Here Come the Boys: Make-up and Masculinity

I’ve become more and more interested in the advertisements that appear on my Facebook feed and what this seems to indicate about who Facebook think I am, what my interests and aspirations are. This has shifted recently from amusement at the back shavers, ear-hair clippers and baldness cures that it might be imagined would appeal to a bald middle aged man to (as the ads have become more specialized and targeted) a more critical thinking about the gendered and sexualized subject that the ad algorithm constructs and presents back to me, anchored very much around ideas of male beauty.
Photo by Jaysen Scott from Pexels (edited)


I’m discussing this in this blog because my targeted ads are currently overwhelmingly about male grooming and beauty products. This includes a number of advertisements for men’s cosmetics such as the brands Altr for Men and War Paint.  I find myself thinking about this after reading a BBC online article that asks us if men’s make-up is going ‘mainstream’. The picture that Bel Jacobs’ rather excitable article draws is one in which the difference between the contexts in which men use make-up and the potential significance of these acts tends to get lost; indeed what ‘mainstream’ means is not really very clear. So premium brands (with premium price tags) marketing make-up for men are positioned alongside male beauty bloggers like Manny Gutierrez and James Charles with their conspicuous displays of skill as make-up artists as if they are equivalent in meaning. I don’t think they are. The case for the ‘mainstreaming’ of make up for men (mainstreaming meaning I think in this context the normalizing of make-up use) is definitively made by trotting out that celebrity bell-weather, David Beckham, presented as the ideal of ‘mainstream’ masculinity, beauty, desirability.  As cover boy for LOVE Magazine, Jacobs tells us that ‘everybody’ is talking about Beckham in make up. In fact the made-up Beckham looks hardly any different to the regular version. Instead he sports a smudge of greeny-blue eyeshadow, referencing, in a whisper rather than a roar, David Bowie from the mid 70s, or David Sylvian with his full face of makeup from the early 80s, or Johnny Depp’s penchant for eyeliner in any number of promotional shots. 

Notwithstanding the hyperbole around Beckham’s latest magazine cover, it does indeed seem that make-up for men is, once again, having a moment.  The Guardian also ran a feature by Sam Wolfson in October 2018 asking ‘is make-up for men the next big beauty trend?’.


Notably, across all of the recent reportage on make-up for men the novelty of this trend is connected to the launch of the Boy de Chanel range.The line consists of only three products; a foundation, a brow pencil and a lip balm that are, rather hilariously, if imprecisely, described by Forbes as ‘revolutionary’

Boy de Chanel had a limited initial launch in Korea, suggesting that the market for this range is not quite as rigidly or straightforwardly located in either the West nor in Western ideals and notions of masculine beauty. For the Korean launch, the face of Boy de Chanel was actor Lee Dong Wook whose ephebic beauty attracts legions of female fans and has in addition been afforded industry recognition via the ‘Photogenic Award of the Year, 2018’ from the Korea Fashion Photographers Association. It’s instructive to compare Lee Dong Wook at Chanel to David Beckham on the cover of LOVE magazine. A hint of blue eyeshadow draws attention, peacock-like to Beckham’s otherwise rugged beauty whereas the Korean star is the very image of studied (and studiedly naturalistic) perfection. Notably the two, resolutely Caucasian, models chosen for the US launch of Boy de Chanel, Tim Schumacher and Matthew Bell, whilst not stars of popular TV, like Lee Dong Wook, have looks that speak of both youth and a kind of desexualised masculinity that is far removed from either macho posture or extravagant display. In fact taking the sex out of make-up use seems to be a key concern when aiming the product at male consumers. For instance GQ, the go-to publication for fashion conscious (and fashion cautious)men goes to some length to assuage any concerns that using make-up might in some way compromising a man’s sexuality. In a similar vein, Men’s Health, which like GQ is a publication with a very conservative vision of what masculinity is, provides handy ‘make-up tips’ for the anxious man. The message (and again I’m not convinced it’s the right one) is that for men make-up’s use value matters. Mario Abad in Men’s Health reminds us that men use make up because,  “there has to be a problem first and then a solution, so they're happy.” 

