“Man up!”: When Beer Commercials Get Tough

I have been thinking about masculinity and violence a great deal recently, especially after a recent trip to Bogotá, Colombia, where I had the opportunity speak with folks who are addressing (male) youth violence in their communities. Then, last night, Jackson Katz came to campus to speak about male violence against women. That, and an assignment for my social theory students caused me to think about a blog I wrote about masculine norms in beer commercials a couple of years ago. An earlier version of this article first appeared on the This Week in Sociology blog in March 2011.

While watching the NCAA basketball tournament in recent weeks (along with Rhys Williams and many other sociology departments across the country), I found it difficult to ignore what appears to be an increase in the frequency of commercials ridiculing men who trespass the dominant masculine norms with their clothing and appearance. For example, three separate Miller Light commercials mock men who wear tight jeans, spend too much time on their hair, and tee off from the “ladies tee.” Just as remarkable is a series of Old Spice ads that directly challenge women (not men) to make sure “your man smells like Old Spice and not a lady.” Hyper-masculine commercials are not entirely new, of course. They appear in every Super Bowl and on every Monday Night Football show. But these recent commercials seem to carry a new intensity—as if there were suddenly more at stake. I suggest that such “tough comedy” commercials present us with a form of social control aimed at policing masculinity norms in direct response to a trend toward experimenting with alternative masculinities.

But why pay attention to commercials? After all, aren’t advertisers and the company stockholders they represent simply interested in making money? They get our attention by making us laugh, so why take them seriously? True enough, the company executives who fund the advertisements and pay millions of dollars to have them aired during highly-rated sporting events are interested first and foremost in making money. But whether or not they are misogynists or homophobes (or supportive of progressive causes) is beside the point. The sociological perspective compels us to look beyond the motives of individuals to examine the social impact of institutions like the media. When we do so, we find that patterns of inequality are both revealed and sustained through media—yes, even through beer commercials.

The first commercial to catch my attention was the Miller Light skinny jeans commercial. In it, an attractive female bartender taunts a physically unattractive (but cocky) customer for “borrowing your girlfriend’s pants.” Others join in on the fun, ridiculing him for confusing a women’s fashion trend with men’s fashion. The ad ends when a deep-voiced narrator commands viewers (men, it is presumed) to “Man up! And choose a light beer with more taste!” A couple of details are worth noting here. First, note that the overt message contained in the ad, and in the whole series of commercials, is that beer drinkers should pay more attention to how their beer tastes. Let’s assume for a moment that Miller Light beer actually tastes better than other light beers. (Stay with me, this is purely hypothetical.) Since when are “real men” supposed to care about taste? The creators of the ad must know that they are taking a chance by asking men to buy beer on the basis of gustatory judgment. No wonder the commercials try to (re)cast tasteful discrimination as thoroughly masculine. Second, a quick look at the dress of the actors in the commercial reveals that the attire of everyone in the commercial reinforces the gendered norm—men are supposed to wear loose-fitting clothes while women should choose clothing that makes them attractive to men. The tank tops and tight jeans worn by the women show skin, shape, and size, while the loose jeans and flannels worn by all of the men—excluding the hapless norm violator—conceal the details of body shape and size.

It’s worth pointing out that the “deviant male” in this commercial is not completely deluded. Skinny jeans are in fact a new fashion trend on the rise among men. As early as 2009, the Wall Street Journal published a story on the growth of this new recession-proof market for expensive, tight-fitting men´s jeans. Nor has the fashion trend been confined to urban elites who can afford designer jeans. Just yesterday I happened to be in Sears—hardly at the forefront of the fashion movement—where Levi’s openly promoted its “Skinny Leg Jean” for men. Clearly then, the skinny jeans commercial represents a reaction to a genuine fashion trend. Some men do choose to wear tight jeans, but, we are told, this is unacceptable. Why is it so offensive? Could it be because they are uncomfortable or restrict freedom of movement, or sexually objectify the wearer? No. Skinny jeans are unacceptable, we are told, because they are women’s fashion.

Raewyn Connell’s concept of hegemonic masculinity is helpful here. Connell argues that 1) there are many gender types, both masculine and feminine, and that 2) these gender norms exist not side-by-side but in a hierarchy, at the top of which lies a single, dominant cluster of norms called “hegemonic masculinity.” The term may sound like a mouthful but it is really just another way of describing the “king of the gender hill.” Connell’s work reminds us that in the social world we have inherited, gender and power are inextricably linked. It is not the case that femininities and masculinities represent merely different poles of ideals. No, masculinity, and especially one particular way of being a man—the dominant way of hegemonic masculinity that embraces risk, competition, heterosexual conquest, and the suppression of emotional vulnerability—thrives on the subordination of women and on the marginalization of alternative ways of being a man. One more thing. Hegemonic masculinity is virtually invisible. It is the set of social norms for “proper” male behavior that are so “norm-al” that many of us often forget they even exist. Of course “real men” don’t wear a skirt, or cry in public, or stay with the kids so that mom can work. No one even needs to remind us of the gender rules for men. They seem perfectly natural.

Which brings us back to the guy in spandex jeans. Clearly, he needs a reminder, we are told. We all need some reminders apparently. And so a whole set of commercials has sprung up aimed at pointing out how “obviously ridiculous” men are who fail to grasp the importance of distinguishing their own jeans or deodorant from their female partners’. It’s easy to laugh at these commercials because the men who violate the norms seem so patently foolish, so “deserving” of ridicule. But don’t be fooled. The creators of the commercials are cashing in on more than humor. Underneath the laughter lies real angst from men who sense that the erosion of supposedly “natural” norms of manhood spells trouble for them. If alternative masculinities continue to proliferate, blurring the boundaries between how “real men” and women act, male privilege itself could be in danger. Laughter at violators is therapeutic in the sense that it allows men to feel vindicated in abiding by the norm and policing it. “It’s not just me, that’s really ridiculous.” Laughter and ridicule aimed at men who act, dress, or smell “like a woman” is an attempt to punish defectors—those men unwilling to protect the centuries-old rights embodied in hegemonic masculinity. “Man up!” We are told, or find yourself the butt of jokes from both women and men who truly “know the difference.”  As for me, I’m not sure that at my age I’m particularly interested in switching to skinny jeans, but I think I’m “man enough” to know what a good beer tastes like. I think I’ll pass on the Miller Light.

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