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“A mo makes a man…”   (HP Sauce advertising campaign)

After having suggested that Aslan provides the answer to the Movember controversies last week, I thought it was worth exploring the issues in more detail.  I’d like to stress that this piece isn’t an attack on all those participating in the charity campaign, nor am I calling their good intentions into question.  But it seems a classic example of how the attitudes to gender in our society make it difficult to talk about masculinity in ways which aren’t immediately co-opted to express contempt for others.

Firstly then, the intention behind Movember is a terrific one.  It combines the idea of raising money for charities with a way for people to clearly demonstrate their involvement in a way which helps raise awareness at the same time.  It also tries to subvert one of the damaging stereotypes of masculinity at large in our culture: the notion that taking care of your body is unmanly, and that “real men” don’t get ill.  It offers an image of male identity which can admit to illness – and to being worried about the possibility – and which isn’t ashamed to take care of its body.  And since moustaches are much less generally worn than in the past, there’s a suggestion of humour in the symbol chosen, a possible sense that putting on an old-fashioned sign of “being a proper man” calls attention to the gap between that idea of masculinity and the modern man underneath the lip-topiary.

However, there’s a problem with the way these intentions are being put into practice.  It makes me deeply uncomfortable that this campaign effectively equates being a man with the public display of secondary sexual characteristics.  That’s a rather roundabout way of putting it, but it’s difficult not to conclude that’s the effect of “Movember” suggesting men show solidarity with each other by growing moustaches.  There seems to be a neat logic to this: man-specific illnesses being coupled with a man-specific feature.  Only, being a man isn’t the same as having a moustache (or growing one).  I’m not sufficiently informed about the experiences of trans people to talk about the ways this might be yet another unhelpful attitude which makes their lives more difficult, though I expect it might.  But for cis men it’s also unhelpful, because it’s yet another declaration which seeks to weld their identity to their sexual characteristics.  It blithely asserts that you can tell a man by what’s on his upper lip.  We live in a society where “be a man” and “man up” are frequently used to imply that men are impervious to pain or anxiety, and a number of social campaigns have tried to replace this with an idea that “real men” care for their communities and respect others, that the distinction between a man and a boy is linked to maturity and responsibility.  Movember pushes us back to a notion that masculinity is about body chemistry, and when some men are less able to display their facial hair they’re inevitably judged as less of a man.

Claiming that “a mo makes a man” (in the words of HP Sauce’s attempt to cash in on this campaign) defines manhood in terms of biological determinism.  That’s not a good look on men.  It’s the favourite intellectual position of every conservative pundit who tells us that men can’t control their sexual urges because evolution needs them not to, and every internet troll who claims that women’s brains are more suited to cooking than philosophy because science.  It’s the same set of assumptions that lie behind “boys will be boys” and “calm down, dear” and “what was she expecting, dressed like that?”  The notion that men’s identity and behaviour comes straight from their physical equipment is not a historically positive one, and it continues to produce some really ugly things in our culture.  Unintentionally strengthening it has got to be a bad idea.

If these objections sound like abstract quibbles, they have real effects.  A brief trawl through Twitter produced a wealth of comments like the following:

looks like most girls in my school have been doing movember for years

Movember Log Day 9: saw a Ukrainian woman with a better moustache than mine

Girls, please don’t participate in Movember.

Just a heads up, No Shave November is not for women. Don’t be disgusting, ladies.

No shave november = girls that will be lonely the whole month.

I know it’s no shave November but please ladies know this month is not made for you to take part of. #Gross

Ladies, if you’re participating in NoShave November, we cannot be friends. I’m gonna ask nicely that you continue your routine maintenance

Whether this is because there’s a flaw in the original idea, or because our society contains such damaging notions of gender, something has gone wrong here.  This campaign, intended as a project by men for men, has immediately been turned into a pretext for demanding that women submit themselves and their bodies to male approval.  I’ve quoted the politer ones, incidentally – there are a whole host “threatening” women with being dumped or ostracised in various terms.  And this isn’t a handful of people who’ve missed the point: all month we’ll be hearing “jokes” telling women to behave and keep out of men’s prerogative and shave themselves if they don’t want to be shamed and scorned.  The rhetorical policing of women’s bodies demonstrates how flimsy and inaccurate a notion it is that “a mo makes a man”, and how aggressive people will be in defending it.  Movember itself might be a good idea originally, but it taps into too many unpleasant currents in our society’s attitudes to gender.

Nor can traditional ideas of masculinity simply be removed from the equation for a month whilst a moustache becomes the symbol of a good cause.  Two of the more frequent quips produced by a sudden rash of facial hair in November are “gay!” and “70s porn star!”  Both of them suggest that once again the campaign is blundering into images of manhood which it can’t simply overwrite.  Last year I listened with growing disbelief to a barman explaining how his mates all thought his “’tache” made him look gay and kept saying they’d shave it when he was asleep, but he could put up with looking gay for a month to earn money for charity.  He evidently thought this made him a bit of a hero, risking people thinking he wasn’t properly masculine in order to raise money for the bros.  A group which to him didn’t seem to include gay men who might also need treatment for male-specific illnesses.  And eleven days into the month it has already become a cliché in a friend’s office for the men to remark that the place looks like the set of a 1970s porn film.  After one too many smirking comments on the subject one of the women demanded furiously “And what does that make us?”  Apparently “mo-bro” masculinity didn’t involve considering whether the female professionals they worked with minded being co-opted as accessories to their vision of themselves as porn stars.

This, to paraphrase the internet, may well be why we can’t have nice things.  The campaign was started in good faith, but by deciding on this particular form it has plugged itself a damaging stream of gender politics.  I don’t want to be told that a moustache makes me a man, or that my identity depends upon shaming women into being “presentable” to the male gaze. If men are facing a crisis (as Hanna Rosin, amongst others, would have us believe) we need a broader, richer and more generous account of what it means to be a man.  Not this laddish, reactionary nonsense which depends on ignoring some people and denigrating others.