Turns out there’s a crisis in masculinity afoot. Not a new crisis, so much as the same crisis that comes along every couple of years, articulated by one of two questions: “Are men too manly?” or “Are men manly enough?” The latest rehashing of this issue is encapsulated in the term “metrosexual,” entertainingly explored in a recent edition of the New York Times. According to Warren St. John’s article, this is a term coined by writer Mark Simpson several years ago “to satirize what he saw as consumerism’s toll on traditional masculinity.” But recently marketers have repositioned the term to denote guys who are secure in their need for, say, skin moisturizer or body spray—“straight urban men willing, even eager, to embrace their feminine sides,” as St. John puts it. (In some descriptions, the metrosexual idea seems to equate homosexuality with femininity in ways that suggest a Three’s Company level of analysis, but leave that aside.) We may, the Times says, “be on the verge of a metrosexual moment.”
What’s a little startling about this is that it seems like only yesterday that we were still enthralled with the New Piggery of the Maxim cohort, which has mustered enough of a cultural presence to inspire an “unapologetically male” TV network. Is that over? To answer this question we turn to the marketing efforts in support of a body spray deodorantcalled Axe, apparently a prime example of a metrosexual product, and according to its maker, Unilever, “A stylish brand [that] boosts young men’s confidence and attraction through the combination of a distinctive masculine fragrance and long-lasting deodorant protection.”
An early series of Axe ads (see them here) featured a young woman standing next to a mannequin in front of a cheap-looking red velvet curtain. Each spot began the same way: She would explain that Axe is a body spray for men, and she’d spray some on the dummy. Then the “Axe effect” would kick in. In one ad, looking instantly intoxicated, the woman says, “Hey sailor” to the mannequin, and suddenly her boyfriend bursts into the frame and punches its head off. (“Doug! We were just talking!”) In another, a second woman sidles up to the just-sprayed mannequin, causing the spokeswoman to drop her smiley facade and yell, “I KNOW YOU’RE NOT TOUCHING MY MANNEQUIN!” These are funny spots. And they’re of a piece with a wide-ranging post-ironic trend in advertising, which is to make fun of the supposed effectiveness of the very product on offer. But they dodge the manliness question.
Some more recent Axe ads do not. In one, a hunky young bloke who hasn’t finished buttoning up his shirt strides into an elevator. He sprays on some Axe, exits, and another guy—more of a square—gets on. Apparently the smell of Axe lingers in the air, because the attractive woman who steps in next finds herself drawn to the dork. It’s the Axe Effect! She presses the emergency stop button. In the next shot, the doors open and apparently she’s mauled him in a quick makeout session: She’s straightening her dress, his hair is mussed and he looks dazed, etc. As the door starts to close, another woman approaches, and you can see in her eyes that Axe is working on her, too. A version of the ad with an alternate ending replaces the second woman with a bearish, leather-wearing gay stereotype.
Another ad features a series of attractive women addressing the camera and saying things like, “Hi, you’re not late, it’s—it’s my watch, it’s always fast,” or “Of course you can have some money for a lap dance,” or “She meant nothing to you? Well if you look at it that way, I forgive you,” or the inevitable, “Can I ask you a question? Do you mind if my best friend joins us?” The idea is that they’re so intoxicated by the Axe Effect that they’ll behave like sniveling worms to hang onto the man who wears it. Again: It’s all meant as a wink-and-nod joke.
Accompanying the Times story was a sidebar by Ginia Bellafante, who lamented the rise of moisturizing metrosexual masculinity and basically said that if men were men she would be glad of it. The interesting thing about the more recent Axe ads is that they seem to have this very concern in mind: Just because a man wears body spray doesn’t mean he can’t fantasize about women as easily manipulated objects (and laugh nervously at the scary gay man). You can be girly and a pig, watch a Pamela Anderson cartoon while doing your nails—and of course not really mean any of it. This reminds me of apartment shopping in Manhattan in the late 1990s: Yes, it’s small, but it’s expensive. Somebody comes out a winner in that transaction, but, man, it’s not you.