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In the wake of International Women’s Day, Design Bridge London’s Holly Aurelius asks whether female empowerment can be used to help masculinity find a new voice, and how brands can be part of the conversation.
There’s no doubt that Grayson Perry would be guest of honour at my imaginary dinner party. Cultural iconoclast and challenger of perceived wisdom, he seems genuinely interested to hear from people on all sides of the debate before presenting his own thought-provoking spin on things.
A few years ago Perry took on the weighty topic of masculinity in a Channel 4 documentary and subsequent book The Descent of Man, in which he advocated the need for a new masculine ideal: “Fulfilment of masculinity is often sold on the strength of peak experiences: winning battles, pulling women, pure adrenaline, moments of ecstasy. But life ain’t like that. We rarely, if ever, take our car (masculinity) on to a racetrack, so maybe we need a version that works doing the everyday things. We need a masculinity that’s easy to park, with a big boot, child seats and low fuel consumption. Men need to learn to equip themselves for peace.”
The difficulty of course in trying to carve a new path for masculinity is that we aren’t dealing with a linear subject. Masculine representation finds itself on the frontline of so many interwoven social issues – mental health, gender politics, the influence of technology and impact of toxic masculinity.
Don’t get me wrong; #metoo has been a spellbinding force for change, I’m cheering from the sidelines as Ocasio-Cortez unravels the US political patriarchy (turns out you can be badass and beautiful) and it will be some time yet before we address the huge imbalance of female representation in everything from data bias to the bank balance. But truly progressive feminism has a duty to the future, and in a world where women are increasingly thriving and finding their voice, maybe modern masculinity deserves our empathy in order to find its own.
Brands face the same complexity when trying to navigate this shifting landscape, with the risks and rewards both real and far-reaching. In taking on the topic last year Gillette fell foul of a consumer backlash with ‘The Best Men Can Be’ (mansplaining at its ironic best), whereas Harry’s seems to offer the perfect antithesis – straightforward, smart, accessible, and not an alpha sentiment in sight. Likewise Starbucks’ partnership with transgender charity Mermaids and their ‘Every Name’s a Story’ campaign offers us a poignant view of masculinity as a life-changing decision, and not simply a birth right.
It’s not unsurprising that the world of arts and fashion is more comfortable with this period of transformation for men. At the Barbican photographic exhibition “Masculinities: Liberation through photography”, curator Alona Pardo seeks to demonstrate how ‘traditional’ masculinity subjugates not only women, but the multitude of masculine forms that don’t fit the alpha mould.
This was a key theme for Gucci in their Instagram prelude to Milan Fashion Week earlier this year, where they echoed the call for change and talked of “Nourishing a space of possibility where masculinity can shake its toxicity off, to freely regain what was taken away. And in doing this, turning back time, learning to unlearn”.
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As the masculine ideal is redefined, for brands this is a maybe a moment for introspection and asking some hard questions: Do we have a human truth powerful enough to connect with new ideas of identity and representation? What does intersectionality mean for the future of targeted, data-driven communications? How do we (or indeed should we) weigh in on societal issues in a way that genuinely strengthens, and not erodes our reputation?
The answers might not be easy, but the positive outcomes in finding them are certainly worth the effort.
Words by Holly Aurelius, Senior Creative Strategist at Design Bridge London.
Lead image by ian dooley on Unsplash.