Over and above the fact that Chanel’s marketing department must be delighted by the breathless hyperbole that this extremely limited product launch has attracted, I find myself thinking about the ways in which advertisers, journalists and commentators struggle to ‘masculinise’ make-up, a product paradigmatically gendered as feminine and tethered to ideas around the tools of seduction that women control and exercise.

We should of course remember that whilst the fashion industry is in the business of promoting novelty there is nothing new about major fashion and cosmetic companies attempting to launch men’s make up lines. A decade earlier Jean Paul Gaultier did the same thing with his new defunct Monsieur line and Tom Ford also sells a limited range of cosmetics ‘for men’.

As it happens the BBC, The Guardian et al. are really rather late to the party in any case as Women’s Wear Daily were predicting this trend almost 3 years ago. The WWD article in fact has something rather more intriguing to tell us, pointing out, as it does, that in the mass market rather than prestige brands like Chanel and Tom Ford, there is a trend to bypass the gender bifurcation of make-up, with L’Oreal, Maybelline, Cover Girl and others casting male alongside female models in major brand campaigns.

So why is this a news story again at the end of 2018 and in early 2019? In the first instance pragmatics; the internet provides the conditions and opportunities to create viable businesses out of selling make-up to men. In part, this is no doubt to do with the comfort afforded that our brittle masculinity need not be compromised by approaching a sales assistant at an in-store make-up counter, surrounded by the accoutrements of femininity. Instead the purchase of make-up can be masculinized, rationalized and, crucially, anonymised.

Secondly, masculinity itself is under closer scrutiny than ever before and the male body has become a particular focus of attention across popular culture. Toxic or in crisis, heterosexual, metrosexual, lumbersexual or spornosexual, masculinity has so many connotations and associations attached to it in the 21st century that as I’ve argued elsewhere it’s become literally saturated with meaning.

However, in the excitement of the potential to rethink gender that these developments might offer, I think it’s also important to pay attention to the pervasive gendered discourses that continue to underpin the marketing strategies and media debates that are generated around make-up for men. There is a risk of collapsing two different ways of thinking about make-up and its cultural significance; makeup as the revealer of the real you (Beckham’s eye shadow as peacockery and male sexual display, make-up bloggers revealing their creative skills and, perhaps, their sexual identities through the application of make-up) and make-up as a concealer of the real you (erasing lines, redness, blemishes and dark rings in ways that are undetectable.) The dominant discourses around make-up for men tend to fall into this latter category, and I think align themselves with a set of neoliberal ideas about individual responsibility, competition and efficiency. Make-up for men then is sold to consumers on the basis that it will provide confidence and preparedness for whatever challenges life may present (metaphors of labour and the workplace abound and the distinction between professional and private lives in this context becomes invisible.) ‘Readiness’ I think is key to understanding both the condition that men are expected to function under in the 21st century and how therefore make-up is sold; HD ready for the best possible Instagram post, ready to get the job or seal the contract, ready to wear the latest fashions,and ready to attract the equally ready partner.

The issues that I’ve discussed here are some of the topics that we aim to tackle in our AHRC Research Network: Masculinity, Sex and Popular Culture. This 24-month project will explore the pervasiveness of sexualized masculine embodiment across contemporary popular culture, and set an ambitious agenda for subsequent research. The network steering group includes Begonya Enguix, Joao Florencio, Jamie Hakim, Mark McGlashan, Peter Rehberg and Florian Voros. Our first, free to attend, event in Birmingham on 3rd May 2019 will set priorities for the network by addressing contemporary concerns about men’s physical and mental well-being within the context of a sexualised culture and will focus on male body image.

You can find out more at http://www.bcu.ac.uk/masc

John Mercer is Professor of Gender and Sexuality at Birmingham City University. He researches the social and cultural construction of masculinities and has written extensively about masculinity in gay pornography. He is the Principal Investigator on the AHRC research network, Masculinity, Sex and Popular Culture and (with Clarissa Smith) is writing a book on sexualised masculinity for Routledge





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