What do these things have in common: outcry about the gender of a potato toy, incel terrorism, guys who like to sew, and something called the ‘brotox boom’? At the surface, perhaps not so much. But they are all the result of changing gender roles.
In the domain of masculinity, the foundations are shaking. Women are gaining more and more ground, maybe most notably in the universities and the workplace. Resulting in more highly educated young women than men. Industries that once held physically demanding jobs are being outsourced, automated and replaced by service-industry jobs. Jobs centred around physical ruggedness and hardship are substituted by jobs prioritising interpersonal communication—less construction, more consulting. And it just so happens to be women that tend to excel in soft skills like listening, empathy and communication.
Higher education and the breadwinner status are slowly being dragged into the realm of gender ambiguity and out of the grasp of the lingering past. While this development brings empowerment and equality to women, it leaves men to recalibrate. With men decreasingly drawing pride from traditional sources like providing and protecting their family, worries arise about a surge in depression among men. Because if these traditional cornerstones of masculinity no longer define it, then what does?
Lower educated men feel like they are losing ground in multiple dimensions. On the one hand there is less demand and appreciation for blue collar jobs. On the other hand, your manhood— once a consistent source of pride— is diminishing in worth and losing its clearly defined boundaries. Increasingly men are portrayed as the conveyers of repression. The toxic white man and his patriarchal system. Masculinity is traditionally seen as the antithesis of femininity, and therefore, if women experience empowerment, this is perceived as a loss by men. Whether it actually is a loss does not even really matter. As the Thomas theorem states; “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”. In other words, if men perceive they are losing ground, they will respond like they are. Which brings us back to above mentioned results of the shift in masculinity.
Men are (counter-)reacting. Both in progressive and conservative ways. One way to react is a rejection to the levelling of the gender domain. A claim to a clear distinction between men and women, and maybe even more importantly, the roles they are addressed. This reaction is usually accompanied by an emphasis on traditional masculine characteristics and activities. It is no surprise the incel movement often finds itself diametrically opposed to modern day feminism. Even though the extreme expressions of violence appear to be an exception, it is a sign of a sentiment that is present among at least a significant subgroup in society. A sentiment that also expresses itself in much more pacifistic ways. For example, preferring that Mr. Potato head remains male.
A new masculinity
A different reaction we see is characterised by men that are going with the flow. Adopting more female values—both good and bad. In recent years we see that men are increasingly preoccupied and insecure about their appearance—a traditionally overwhelming female concern. When men and women are becoming more equal, men are exploring more of these ‘non-typical’ sources of pride. Illustrated further by the ‘brotox boom’ referenced above. Insecure men are requesting all kinds of cosmetic alterations to appear younger.
However, there are also some good signs in response to the shifting gender roles. Because whether this is a bad deal for men is of course up for debate, seeing as it also brings men the opportunity to develop a more healthy definition of masculinity. Think for example about the increasing room for men to discuss their emotions, or the decreasing pressure to display hyper-masculine behaviour. Men are allowed more space to explore their feminine side and take up sewing for example.
Advice for brands
It is important for brands to realise there is no clear cut response to the changing gender roles. Reactions differ between, and even within men. But it is essential to know which sentiments are present within a society. There exists a resistance towards the rise in women’s rights and equality, partially fuelled by a fear of losing influence, but also identity. On the other hand there is a gradual adoption of female characteristics in men. As a brand it is possible to tap into both old and new masculine traits, as long as they are not harmful. Show men they can cry during titanic but also give them a traditional source of pride, as a protector and provider.