It’s Not for Women!!!

A Personal Essay About Gender in Advertising

[An old-style TV with dials and an antenna sits against a bright green background, with the screen also colored bright green.]

I wrote this essay in the fall of 2016 for a senior-level anthropology course. The assignment called for an gender-related essay braided with personal experiences, course material, and further research from the field of anthropology. It wasn’t the first time I had written a personal essay for a class, but it is one of two pieces that I still think about often.

In addition to being thematically relevant for this setting, the below essay also holds much personal meaning for me. The assignment provoked me to reflect upon my lifelong gender confusion with new depth. It provided a foundation for my (still subconscious) wonderings about my gender identity, which would rise to the surface about nine months later. (I still remember one of my professor’s comments was that I should be careful about conflating being a tomboy with being transgender.)

Other comments I received from my professor and TA were also impactful. My instructors remarked upon the style and voice of my essay and encouraged me to continue writing. They even said that I should consider submitting future work to literary journals. I was taken aback by this suggestion, and it first planted the idea that my writing held worth beyond the classroom setting.

This essay is published in its original form, except for the fifth section, which originally argued for people of other genders to “help” men see that challenging gender norms is good (AKA a call for more femme labor). Read on to see the altered conclusion.

1- I Never Liked Dr. Pepper Anyway

Dressed in sweatpants and a basketball camp t-shirt, I sit sprawled on the couch with my legs propped up on the coffee table. The football game on the TV is lopsided and about to end. I gaze out the window at the gray skies and wonder if it is still raining. I hear a male voice yell, “Hey ladies!” and my attention turns back towards the screen.

During my high school years, I loved nothing more than spending my free time watching anything to do with sports. During these TV binges I was subjected to an infinite number of commercials, the vast majority of which explicitly targeted men. I had long since accepted that ESPN was made for, and watched by, men. But, one advertisement succeeded in destabilizing my blasé attitude.

This commercial, promoting a new form of diet Dr. Pepper, first aired in 2011. The scene opens with a buff white man running through a jungle, dodging explosions, while shooting back with his own gun. The man addresses the camera directly, saying “Hey ladies, enjoying the film?” He pauses to punch a snake before answering his own question: “Of course not, because this is our movie!” He then jumps off a cliff into the passenger seat of a getaway vehicle. The man continues to talk as the driver speeds through the jungle: “And Dr. Pepper Ten is our soda,” he yells, holding up a can. “It’s only ten manly calories, but with all 23 flavors of Dr. Pepper. It’s what guys want.” The car screeches to a stop and the protagonist says, “So you can keep the romantic comedies and lady drinks; we’re good.” Finally, the screen flashes to the words “It’s not for women,” which the man narrates emphatically.1

This ad spoke to me, literally. As a woman, the narrator’s first words called my attention. But I was only being addressed to be told I was not welcome, that I was lost on the wrong side of the gender divide.

I had grown up doing boy things while rejecting all things feminine; I played all kinds of sports, wore baggy clothes, kept my hair tightly tied back at all times, and stayed far away from makeup. I was a tomboy through and through. And I kept at it much longer than any of my girl classmates. Sure, I knew my actions weren’t in line with what a person of my gender was supposed to do, but rarely had the message been delivered so bluntly.

I was left wondering what led Dr. Pepper’s marketing team to take such a bold stance about who their product is, and isn’t, meant for. In his book entitled Brands, Marcel Danesi quotes E.B. White, saying that advertisers “are the interpreters of our dreams…”2. So, what kinds of dreams are American men having? And why aren’t girls like me allowed to share them?

2- The Transgender Threat

A few drops of sweat bead up on my forehead as I run after my basketball. Ball in hand, I get back in line, taking the chance to wipe my brow and tighten my pony tail. The boy in front of me, wearing his youth football jersey, slings a ball towards the hoop with all his strength. It slams off the backboard with a bang audible over the chattering crowd of middle schoolers hanging out throughout the gym. He curses under his breath, sprinting after the ball.

I still lead with four half court shots made. Everyone is counting, although no one is about to acknowledge it. The rest of the kids in the line are boys and the next closest — football jersey boy — has two shots made. The bell rings, signaling five minutes until the start of class. As I put my ball in the basket and walk out of the gym, the boy refuses to accept defeat and continues chucking the ball desperately from half court.

