Redesigning Masculinity Isabela de Mello

How men are emerging from the gray zone of gender roles

Although the square-jawed, Marlboro-smoking male role model has been under pressure since feminism, civil rights, and gay liberation came into play, he still shows up in contemporary advertising, branding, and design, while the traditional masculine model of protector and provider has gone from ideal to ironic.

Many men are figuring out that what they were raised to be no longer works, and society has not yet stepped in to support proper alternatives. This is a systemic design challenge fifty years in the making—one that tailored suits and eye-wrinkle creams do little to address.

In metropolitan hot spots around the globe, men are looking for options that appeal to their identities, roles, and behaviors. Some are expressing themselves through a new palette of products, brands, and services. Others are at a loss as to how to redefine their masculinity. Between these poles lies a wealth of design opportunities.

The Evidence — Stories from around the globe

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Permission to explore

The media have been quick to invent a new type of urban male: the metrosexual. This certainly opened doors and defied some dogmas, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the motivation. Men are experiencing greater permission to explore, and the desire to look and feel good is only one dimension of this new freedom.

Like many other affluent teens, Tyler’s life revolves around school, sports, music, and friends. “I like to think that my opinions are not dictated by my masculinity,” he says. “There’s a lot more flexibility in terms of my future and what I have to be like.” Add to this a teenager’s willingness to try out what feels true, and we have a magic place for design.

How might we help more men and boys explore and experiment? How might we identify and learn from extreme explorers?


Image credit: Isabela de Mello

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Legitimizing new roles

Fathers are becoming more physically and emotionally present in their children’s upbringing, and are looking to connect with other men going through similar experiences.

When his daughter was born, Josh made a conscious decision to be engaged in her upbringing. He shifted his career and became a full-time manny—a male nanny. It’s not always easy, he confesses, but “I learn so much about myself with these kids and the love they give you back. There’s no measure to it.”

Jeff is a successful screenwriter and primary care provider to his two small children. He cringes whenever he is forced to deal with any of the parenting magazines and products relentlessly targeted at moms.

How might we provide fathers with parenting tools that speak to them in their own language?

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Definition through differentiation

Men are looking for things that haven’t lost their masculine purity, that speak to the question, What makes me special as a man? Fashion is an easy place to find such examples.

Pablo, a European designer, created his own accessories to make a statement about masculinity. Browsing street shops in London, he spotted a pair of 24K gold collar stays —
the kind used to keep the collars of dress shirts pointy and crisp. “Collar stays are something women can’t have,” he says, “at least not yet.” Pablo was inspired to create his own. “Some accessories don’t exist anymore. What do we have besides cuff links and an occasional tie clip?”

How might we celebrate men for being men without falling into discredited stereotypes? How might we design to help men express themselves?

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Pretty boy culture in Asia

A new breed of Asian men is hinting at fundamental cultural shifts around masculinity. Xiao Hue, 36, is used to it: “I was shocked the first time I noticed a guy wearing foundation in Japan, but now it’s pretty common in Shanghai, too.” Although Xiao Hue doesn’t see this behavior spreading to rural China anytime soon, he is quick to point that there’s a good incentive for it: “Young girls like the softer appearance of flower boys.”

Be prepared

Gary Greenberg is a standup comedian and writer. When he and his wife became parents, they were surprised at the lack of books to help new dads take care of their infants. From that experience came Be Prepared, “a funny, informative survival manual for guys entering the trenches of fatherhood.” With just the right balance of humor and useful information, the book offers amusing insights and no-nonsense advice for mastering the first year as a dad.

New heroes

How do Daniel Craig’s James Bond and Christian Bale’s Batman differ from previous versions of their characters? The new hero displays his weaknesses. Another high-profile example is Don Draper, the outwardly confident but deeply tormented star of AMC’s Mad Men. For Ben, a 23-year-old New Yorker, “Draper is the ultimate role model; he’s old-school cool and he’s messed up.” The story takes place in the 1960s, just as increased pressure on the male role started to mount.

