Contemporary Male Masculinity in 30 Seconds

Curator's Note

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.  



Great collection, Peter. Here's two thoughts in response:

The aggression is that much more salient in the final commercial due to a voiceover by Michael C. Hall - the actor who plays emotionless serial killer Dexter who kills according to a warped personal code of justice. His voice seems to be a good match to the shots of stoic male faces.

Marc Andrejevic has argued that advertising is one area in late capitalism that acknowledges and offers solutions to alienation. For most of us, to labor means to build something for someone else. Many accounts of masculinity in the US involve ideas of power, control, and self-reliance - ideas that are incompatible with having one's labor alienated. These commercials are predicated on the promise of a return to that degree of control. We might surrender our pants or smile and nod as the boss speaks, but we can regain power through consumption.

Great post, but in grouping these, I don't want us to miss the particularities. From your collection, the one that stands out as especially troubling is the final spot for Dodge. As Robert highlights, Hall's voiceover emphasizes the menacing tone of the copy as well as underlining a state of detachment that the zombified faces of the men already signify. Here, masculinity is constructed as something incompatible with domesticity, or even sociality - something only to be realized through a melding with powerful technology. What's most intriguing is that the "problem" represented by the sociopathic, automaton-like men blankly staring forward for most of the commercial are entirely solved by being not just supplemented, but supplanted, by an actual machine. In which segment am I supposed to feel alienated?

As for the others, I think they're trading on our experience of lack in different ways. In the Dockers' case, I think the absurdist nature of the premise is about deflecting the potentially aggressive nature of the slogan "Wear the Pants," but, at least in my mind, the triumphal chorus that dominates the commercial is what resonates. I can't help loving the freedom from societal constraint that is this roving group of pantless (and non-ideal body typed) fellows. The Dove commercial is more direct in perpetuating a repetitiously mediated trajectory of manhood, but it doesn't suggest angry disengagement like the Dodge ad. Of course, attempts at humor dominate all three, but the ways in which humor is deployed in deflecting regressive aspects, while at some level similar, also seems quite unique in each.

Great comments.  Dave, I think you make an excellent point about the particularities in each ad, something I could have stressed more clearly.  I would still argue, though, that the differences in are located more in tone rather than underlying ideology.  The Dodge ad, by far the most provocative recent example in the genre, seems the most willing to take the diluted message from the other two and amplify it.  Where the first two utilize humor to deflect the disturbing undertone about men needing to take back something that's been lost, Dodge has no qualms about just cutting through the noise and stating their point.  In some ways, then, I actually find the first two more disturbing for their use of humor to "soften" what seems to be the same message. 

Robert, I appreciate very much your point about regaining control through consumption -- which is something, of course, that these marketeers are expressing more than anything else.  Pants/soap/cars will make you powerful again.  What's curious to me is the lingering, subtle messages about who has taken the power away.

Great observation, too, about Michael C. Hall doing the voice-over, something I had missed entirely.

Great discussion on a topic that seems perfectly suited for this week's theme.  While watching the superbowl and thinking about my contribution to IMR I was struck by the gender implications of the ads.  Later I enjoyed listening to the Slate Culture Gabfest, as the culture columnists devoted part of their weekly roundtable to a discussion of masculinity and those ads  You can find the discussion on the Feburary 10th episode.

I think one thing that we need to consider when interpreting the meaning of the masculinity in these ads is the wider audience for Superbowl commercials.  The media industries are consistently complaining that the audience has become increasingly fractured.  The Superbowl is the ultimate example of event programming that transcends this problem and brings the nation together for a block of television programming.  The commercials are crucial to bringing in the non-football audience.  Websites like Hulu even use the advertisments as programming

I would assume that advertisers understand that their audience isn't just men who feel powerless in an increasinlgy complicated world.  Is there some way in which these commercials are speaking to women (the audience demographic that is often responsible for purchasing things like dockers) about men?

How does the humor play a mediating role in the wider audience context?

