Masculinity Underground

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Spotted in a Toronto subway station: These billboards for Harry Rosen, the elite Canadian men’s clothing store. I was intrigued by the no-holds-barred equation of masculinity, sexuality, physicality, money, and ownership. Also, these men “own” the “night” and the “weekend,” not traditional work times, but of course, presumably these hours extend (and are made possible by) their “ownership” of the daytime. This ad also reflects constantly shifting norms for male beauty, including a multi-racial man and a man with heavily tattooed arms who appears a model of business suave—his arm decoration enhancing rather than detracting from the power and success he represents. These men suggest progress in representations of ideal masculinity but yet of course, maintain the norm that it is beauty—however defined—that means success. And though different men may step on to this stage, they play the same parts when it comes to notions of masculine power. Harry Rosen’s models may be objectified, as targets of a gaze, but, they “own” their surroundings in traditional masculine style.

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Covering Up Women’s Health at the Check-out Rack

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Publix, my (generally wonderful-other-than-their-refusal-to-support-the-CIW) regional grocery chain, saw fit to conceal this recent TIME Magazine cover on the rack, in the traditional manner of hiding pornography (I uncovered it to take the photo). As you can see, this issue—with the cover story discussing women’s changing approaches to breast cancer—was adjacent to Shape,  also concealed, presumably due to the scantily clad model on its cover (who was herself adjacent to a headline screaming “Shrink Your Belly!”).thumb_IMG_2832_1024 [At least, I’m guessing it was the model’s barely covered breasts that earned the Shape cover-up, and not the general offensiveness of reproducing tired and destructive messages about the female body and the need to make it ever-smaller. ]

Certainly, it’s intriguing that TIME chose a naked and conventionally slender female torso to make its point about a woman’s wrenching choice when it comes to investigating her propensity for breast cancer. On the other hand, the magazine is clearly depicting a woman doing a self-exam—not a sexual act—and yet the store has  relegated it to the status of quasi-pornography on the check-out rack. (This juxtaposition seems particularly evocative when we also consider the widely socially accepted sexualized discourse around breast cancer—the “save the tatas” movement.)

Surrounding these two magazines—one actually about women’s health, the other about marketing women’s bodies and sexuality—both covered in the manner of pornography—are other magazines promoting multiple varieties of American consumerism and intersecting it with gender, in the home, in the bedroom, in the mall. These messages, of course, gain no such censure.

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Empowering Women Through Bangles

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While strolling the streets of quaint and chi-chi Winter Park, with friends this past weekend, I made my first visit to an Alex and Ani store. This jewelry trend was new to me, but my friend who teaches high school knew all about it. The company has been around for a decade, but has only had retail stores for about five years, and the store in WP only opened last year. So perhaps I can be forgiven for my cluelessness. Now I’m completely fascinated by this company.

In case you, dear reader, are also not up on the latest jewelry trends, here’s the deal:

Along the lines of Pandora, Alex and Ani offer a sort of do-it-yourself experience; shoppers choose charms, combine bangles, or select symbolic stones  to create something unique for them.

The company says it is all about empowering women and expressing identity: “ Alex and Ani believes in the power of positive energy, a core company principle. We have made it our mission to share the benefits of positive energy through the unique beauty and symbolism of our products.”

(See their website, which is fascinating in itself.)

In its appeal to femininity, Alex and Ani taps into some centuries-old understandings of women as mysterious and nature-oriented. It also calls upon a vision of “you go girl” sisterhood that offers female bonding without the politics of 1970s feminism. (This puts me in mind of the great chapter in Susan Douglas’ book Where The Girls Are in which she talks about how advertising in the late 1070s and ‘80s co-opted feminist ideals of empowerment and independence by equating those goals w/ products. Everyone should read this book.)

The store promotes female uniqueness and difference (what students of feminism might call “cultural feminism,” which says that women have unique, special qualities that will enable them to contribute to society differently from men but in important ways). Here, you can express and attain that inner spirit through carefully chosen jewels and charms.

