Well, that’s one fewer thing I need to worry about. According to the packing of these bathing products, I can wash myself without worrying that I am in any way acting in a non-manly, unmacho or not-man-specific way.
This seems to be the latest in a whole series of products desperate to assure men that buying them isn’t a bit…you know…girly. There isn’t a compound term – like mascara or man-bag or – yet for men’s washing stuff. Maybe because none of the obvious ones sound very appealing. M-oap? Man-poo? Mach-owergel? I don’t think even a London ad agency is going to be trying to flog those depressing-sounding words to us anytime soon. But what do I know, I didn’t predict the attempted rebrand of men’s mental health issues as “manxiety”.
The mockery aside (actually no, the mockery should never be set aside), there is a purpose behind pointing out all these products which have to signal their machismo desperately. It’s worth thinking about why bubble bath and shower gel feel the need to drench themselves in man-language in order to shift some products.
After all, it’s relatively unusual to see products or activities marked as “man”. Our language and culture is much more used to assuming that men are the default category, and that anything which diverges from “man” needs marking out as such. Female lawyer, woman’s basketball league, even “BiC for her”. So when an activity or product labels itself as “man-“, it strikes us as out of the ordinary.
Male nurse, stay-at-home Dad, male midwife, these are the sort of phrases which tend to mark “male” as exceptional or noteworthy. It registers the cultural surprise that a male person is doing something not usually associated with them: in these cases, taking a role explicitly associated with the care of others. (And, as Deborah Cameron and others would point out, taking a role which is not financially well remunerated in comparison to the roles usually assigned as suitable for men.)
So the splashing of “MEN” and “STRONG” across this bubble bath and shower gel mark them as something unusual in connection with men. (I added the bottle on the right as a test case, to show that the standard product doesn’t have “WOMAN” and “WEAK” helpfully scribbled on the packaging.) It seeks to establish this as an OK product for men to use, by tying it to masculine identity and ideas of strength. This is an exception, it suggests, to the rule that these things are not for men.
Why does it need to bother? What does this tell us about the way men and their bodies are imagined in the genderised environment of advertising? I think it identifies men as people not used to being OK with buying stuff to wash themselves with. It marks them out as the category which need to be persuaded that carrying out this activity is fine.
I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to see a hidden narrative of domestic labour in this packaging: an assumption that women are used to buying household essentials like shampoo and shower gel, but that men need to be assured that this won’t affect their masculinity. No-one seems to be bothering to brand kitchen roll, or toilet paper, or scouring pads as “suitable for women”. It’s assumed that women will buy them anyway, because of the social role they are assigned by a gender-based division of labour.
So I read this advertising as telling us something about the expectations about the moment of purchase: a man is buying bathing stuff, he reaches out his hand uncertainly, as is drawn to the safely marked man-suitable items. He can buy these whilst remaining securely in his masculine status. (I’m not saying this is what men are all like, but this seems to be the narrative implied by the packaging.)
I use the term “securely” with some irony. Because, of course, this packaging marks masculine identity as anything but secure. Like so many other things marked as “manly”, it goes to demonstrate just how fragile men are imagined to be. Buying soap can apparently throw them into an existential crisis (see also: enjoying a movie involving a romantic relationship, buying curtains, making a cake, carrying a bag, caring about someone else’s feeling…how the hell do men manage to function normally in modern life?!)
That insecurity is quite specifically directed, by the way. It isn’t that taking showers without man-approved cleansers would simply wipe a man’s identity and leave him symbolically unmarked. That’s not why we have to have STRENGTH signalled on our bottles. It’s because masculine identity is apparently threatened by being put in the same category as woman. Women are more stereotypically associated with taking long baths with scented oils, so all this macho-blustering is quite precisely designed to avoid anyone thinking a man might be a bit like a woman. This packaging despises women. They are the term against which men are imagined to be defending their identity.
It also despises men, I think, though in a slightly different way. The obsessive marking of “strong” and “men” makes male identity appear foolish, inarticulate and fragile, but it also contributes to men’s alienation from their own bodies. Showering and bathing are perhaps the times when we’re most immediately and regularly confronted with our bodies. There is nowhere to hide one’s body in a shower, certainly not from one’s own hands and eyes.
The yells of “strong” and “man” are desperate attempts to divert a worry that being faced with our own naked bodies might imply that we can ever be vulnerable, or uncased from the armour of manhood. Even when our haircuts are plastered to our skull, our suits are on the hanger and our work ID is on the bathroom floor, we must at all costs keep the markers of masculinity in play.
If the outwards signs of our gender and power aren’t there for a moment, we apparently need something near us to assure us that this isn’t who we are. We’re not this human, tactile, porous body. We’re not the physicality and tangibility which Western culture from Plato onwards has dismissively marked as womanly. We are the devil’s advocate, the subject not the object of looking and knowing. We are the abstract signifiers of masculinity, untouchable, unhurtable, not to be encountered at a disadvantage even by our own hands.
That’s what I mean by men’s alienation from their own bodies, and the way this kind of advertising encourages it. The most telling word in that picture, to me, is “therapy”. The “male” bath soak is apparently a “muscle therapy”. Because if a man wants to lie in a bath and be at peace with his body he must actually have something medically wrong with him. That package pathologizes taking a bath, imagining it as only acceptable for men in the context of injury, rehabilitation and therapy. If you ask me, this alienation has a lot to answer for. Men’s violence is interwoven with a view of ourselves which cannot accept vulnerability or care. When that violence is so often turned upon ourselves, and upon others, it’s imperative to pick apart the signals and systems which reinforce it to us every day.