First published in the MRS' Impact magazine, Crowd DNA associate director Jake Goretzki explores the fast-shifting attitudes to masculinity and male identity...
In May I presented ‘Gendershift: How To Speak Man’ at Crowd DNA’s regular breakfast event, Rise. This piece looks at shifts in attitudes to masculinity among Millennial men in the West and the opportunities this presents for brands.
Male identity is ‘hot right now’, in and beyond our sector. From Stormzy’s musings on male mental health to comedian Robert Webb’s forthcoming book ‘How Not To Be A Boy’. At Crowd DNA, we’ve developed a close interest in masculinity working with clients seeking to remain relevant to a young male audience – in an age where men aren’t the ‘lads’ they were a decade ago. The debate about ‘what makes a man’ isn’t, of course, new (remember the ‘New Man’ and the ‘Metrosexual’?), but is especially visible today.
For Gen Xers like me, raised by feminists and moisturising since their teens, opining on male dilemmas still feels, frankly, uncomfortable. Look: we still live in a patriarchy. Power is male. Wealth is male and the UK pay gaps grants men a 9.4% bonus over women. Outmoded ideas of men as promiscuous risk-takers and women as meek and emotional remain ubiquitous. ‘My heart bleeds for you’, my mum would tell me.
Male identity has been changing among Millennials. The drivers range from the (slow) advance of women in society to the mainstreaming of gay male identity. Male and female space has converged (from pubs to stag dos). Health and body are greater male preoccupations than ever before.
Today we see a more fluid, ‘individual masculinity’ that’s less binary and less ‘one size fits all’. Only 2% of men aged 18-24 said they were ‘completely masculine’ in a YouGov survey in 2015. Closer in, men have become more intimate and emotional (‘bromance’ is a word and US Presidents can cry now). When they do have children, men are more ‘Involved’, embracing fatherhood and not trying to escape the fact.
Yet for all this heartwarming progress at the leading edge, we’re seeing new tensions around masculinity. Most prominent is what’s called ‘toxic masculinity’, embodied by the (paradoxically make-up-wearing) Leader of the Free World (we did the crying when he was voted in). And behind him is a parade of back-to-the-kitchen growlers, ‘pick up artists’ and alt-right misogynists.
Worse still, Millennial men are living with a ‘misery epidemic’. As the charity ‘CALM’ reminds us, suicide is the biggest killer of young men (a subject touchingly covered by Professor Green). Being told that ‘boys don’t cry’ and appeals to ‘just be a man’ aren’t helping.
There are lesser tensions too. We see an increasing divergence between generations over what ‘being a man’ is, and a tendency among older men to misconstrue today’s men as ‘victims’ of female success (ask the Boomer icon Jeremy Clarkson how he feels about male identity today). We see a continued grapple to pin down an aspirational male archetype for today (strength and grit still dominate; witness the surge of Weekend Warriors and Tough Mudders).
Brands are increasingly reflecting changes. Unilever’s ‘Find Your Magic’ campaign for Lynx/Axe has long been a gold standard case study for us, celebrating a more nuanced, diverse idea of masculinity – the more so coming from a brand once associated with a laddish posture that irritated women. Fashion brands have been relatively brave too – Diesel’s ‘Make Love Not Walls’ doesn’t hide whose proposed wall it’s talking about.
In drinks, Coors now lets us laugh at Jean-Claude Van Damme’s faded machismo; Southern Comfort liberates with a pot-bellied beach walker. Over in the Deep South, Jim Beam is now fronted by Mila Kunis. (And suddenly, Jack Daniel’s gruff men of Lynchburg Tennessee are looking a little unreconstructed).
There are many opportunities for brands to speak more meaningfully to today’s young men. Brands can take a stand against toxic masculinity by talking to men and women as one, not two camps – tapping into male goodwill for female progress. Nike’s ‘Unlimited You’ is a bracing male and female story. ‘Walking the talk’ as an organisation is essential as well (American Apparel’s seedy casting of young submissive women won it few friends and bordered on the ‘toxic’). As Elina Vives, Senior Director of Marketing at Coors has said “Any brand nowadays has to stop insulting women first and foremost and be much more inclusive”.
Brands can also work on the ‘male happiness project’: stoicism and old masculinity are a straitjacket and, frankly, young men need ‘cheering up’. Friendship is now a kinder, warmer experience than the ‘lad bantz’ and locker room of old. It’s time too to banish the stock ‘doofus dad’, bemused by parenting and shopping. As Axe/Lynx’s shift showed, disrupting conventions of masculinity and bringing greater nuance to the man you portray can invigorate a brand and win over enemies. Today’s man? He’s not the man he was. And a good thing, too.