As someone who studies mediated depictions of male masculinity, I find that the Super Bowl represents the Holy Grail of annual research opportunities. While most of my work deals with contemporary popular film, commercials offer perhaps an even more salient site of gender construction and anxiety. The mini-narratives at work in the commercials shown during this game present an ideal historical space in which to track Madison Avenue’s ideas about contemporary male masculinity and consumption.
Furthermore, the cultural fantasies at work often deliberately push the boundaries of political correctness through the use of humor in order to capture media buzz. Elsewhere I have argued that, in this commercial genre of “manvertising,” the resulting distortion effect creates a built-in defense mechanism, allaying criticism of the deeply regressive gender politics by suggesting “it’s all a joke.” If the ads make fun of themselves, the tactic seems to suggest, they can’t be criticized for the blatant sexism and misogyny embedded in these narratives.
The genre isn’t going away, but it might be changing. Dove in particular seems to offer the most potential for a new image of male masculinity not rooted in gender anxiety, even hiring Michael Kaufman as an advisor. Ad agency Sullivan Higdon & Sink has even bucked the trend and moved away from the genre, offering a remarkably progressive stance in a crowded marketplace. Yet, just as many ads continue to revel in images of anxiety and anger, and companies such as Old Spice seem determined to hold a regressive line.
This year’s Super Bowl ads, for the most part, continue this trend of exaggerated humor as a mechanism to deflect criticism, although they also creep back toward an openly angry tone devoid of the self-defense humor strategies. The tropes of strength, inherency, and position in a “natural” patriarchal order are all firmly on display; yet, as the binaries associated with depictions of male masculinity always do, the sense of weakness, threats from femininity and homosexuality, and a general state of cultural siege also surge through them.
The accompanying clip, a collection of three ads from this year’s broadcast, follow a trajectory of increasing anxiety: humor gradually disappears and is replaced by open hostility. All three ads, however, illustrate the constant tension surrounding the effort by advertisers to define contemporary male masculinity through opposition and defensive, reactionary language. While these ads are only a snapshot of a particular segment of mediated gender images, they nevertheless illustrate the ongoing inability of the media to resolve the “problem” of what it means to be a man without illustrating what it doesn’t mean, or to create narratives even for the most mundane of products (pants, soap, cars) without resorting to siege mentalities and the “burdens” placed on men from a culture ready at any moment to condemn their behavior. Perhaps most importantly, they circulate discourses of taking something back, seizing power, and restoring the rightful order to a society somehow gone wrong.