Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Performance-based Masculinity

I came across this site today for "AlphaNail," a brand of nail polish marketed at men, and it made me think about masculinity-as-performance, masculinity-as-commodity, and the intersection of the two.

I've noticed an increase in the marketing of masculinity as a way of selling products to men. (Maybe I've noticed this because I am a white cisgender adult man, and therefore the target of much of this advertising.) A quick Google search confirms that bloggers and other commentators have noticed the same thing: Masculinity linked to consumption. Masculinity as a commodity that can be purchased.

(Interestingly, I want to note that I did a search for "Masculinity as Performance" and the Google Ads that came up were for PDE-5 inhibitors, like Viagra. Interesting and unintentional commentary, to be sure.)

I suspect that this is not a new thing. But I'm wondering what the effect of masculinity-as-consumerism is on individual conceptions of gender? Where do we get our ideas of what it is to be masculine? Certainly, advertisers are willing to sell us candles, irons, pop, anti-aging cream and other products to help us define our masculinity. But are we willing to allow part of our gender identifications to be crafted and shaped by advertising? And more--what if we do not fit into the traditional view of masculinity?

I spend a fair amount of time in my office talking to men about what it means to be a man, what it means to be masculine. Frequently, the identifying features are virtues like strength, flexibility, endurance, loyalty, devotion, protection, and so on. These are virtues that people generally want to have more of in their lives. (And I'm well aware that things like "loyalty" are not in any way the property of any one gender, but that's another article.) Lest the reader think I am portraying an overly-rosy picture of traditional masculinity, remember that these conversations are happening in a therapy, and so we do look at some of the less healthy attributes of masculinity: emotional numbness, rigidity, alcoholism, violence. For the sake of the individual's physical and mental health, we try to identify where these messages came from, and look at which values and attributes the person would like to commit to and which ones the person would like to let go.

And there's my concern with all of this, I suppose: It's hard enough to identify with masculinity in the context of a history that's equated masculinity with violence, patriarchy, and so on. It gets even harder when an advertiser is trying to sell something by playing to someone's perceived notions of manhood. For example, on this page on the "AlphaNail" website, to the right, is a picture which could have the subtitle, "It's OK to wear nail polish as long as you punch someone in the face." Is this how we want masculinity to be defined?

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