Tuesday, April 15, 2008

On Men. A Sherman Foundation Whitepaper

I have written many pieces on the "cultural discourse of masculinity" and the lack of narratives and structures of social interaction for men outside of major league sports.

Sports are the most efficient provider of a conversational and interactional platform for men. Stories and programs like "Fightclub" and "Entourage" are few compared to the numerous narratives for women: The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Sex in the City, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Lifetime, Oxygen and soap operas in general.

This isn't anything new, but add to this contradictory, confusing and manufactured definitions of what it means to "be a man" and we have a new, compounded set of problems for individual men and society at large.

A symptom of the problem and a challenge created by it can be seen in the difficulty of marketing to men. The male, 18-34 year old demographic is the most difficult target to reach. It's not that reaching them is a big secret. In my opinion there are three Vs: Violence, Vulgarity and Vixens. The problem is the content within those three Vs have drifted further and further outside of the range that network television and advertisers can operate in. The "theatricized reality" of the media/marketing world is out of touch with what men are really interested in and can get through channels like the internet.

Spike has captured a chunk of the male audience with things like the "Ultimate Fighting Championship" and shows like "Bet You Will". This may not be the most civilized content but your male demographic has been deprived of anything that realistically meets its tastes halfway for so long that this, like it or not, is now the landscape.

An episode of "Bet You Will" called... "Pee Pee Dance".

Kimbo Slice, backyard, barefisted fighter was a big online phenomenon popular with young men long before he made the jump to broadcast mix martial arts fighting.

Another trend compounding the difficulties of the male cultural psyche is the feminization of male definitions, social practices and aesthetics. The contemporary salon experience (getting your hair cut) has more in common with my grandmothers beauty parlors than my grandfathers barber shops.

Metrosexuallity made pedicures, manicures and body hair grooming mandatory for cosmopolitan men before products and services were available that fulfilled against those needs. Norelco lead the charge for body hair grooming products for men but there are still few places for men, designed for men to get facials, "pedis" and "mannis", so you see them in pink storefronts penned in between rows of women.

Metrosexuallity recast the definition of "male" to be more in line with consumer culture. It did this by remaking them over in the image of more efficient consumers, women and homosexuals. What I mean by this is that past definitions of "masculinity" were attitudinal, "metrosexuality" is a means of evaluating men based on look and lifestyle, on what they buy.

I recently talked to a marketing manager that works for a sports related brand that described their companies take on the male bonding as "bromantic". They are obviously struggling with the same issues many other markers are, how to connect to men and how to talk about the comradere that men share with one another. The poverty of terms I describe above has lead them to reference male/female in their framing. Understandable, but not advisable.

Gentlemen, are you ready to don shortpants? photos below from: Men’s Suit Trends For Spring 2008. I think it's fair and accurate to describe this look as infantalizing, at best.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that the backlash to all of this is getting ugly. Take for example the recent feature in New York magazine, Revolt at Horace Mann:

The Web page for a Horace Mann Facebook group titled the “Men’s Issues Club” mocked a student organization on campus called the Women’s Issues Club. The 44 members of the parody club included children of both trustees and the legion of prominent names who send their children to Horace Mann, which sits in the top rung of private schools in New York. One club member referred to an English teacher as a “crazy ass bitch” and a French teacher as an “acid casualty.” Another boy boasted that he’s “the only person here who actually beats women when hes [sic] drunk. no joke,” while still another bragged that he had “banged” a teacher “in [the] music dept. bathroom” and “will get great college rec” for the accomplishment. The boys lamented Star Jones’s “fat and wrinkled ass,” “sex in the city,” and “feminism,” proclaiming, “WHERE DO THEY BELONG?!?!????!!! IN THE KITCHEN!! IN THE KITCHEN!!!” The club summed up its mission thus: “For too long men have not had a way to express themselves and their beliefs in society. Men need to have a voice, we aren’t meant to be seen and not heard. Let freedom ring, bitches.”

Axe deodorant became the most successful category takeover in marketing history by finding a clever way to talk to young men in a manner that mirrors the way they talk to each other, the use of ironic (or retro) sexism and by being a voice for the backlash.

In Zarathustra Nietzsche presents this parable: "Not a few who meant to cast
out their devil, went thereby into the swine themselves." What he means is, be careful about the parts of yourself your throw away, you may throw away the best part.

Yes. Some of the old definitions and sterotypes of masculinity were overly aggressive and brutish, but they're roted in evolution and history and perhaps serve a larger purpose. Historically, a fundamental role of men has been to destroy those things in the world that aren't working. In recent years we've witnesses treasonous scandals at Enron and WorldComm and now a credit crisis that will be bailed out by people who didn't participate in the profits that caused the crises. Where are the people, dare I say men, standing up for what is right and taking these things to task. People should be in the streets throwing rocks and bottles but they aren't.

I will close this one out with an excerpt from Lee Iacocca's recent book "Where Have All the Leaders Gone?"

"Am I the only guy in this country who's fed up with what's happening? Where the hell is our outrage? We should be screaming bloody murder. We've got a gang of clueless bozos steering our ship of state right over a cliff, we've got corporate gangsters stealing us blind, and we can't even clean up after a hurricane much less build a hybrid car. But instead of getting mad, everyone sits around and nods their heads when the politicians say, "Stay the course".


kobe56withfancyboots said...

entire university courses and books could be developed based on this article. you gotta bottle some of this lightning. the foundation motor pool needs a 280sl. and a 69 camaro. and a 430 scuderia.

Kelly Marie said...

I am with Kobe, one of the best things I have read in a long time. If you wrote a book about this I would buy it.

Thomas Sherman said...

thanks kids for your darling compliments