Like any other sane person, I did my best to avoid the high street in December, but it was during one such miserable pilgrimage to snap up some last-minute tat, that I walked past a House of Fraser window display that stopped me in my tracks. Not a majestic vision of festivity – but a display filled with images of men in suits. Nothing too out of the ordinary there; apart from these men in particular, were covered in bruises, sporting black eyes, broken fingers, split lips, had blood spilling out of all orifices – a pretty shocking sight to behold.
After further research I discovered the campaign was for Howick’s latest menswear – sorry – ‘Man’s wear’ range, the brainchild of BMB creative agency and brand directors at House of Fraser. The campaign features four first-team players from the London Irish rugby team, who’ve seemingly stepped straight from the playing field to swap their kits for suits.
BMB’s Creative Director, Matt Waller, said the Howick menswear campaign is a direct appeal to “rugby fans” the “real guy who’s not afraid to get his hands dirty… who wears his battle scars with pride” – whatever that means…
Tony Haldway, House of Fraser’s brand director said the range is tailored for men, “searching for authenticity, rather than a brand that promotes a pampered and Photoshopped perception of the modern man.” Waller envisaged the campaign would kick off an apocalyptic-sounding “re-appraisal of menswear advertising” by offering an alternative to brands: “creating aspirational “pretty boys” who’d run a mile from a crunching tackle.”
It got me thinking, is this perception of archetypal masculinity not a little outdated? Surely we’ve moved on from ranking a male’s worthiness on their physical stature, or their ability to hold their own on a battle field? (or in this case rugby pitch.) It really did seem to hark back to hunter-gather times where men were expected to be a strapping six-foot monster with thighs like tree trunks, embellished with scars of victorious battle, to comply with the elusive conventions of masculinity. After more thought – I wanted to know what does it mean to be a man in 2016 and does anyone really care about being masculine anymore?
Max Olesker wrote a fantastic piece for the Guardian on the confusion of modern male identity, quipping:
“In the far-flung misty past, being a man was a simple thing. You left school, got a job, got married, had children, drank heavily, played golf, had an aborted affair, never spoke about your feelings under any circumstances, and died of a heart attack aged 56. Easy.” Max Olesker, The Guardian
He quoted journalist and author Mark Simpson who claimed: “Basically, no one really knows what masculinity is, or is for, these days,” following up with “I can’t help but agree. It feels as if, as the traditional ideals of the 20th-century man – strong, stoic, repressed – begin to fade away, nothing has stepped in to replace them.”
I wondered why the subject hadn’t been discussed in more depth – Max seemed to hit the nail on the head: “These days the very discussion of male identity can end up aligning you with swivel-eyed men’s rights activists or the misogynistic Red Pillers on Reddit who spend their time discussing how women have it so much better.”
I spoke to PhD student Shardia Briscoe-Palmer, a specialist in gender, to try and fill in the gaps. Shardia is currently researching for a thesis on masculinity, using HIV related stigma and discrimination as a way to construct and deconstruct the male identity. “It’s interesting because there’s not a lot of people looking at gender in general and there’s not a lot of people looking at masculinity,” she said.
“When I start talking about masculinity, people find it hard to engage in conversation, either because they don’t have a clue what I’m going on about, or they feel uncomfortable talking about it.” Shardia Briscoe-Palmer, PhD student and gender expert
She likened the blueprint of Howick’s ‘real man’ to gender scholar Erving Goffman’s ‘unblushing male’ the ideal American man in the 1960s. He observed “There is only one complete unblushing male: a young, married, white, urban, northern, heterosexual, Protestant, father, of college education, fully employed, of good complexion, weight, and height, and a recent record in sports. Any male who fails to qualify in any of these ways is likely to view himself – during moments at least – as unworthy, incomplete, and inferior.” The brains behind this campaign have brazenly championed these age-old ideals, effectively excluding any man who doesn’t fit this prototype – bad news for you boys comfortable in a pair of skinny jeans.
Shardia also noted some inconsistencies between the tactics used to promote the clothing and the target audience intended. “I understand the fashion industry is full of these very aesthetically appealing men, however by trying to combat that, House of Fraser have done a full 180, they’re saying that to be a man’s man, you’ve got to look the way these men do.”
“It’s interesting because the type of men they seems to be appealing to, is the man that watches sports at the pub, has 10 pints and gets into fights, but then the clothes they are advertising, is for the 9 to 5 man, or the 8 until 8 man that’s in the office, the accountant or the solicitor – they don’t really go hand-in-hand.”
I thought it was important to reflect on popular culture, are campaigns such as this all that influential to the modern male’s perception of self? “I think these campaigns are just as dangerous as they are for young impressionable women targeted by the fashion industry featuring tiny size zero girls, young people end up feeling they have to look a certain way to be accepted. I think it’s exactly the same for men. It might even be more damaging, because men, as a whole, don’t talk as freely about things affecting their own self-esteem and emotional well-being.”
Shardia believes young men still feel the pressure to live up to certain gender ideals, but the stoic, repressed role model of 20th century has been replaced by hugely wealthy, hyper-sexualised poster boys of their favourite sports.
“I work in the community running sexual health programmes for young people in all sorts of schools, private and state” said Shardia.
“In every school I go to, boys feel they have to present themselves as knowing about sex, ‘I am dealing with sex this way’ ‘This is what I’ve experienced.’ It directly stems to gender specific popular culture. One advert in particular really sticks in my mind. It portrayed a party with loads of famous footballers. Young men are looking at the lifestyle of players such as Christiano Ronaldo, the money, the women that they have got around them, their physique, what they are dressed like, the attention they get and they aspire to that. I think as a boy, when you think of being a man, more often than not, that’s what you think of.”
These ideals can be damaging when not balanced with male role models who have direct contact with the youngsters Shardia believes. “When you sit in a room with young men, and young boys and talk about masculinity and manhood and you strip it right down, it can get quite emotional, because some of them don’t have a male role model around them. Their experience of masculinity is what they are teaching themselves, picking up from their friends or what they see on the TV which is not always that constructive.”
So what can be done about it? “There are a multitude of role models across the racial spectrum now, black, white, asian, teachers, coaches, scientists, chefs, role models all shapes and sizes from a range of trades and skill sets. I would love to see a campaign featuring some of our everyday heroes, men wearing skinny jeans or men in wheelchairs – these are real men.”
Now, who could argue with that?
Many thanks to Shardia for her invaluable contribution to this piece.
Department of Political Science and International Studies
University Of Birmingham