Recent coverage of the state of masculinity is alarming. The latest research from the advertising association research arm Credos points to the negative effect advertising can have on boys’ body image. The same effect it has had on girls for many years. That research joins mounting evidence of a crisis related to the shifting roles of men, often blaming the void created by the decline of some of their ‘traditional roles’, such as being breadwinners. Make no mistake, those roles can be oppressive, sometimes toxic, and are cultural myths in their own right.
A recent study by the Journal of Gender Studies went as far as blaming the financial crisis for the rise of the ‘Spornosexual’ - young men using their toned bodies on social media as a means of feeling valuable in society. A part of a larger trend where fitness regimes are shared with the world as a visual means of getting positive attention. Attention that hides the flip-side of body-policing and shaming. Maybe we shouldn’t strive for that specific form of gender equality.
Putting aside moral panic, where the BBC condemns porn for causing erectile dysfunction in teenagers, it’s easy to feel empathy and concern when considering how boys learn what it means to ‘be a man’. The pressures of toxic masculinity can end in anxiety, depression and violence. Harming both men and women, particularly those who are vulnerable to begin with.
The rise in the popularity of this subject may be recent, but shifts have been documented for a few decades now. The real cultural evil at the root of it all is the tyranny of traditional masculinity which is presented as the default, socially mandated, option young men are pushed towards.
Traditional masculinity is driven by the patriarchal authority over women. Consequently, it constructs a toxic masculine ideal that is an inversion of even more oppressive feminine ideals. For example, it oppresses men by telling them they are too flabby and can never be tough enough.
Advertising has played its part in the perpetuation of toxic masculinity. It gladly pushed men’s insecurity buttons in a similar way, though not on the same scale, to how it shames women who don’t conform to an impossible, oppressive, model. The vintage Charles Atlas advert (‘Hey skinny! Your ribs are showing!’) is a classic case in point. Things may have become more sophisticated and subtle, but little has changed.
The good news is that with the increase in gender equality and a general decline in homophobia, a more inclusive masculinity has emerged - a model which allows more free expression of feelings, starting with more socially acceptable traits, such as being a more affectionate parent.
Marketing has embraced the shift to new modes of masculinity quite awkwardly so far. Commonly, it would merge the old masculinity of the macho ‘Marlboro Man’ with the slick vanity of the allegedly new metrosexual. Two equally oppressive stereotypes combined into an artificial and impossible mutation of the masculine ideal. Alternatively, there’s the inversion of traditional masculinity - the ever popular shrill-emasculated-comedy-loser archetype, who is often also effeminate and so clearly tinted with homophobia and homohysteria.
Struggling with the nuance of gender politics shifts, if you’d only watched advertising you might think poor old men were running out of options. So it is quite refreshing to see the start of some alternative models for masculinity finally reflected in advertising, such as in the recent ‘Find your magic’ Axe campaign. Or even small signals of change such as the father in John Lewis’ ‘Tiny Dancer’standing at the kitchen sink, washing up.
But let us not expect a revolution just yet - the pressure on men to change isn’t as present in what is still largely a white, patriarchal mainstream culture telling them they are fine as they are. This is compounded by the fact that the changes women are encouraged to make are already seen in mainstream culture as positive. Thus, they are easier to represent in advertising. In the meantime, many of the changes men are going through, such as being allowed to show vulnerability, still have a lot of social shame around them.
That is why the evolution of marketing to men will keep lagging behind that of marketing to women for a while. However, marketing can play a part in reducing shaming and increasing the visibility of positive shifts in masculinity.
Every brand can, and should, find ways to speak to men that are authentic, human and don’t rely on stereotypes or thinly veiled, guilt, shame and fear.
So what would be a good first step for the industry? How about shifting the gender balance in the planning and creative departments? While research into IPA member firms showed overall gender balance, when you get down to the people who actually shape creative communications it’s shocking - with only 24.6% of women in creative/design and around those figures for senior levels across the board. They can certainly teach men a thing or two about oppression and how to overcome it.
Originally published on The Huffington Post, 1 September 2016.