What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Challenging Masculinity? by Drew Terhune

If you haven’t seen the new AXE body spray commercial, you should do that before you read any further, not because of spoilers, but because I’m going to talk about it a lot and it probably won’t make sense if you haven’t watched it at least once:

In 2002, when AXE body spray launched in the United States, I was a 13 year old boy, and AXE was a big deal. I bet if we polled people who’ve worked in residence life from 2002 to now, we’d find that the smell of AXE body spray was a permanent fixture in the varied odor profile of their residence halls.

This commercial was all over my newsfeed when it came out. And I get why; it’s pretty obvious, really. There are men of color, gay men, men with visible disabilities, all in an AXE commercial; it’s a welcome change from the days of women chasing men like zombies down the streets, immediately dumping their current partners for a better-smelling option, and minutes-long innuendos about shower habits. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, Google “AXE Clean Your Balls”; they’re talking about sports equipment, at least explicitly.) Clearly, they’re going a new direction with the brand.

What interested me more than the commercial itself was the commentary that accompanied it. Ad Age said AXE was “shedding traditional notions of masculinity” the headline at Mic.com was “New Axe Body Spray Ad Dumps Macho Schtick for a New Type of Masculinity.” And in countless commentaries offered by friends on Facebook, many of whom are current or aspiring student affairs professionals, the same two words: “challenging masculinity.”

Sorry, but we need to pause the music for a second and talk about what’s really happening in this commercial, and what challenging masculinity really means.

First, we need to talk about marketing. This is a commercial, and any analysis of the commercial as discourse has to keep that in mind. In other words, you are supposed to see this commercial and want to buy AXE. It’s not a coincidence that products that consumers read as being “masculine” or “feminine” sell better than products that don’t seem gendered. Purchasing things, especially within a capitalist framework, is an avenue for us to perform our gender identities. And I mean perform here like Judith Butler means perform; that is, buying the things I think a man like me would (or should) buy is a way that I can actually be the man I think I am. This process is often not explicitly conscious; as a personal case study, I was doing laundry last night and I realized that I bought my usual brand of dryer sheets, but in a new scent, “for men.” I don’t even remember deciding to pick something new.

In the context of marketing, why would a company want to widen the category of “men”? To sell more product to more people, obviously. There are probably concomitant social and political beliefs that accompany the decision, but those beliefs have to also be profitable to be broadcast like this.

Second, we need to practice our close reading on this commercial. The general reaction to the commercial has been positive; overwhelmingly so, in fact. It’s not common to see a brand with such global recognition, especially a brand so wrapped up in masculinity, to include men of color, queer men, and men with physical disabilities. And that is certainly better than nothing. But let’s take the long view: there are twelve little vignettes in the commercial, not counting the four men at the end of the commercial. There is a scene with a white man in a wheelchair (with a woman on his lap), a scene of some men of color voguing, and a scene of two white queer men making awkward eyes at each other in a bookstore/record shop. Of the remaining nine, six involve men interacting with women in ways that range from flirtatious to actively sexual. In the actual sex scene, there’s no man visible; we see only a woman in bed, gasping and clutching pillows.

The prevalence of flirting makes sense, though, because the entire ad is about being sexually desirable. The narrator lists a number of “things” that men can have instead of abs to make them desirable to sexual partners, a majority of whom are explicitly suggested to be women. But the contradictions start immediately. Though the narrator says abs are not necessary, everyone in the ad is somewhere between slim and muscular, and every man who appears shirtless has abs. (Except maybe the white guy who is naked and running from riot police; the camera angle makes it hard to say definitively.) As we move through the list of things men can use to get sex, we first get to the white man in a wheelchair, spinning around with a woman on his lap. His thing? Wheels. His disability is the thing he should use to get sex.

The representation of the queer white men is interesting because of its subtlety. For an ad that features a woman gasping in sexual pleasure, the queer couple making awkward eye contact at each other across a store is meaningful. Queer people have sex, and social acceptance of queerness necessitates our willingness to depict queer sex just as often as we depict straight sex.

As for the men of color who are voguing, they’re just voguing. That’s the end of their story. The most substantial departure from hegemonic definitions of masculinity, with makeup and heels and blouses, they have no story whatsoever, besides that they’re very good at voguing.

Third, identity is not all there is to social justice. The function of this ad, ideologically, is to widen the category of people who are generally agreed to be “men.” (For any Gramsci fans out there, this is how “common sense” gets constructed.) More people using the term “men” to describe themselves also means more intersections with other identities, but neither of those things addresses the structural harms of masculinity. They don’t address the sexual entitlement that men experience, nor the fact that men are extraordinarily more likely than any other gender (or agender folks) to perpetrate sexual violence.

It’s important to widen categories like “man” to include more people. But we can’t confuse that for the (also important) work of challenging masculinity as a structure. We have to train ourselves to see that structure, and to consider the ways it is constructed socially and in our students (and ourselves). Mistaking inclusion for challenging social dynamics is common, but they are not the same. We have to get comfortable with the differences between them.

Drew Terhune is the Strategic Communications Manager for the Division of Enrollment Management at the University of Oregon. He earned his B.A. from the University of Oregon in Classics and History. A reader in his bones, Drew is particularly interested in the historical roots of social justice activism, and in the way the alternate realities of literature, film, and video games can be used to explore and teach social justice.

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