The end of masculinity?
Our challenge to you in our January newsletter was ‘How are your brands perpetuating outdated stereotypes or leading the way in expressing gender openness? In the move towards a genderless future, it may be counter trend to be focussing on masculinity, but social and cultural norms take time to shift and evolve.
Since then we’ve seen the launch of New Macho, a new division of ad agency BBD Perfect Storm, calling for culture-changing brands and agencies to shift the narrative that currently defines what it means to ‘be a man’. They welcome the Advertising Standards Authority pushing for change and introducing a new rule to ban harmful gender stereotyping New Macho believe several dangerous stereotypes should disappear from ads, such as men depicted as:
- emotionless or emotionally clumsy
- relying on physical strength
- always in control and flawless
Instead, ads should show men as they really are, for example . . .
- caring for others, including other men
- displaying empathy
- sharing their feelings…
… and allowed to be flawed, sad or even angry.
Masculinity is an evolving construct
Masculinity is defined as the possession of the qualities traditionally associated with men. It may be a set of attributes, behaviours and roles, but is distinct from the definition of male biological sex. Masculinity is a social and cultural construct, differing across cultures and historical periods. Alongside traditional stereotypes of masculinity, we are seeing interpretations shift and evolve, for example in Eastern cultures.
Bishōnen (美少年) is a Japanese term literally meaning “beautiful youth (boy)” and describes an aesthetic that can be found in East Asia: a young man whose beauty (and sexual appeal) transcends the boundary of gender or sexual orientation. In the Chinese and Taiwanese popular cultures, phrases are used as pejoratives referring to men exhibiting misogyny, dominance, and homophobia, for example “大男人” (literally: “big man”), “死異男” (literally: “damned hetero male”), and “直男癌” (literally: “straight male cancer”).
The Five Stages of Masculinity is a model developed by Joseph Gelfer, shedding light on the different understanding people have about masculinity. Each stage offers its own challenges and opportunities. The diagram below summarises the five different stages: where does your brand play?
Globally, most people are at Stage 1: Unconscious Masculinity. It is at this stage that traditional ideas of masculinity such as being confident, tough and heterosexual are adopted without even thinking; and can impact negatively on the world, through violence, domination, power, economics and the overall mismanagement of the environment.
Stage 2, Conscious Masculinity, is historical in its perception of masculinity. People share traditional ideas of masculinity associated with stage 1 and consciously promote them: this is what masculinity should look like. From Donald Trump to Love Island, there are many examples in contemporary culture which perpetuate this view of the world. 85,000 people applied for Love Island this year, yet the contestants are all similar in their body type, leading the BBC to raise a question: ‘does the show have a race, age and body diversity problem?’
The third stage, Critical Masculinities, challenges historical norms of patriarchy. It is largely aligned with feminism and is exemplified by a discourse of equality and gender mainstreaming. Here, people are mostly interested in what is wrong with masculinity at stage 2. For example, society operates via patriarchy, which oppresses women; society operates via hegemony, which oppresses atypical men (such as gay men and straight men who resist patriarchy); masculinity is not natural, rather socially-constructed; masculinity is not singular, rather plural masculinities (in other words, changeable)… Stage 3 is largely historic but also reflects the present, it is the stage of a masculinity in crisis.
Lynx/Axe are working well here with their ‘Find your magic’ and ‘Is it ok for guys to . . . ‘
In the fourth stage, Multiple Masculinities, masculinity can look like anything. Ultimately, men have freedom to be who they want to be. It is aligned to queer theory and is based on 3 fundamentals:
- masculinity can mean anything to anyone (including being embodied by women);
- masculinity is defined and categorized through power dynamics such as patriarchy and hegemony as a way of regulating people;
- by rejecting categorization, we subvert regulation and power.
This stage focuses on the present and it is future oriented. Thanks to the decades of struggle by LGBTQ people, this stage is an opening up of utopian possibilities. No longer is there masculinity or femininity or even really men or women, which raises a new question: if masculinity can mean anything you want it to mean, does it have any meaning at all?
Smirnoff is working well in this space with their pioneering ‘We’re open’ campaign and ‘Labels are for bottles not people’.
In the fifth stage: Beyond Masculinities, masculinity does not exist. This does not mean that values such as being confident or being tough do not exist, but that we no longer identify them as masculine.
Perceptions of and attitudes towards masculinity are constantly shifting, and brands need an equally agile response in order to engage with consumers and remain relevant and competitive. By repeating tired clichés or offering alternatives of only limited imagination, brands are in danger of failing on both these fronts. There is a need to uncouple values and traits from gender and identify them for what they are, good or bad. We all have a part to play.
Big Green Door specialises in getting inside the lives, hearts and heads of men, from young males to mid-lifers, to understand what’s aspirational, what’s not, and build a picture of their social world, attitudes and behaviours. We explore the diversity of masculinity and how best to express masculinity in the context of a particular brand.
If you want to know understand what a genderless future may look like for your brand or how to evolve new interpretations of masculinity and femininity for your consumer target, we can help. Call Michael on +44 (0) 20 7258 5000 firstname.lastname@example.org