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Manly Sunday

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Sunday, Oct 21, 2007

Where would the NFL be without its advertisers, who help complete the package of masculinity it has so successfully managed to sell over the decades? During a football game, the ads—invariably for trucks, beer, and junk food—reinforce the kind of paradigmatic manliness on offer as a vicarious fantasy. When you are not butting heads with your grotesquely muscular closet paramours on the gridiron, you are cracking open light beers and trading leering sexist remarks or participating in some other bonding ritual (often involving passive spectatorship, often literally watching TV, mirroring the position of the viewer). Or you are conquering some barren, open landscape in your truck, or doing some kind of sainted, vaguely patriotic salt-of-the-earth, real-American manual labor involving hauling something unbelievably heavy. The sum of all this makes watching football on a Sunday a somewhat surreal excursion into the pure ideology of modern manhood, where women, if they appear at all, are never anything more than a punchline to some joke shared between men, whether among the characters in ads or between the ad writers and the viewer.


The best example of this currently is a Taco Bell commercial touting its chili-cheese nacho chips; the setup is the older brother is inculcating his younger brother with his life rules—don’t marry a woman with tattoos is one of them, and the joke is that in the end, he is pussy-whipped by just such a woman, who appears to yell at him. The joke is sort of on the would-be macho man, who we are supposed to laugh at—but we are laughing at him primarily because he hasn’t been able to keep his life in line with his desires of living manly, unfettered by cloying femininity, dreams which are more or less validated by the shrew. The younger brother makes a crack-the-whip motion to reinforce the idea that we should not be on the woman’s side here; we should imagine ourselves to be the smarter, younger person who still hasn’t been spoiled by the demands and compromises of adulthood. The commercial makes absolutely no effort to describe the product it ostensibly is selling—the nachos—perhaps because there is nothing really to promote there—they are almost literally an empty vehicle for other ideological fantasies, so that the chili-soaked grease boats carry not flavor but the pleasingly salty savor of manliness.


I think the gist of commercials like these is to associate the brand with a feeling of empowerment, which for men, hits home most deeply when the power comes at the expense of the women in their lives. Why should this be? Evolutionary psychology? Doubtful, though I’m sure the argument has been made somewhere. Another theory: The careful development of the commercial potential of sexual difference that evolved with capitalism as it became clear that the economic system was going to erode male privilege in other ways, luring women into the workplace, disseminating the value of individual liberty generally, and making it clear that no traditional values were safe from creative destruction. So marketers have taken notions of sexual hierarchy and turned them into brands to give them continuing currency, even as the socioeconomic circumstances that helped produce them disappear.

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