In his paper on condom advertising in India, William Mazzarella reminds us that, through their marketing, companies appeal to our desires to become members of certain exclusive groups.3 Advertisers recognize that we define ourselves relationally. Applying this to the purposes of this essay: A man is what a woman is not.

In the recent years, this dichotomy has become less certain in societal consciousness. Transgender folks have finally succeeded in pushing and shoving their way into mainstream discourse, although recognition and legitimization are yet to be achieved. The result is that American society has begun to at least consider that gender may not equal biological sex. From the commercials that the interpreters of our dreams have produced, I can only conclude that cisgender men feel threatened by this trend.

As Judith Butler writes, gender “is an identity tenuously constituted in time — an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts. Further, gender is initiated through the stylization of the body…”4 As I type Butler’s words, I imagine those who hold tightly to the identities given to them by their assigned sex beginning to sweat. This especially applies to cisgender men, who have long depended on their gender for power and privilege.

For the same reason that the boy obsessed about beating me in the half court shootout, men are increasingly careful about which products they consume. As Butler says, our very identities depend on repetitive daily actions. If, in his actions, a man is unable to clearly distinguish himself from the other gender(s), he fears he may be subsumed into another, less privileged category.

Some progressive marketing departments have run with the opportunity to support boundary blurring and appeal to those who are on board with trans rights and/or who are transgender themselves. In one Secret Deodorant commercial from this fall (2016), a woman peeks out from inside her bathroom stall as two others vivacious women walk in to refresh their makeup at the mirror. While she is wearing a dress and jewelry, the woman in the stall has short hair and a slightly muscular frame, implying that she is a transgender woman. The women, who are implied to be cisgender, continue to gab while the trans woman rubs her neck nervously, wondering if she can safely emerge. She finally decides to walk out as the screen shows the words, “Stress test #8260… Dana finds the courage to show there’s no wrong way to be a woman.” In the background we can hear the other two women complimenting Dana’s dress, affirming their acceptance.5

When I first watched this commercial, I was happy to see a company recognize a problem faced by a transgender person. On the flip side, this advertisement plays directly into cisgender men’s fear that they are just one wrong consumptive act away from losing their gender status. If, as the ad suggests, all it takes is women’s clothing and deodorant to pass as the opposite gender, they had better cling to the male versions of those items, and tightly.6

3- Heterosex and the Masculine Body

Boyfriend at the time: I saw myself in the mirror today and was so disappointed. It’s like going to the gym hasn’t even done anything.

Me: It’ll take some time, just keep on working.

Him: I know, but it seems like I should have been able to see some improvements by now.

Me: Try to be patient.

Him: But I really want to look good for you.

Me: I already think you look good.

Him: So you don’t care if I look better?

Me: That’s not what I said. I am already attracted to you now. But, if you want to change your body, I support you.

Him: I just thought you would care more.

In his essay on the male body, David Morgan writes, “Men’s power is exercised in the public arena and this power frequently, one might say always, takes on a bodily form.” Masculinity depends on having (at the very least an air of) physical authority.7 This explains why men see their gender identity as hinging upon their consumption of manly products. If they allow the masculine qualities of their body to diminish, others may no longer recognize them as a true man.

While it’s still largely a man’s world, men seem to sense that the peak of their power is in the past. Masculine worlds (the workplace, politics) are being “contaminated” by unwelcome others, leaving men to wonder how they can protect themselves and their identities. What they can try to do, as my boyfriend at the time attempted, is appeal to their current and prospective female partner’s desires for a strong masculine presence. This is based on the hope that heterosexuality is a holdout of the female acceptance of, and even desire for, manly strength and power.

