Walk into your local CVS, Boots, or similar pharmacy-esque storefront. Go into the body wash and deodorant aisle. Plant yourself in front of the products directed at men. You shouldn’t have trouble finding it, as most of the products will proclaim their “FOR MEN”-ness in bold letters.
What you’re standing in front of is the current state of mainstream men’s cosmetics. The selection will likely be dominated by such names as Dove, Lever, and Suave, brands you’ve likely lived with your entire life. Here, you’ll see the mainstream response to the growing self-care industry directed at men. Between soap and shaving cream, you find the spatial and visual “safe space” created for the everyday man. The notion of space, as we use it today, implies a guerilla-style act of staking claim to hallowed land within a hostile environment. People in power don’t need “space,” for everything is theirs to begin with. Standing in front of the three-foot wide masculine realm, I can’t help but think that similar survival strategies are at play. The rest of the aisle—the rest of the entire cosmetics section, actually—is assumed to be feminine.
Looking closer at each bottle and deodorant canister, the situation becomes further dramatized. Dove Deep Moisture Body Wash becomes Dove MEN+CARE Body Wash. A similar emphasis on masculinity appears in products by similar brands. The text is large, printed in sobering clean typeface. The packaging is so intensely declarative that it becomes funny. I can’t help but laugh at the intensity of what I’m seeing. I’m reminded of high-school theatre performances in their excessive, youthful attempt to prove something. My short-lived role as the Chef from Alice in Wonderland has come back to haunt me through the most indirect means possible. Man-ness is ardently over-performed in these products. Like an athlete trying to validate his masculinity to peers, body wash here is a desperate plea.
Although this sliver of space in CVS seems like an inversion of the real world, it’s very much a part of it. Masculinity defines the standard of behavior and socialization in Western society. People actively participate in this performance, but it’s nevertheless a repressive state of affairs. It’s a masquerade—and a weak one, at that. It has to be consistently redone, like an annoying collar that one stay flat or laces that come untied. The over-identification with symbolic categories like “MEN” and “For Men” shows just how hard the dominant order tries to anxiously keep itself steady. AXE Body Spray suddenly seems more complex as I smell a new top note: identity crisis.
The reeking desperation of these products ultimately undermines the masculinity with which it seeks to align itself. To over-perform might also be to over-shoot a target or over-correct a wrong. I feel that this is an important dimension, for once masculinity outgrows its traditional bounds, it has entered into the territory of kitsch and comedy, as I suggested before. It becomes corrupted of seriousness and thrust, and the first response should be to laugh at it, if anything.
Philosophizing Slovenian Slavoj Zizek, in a brief conversation a few years ago, said something relevant on this front: “A much more effective way to undermine an ideology is to over-agree with it.” In Zizek, there’s the suggestion that ideology functions by keeping something concealed. Masculinity follows similar principles: too much or too little and you’ve upset the social order. Think about any of the parts of our visual culture that are a bit too masculine, like the Village Boys or Calvin Klein underwear ads. Those are the things that get rejected, precisely because they’re threatening to the project of those in power. Maintaining the ideal formulation of masculinity is, in essence, an impossible balancing act. Mainstream men’s cosmetics, like most things in society, fail epically.