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Text here:

“Natural Wonders/Innate/Untamed/Mysterious

The heart and soul of the sixties flower child is firm rooted in a deep respect for the Earth. Inspired by this vast planet and the ancient belief in the healing properties of natural gemstones, the Natural Wonders Collection contains stones specifically chosen for their innate power. Let the vibrations created by these patterns empower you on a lifelong journey of joy and exploration.” 

Made in America With Love/www.alexandani.com

The company also  “honors a legacy of American tradition and culture with influential licensed partners, in alignment with our positive brand mission, across a broad array of institutions – from Major League Baseball® and the United States Olympic Committee to the five military branches.” (See photo: “sorority collection” and “collegiate collection”.)

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The organization also sells charms representing certain charities and benefits them by giving profit back to the charitable organization.

Cynically, what I draw from all this is how fabulously the company has created opportunities of marketing and cross-promotion. Creating a “sorority line,” for example, insures a built-in audience for the product. Same with the “collegiate” line.

The colored stones, each with a special meaning, IMG_0288remind me of the New Age crystals craze that swept the nation in the ‘80s; that was a sort of return of a hippie healing mindset, a step removed from the politics of late ‘60s America. Today’s version is yet a step further from its origins, updating and prettifying the crystals craze so that mystic connection to nature comes sanitized, pre-packaged, neatly presented in charms, beads, and bracelet wire.

Of course, what Alex and Ani offers is only a pre-packaged uniqueness; shoppers can decide who they are and how to express themselves, but they have to choose, of course, from the possibilities laid out before them. That’s nothing new in the world of consumerism—the illusion that choice offers us possibilities to define ourselves, but in fact, those very choices are limited from the start. That’s not my idea; see the Frankfurt school theorists Adorno and Horkheimer if you want to know more. Or for an updated take on what choice means to American consumers, check out Barry Schwartz’ book, The Paradox of Choice.

All that said, Alex and Ani has some very cool company goals and policies. (http://www.alexandani.com/our-story) They make their jewelry in the U. S., they hope to improve local economies by adding to vibrant downtowns, and it celebrates female individuality.

So, here we have a fascinating blend of ideologies and artifacts: appeals to a type of essential femininity, a quasi-feminist celebration of personal identity, a reiteration of traditional femininity expressed through jewelry, an appeal to national loyalty, a social consciousness (community, making and buying American. All of this deep meaning is available for a price.

And it’s not THAT expensive; you can buy a charm bangle for $28. But of course, one is not supposed to stop there; the store’s website suggests layering multiple bangles to make a unique look. One bangle is merely a gateway bangle to more.

So, is a company like this a way to change the world through stuff? Designers and sellers can create products, infuse them with meaning, offer that meaning to buyers, who then presumably sign on to the meaning in order to own the product?  And it’s not just talk; after all, women built and run this company, so there is real female empowerment going on here. Or is this merely a superficial way to acknowledge world and life issues of justice, the battle for individuality, and women’s social role? I’m thinking the latter, but I’m open to discussion. To really answer these questions, we’d need to know more about the buyers’ motivations and the role the jewelry plays in their lives. We’d also need to follow the company over time to see how much impact they are able to have on the charitable missions they support.

In Nairobi, Kenya, women make ceramic beads by hand, producing beautiful jewelry (Kazuri) that is marketed across the world. These women make money from this work and gain status in their community. The organization is part of the World Fair Trade Organization.

So, how is this different from what Alex and Ani is doing? In both, we’ve got beautiful jewelry, social consciousness, and a good story. I like the Kazuri jewelry better, but that’s not really the point. In Alex and Ani, empowering women seems to be a marketing tool; in Kazuri, it seems to be the real thing.

One news article describes Alex and Ani as a “lifestyle brand” ; perhaps that’s the difference.

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Man Candles! Finally. Really.

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Glimpsed in a mall shop window: this display promoting “man candles.” Man candles! What are those? Clearly, an accessory for the “man cave.”