We need look no further than the recent Old Spice body wash commercials for an example of how marketers appeal to this heterosexual male dream. One version of the ad goes like this: A sculpted black man steps out of the shower and says, “Hello ladies. Look at your man. Now back to me. Now back at your man. Now back to me. Sadly, he isn’t me. But, if he stopped using lady’s scented body wash and started using Old Spice he could smell like he’s me.” The set changes and the man holds a bottle of Old Spice body wash as he says, “You’re on a boat with the man your man could smell like.” Then, revealing what the bottle has transformed into: “[Look] back at me. It’s an oyster with two tickets to that thing you love. Look again, the tickets are now diamonds. Anything is possible when you man smells like me and not a lady.” The scene closes with the still-shirtless man on a horse next to the words, “Smell like a man, man.”8

By first addressing women in the monologue, this commercial is meant to appeal to men in heterosexual relationships (or even those who fantasize about being in one). It plays on men’s need to distinguish themselves not only through their appearance and scent, but by their ability to provide for their female partners. As illustrated by the text conversation above, heterosexual men see their romantic partners as the judges of their masculinity. Become too feminine and you risk losing your girlfriend’s desire.

The commercial also implies that the men watching are currently in the process of losing their claim to masculinity at the hands of their relationship. Presumably, the men who are using the lady’s body wash are doing so because it is readily available in the shower they share with their female partner. The lesson is that being in a relationship with a woman comes with risks; if you don’t stay diligent and protect yourself, your masculinity may fall prey to sneaky female contamination. To regain the claim to their so-called rightful gender, men must assert their ability to provide, as well as show off the masculine qualities of their body (if not in appearance, at least in smell).

Men in the US are not the only group to fear contamination from the opposite gender. Carol Counihan writes of the common belief among many native New Guinean peoples, wherein men fear that, during sex, women penetrate them with a “masculinity-threatening female essence.” One of the strategies to recover one’s masculinity after a sexual experience is to eat foods that “replenish the male essence lost in ejaculation and… counteract the pollution from females.” Counihan goes on to write that “The fear of contamination by female substances appears to be related to men’s fragile gender identity…” Specifically, they fear “being swallowed up by the woman in intercourse, back into the womb from which they issued and back to a state of dependence and symbiosis that is the negation of adult masculinity.”9

The trepidation about falling back into dependence is mirrored in the Old Spice commercial’s claim that relationships endanger masculinity. Although, for US men, sex with a woman is seen as the ultimate masculine act, that which comes along with establishing a stable sex life can be dangerous. The need to be in close contact with the “other” gender is a cause for constant vigilance, with the purpose of maintaining oneself as a separate, independent man.

4- Women Also Dream

With twenty minutes until tipoff, the players of the Stanford Women’s Basketball team are in the locker room making their final preparations before going out onto the court. Reaching around in her locker, one the players realizes that she has misplaced her deodorant. “Hey, can I use some of your deodorant?” she asks a teammate next to her.

“Sure,” the other player replies, handing her a stick of Old Spice.

“Wait, no. I don’t do men’s deodorant.” She asks the next player, and the next. But, she can’t find anyone else who uses women’s deodorant. “Why do you all want to smell like men!?” She yells, exasperated.

From the fall of my freshman year to the end of my junior year, I worked as the student manager (read: laundry/water girl) for the women’s basketball team. As part of my duties, I would hang the players’ clean laundry inside their lockers. I remember noting that almost everyone had a stick of men’s deodorant front and center in their locker, with Old Spice being the most popular.

Just like the lonely women’s deodorant user on the team, I was a bit flummoxed by the trend. Using men’s hygiene product suggests a kind of contamination by the masculine, but in a positive sense that would never be acceptable in the opposite direction.

Given time to reflect, I thought about how the players on the team would hang out together to watch NBA games, and make references to male professional players in conversation. The majority of their athletic role models are men. By using men’s deodorant, these women channel masculinity and its characteristic athleticism and strength. Unlike men, who fear getting weaker from gender contamination, women who use men’s products only have power to gain.

