You’d have to have been living in the Arctic Circle to have missed the huge amounts of recent discussion and debate around the representation of women. Led by policies, campaigns and even brands, it seeks to reassert women’s power in a world that has historically largely circumnavigated them, and to explore the myriad elements of what it is to be a woman today. It is at once framing and leading a new conversation that is long overdue.
But what about men? Surely it stands to reason that if women don’t want to be seen as bimbos, neither do men. Yet you could argue that the lager-fuelled Nuts-reading ‘lads lads lads’ stereotype – who wants sex, chicken, beer and is handy with a lightbulb – could well be the male equivalent of the big-breasted, bikini-clad, politically-inept woman. Indeed, people are starting to question: with so much focus on women, what does it mean to be a man today?
But, lo! Over the last couple of months we’ve really started to notice some brands that specifically target men begin to change up the narrative. For what may be the first time, Lynx have released an advert for a new product range (‘Bring the quiet’) that portrays the world from a woman’s perspective. And guess what? She’s not a half-clothed Amazonian goddess. She’s attractive, of course, but in a girl-next-door kind of way. And she’s walking through a street filled with intimidating characters and a lot of noise, which is posited as a world with more stimulus than ever, but also parallels the bombardments of personal space that women often face. At the end of this street scene, she meets her guy – an understated, slightly bashful man who looks at her (and only her) as if she is the most beautiful girl he has ever seen. The message? That understated is masculine. Manners and depth are masculine. Not being a ‘lad’ is masculine.
Another development is Maxim magazine, which has just been redesigned to focus less on sex and more on substance (“It’s done a Joan Didion!”, we joyfully exclaimed). Even media commentary around it states that “Maxim finally grows up”, suggesting we’ve all been ready for this for a while. Take a look at the front cover, and you’ll see that it holds something back. “Come closer”, it invites. “Meet the most desirable woman in the world”. Even the language is different – more intimate, equal, and actually a damn sight sexier than having it all laid out in front of you. You are invited to “meet” her, not leer at her. Why? Because “[their] guy has grown up,” says publisher Kevin Martinez. “He’s 33, starting to make money and looking at his life differently.” To cater to this, there is a more refined look, full-page fashion spreads and higher quality storytelling from the likes of Pulitzer-winning journalist Rick Bragg, novelist Andre Dubus III and Rolling Stone writer Jenny Eliscu. Says Lanphear, “I don’t want to shy away from ‘sexy’—that’s an essential part of the Maxim brand—but I think we’ve evolved since the magazine was first started, and our ideas about sexiness are not so simple or cliché.” Hear, hear.
But it’s not all as well thought through or exceptionally executed as this. Enter Dove Men + Care. While it is clearly trying to move the conversation on by examining what it is to be a ‘real man’, it falls a little flat. The problem is that the positing of a real man as someone with an openly softer, loving, caring side is contradicted by the fact that these two concepts are separated out at product brand name level. ‘Men + Care’ implies that the concepts of maleness and care and inherently separate. This portrayal feels one-dimensional and a little insulting for both sexes. While tongue in cheek, the brand continues to frame these ‘caring’ things in a man’s world, and in slightly derogatory terms – for example, turning the oven on becomes “operating complex machinery”.
The lessons are clear. If we’re trying to move beyond the stereotype of a woman who is only there to be sexualised and cook dinner, then we also need to transcend the idea of a man as a he-man who can’t get off his stepladder. It’s equality we’re after, and a true, nuanced view of what it means to be a man (and woman) today. These brands are just the start. The rest of you, listen up.