Masculinity So Fragile: the Bro Mask Edition
By Ciana Alessi
Are you a bro that wants to have clean, luscious skin without your fellow bros ragging on you? Boy, have I got a product for you! Introducing: The Bro Mask.
Let’s back up, shall we? I believe at this point most people are very familiar with the pink tax (aka the tax placed on items like tampons, pads, and other items women need that are deemed as “luxury”) but today, in 2019, the other side of this gendered coin is rearing its manly head. The pink tax’s die-hard binary counterparts are finally showing themselves, and they’re even more shameless. Enter, the Bro Mask, Every Man Jack, and — to a lesser degree, but worth noting for its ridiculousness — the Manly App, aka a male-specific photo editor (so you, a manly man, no longer have to worry about editing your pictures with daisies and bedazzled hearts). The latest iteration(s) of male-specific grooming and skincare items are worth specific investigation, as they blatantly reify the ever-troubling gender binary that quite literally controls each human’s life. The fact of the matter is, our assumed gender expression has a strong-hold on our daily lives, whether or not we realize its presence.
*School Time* Postmodern Feminism focuses heavily on the idea of personhood and how this idea is socially confounded with gender expression. But everyone kind of rags on Postmodernism, and Postmodern Feminism, so we won’t get into it too much. The most important idea from this school of feminist thought, to this discussion at least, comes from the wonderfully confusing and profoundly smart Judith Butler Postmodern feminist extraordinaire, who perfectly explains our obsession with delineating humanity along the gender binary when she asks (in much more complicated language), what is the first thing a doctor says when a baby is born? In this way, one’s distinction into one of two rigid genders is necessary for outside recognition of that person’s humanity. There is never a time where a child is born and their sexual anatomy is not immediately tied to a gender expression.
Still with me? Okay, so what does this have to do with the Bro Mask, you may ask? Well, more than you’d expect, my curious friend.
First and foremost, the idea that certain types of hygiene are inherently gendered highlights the sneaky persistence of the gender binary in our daily lives. If a man has to go out of his way to find a way to clean his skin while still retaining an air of masculinity, his understanding of his gender expression is tied to everything he does. Including, but not limited to, the products he uses to maintain his daily appearance — one which we can only assume is meant to project capital “m” Masculinity, 24/7.
Secondly, we must discuss the counterpart to masculine skincare, the ultra-femme. The vast majority of general hygiene products for women are pinked-out, floral, or marketed as a “fun” way to spend a girls night in. Just look at any Schick razors commercial, or Herbal Essences ad. The ultra-femme is the necessary opposite to the Bro Mask: product(s) like the Bro Mask have come from men’s desire (or perhaps, “male marketing executives” is more accurate) to provide a product that will do the same thing as any pink, floral “female” product without forcing a man to confront the fragility of his masculinity. Knowing that, perhaps this goes without saying, a product’s packaging usually has astonishingly little to do with the contents of the actual product, these products are pedaled to consumers with the sole motive of projecting masculinity in all facets of life. And they know their market, as many men surely fear that a random cashier will question their masculinity if they buy something pink. And here we are, stuck in a world where the majority of hygienic products are either ultra-femme or agressively masculine: pick one or the other. In the age of gender non-binary persons and governmental forms (in some states) which allow the option of choosing a gender X, how do we de-binary our hygienic products?
As always, the easiest and most important step is acknowledgment. We need to create an open dialogue about the motives of the marketing executives and creative directors who are perpetually reinforcing an entirely outdated and incorrect notion that gender expression is a central part of one’s identity. Apart from determining which pronouns we prefer, gender expression is just as integral to one’s identity as age. Sure, it may be easier to relate to someone with the same gender expression as you, but even if you’re conversing with a person of a different gender expression, you still have a mutual understanding of general respect, socially acceptable behavior, and the fact that Donald Trump is a monster. You can still buy the same products, wear the same clothes, or have the same hairstyle if that’s what makes each person feel as genuine and comfortable as possible.
The Bro Mask is only the most explicit example of this phenomenon. A quick stroll through the men’s deodorant section, and then the women’s, shows that we’ve been down this road for quite some time. I would be remiss, however, to neglect the fact that, in a roundabout way, the Bro Mask is in fact a step in the right direction. Just a few years ago many, many men would laugh at the idea of ever putting any kind of face mask on, regardless of the packaging, and follow this laughter up with a classic sexist retort. Like all other social woes, this is a marathon, not a sprint. So although one could argue the Bro Mask acts as a baseline rejection of toxic masculinity, addressing the rationale for its creation forces recognition of toxic masculinity’s roots, the battle of all battles: the gender binary itself. Sure, men masking is great progress, but will we ever reach a level of binary awareness that allows a gender-neutral skincare section in Target?