I’m reliably informed that the poster (right) grandly named L’Enfant but more commonly known as Man and Baby wasn’t a phenom in the United States like it was in the U.K. Here, it capitalized on the worldwide success of Three Men and a Baby and perfectly captured the sensitive man zeitgeist of the late ’80s, becoming one of the country’s top-selling posters of all time.
Honestly, I never understood its popularity. Sure, the guy was hunky in that Levi’s ad beefcake way, but what was the baby adding? Even as a kid, I associated having children with stress and domesticity; I didn’t yet understand that a man caring for his child was considered a novelty.
No wonder there was so much excitement about the “New Man.” An archetype celebrated by women’s magazines of the time, the New Man was happy to take on stereotypically female responsibilities like diaper-changing, doing the dishes, and talking about his feelings. He was the man of the future, until he wasn’t. No sooner had the New Man snapped on his hypoallergenic rubber gloves than the culture kicked him to the curb.
The ’90s was a time of confusion over the relevance of feminist ideology. In November 1990, Newsweek ran an opinion piece by Kay Ebeling called “The Failure of Feminism” which claimed that women’s biology means that we can never be equal to men, and shouldn’t try to be. “The economy might even improve if women came home, opening up jobs for unemployed men, who could then support a wife and children, the way it was pre-feminism,” Eberling wrote.
Wendy Kaminer covered feminism’s “identity crisis” in a 1993 Atlantic article that’s dismaying in its illustration that mischaracterizations of the movement haven’t changed in twenty years. By the time a certain newsmagazine got around to asking, “Is Feminism Dead?”, journalists, campaigners and academics had been wondering the same thing for almost a decade. But at least the U.S. media was having a dialogue around these issues (which also included Susan Faludi’s landmark text on antifeminism, Backlash). You had Ms., and Sassy, and independent zines, not to mention being the birthplace of Riot Grrrl.
While the United Kingdom eventually experienced a watered-down version of the third-wave revolution, two of our most prominent cultural influences during this time were Ally McBeal’s obsession with marriage and the Spice Girls’ overly simplistic “Girl Power” mantra.
Into this void of intelligent debate strode the “New Lad,” winking and probably pinching your butt. The New Man’s cheekier, decade-younger brother, the New Lad didn’t take life too seriously, y’know? Again, he was a media caricature, one who not only captured the post-recession, Thatcher’s-out, who-needs-feminism mood of the times but was the natural inheritor of a cultural legacy that includes Page Three, Benny Hill and Carry On films. But he was an icon, too. Real-life laddish heroes included Liam and Noel Gallagher from Oasis, Robbie Williams, and Neil Morrissey, who played an empty-headed porn obsessive on the crude sitcom Men Behaving Badly.
New Lads found their spiritual home in the explosion of lad mags like Loaded, GQ, and FHM, all of which trafficked in an ironic sexism that was perfectly pitched to evade criticism. While these magazines published seminaked photos of famous women, they did so in a self-aware, “we’re not really objectifying women, we’re just parodying objectification… unless you like it, in which case, enjoy!” kind of way. As Rosalind Gill points out, this was a genius move, providing a built-in defence against charges of sexism — anyone who complained could be dismissed as not in on the joke. It was an admittedly less subtle precursor to hipster sexism, about which s.e. smith observed: “In a world where sexism is always satirical and satire is always sacred… sexism becomes nearly impossible to challenge.”
Women happy to shrug off “ironic” sexism and join in this “one of the boys” culture were celebrated by lad mags, and excoriated by other sections of the media. Crowned “ladettes”, they rejected the trappings of femininity (while of course remaining conventionally attractive white women) in favor of wearing sneakers and downing pints of beer until they fell over. TV presenters Sara Cox and Zoe Ball were two of the most famous examples, and their hard-partying ways inspired pearl-clutching in some circles. In a 2008 Daily Mail interview, the famously conservative paper revisited Sara Cox’s party girl past, noting approvingly that she has redeemed herself by becoming “a warm, girly sort of woman”.
Similarly keen to reinforce masculine stereotypes, when an original print of Man and Baby came up for auction in 2007 (eventually selling for £2,400, or around $3,862), this guardian of Middle England’s values ran a story pointing out that the photo’s “caring dad” is, in real life, an absent father who claims to have slept with more than three thousand women; the implication, of course, was that being too progressive in our hopes for male caregivers is a fool’s game.
However, while we obviously haven’t seen an end to retrograde attitudes, the New Lad’s era was over by the start of the aughts. Last year, the Guardian even wondered if the New Man might be having a comeback, citing (among other factors) an increase in stay-at-home dads. Whether we’re finally witnessing a lasting shift in attitudes or this is just the boom before another backlash is hard to predict, but for now, at least, there are a few more men holding the baby.