This trend has not gone unnoticed by marketers of hygiene products for women, and they are currently working to win their customers back. A Pantene commercial released just this week showcases female UFC fighter, Ronda Rousey, as a spokeswoman. The commercial opens with Rousey in her fighting garb, hair tightly braided, glaring into the camera and punching the air. “Don’t hate me because I’m strong,” she says, “Strong is beautiful.” Cut to Rousey now in a dress with her hair down and swaying, smiling at the audience. The commercial flashes back and forth between the two versions of Rousey. She goes on, “If you think fierce can’t be feminine, I’m about to show you what only a strong woman can do.” She then showcases more of her fighting moves.10

As a women-specific brand, Pantene’s future depends on convincing women that they can be assertive, strong, and powerful, as well as beautiful in the traditional feminine sense. Just because you use women’s beauty products doesn’t mean you can’t fight to overthrow the patriarchy, Pantene hopes to convince ambitious women. Rousey’s words tell us that women do not have to rely on emulating men in order to infiltrate traditionally male arenas.

From the standpoint of cisgender men, this commercial is yet another angle from which their masculinity is under siege. If women can also be strong, then bulking up loses its meaning for gender distinction. This leaves me to wonder if feminist rhetoric will always end up, purposefully or not, antagonizing cisgender men. Is there a way to get men on board with blurring traditional boundaries?

5- Conclusion: Men Educating Men

From girls beating boys at basketball, to advertisements celebrating female strength, men appear to be losing their traditional pathways to dominance. As long as men continue to fear emasculation, advertisements promoting products only for men will proliferate, capitalizing on men’s desperation to use any means possible to maintain clear gender dichotomies.

If we want to make a change to this cycle of male consumptive comfort, people of all genders must approach changing roles with open minds. In her recent op-ed published in the New York Times, Irin Carmon writes,

“[Feminists’] fight is motivated by the belief that men can be better, if we can make clear that they, too, benefit from a safer, more equal and more just world. We have little choice but to try — men still control so much, and besides, many of us love them.”11

It is long overdue that cisgender men take responsibility in the movement for gender equality. Letting fester the oft-heard notion that men and feminism are at odds with each other— whether suggested by men or those of other genders — will only scare men further into opposition — and sell more Old Spice. Because women and femmes have already done so much work to disrupt traditional gender norms, I suggest that it is time for men to teach other men that they needn’t fear a new sharing of responsibilities. Men can help each other envision potential societal changes as something that they might actually like.

Through advertising and other forms of discourse, men are made to believe they need artificially sweetened soda and aggressively scented body wash to protect their power. In reality, by letting go of these staunch expectations, men may actually benefit from decreased pressure to be their family’s sole financial provider, as well as from the opportunity to have more social and family time, to name just two examples. As the man-to man messaging of the aforementioned advertisements demonstrate, fear of emasculation is going to be a challenge to take down from the outside; change must come from men themselves.

If you enjoyed this essay, please consider donating to The Trans Emergency Fund in NYC, one of the places hit hardest by COVID-19.

Notes

1. Dr. Pepper Ten: It’s not for women! Full commercial in link. I skipped a few details of the plot in my description for brevity.

2. Danesi 2006: 9

3. Mazzarella 2001

4. Butler 2003: 97, emphasis in original

5. Secret Deodorant Stress Test

6. I didn’t have space to include this commercial explicitly, but see what happens when a man makes the ultimate mistake of using women’s body wash (Summer’s Eve)

7. Morgan 2004: 72

8. Old Spice Commercial in full. Description edited for brevity.

9. Counihan 1999: 66

10. Rhoda Rousey commercial in full.

11. Carmon 2016

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Construction: An essay in phenomenology and feminist theory.” Performance: Pt. 1. Identity and the Self, edited by Philip Auslander. Taylor & Francis, 2003. Print.

Carmon, Irin. “What Women Really Think of Men.” The New York Times 9 Dec. 2016. NYTimes.com. Web. 11 Dec. 2016.

Counihan, Carole. The Anthropology of Food and Body: Gender, Meaning, and Power. Psychology Press, 1999. Print.

Danesi, Marcel. Brands. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Mazzarella, William. “Citizens have sex, consumers make love: marketing KamaSutra condoms in Bombay.” Asian Media Productions, edited by Brian Moeran. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2001. Print.

Morgan, David. “You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine: Reflections on the Male Body and Masculinity.” Body Matters: Essays On The Sociology Of The Body. Edited by Sue Scott and David Morgan. Routledge, 2004. Print.

white, trans/agender, femme often disguised as masc, NW-based. exploring gender beyond traditional narratives. patreon.com/alixperrywriting