Discussion

wildblue

May 10, 2010

I have traveled to China several times in the past 4-5 years and have noticed this trend as well. I DJ regularly at large venues and night clubs catering to the 20-30 crowd, so I may be more exposed than others. Nonetheless its kind of interesting to see this trend being talked about. Thanks.

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Jon

August 5, 2010

I quit my job five years ago to start a business.  Since I was home all the time I became a Manny (I’m gonna wear that term out now that I’ve heard it).  The role reversal was profound, and I can see how many men would have difficulty adjusting.  Society has yet to really recognize the phenomenon of the stay at home father.  It requires more than a few interesting articles.  Products and services targeting the men directly are missing, and many times needed.  Where is the male Oprah as well?  We need guy so charismatic that if he reads a book we fall over each other to go buy it.

Just a thought.

Jon

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Rowan

August 19, 2010

I understand how the general role of men have changed leading up to today, and think that there are positives and negatives about it. It is good that men can act more how they feel, as opposed to a stereotype, but one thing that I do dislike is the overall wussification that is taking place as well.

How many commercials have the wife looking at the husband like he is either a little kid or an idiot? Like anything, it seems that the pendulum has swung to the extreme from the Marlboro man to wimp.

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giz

September 5, 2010

I understand how the general role of men have changed leading up to today, and think that there are positives and negatives about it. It is good that men can act more how they feel, as opposed to a stereotype, but one thing that I do dislike is the overall wussification that is taking place as well.

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Curt

September 8, 2010

Since I was home all the time I became a Manny (I’m gonna wear that term out now that I’ve heard it).  The role reversal was profound, and I can see how many men would have difficulty adjusting.  Society has yet to really recognize the phenomenon of the stay at home father.  It requires more than a few interesting articles.

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Josh

September 15, 2010

I agree with wildblue.  I’ve seen it quite a bit in China actually, and it isn’t the best look.  I think what they’re doing is going to be our version of what bands in the 80’s thought looked cool.

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Nat

October 22, 2010

Working in a church, I have seen our effectiveness in reaching men in a constant downfall.  We expect them to sing, and dress in clothes that they typically are not comfortable with.  It is no secret our programing has been geared more to women and in doing so we have left the men behind.  Men don’t need a program or an event that would meet the needs of women masked in manly terms.  Men need solid men around them that have figured out how to live thier faith in such a way that it doesn’t decrease their masculinity.  There needs to be more grace when we deal with men of faith.  If they slip in a “bad” word or can’t kick a nagging habit we need to not write them off as unspiritual.  We need to allow them to be who they are, who we all are.  Broken but in the process of repair.

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Jenn

November 5, 2010

I really like the metro sexual and manny trends going on nowadays. There is no reason why a man cannot take care of his appearance or love his children while still being masculine. Its like saying men have no heart and only stink. Its just not true.

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Jordan

November 5, 2010

Men today show those traits that some time back were not condoned , for instance the new James Bond a.k.a Daniel Craig is just one particular example when the original James Bond is referred to one realizes that Craig is a little weaker unlike Sean Connery and others.

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Richard

April 12, 2011

I am an entrepreneur in between projects, and in this gap my fiancee (finally getting married!) is working with a long commute. I have inadvertently become a house husband, I make breakfast, packed lunch and dinner for her - no kids yet though. Actually I hate it as I feel like my time is somehow invaluable compared to the previous 24/7 superfast life we had before exiting the company. Interesting experience to try and establish what you are, and what makes you tick it is too easy to define yourself on what you do as a man or woman.

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Christopher

January 31, 2013

I work for National Fatherhood Initiative (http://www.fatherhood.org), a nearly 20-year-old non-profit that provides the tools men need to be involved, responsible, committed dads around the clock. Our tools speak to men in their language and help them to realize the full potential of what it means to be fathers in today’s world (e.g. changing gender roles). NFI provides free online resources, group-based and interactive computer-based programs, a variety of print materials, weekly e-mails with fathering tips, a Dads Club, and much more. We also advise media and entertainment companies and consumer-product companies that are doing more to target men with products and services.

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