As somebody who has spent most of my short adult life in a progressive and fairly queer bubble up until now, I think it’s fair to say that the average number of “what the eff?” moments per week has significantly increased since my move to Ohio. In fact, it was just last night that I caught myself staring at the TV in horror at a Dr. Pepper 10 ad that’s apparently been around since April.
I’m not the only one who’s noticed all the manned-up products hitting the shelves lately. Ms. Magazine did a roundup of traditionally female products that are being masculinized and marketed to men. It’s a hilarious and fascinating list of health food, candles, and irons that are tough enough for Real Men® to handle.
To which I say: who knew the male ego was such a fragile thing? If we’re going to believe advertisers (and really, we shouldn’t) masculinity is so fragile that even a single flake of granola could send them spiraling into gender-confusion meltdown. Because everyone knows that only women care about smelling nice, eating well, and looking good. The only way to convince men to wade into the shallow waters of womanly tea-drinking is to package it up inside a safe little box of Real Man® approved bacon-flavored melanges and testicle-shaped tea bags.
Or, you know, not. The whole masculinizing approach is insulting to men and women. Most men I know are secure enough in their gender identity to avoid having a panic attack every time they’re faced with an iron. And as a woman, I’m frustrated by the idea that anything feminine is automatically assumed to be weak or trivial. I racked my brain and the only feminized “male” product that I could think of were pink or slim-cut football jerseys. It’s no secret that our androcentric culture sees maleness as normal and neutral and femaleness as a departure from both of those things rather than masculinity’s equal and opposite counterpart. Most things in our society that aren’t clearly gendered become male by default and so marketers don’t have to work very hard to convince women and girls that those things are worth having.
But just how seriously are we supposed to take a candle that describes its scent as “cassis and fig with a hint of danger”? Surely advertisers don’t think men are stupid enough to pick up their product and think “I could use a little adventure in my life!” We’re past the era where advertisers tried to appeal to buyers by convincing us that their product could fix our problems. Now they approach us with a wink that says “This is so meta! You’re smart enough to know how advertising works and I know that you’re savvy. You know, we should probably hang out some time.” Which just makes it even harder to fight the sexism that’s implicit in ad campaigns. Anyone who dares to point out what’s problematic is instantly shut down with some version of “can’t you take a joke” and the culprits escape to continue their reign of hegemony-perpetuating terror.
And that’s the real problem here. It’s not wrong for men to think that Beer Foam is a better color to paint their walls than Bone White. But it’s also not wrong that some women agree or that some men disagree. It’s wrong that we should expect men to act one way (and only one way) and women to act another, weaker and inferior way. Gender is such a lovely and nuanced thing that can be twisted in so many directions and when someone needs it sliced down the middle it makes me want to scream. Out of all the possible gender expressions in the world, we keep getting fed the same two over and over again and, even here in Ohio, I see plenty of people every day who don’t fit into those boxes. Advertisers tell us that they only give us what we ask for, but they’re creating expectations just as much as they respond to them. It’s one reason it’s so important and so amazing that we continue to support queer companies. Like it or not, capitalism isn’t going anywhere anytime soon and when the money that’s talking is ours, our voices and our values become stronger.