Courtesy of Yankee Candle, this poster—and the store display—provide quite an education in the gender of candles.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that candles have gender (a quality traditionally reserved for humans, who, as living beings, actually enact conventions of masculinity and femininity, something inanimate objects would find hard to do); certainly, candle stores have strategically, if often implicitly, appealed to female consumers. Now Yankee Candle makes explicit its gendering of this inanimate object.

If these items are “man candles,” then all the other candles in the store must be “woman candles.”) Yankee Candle promises “this year’s must have gift for Dad,” with an air of solving a longstanding problem: Finally, the half of the population left out of mass candle buying has products for them.

Of course, the “man candles” herein conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity in ways almost too easy to bother analyzing: hunting, outdoorsiness, big machinery, alcohol, and, well, just SMELL.

This promotion made me wonder. What DOES camo smell like? (Turns out, it smells a little like the woods, in a good way.) Why do we NEED “man candles?” Have men been lacking candles? Do women just secretly want reasons to buy men candles as a way of increasing their own candle supply? Do men want to buy each other candles but feel constrained by the feminine associations with this product? (After all, the usual scents are things like rose, gardenia, pumpkin, cinnamon and so on. Everyone knows those are “woman smells.”).

Candles could be an aid to romance, which might certainly transcend heteronormative gender assumptions, but on the other hand, will prospective consumers find themselves in the mood when they sniff “on tap” or “riding mower?” I’m thinking not. (“On Tap,” one of the man-scented candles, smells truly foul, like the most stale of bars passed by on the street on a Sunday morning).

“Man Town” smells pleasantly of traditional aftershave, clean and fresh, but still, it’s kind of a weird scent for a candle. If none of these fit the bill, there’s always “MMM, Bacon!,” which like all candles, you could purchase as a candle or as a car air freshener (because who wouldn’t want their car to smell like bacon).

The man-candle marketing doesn’t end with the window; a full display inside (looking ahead to Father’s Day) includes an enticing array of these new scents, along with the “Man Candles Toolbox Gift Set,” which packages “tumbler candles” in , you got it, a toolbox. I guess candles seem even less like candles if they come in a glass the man could put liquor in and a container he could pack tools in later. Or perhaps, the candles ARE tools.

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The Father’s Day conceit continues in the store’s seasonal catalog: “give dad what he really wants. . . it’s really not that complicated.”

On another page, options for holding the candles: “Hero’s Boots Jar Candle Holder.” The text proclaims, “Boot, Baseball and Beer. . . Things Dad Loves.” See photo above for the boots in action with some camo candles.

What more is there to say about this? Probably I’ve said enough, except to conclude that this marketing ploy fits a trend I’ve noticed in mainstream consumer culture: products become ever more gender-specific—in the most traditional ways—even as women and men in the United States continue to test gender norms in their own lives, from changing roles in relationships, to changing conceptions of normative relationships, to increasing understanding of transgender identity and genderqueer identity.

Yet mainstream consumer culture holds steadfast to these norms, sometimes in the most farcical ways. Yankee Candle clearly wants to reassure its customers that in their shop, at least, traditional social norms prevail. And since they are (as they claim), “America’s best loved candle,” this message clearly matters.

Feminist History for Sale

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Spotted in a Barnes & Noble women’s studies section: This new “keepsake journal” version of Gail Collins’ 2010 history of “American Women from 1960 to the Present.” This book also comes in a totally regular paperback edition (see below), but you’ll notice something is missing from the original version: a way to make the reader feel involved by contributing her (presumably her) own thoughts and experiences.

The new version nicely synthesizes trends in journaling and scrapbooking with reading. Really, this book is now a sort of DIY coffee table history. Why was this necessary? Do readers need to be guided to “preserve memories of the way things were?” Perhaps so; certainly, the “reading group guides” in the back of so many popular novels nowadays suggest that publishers believe readers need much guidance, indeed.

