Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Interpreting the "Old Spice Guy": Diverse Masculinities Rolled Into One

When I first saw the Old Spice commercial with the "Old Spice Guy," I immediately considered it good blogging material. What markers of masculinity are portrayed throughout the commercial? Though the commercial cannot be embedded here, it can be seen over on YouTube.

Let's see: the commercial parodies a rugged, chivalrous masculinity, where the character (actor, Isaiah Mustafa) embodies some of the typically desired masculine traits for those women who emphasize femininity -- sensitivity towards his romantic partner (cake baking), woodworking skills, striated musculature, a proclivity for the outdoors, deep voice, clean, and generally speaking, confident.

I didn't realize until yesterday how wildly popular this commercial has become. The Old Spice producers and actor have even made a bunch of attendant YouTube videos for fans (celebrities and non-celebrities),
including one for NPR:

And I thought the one responding to Alyssa Milano was pretty funny, referencing her previous "home" on the 1980's sitcom, "Who's the Boss."

The commercial's idiosyncratic, humorous nature definitely helps, but I'd bet this commercial's popularity is traced more to society's current conception of hegemonic masculinity, combining diverse power-based traits that resonate with viewers from a wide array of demographics. Let's break down the traits a little more.

The outdoorsy guy with carpentry, bike riding, and log-rolling skills taps into the rural, rugged demographic. Yet, he's also metrosexual -- well groomed, clean, boasts of smelling good (it is an Old Spice commercial). Physically, he's athletic (former pro football player in real life at some level) and muscular. Then ethnically, he taps into the African American viewing demographic. Again, the way actor exudes confidence ties in neatly with a hegemonic masculine ideal. He's a provider ("dream kitchen he built you with his own hands"). And finally, heterosexuality is blatantly expressed. The commercial begins with the line, "Hello ladies. How are you? Fantastic. Does your man look like me? No. Can he smell like me? Yes..." [emphasis added].

That opening line is key. The average, everyday male cannot be entirely like the "Old Spice Guy." Heck, the "Old Spice Guy" says so himself. However, the "average Joe" can take baby steps to work towards that masculine ideal by buying Old Spice bodywash (
body wash containers, by the way, are bad for the environment) and trying to conform to some of the other hegemonic masculine traits.

A gender-based hierarchy is clearly defined ["Old Spice Guy" at the top in this example, male viewers below in pursuit, and domesticated women below (perhaps this last point can be teased out more)]. Just as commercials that emphasize femininity rely on women's gender-based insecurities, so does this commercial for males. It just does so in a way that reaches numerous demographics, while laced (i.e., masked) with humor.

Updated 7/21/10 with an even more overt example:

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