Androgyny and the Fall of Rigid Masculinity
“Often, we’re saying, ‘Stop expressing those feelings.’ And if a boy hears that enough, it actually starts to sound uncannily like, ‘Stop feeling those feelings.'”
Robert Webb’s recent memoir, How Not To Be A Boy, is fuelled by his own childhood trauma and anxiety – stemming from not feeling like he ‘fit in’ with the traditional rules of masculinity. For instance, he had to suppress tears for fear of his alcoholic father beating him in response, was still a virgin at 17 and felt embarrassed about ambitions to go to Cambridge. The book brings the topic of gender expectations into the mainstream with force and honesty, and reflects on the idea that currently harmful ‘rules’ exist for being a man.
However, Webb’s goal is also to enlighten readers on the fact that these issues still affect all men: phrases such as ‘boys don’t cry’, ‘grow a pair’ and ‘man up’ are still used. This kind of language shuts down masculine emotional expression or struggle and represents unrealistic, stubborn, socially-rooted concepts that can be damaging. Going by these rules, men are pushed to abandon empathy and sensitivity. With the emotional struggle internalised, and the act of discussing it also seeming weak, it starts to become apparent why men are dying by suicide 3.5 times more often than women. The growing awareness of this mental health dilemma has led to brands boldly shifting their public outlook on the current state of masculinity.
When talking of Lynx/Axe’s recent brand repositioning, which aims to empower men in the same way Dove has for women, Rik Strubel, global vice president, explained: “The pressure to conform has gone up. Guys have lost their confidence to express themselves….The moment you show individuality then people get bullied and this is the big issue.” The brand repositioning extends into two campaigns: ‘Is it ok to…’, where men write in with questions that challenge stereotypical expectations of masculinity, and ‘Find your Magic’ that offers personalised style advice for a broad range of aesthetic demographics, celebrating individuality. The success of these campaigns is noticeable in the public reaction. Louis Lyndon, a professional wrestler seen as representative of traditional masculinity, praised the campaign on twitter, referring to Lynx/Axe as “men using their power wisely”.
Another example of the shift can be found in LADbible’s upcoming rebrand, where they have understood the influence they have on the male population, and want to use it to change the very definition of a ‘lad’ to include things like mental health awareness with the ‘R U OK M8?’ campaign.
As well as brands using their influence to sway attitudes, and new voices such as Robert Webb, a new wave of creators and deviators are straying from these oppressive conventions. Values that were previously reserved for each gender are merging, and the ‘guidelines’ are fading away. An androgynous and liberated future is developing, embodied by the following three emergent pioneers.
Gregory Robert is a French model and dancer who employs an extremely colourful style, with pastel shades appearing in almost every outfit. When Robert speaks of his style, it becomes clear he is utterly comfortable with his masculinity, and adept at dismantling it.
“People think pink is for girls, but for me, pink is for everybody, and I just want to show the new vision of pink. I feel masculine when I wear it. Maybe I’m a good mix of girl and man, but I’m still masculine.”
Gregory’s sentiment of “I feel masculine when I wear it” is exemplary in attitude – his identity is not decided by rules, but by feeling. If he can feel masculine whilst doing something considered stereotypically feminine, anyone can create new definitions of masculinity from anything. Gender cannot be reduced to an arbitrary signifier such as a single colour or style – personal empowerment is far too individual a process.
“I don’t necessarily like wearing lipstick, I just think it’s funny to do. I think the darker the better, but it’s whatever my girlfriend Kiera has in her purse. […] It freaks people out a little bit. And sometimes it’s fun to wear women’s clothing, but it’s hard to find anything that fits properly.”
Indie musician Mac DeMarco is experimental, creatively unbound and in-touch with sensitive emotions that he proudly conveys in songs. Wild behaviour such as stripping naked and climbing the walls of the theatre at his gigs demonstrate his utter lack of interest in staying in a box – allowing masculinity to fluctuate freely. His laid-back attitude towards expression cannot be considered stereotypically feminine or masculine and his gender doesn’t frame identity in any way.
The barriers between gender expectations are collapsed in Young Thug’s segment from a wider Calvin Klein campaign that promotes unique expression and identity. In appearance, Young Thug defies the hyper-masculinity of hip-hop and trap music and his recent album cover (Jeffery) depicts him in a dress of his own choosing, and he says in the Calvin Klein campaign:
“In my world of course, it don’t matter: you could be a gangster with a dress, you could be a gangster with baggy pants. I feel like there’s no such thing as gender.”
Knowing that he has influence in a predominantly masculine genre and culture, Young Thug reconstructs masculinity. By contradicting the pre-existing set of masculine attributes, he normalises genderless identity, which removes fear of backlash and lets people be who they are.
Emerging from emotional inhibition and forced roles, men like Webb, Robert, DeMarco and Young Thug are finally being given platforms to be seen as unique, liberated individuals. Brands should follow this shift and adopt a more socially-open attitude towards marketing, building meaningful collaborations and promoting social engagement as we realise masculinity. If we see a hybrid effort of influencers and brands using their drive to amplify issues, we could benefit from a future of masculine diversity that allows unlimited expansion, expression and freedom.
– Fred Abbott