Home > Culture, Hilarity, Navel-Gazing > Body Care Products, Soup and the Absurdist Eccentricity of Modern Masculinity

Body Care Products, Soup and the Absurdist Eccentricity of Modern Masculinity

It’s becoming fairly apparent that the globalized social order of the post-modern, post-capitalist, post-democratic West is undergoing at least a few active crises. But seemingly at the core of all of them lies a truly earth-shaking crisis: a crisis of masculine identity. Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir recently descried a nostalgic yearning to preserve and recapture a fading sense of unshakeable white American manhood in a time of increasing feminism, multiculturalism, diversity, and LGBT rights, where even unassailable fortresses of homosocial identity communion such as the National Football League, the U.S. military, and fraternities are finding themselves assailed for the less savoury consequences of their inborn chauvinism (like, I dunno, rape and domestic violence, or something).

Wherever one looks, in fact, defenders of aggressive, blustering masculinity are finding themselves seemingly besieged by the minority and diverse forces that they have marginalized and exploited for so long and are lashing out in response. The increasingly absurd machinations of the brothers Ford in Toronto municipal politics represents a pure distillation of the right-wing politics of white male resentment against the implications of liberal modernity for a permanent softening of an enduring (if ever-more vestigial) social hardness. Similar political predilections have taken firm hold of the Republican Party south of the border and are granted a seat at the proverbial table in the Conservative Party north of it.

most_interesting_man_in_the_world__60668Elsewhere, the longtime male fantasy zones of superhero comics and video games are experiencing spasms of change as open-minded creativity and criticism open them up to new, non-male voices. Some dudes may never be able to handle a female Thor, and even more dudes have crafted an obnoxiously misogynistic “movement” called Gamergate to harrass and silence incisive feminist voices criticizing sexist representations in gaming. Even international terrorism fits this masculine counter-revolution bill. What is ISIS, at its core, than the most extreme men’s rights pushback of them all, transmuted through post-colonial developing-world grievances against imperial powers and a radical, fundamentalist vision of Islam that restores a medieval gender hierarchy through brutal force? And what is the muscular military intervention against them but a resurgence of masculine martial fervour to match their vicious phallic demonstrations?

But there’s a parallel stream (or perhaps an intertwined one) to this belligerent counter-revolutionary masculinity. Corporate consumer advertising has targetted perceived male insecurity by flattering its assumptions of inherent superiority while simultaneously exposing the obsessive propriety with which it treats its cherished tenets as fundamentally ridiculous. This ironic, self-aware approach to the terms of traditional masculinity lampoons those terms just as it reinforces them. It presents masculinity as a sort of comic eccentricity to be stroked and kept placated by agents of traditional femininity, lest its claws come out. The innovating ad in this cycle was Old Spice’s viral clip starring the brilliantly deadpan Isaiah Mustafa as “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like”.

There’s an overt appeal to women to the ad, of course: Mustafa is gorgeous, and he’s looking right at the camera, addressing the “ladies”, letting them know that men are basically ludicrous creatures but they have their uses (mostly, it must be said, materialist ones). But the dominant message is addressed to men: it’s okay to be traditionally masculine, but try not to take it too seriously, because that makes you a chauvinist asshole. There’s also a line out to men and women who reject the terms of traditional masculinity, nudging them knowingly and acknowledging the rightness of their view. No wonder the ad was so massively successful, launching similarly parodically manly sequels and indeed whole products lines based on the comic premise. It spoke, with exquisite, slippery balance, to most hegemonic young-adult demographics at the same time.

The Old Spice campaign found itself either inspiring or coming into discourse with similarly-pitched marketing, most prominently the meme-ready Dos Equis ads featuring “The Most Interesting Man in the World” pictured above. The tone of worldly, devil-may-care sophistication of those ads introduced a note of cosmopolitan savoir-faire to the modern masculine playbook, qualities that are often dismissed as European and effeminate. But a more recent, and odd, commercial for Chunky Soup’s blatantly male-centred Pub Inspired line of canned soup flavours focused the beam of ludicrous modern masculinity even more intensely.

The demographic appeal here is more particular: young father with teeny-pop fan daughters is offered respite from his emasculated plight by a meat-and-potatoes stew and a skull-perching eagle-wing set of earmuffs. But beyond the absurdist humour and gender assumptions lies a secretive homosocial exchange. The experienced soup-slinging bartender inside the television (his taps dispense not beer but sludgy, sodium-rich sustenance for young single men allergic to food preparation) offers sage advice and material gifts that preserve some private illusion of traditional masculinity to a subject otherwise deprived of contact with his supposedly primal (but really quite socially constructed) manhood. It’s a window into the mindset of patriarchy: private exchanges between men in settings where women are not present and certainly hold no power or sway determining the matters of true importance.

But the exchange is fundamentally silly, down to the screaming eagle with the pretentiously classical name. Perhaps the core truth of the current state of masculinity is most visible in this element of such an advertisement: although man-to-man exchange retains its protocols of respect and gravity, both the customs of this exchange and the patriarchal aims it supports and works towards have slid into a position of tired uselessness worthy of ridicule. A panicked realization of this fall from grace may perhaps serve to explain the vehemence of chauvinist masculinity’s response to the perceived reduction of its influence and dominated discursive territory.

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Categories: Culture, Hilarity, Navel-Gazing
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