Why feminists should care that men are told to “man up”

Lately, there’s been a spate in adverts geared towards men that emphasises the need and desirability of ‘manliness’. As is usually the case with these things, there are certain activities that are deemed to not be manly, certain ways of being that need to be left behind if you are going to accede to the true state of male. This makes me mad. There’s one advert in particular that has really been getting on my nerves: Renault South Africa’s “It’s time for tough”. This advert serves to inform us all that it is time for men to stop doing a bunch of stuff that actually sound pretty fun, while the actors are all busy crying, because – weak. Oh and we’re to purchase a Renault. Yes, really.

Patriarchy as with all societal/ structural norms has to be disseminated or otherwise perpetuated. Patriarchal values and yardsticks should be known, accessible and applicable to all within a given society. One of the ways in which patriarchal values are disseminated is by ensuring that those who are slotted in for the position of the privileged oppressor know how to behave. Mass media and advertising is a great way to get this done. The “it’s time for tough” advert is one such example of intra privilege policing.

What is often overlooked when patriarchy is the topic of discussion is that whilst it is particularly oppressive towards women, patriarchy loves to hate and oppress many people, in complex ways, with these oppressions feeding off of each other. This is relevant in this particular instance as patriarchy isn’t fond of the irregular men. These are the ones that fail to meet its standards of masculinity and dominance. These men let the (patriarchal) side down by not being seen to sufficiently adhere to the system that will help keep women in their place. I emphasise the word “sufficiently” as these men don’t need to be feminist or womanist by any stretch of the imagination. They don’t need to have actively decided to be subversive, or to reject their patriarchal privileges, rather they are nearer to the bottom of the hierarchy of privilege that men regularly enjoy. What is problematic (to patriarchy) about their enjoyment of these privileges is that they fail to substantiate patriarchy’s claims to male superiority that is often rooted in gender essentialism. These men fail to correctly live up to the men are superior because they are X rhetoric, often the X stands for – tough. In short, these men are a lose end.

So why should this matter to feminists? Well, adverts choosing to focus on (inadequate) manhood utilise the time-tested rhetoric of patriarchy that posits that anything that is commonly associated with or could be recognised as feminine is weak, and that human beings must be stripped of all complexity so that they may adequately fit into its rigid dichotomy. That is: female-male; feminine-masculine; with female-feminine (and male-masculine) coinciding. This is a classic example of patriarchy’s internal policing in order to ensure it’s continued maintenance. Furthermore the fact that this reasoning can be used to sell products and that there hasn’t been a furore surrounding these adverts, nor have they been recalled, indicates the way in which this idealised masculine male continues to be the yardstick of manhood. This is the ideal to be aspired to.

Adverts such as “it’s time for tough” are problematic because they help mould men into patriarchal figures, and inform them on how to interact with other people. This particular advert reinforces the idea that emotions are something to be scorned and regarded with derision. There is no ambiguity in that message. People who act differently to the prescribed, who are different in any way, are therefore wrong. Simple. Men who consistently consume this and other patriarchal public service announcements will begin not only to apply this information to their daily lives but also to regard such application as good or correct, because the position is consistently affirmed in the public eye. This is all to the detriment of women and men alike. This situation serves to further emphasise the need to have everyone disengage with patriarchy. It’s not just a matter of having the privileged use their privilege for good, but also for them to recognise the instances and the ways in which they are misinformed by patriarchy, starting with the basic expectation that society will be patriarchal and anything else is anarchy(in the non-technical sense). It’s all well and good to have women reject the standards set for them by men and the patriarchy, but unless we can interrupt the ways in which the expectation of the values of patriarchy are disseminated we will hit a glass ceiling in our efforts. We need to get everyone to stop being complicit not only in patriarchy’s oppression of women but also its oppression of all other “irregulars”.


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