Thanks for this great selection of ads! Reflecting on these ads, on my own favorite anxious masculinity advertisement (for beer, appropriately), and on the theme of this week’s IMR, I’m left wondering: Do contemporary masculinities have to (either literally or figuratively) cover their ass? We’re still calling this millennium shiny and “new.” By contrast, is there something inherently regressive (and in the case of this last ad aggressive) about male masculinity?  

I was struck by just how overt these last two ads are in their defenses of “traditional” masculinity with all of the hegemonic trappings. Without being “that guy” who points out the obvious cultural critique,  it’s worth noting that in the latter two ads, male masculinity is coded as decidedly straight, middle- or upper-class, and (with one exception) white. But whereas the Dove advert celebrates the sense of triumph culminating from a heteronormative life narrative "well done"—a success which deserves nice skincare, apparently—the Dodge spot is almost snarlingly resentful towards the quotidian demands of straight domesticity.

The singing lads in the Docker’s advert, meanwhile—whom I can’t help but read as bearish—have apparently escaped the constraints of society, and now wander through a jovially homosocial pastoral. The singleness of narrative and visual focus in the Dove and Dodge plugs is evaded for a communal experience in the Docker’s ad. What’s weird is that--for all of the enjoyable whimsy in its first half--if we “buy the ad” (and the Docker’s), we are also complying with the imperative to “WEAR THE PANTS,” as well as a rigorous gym routine that turns soft bodies hard. Equally overt is the matte brick wall, there just in case we can’t make out that the final image is meant to stand in butch contrast to the preceding images of men crooning among the daisies willy-nilly (or at least with willies-gone-nelly, anyway).

Considering the sorts of bodily discipline with which these latter two ads equate straight male masculinity—presented as either dizzyingly frantic or soul-crushingly tedious—I’m wondering why modern men wouldn’t choose the alternative of running about with their pants off. Needless to say, part of the humor in the Docker’s ad rests in the implausibility of its escape fantasy. But at the same time, I’m not quite sure how body wash and a shiny new phallus sportscar could possibly be enough compensation for the trials and tribulations of heterosexual coupledom we see depicted here. Call me crazy, but I’d take the daisies and sing-alongs any day. In these examples of manvertising do we see an acknowledgement that heteronormativity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, however undermined and undercut that critique might be by the promise of happiness via conspicuous consumption?


I can relate to most of these men.  I view most films and commercials of this type as an "unconscious therapy".  What you describe as humor is actually a drill into the unconscious collective.  Once the drill has penetrated into the mind the therapeutic seed is planted.  We laugh off the pain of being who we are and don't have to "deal" with it.  

We feel better after viewing these depictions.  However, the latent effects lie waiting to resurface.  Not knowing why we feel good but understanding the source of that good feeling we end up turning to the TV for our daily dose of "unconscious therapy".

The confusion also keeps us coming back.  We begin to have such deep anxieties about our existence that we also turn to the TV to relieve yet another self-induced symptom.  

Yes, this is more of a blanket theory of TV addiction but this is exactly how I think the Masculinity commercials are playing to our psyche.  


Re: Dove.  As Jonathan McIntosh points out at (, Dove is made by Unilever, which also makes "Axe"; the two brands represent "diametrically opposing values and views of women."

I'm interested, also, in the question, raised above by Ethan Tussey, about what these ads say to women.  Obviously, those media critics and artists among us have no trouble reading the hostility and the implicit blame (see the feminist eyerolling at; poor poor powerful white men, we are so so sorry for you!) but also, of course, the Charger ad attempts to justify an otherwise preposterous purchase to the wife: let your guy blow 30,000+ on a Dodge Charger, because his beleagered psyche needs that car if he is to continue recycling, apparently.

That being said, products have of course traditionally been sold as a reward to ourselves for doing work we hate, so really, what I'd love to see is a more of a direct critique of labor and the marketplace without the fake strawman (strawwoman?) intermediary of gender.  These guys start out  being mad at their bosses, but they--and the ad--brings the anger home to their wives, and that's what feels abusive.

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