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September 19, 2011 | by  | in News | [ssba]

Manliness for Sale!

Masculinity is one of the most prominent -inities in our day to day lives.

It shares this category with its counterpart femininity, and, of course, infinity, which is the answer to the common question ‘How many days will it take for Studylink to approve my student loan?’ At the most simplistic, fundamental level, masculinity is a product of biology—the subtle (and sometimes brutal) effects of testosterone and other androgens. Secondary sexual characteristics. Hair springing vigorously forth where once no hair had ever dared to tread, establishing darkened settlements at strategic points. However, of course, there’s much more to it than just masculine physicality. Masculinity as we know it is a cultural construct, essentially a collection of behaviours and attitudes that the society of the time dictates are acceptable for a male to perform or hold. Some aspects of this construct are universal—a masculine individual is expected to be physically strong, driven by logic rather than emotion, competent at manual tasks and possessed of a degree of that delightful antiquity, moral fibre. There have been attempts to codify it—the effects of the code of chivalry are still felt today, leading to quite complex matters of etiquette in the vicinity of doors.

Here in glorious New Zealand, masculinity seems to be centred around ‘staunchness,’ a near-fanatical devotion to our national rugby team (it is occasionally okay to substitute football, if we happen to be doing particularly well), a propensity for extremely short shorts, and the consumption of large quantities of beer. You’ll notice that most of these have some relationship to a commercial enterprise—that’s no coincidence. Far from the colonial days of New Zealand’s youth, when men were men and exerted their dominance over the natural world (with women, presumably, still being women, and doing much the same but sadly getting less credit for it), the vast majority of people, and certainly everyone likely to read this are now distinctly urban. To borrow the apt and insightful words of Ghostface Killah, niggas be as soft as babies made of cotton wool nahmean. In these distinctly gentle and commercial days, the main time we are confronted with issues of masculinity are the same time people are reminded of commitments to health or environmental awareness: when people are trying to sell us something. That reads, I realise, like some kind of vague condemnation—but it’s simply a statement of fact. Aspects of identity, such as masculinity, are manufactured, in many cases consciously developed purely to get stock off the shelves. People have been selling identity since time immemorial, and you can buy into whatever self-image you so desire. It’s simply that advertising based on the creation of a masculine ideal is slowly becoming more prominent, or at least more obvious. This is likely to be supported by the Rugby World Cup, especially if the mighty All Blacks manage to secure victory (it’s okay to dream). If this minor miracle takes place and the national spirit is aroused, we can all look forward to seeing a veritable multitude of famous biceps endorsing everything from cut-rate car insurance to full-length body pillows screen-printed with All Black legends. If the stars fail to align and the New Zealand collective masculine psyche is again dealt a crippling blow by those hand-wringing French bastards, have no doubt that marketers will be on hand to alleviate some of the pain. Possibly though a range of All Blacks-branded antidepressants.

Some examples, then. There is a proud history of masculine imagery in advertising. Look back long before your birth to see the Marlboro Man campaign, one of the most successful tobacco marketing ploys in history. Primarily depicting cowboys, which folk in the United States consider the ultimate, ur-masculine character, these ads were instrumental in popularising filtered cigarettes, the smoking of which was considered effeminate in the 1950s. The effectiveness of this campaign cannot be overstated—it netted them literally billions of dollars, which goes to show, if you haven’t noticed already, that masculinity is really quite a compelling sales pitch.

In a similar vein, there are some fantastic homegrown ads designed to make you want to consume substances. The obvious example here is Speights, a prestigious, allegedly Dunedin-based brewery that pumps out a fine array of the same mid-range piss that everyone else sells. Since the 1990s Speights has successfully centred it’s advertising around the character of the ‘Southern Man’. You know the one—an unshaven Frank Whitten (Grandpa from Outrageous Fortune, if you need a reminder) astride a horse, resplendent in matching brown overcoat and hat. The Southern Man embodies many of the aspects of traditional New Zealand masculinity: self-reliance, staunchness, a no-nonsense, down-to-earth attitude and a love for one’s natural environment. All and all, you get the impression of him being a such a hard cunt he’s practically an adult novelty diamond. RIP Frank Whitten, good on ya mate.

Another you might have noticed is the ‘Men Need To Know’ campaign being rolled out by Mammoth Supply Co. Their pitch sets out things that are and are not acceptable for a man to do. Prohibited behaviours include man-on-man umbrella-sharing, purchasing fashion magazines, and crying, except when playing the aforementioned French bastards. They’re refreshingly frank in stating “Man has lost his place in the world and his place in the fridge.” – these nostalgic appeals to bygone masculine glory are common but not generally that blatant. Either way, damn tasty ice cream, and who doesn’t get a hearty chortle out of saying ‘Man Yoghurt’?

Energy drinks deserve a mention. The sheer variety of them now on the market is astounding, but they all have two things in common. The generic something-berry taste, and the little blurb on the back. If you’ve ever found yourself bored enough to read the back of one of these brightly coloured cans, you’ll have noticed it says some variant of the phrase “Go on, take a sip of this highly sweetened fruit-flavoured beverage, if you think you’re man enough. It has caffiene.” This kind of direct challenge appears highly effective in stimulating consumer behaviour in adolescents, even if it is off-putting to everyone else.

On a more serious note, however, in recent years masculinity has been a target of Government health policy. Two notable examples stand out: the moving ‘Like Minds, Like Mine’ mental illness awareness campaign and the recent ‘Stay in Mantrol’ series of drink-driving prevention ads. The first of these, especially the 2002 ‘You make the difference’ segment featuring All Black legend John Kirwan, deals with some of the stigmas surrounding mental illness, and the role of masculinity in creating them. It is emphasised that seeking help is not a sign of personal weakness or failure to be properly self-reliant, and rightly so. The ‘Mantrol’ ads have a very important and serious message to convey (Young men are statistically highly more likely to die in alcohol-related road accidents), but come off as quite ridiculous. ‘Mantrol’, honestly? We’re all so used to the Police trying to scare the shit out of us with their ads by now that when they try to be funny it comes off as farcical.

So, those are some of the ways masculinity is treated in an attempt to change peoples values or behaviour. The list is by no means exhaustive—Every beer company has had a go, not to mention the endless metal-effect bottles of cosmetic products ‘for men’ that crop up on billboards in a yearly cycle. If this article has somehow traumatised you by confronting you with your lack of stereotypical masculine traits, don’t worry. Everyone thinks you are beautiful just the way you are, a staunch, muscular butterfly.


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