Visual representation of reality, as seen through mass media, is acknowledged by sociologists to be influential in shaping people’s views of the world. Our everyday realities are articulated mostly by what we see in the media. The role of advertising in this interpretation of reality is crucial. The target audience’s self-identification with the images being a basic prerequisite for an advertisement’s effectiveness, makes advertising one of the most important factors in the building of behavior models and values systems. The way a certain notion is managed at a visual level determines how people will perceive this notion and whether they will identify with it or not. Meaning is encoded in the structure of the images, which thus become potent cultural symbols for human behavior. The framing and composition of the image, the setting, the symbolic attributes and every other element in its structure, all are engaged in the effective presentation of the underlying notion.
What do images of the male body in advertising reveal about the notion of masculinity today? What is today’s model man? Is there consistency in the visual representation of masculinity or are there competing images of it?
In this study I will do a content analysis of the portrayal of men in 20 magazine advertisements. 5 ads were taken from “Maxim,” a men’s magazine targeted at 20 to 30 something males. 4 were taken from “Men’s Journal, a men’s magazine targeted at men from 30 to retirement age. 5 were looked at from Harper’s “Bazaar,” a women’s magazine targeted at adult women. 4 were taken from “Allure,” a women’s magazine targeted at women in their 20’s and 30’s, and two were taken from “Entertainment Weekly,” an entertainment magazine with a non gender specific target audience. I selected these ads by tearing out all of the ads in each magazine with a man or men in them, scattering them face down on the floor and picking up a few. I intend to look at these ads as a group of 20, looking at collective similarities among them and any common stereotypes and themes in the way these ads portray men. I also intend to examine any general differences between the ads fro the men’s magazines, and those from the women’s magazines, as well as differences along product lines.
I expect to see reinforcement of the stereotypes discussed in Denise Kervin’s study as well as the stereotypes delineated by other authors cited in this paper. I expect that these reinforcements will occur as much as, but in a different way than is seen earlier in time as discussed in the various literature cited in this paper. I also expect that these stereotypes will be equally present, yet will manifest themselves differently depending on the target audience and product being pitched.
Dominant discourses surrounding gender encourage us to accept that the human race is ‘naturally’ divided in to male and female, each gender realistically identifiable by a set of immutable characteristics. In Foucault’s terms, relations of difference are social constructs belonging to social orders that contain hierarchies of power, defined, named and delimited by institutional discourses, to produce social practices. “Gender differences are symbolic categories” (Saco, 1992:25). These categories are used to ascribe certain characteristics to men and women. The representation of those characteristics determines how men and women are presented in cultural forms, and really whether an individual is identified as ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’. It is important to understand the big role that media, in general, and specifically advertisement plays in maintaining an ingrained gender hierarchy. The closer study of men’s and women’s images as presented in advertising should result in uncovering the messages about their identity and role in society.
Until recently, masculinity in the media was not considered problematic since there was the notion that masculinity is not constructed. “Masculinity remains the untouched and untouchable against which femininity figures as the repressed and/or unspoken” (Holmlund, 1993:214). During the 1990’s this notion started to change since a significant decline in portrayal of men’s traditional roles became obvious.
Until then though, qualities such as being aggressive, autonomous and active were always naturally attributed to men. Until mid 80’s men also seemed to be the only ones that occupied powerful roles in society, so advertisements showed powerful images of men to sell products. Qualities culturally associated with women in ad’s included being caring, warm and sexually passive in contrast with the muscular and powerful male. Common themes were these of the promiscuous gladiator with the female victim, the protector and the rescued. In even older ads men were invariably portrayed as husbands and fathers. It is interesting to see that now, when things have admittedly changed for women, we still see much of the same themes in modern men’s advertisements.
In the ads from “Men’s Journal,” we generally see a handsome, strong, successful and somewhat rugged man. The camera angles are almost invariably from the bottom up, giving us a view of the man as though we, the viewer are below him, looking up at him. All of them are young, but none are teen-aged looking. All but one have, or show remnants of facial hair. None of these ads show the man in the work place, but their depiction of leisure is that of mature success, not youthful excess. Because of the camera angles, the strong stances, the rugged good looks, and the depictions of success, these ads reinforce the stereotypes of men as strong, powerful, aggressive providers. 1 ad for Tommy Hilfiger shows the man with his arm around a girl who is leaning into his chest. This ad depicts a man as protector and as a heterosexual.
The one ad that stands out from the group in this collection of ads from Men’s Journal is the one from ESPN’s Sport’s Center. This ad shows a man finishing up a piece of cake at a diner and watching Sport’s center from across the bar. This is a different depiction of leisure which seems directly related to the product it is selling. The rest of the ads are selling some form of apparel. They are designed to show clothes as comfortable and stylish and show that a man who wears those clothes can be the aggressive, dominant male.
The Sport’s Center ad is selling a product that isn’t consumed as part of public image, but of private pleasure. The copy, “What Sport’s Center Do You Watch?” implies that whenever, wherever the man wants his sports, he can get it from ESPN. It does not matter what he looks like, what he’s doing, or where he is when he watches it. It is on several times a day, and it is a man’s right and priority to enjoy it however he wishes. The man in this ad is a bit rounder, a bit more approachable but still not under anyone’s control.
