his expression in heavyweights like Austen, Chekhov, Tolstoy and Zola. Again, creating new and exciting things off the back of the greats.
The new Doctor Who is only at the beginning of what is sure to be a huge year for him. 2023 found him in Sex Education and Barbie, but his first appearances as the Doctor over Christmas is the big one. It is impossible to underestimate the popular place the BBC prime time show holds in the country. If he nails this, the effect he can have will be seismic. And the thing about Gatwa is, he operates with a near supernatural charisma. You can’t take your eyes off him, you can’t help liking him, which is a neat sleight-of-hand when you’re subverting all gendered expectations around one of the most treasured characters on TV. Ok it’s hard to be as ground-breaking as having a female Doctor, as played by Jodie Whittaker, but Gatwa playing the character as demonstrably gay and absolutely winning and supremely confident with it, may in its own way be equally important and probably better received. The guy has not so much a ‘can-do’ attitude as a ‘can-be’.
Look, by this stage of the list you know what we’re on about and you can even see in your head the type of new man we’re talking about. And you’re probably thinking of Chalamet, the Renaissance-looking, free and friendly darling of the acting, fashion and no doubt other worlds we don’t get a glimpse into. Nominate for an Oscar for Call Me By Your Name in 2017, he has since grown without compromise into one of the biggest stars in the world. And it just seems all so effortless and natural with him. There’s not even any bulking up for roles. He exists as an almost otherworldly men, which films like Wonka and Dune played upon all too well. But Beautiful Boy in which he played a meth addict, showed there’s grit here too. And isn’t that very New Cool: feet in the dirt, head in the air.
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