Here, again (not unlike in the WFM example, below), a particular irony emerges: this book is implicitly and sometimes explicitly a feminist history of a period when women made great advances, some of which centered on questioning dominant societal institutions. This keepsake version plays right into the dominant institutions of marketing and consumerism while reiterating the image of women as keepsake-makers.

It’d be interesting to know the rationale behind this edition. Certainly, this “ Keepsake Edition of the national bestseller, now with space to preserve and share personal memories of the way things were” (Amazon) retails for more ($20 as opposed to $16 for the paperback or 9.99 for the kindle), but it’s safe to assume that generating a wider audience was equally important.

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Old But Still Good: Gender & the Olympics

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Family, family, family, and in particular, MOM: This was the theme that dominated commercials during the Olympics this past winter.
If I had a nickel for every time moms in particular got pointed out in the stands, I’d be…well, you know.
Most noticeably, the announcers talked endlessly about ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie’ White’s moms (and occasionally about the moms of their Canadian competitors, Scott and Tessa). But they talked more about Meryl and Charlie’s moms (and yes, they said moms), by first names, like they were all old friends, with a lot of emphasis on how they’d been there from the beginning, so this was for them too. No mention of dads. Maybe they have no dads? But in fact, a google search of “Charlie White dad” turned up first, a recent People magazine story of headlined with a quote from Meryl, “Our moms are kind of our lucky charms.”
But another headline highlighted Charlie’s dad commenting on the Sochi victory.
In People, an article that pre-dated their gold medal, included this paragraph:

“Charlie is very anti-superstition – we don’t have any concrete good luck charms we rely on,” Davis shares. “But I think our moms are as close to good luck charms as we have.” The pair’s moms, Cheryl Davis and Jacqui White, have never missed a competition, Davis says, “and one tradition we have is that before we compete, we take a moment to give our moms a hug before we warm up.” Davis and White are involved with P&G’s’ “Thank You, Mom” campaign, which gave them the chance to recognize their mothers in a video about their lifelong support. “We’re so grateful to have them with us wherever we go in the world,” Davis says.”
P & G’s 2014 “Thank you Mom” commercial pictured cute, winter-sport-clad children falling over as they practiced with boards, skis, skates, and sticks; their moms there ready to lend a helping hand. “Thank you mom, for teaching us that falling only makes us stronger.”

The children morph into contemporary Olympic athletes, falling, and then, skating, gliding, sticking their way to victory. The final tagline: “P & G : Proud Sponsor of Moms.”

It’s refreshing to see from the comments that many viewers have the same question I do—“ where are the dads?” even if some of them expressed some sexist viewpoints in the process.

This theme was not new; P & G had a similar campaign in 2012 . Loving mothers rousted sleepy and tousled children from their beds in countries across the world; the reflective, lilting sound track accompanied these children braving early morning dark and cold to practice at swimming, running, and more, culminating in their transformation into Olympic athletes.

TD Ameritrade ran a similar series; see this article in Business Insider for details. Athletes contributed their own family videos for the bank’s “Behind every great moment there are lots of small ones” series.

To be sure, nothing wrong in recognizing the role families play in helping young athletes advance and achieve their dreams. But why such a gendered approach? Were these all struggling single mothers?

Unlikely. While on the one hand, this ad gave nice props to the important roles mothers play in encouraging children’s passions, it also reiterated traditional gender norms. But perhaps even more interesting is the way these ads fused concepts of sport, motherhood, and Olympic glory. The intense world of international athletic competition was softened through its connection to misty-eyed mothers.

Motherhood, not national identity, now inspires our loyalty. The competition becomes an opportunity for sentimentalizing childhood, motherhood, athleticism, and even competition itself. What we see here is another example of the way, as historian Gary Cross puts it in his great overview, An All-Consuming Century, consumerism “Won” as the dominant belief system in America during the 20th (and now into the 21st) century.

Applied to P & G, what we see is how consumerism has become totally infused into Americans’ emotional lives. In a completely unironic and unreflective way, family relationships and family love became marketing tools. These Olympic ads are the apotheosis (or nadir?!) of this process.