These advertisements prove the man’s power, with his success, his heterosexuality, and his virility. These are all considered to be attractive features in males. To be more specific, they are considered attractive features in a grown man. Stuart Hall, in his book: Representation and Signifying Practices, focuses on three important looks for grown men, these are the ‘Street Style’ version, the ‘Italian-American’ version and the ‘Conservative-Englishness’ version. He has argued that across these three looks, the casting of the models (especially in ‘Street Style’ and ‘Italian-American’ images) codes an ambivalent masculinity that combines both boyish softness and assertive masculinity. This sanctions the display of masculine sensuality. The clothes worn by the models are assertively masculine, and often emphasize a broad shouldered and solid body shape. The models display a highly masculine independence and assurance, as well as the coding of narcissistic self-absorption. The choice of lighting and film stock emphasizes the surface qualities of skin, hair, eyes and the texture of clothing. Finally the cropping of the images works to produce intensity in many of the images.
This stereotyped presentation of a gender role, certainly tells us that there is still a part of society that believes that men should be naturally related to power, aggression and authority. In recent years however, other aspects of masculinity have become acceptable in ads. This can be seen in the difference between the ads in Men’s Journal and those in Maxim.
The ads from Maxim are similar to those from Men’s Journal but definitely appeal to a younger audience. It is therefore interesting to look at what advertisers feel is more appealing to younger men. There is one ad for Ralph Lauren Cologne that shows a young successful looking man in a shirt and tie looking over the top of the head of the women cuddling in his chest. She is looking into the camera seductively and he looks as though his mind is elsewhere. He is dominant, even arrogant in this position and once again appears successful and confident.
Another ad from Maxim is for a DVD special edition of “Rocky.” The ad shows rocky beaten and worn but continuing to fight. The copy reads “at least David had a slingshot.” This ad depicts the ultimate American sports hero. This appeals to men young and old.
The other two ads show men at play. This is where we see a new type of masculinity, in ads that portray men as boys, childlike and irresponsible. This is actually very important, along with the fact that we see a lot of ads that are exclusively aiming at young boys. In the fifties and sixties there were actually none of those, since generally teenagers were considered as non-completed versions of grown ups. In most places in the world they were expected to wear specific clothing when they were in school and if they did not look like ‘proper young men’ when they went out they would be probably stigmatized by the rest of the society. So ads with hair-gelled heroes with jeans and leather jackets were out of the question. It was only after movements like the hippies and the student movements all around the world, that teenagers were seen as an inside revolutionary power of the race, and their non-mature behavior was considered as something acceptable or even good.
So now we have advertisements like the one from ‘O P’, from Maxim Magazine. He is a clean-shaven and handsome young man who has a hairless chest, and is looking innocent and idyllic. His clothes are for play and are particularly relevant to teen-agers and twenty-something males and what they might wear for a day at the park or the beach. He is a ‘boy-man.’ Similar messages exist in ads where boys express their masculinity by acting crazily and in some ads where the men are seen as playful and slightly irresponsible. Some other researchers also suggest that the ‘man as boy’ style can be effective due to the way that in which they lull the audience into having a motherly love for the male character.
The biggest decline though, from men’s traditional role as masculine and powerful is expressed in the advertisements that show men attempting to do housework chores and struggling with tasks traditionally viewed as female. I did not encounter any of this in the ads randomly selected for my study. Wernick identifies that as an increasing trend to depict male and female not as opposites, but as fluid categories that occupy equivalent places in society (Wernick: 1987, 280-293). If this is in fact occurring, I did not encounter it. Wernick discusses the transitional kind of ads that are trying to make traditionally feminine work seem masculine, so that men can do it too.
Of course, these kinds of ads really address women, since in most cases, they are the ones that are going to by the products. Wernick is reluctant to tread this as significant progress towards human liberation, and instead suspects it as no more than the leveling effect of market forces.
The ads I viewed from women’s magazines did not seem to have any of this phenomenon. These ads seemed to portray men in similar ways seen in the ads from the Men’s magazine, but more exaggerated and pronounced were then men’s dominance over the women and their aggressiveness. The first ad from harpers Bazaar shows a man staring off in the distance as a lingerie-clad woman appears bent almost over his knee. She is face down to the bed and he seems unconcerned with her. Another ad from Bazaar shows a room full of scantily clad, muscular men surrounding a vamp-type woman. They are all staring at her almost blankly as one of them grabs her by the waist. She is the only one looking into the camera. Her look does not appear helpless but rather almost vacant, reinforcing the idea of herself as an object, to be handled and gawked at. The men in this room are the aggressors and seem to be participating in some sort of pseudo-sexual fantasy. This ad happened to be a part of a multi-page campaign of which I picked up two. The other is the same woman and the man grabbing her from the first picture is behind the glass door, staring at her forcefully. The pane of the glass is positioned an almost phallic manner and she once again is the object of his desire, and if we remember anything from the first ad, he can probably have her.
In another ad from Bazaar, a very attractive man pulling his hair back and glaring seductively and aggressively into the camera. This man is obviously a sex symbol and displays the masculine stereotypes of the forceful, attractive, dominant male.
All of the ads I picked up from Allure featured a man and a woman. The first one I looked at was deceptive. At first glance it seemed opposing to stereotype. The woman is standing behind the man but the camera is shooting from behind. She has a chain wrapped around the man who stands in front of her facing away from the camera and she seems to be the one in control. However upon closer examination I realized that it is still the man being portrayed as the pillar of strength in this ad. The chain is not a tool she is using to control him, but rather a symbol of his strength. She isn’t pulling on or manipulating it, but rather she is holding on to it; it is supporting her. All three other ads portray the man as either the aggressor, the protector, or the dominant one of the two people.
Ads that target men (car, aftershave, alcohol etc.) still portray men as powerful and dominating creatures and point to traditional aspects of masculinity. Maybe this bizarre landscape in the visual representation of masculinity reflects the underlying identity crisis for men who have started to question themselves of what is to be male. Ads that target women seem to not only present these stereotypes, but depict them in correlation with a man’s relationship to a woman.