Modern masculinity: Are we in crisis?

In recent years, female empowerment has been a hot topic in both adland and broader culture - from the 3% Conference (and their mission to support female creative leadership in agencies) to the lyrics of Beyoncé. But while we've been trying to address female stereotypes, have we been blind to the stereotypes around masculinity? Our view on what it is to be 'a man' still remains limited.

The qualities associated with being a man are often deeply ingrained. The OED offers 'vigour' and 'toughness' as synonyms for 'masculinity'. But these are determined through society and culture, rather than biology.

In just three generations, our ideas about masculinity have changed dramatically. A recent UK YouGov survey highlighted this divide, with 56% of 65+ men describing themselves as 'completely masculine', opposed to only 2% of 18-24s.

If masculinity is a fluid concept, dependent on and defined by the social and cultural norms we're exposed to, how does it differ across the globe?

The psychologist Geert Hofstede applied 'masculine' and 'feminine' traits to countries, examining how a society's culture influenced its values and behaviour. More 'masculine' countries favour ambition, wealth and differentiated gender roles, while more 'feminine' countries overlap gender roles, and place value on things like modesty and quality of life.

In Mexico, a machismo culture is associated with masculine pride and power. This has found negative expression in sexual violence and abuse, to the point that many women and men have tired of this norm and are protesting against it in an effort to promote change.

By contrast, in South Korea, many men use skincare products and makeup as a part of their daily routine. The perfectly kohl-lined eyes of the country's K-Pop bands have captured the hearts of fans worldwide.

In Sweden, gender-equal policies have found favour. The country's paternity leave is shared between parents; and more men, known as 'Latte Papas', are embracing the primary care role.

Although masculinity is associated with various traits across the globe, it is clear that on the whole, gender distinctions and roles are blurring. From the 42% of men in the US who take sole responsibility for cleaning the house, to the 300% growth in male grooming sales that Mr Porter reported last year.

If this kind of change is rife in society, why isn't it reflected in much of our advertising? Why are we still greeted with images of sexual prowess and monetary success alongside products that promise to keep 'masculinity' intact?

In the UK, only 8% of men are inspired by the advertising images they see of themselves, and are instead left feeling the pressures of limited societal expectations.

One concept that psychologists blame for this is the 'Man Box'. Inside the box is a list of roles and expectations of traditional masculinity, such as 'powerful', 'strong' and 'in control'. Words outside the box, like 'sensitive', 'geeky' and 'wuss' have negative connotations and are used to confine boys and men into a narrowly constructed definition of manhood.

Sociology professor Michael Kimmel found a marked difference between what men define to be a 'good man' (caring, honest, puts others' needs first), and a 'real man', who reflects the core of the Man Box. Men are confused about what it is to be a man, or to be masculine.

Many men still feel the need to live behind a mask - putting on a front of strength, whilst masking their feelings and emotions. The UK charity C.A.L.M. (Campaign Against Living Miserably) reference this 'mask' in their latest #Mandictionary campaign as "Camanflage: the happy front men wear in certain social situations". It's a serious message, with a rise in male depression and suicide being the biggest killer of young men in the UK. You could say we're facing a masculinity crisis.

The artist Grayson Perry explored this issue in his C4 series, All Man and an article titled The Descent of Man. Perry acknowledges that masculine values like stoic self-sufficiency can be chronically damaging to men and harm their relationships. He says rigid masculine roles can destroy lives, and calls for society to encourage a new model of manhood - more tender, liberal and multi-dimensional.

What can advertising do to help build this new model?

We can make a conscious effort to challenge rigid gender stereotypes in our work. Last year, Unilever's #Unstereotype movement looked to do just this for both men and women, across their communications worldwide.

But if we're cherry picking desirable assets of this new 'modern man', we run the risk of creating a new norm that could be equally limiting in future. Instead we need to find ways to flex the multi-faceted character of the modern man as Lynx/Axe have done in their latest 'Find Your Magic' campaign.

Finally, let's start earlier for a healthier future norm; ensuring our work offers gender neutrality and variety from the get-go. In children's toy advertising, we've seen Toys R' Us go against the long established 'girls play hairdressers and boys prefer tools' with their 'Let toys be toys' promise - aspiring to more inclusive and gender-neutral communications.

It'll take more than advertising to shift these norms, but it's a good place to start. By challenging gender stereotypes, diversifying our depiction of men, and starting earlier. Only then can we create a healthy and realistic world-view of the modern man.

 

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