Special Session: What Do Men Want? Media Representations, Subjectivity, and Consumption


What does it mean for men to be capable, consuming subjects? In what consumption domains do men express their masculinities? Do they want to be “subjected” to having their appearances observed and evaluated by others? How do they feel about images of men in advertising? These questions seem relatively straightforward, yet when subjected to historical and contemporary cultural analysis, especially in the context of globalization, a contradictory and mobile relationship between masculinity and consumption comes to light.

In this session, we strive to unpack the relationship between masculinity and consumption through the concept of subjectivity: a term that addresses the interplay between being “capable of signifying practice and thus agency, choice” and acknowledging “the effect of subjection to the symbolic order” (Belsey, 2002: 114). It is widely understood that consumers—including men—use goods to define and revise ideas about gender categories and relations. However, controversies have ensued in the context of metrosexuality and other discourses involving the socalled “New Men”. Much of this discourse involves the shifting and overlapping subjectivities associated with the possibility of simultaneously having desire (the subject of the gaze— traditionally framed as masculine) and being desired (the object of the gaze— traditionally framed as feminine).

Gendered conventions of looking have operated since the Renaissance in European art, in which “[m]en look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at (Berger, 1972, 45, 47). In such gendered systems, feminist film theorists such as Mulvey (1975) have noted how the gaze is based upon uneven power relations that are highly gendered: Femininity is equated with a space of objectification (being seen, consumed), whereas masculinity is framed in terms of active subjectivity (the one doing the looking). Being a “real man” has been constructed as not needing to rely upon another person’s gaze to establish a sense of self-worth. In contrast, femininity has been constructed as requiring consumption in order to be desired, with the (male) gaze as a presumed motivator. This presumption itself can be critiqued on many levels, but in this session, we aim to complicate the extent to which “gender and consumption” has become a code phrase for “women shopping” in modern western culture.

Breward (1999) indicates that between 1860 and 1914, the acquisition and display of clothing assumed heightened feminine connotations. As a result, academic analysis as well as popular discourse virtually wrote men out of part of the history of modernity and urban life; masculine consumption went underground, or became “hidden.” In many ways, advertising has reinforced this through its tendency to place potential consumers into a feminine subject position: manipulable, submissive, and seeing oneself as an object (Barthel, 1992). At the same time, advertisers have used various techniques to re-frame this feminized subject position, drawing on the gendering of the commodities themselves to fashion discourses of masculine desire (for example, beer, cars, and high technology can be seen as “masculine”). More “feminine” products such as cosmetics and clothing have required even further re-framing: cosmetics for men as “skin supplies” or, on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, merely “products.” Clothing for outdoor activities becomes “outdoor gear.” Such re-framing may help to lower the resistance to formerly feminine products, but men are still placed in the objectified position of being “looked at” (as are women). 

The discourse of metrosexuality has opened up the possibility of men actually caring about how they look (being the object of the gaze), regardless of sexual subject positioning. This discourse needs to be understood in terms of shifting consumption patterns. By the 1990s, behavioral studies were showing that fully 50% of men were buying their own clothes (Otnes and McGrath, 2001). These studies revealed that Internet shopping appealed more to men than to women. Men were beginning to recognize shopping as a creation of selfidentity. Retail spaces had become degendered. Shopping could be viewed, by men, as a creative, fun, and skilled (even technical) activity. Although the stereotypical “fear of the feminine” was still evident in some cases, it had become less prevalent. This research indicated that gender rules were being applied with more flexibility (Otnes and McGrath, 2001). The new consuming subjectivity had become one of achievement; whoever has the most toys wins in the world of masculine consumption (Barthel, 1992: 139).

Cargo magazine has capitalized on this goal of mastering consumption, featuring high tech toys as well as clothing advice (how to put a look together). Just to make it certain that one can be a masculine consuming subject, the discourse of Űbersexuality has emerged to clarify that men can evolve from metrosexuals into men who have “chosen from the abundance of lifestyle choices and successfully channeled [their] narcissistic impulses into a personal style and credo that doesn’t change with the seasons” (“Man vs. Man,” 2005).

In this session, we point to various, globally diverse examples of imagery and goods produced to expand concepts of masculine consumption. This session includes four papers, all of which deal in some way with issues of changing masculine subjectivities. The papers also grapple with subject-object relations— what it is like to consume materially and to be consumed visually through media imagery.

These papers are interdisciplinary and draw from the humanities as well as the social sciences in order to answer the question of “what men want,” or at least what marketers perceive them to want, to achieve through the production and consumption of images as well as goods. As Schroeder (in this session) indicates in his analysis of advertising, the mirror remains a root metaphor of consumer society. The mirror reflects appearance, beckons us to look, to compare, and to dream. It exposes men as objects exhibited for visual consumption, at the same time men become subjects who consume everything from alcohol to computers. Similarly, Senic and Podnar (in this session) focus on issues of subjectivity and reflection. They analyze the shift in conceptions of masculinity from “intellectual subject” to “sexual object” in the context of Slovenian print ads. In the third paper, Kaiser, Solomon, Hethorn, Englis, Lewis, and Kwon describe a project that involves two parallel series of studies focusing on “men’s fashion,” each employing both qualitative (interpretive visual analysis, ethnographic “design probes”, and indepth interviews) and quantitative (experimental and survey) methods: One series will focus upon a better understanding of menswear dynamics from the perspective of the consumer and the other explores how the textile and apparel complex (including manufacturers, advertisers, and other crucial gatekeepers) understands, articulates, and implements male identities through its marketing strategies. The fourth paper by Diego Rinallo also considers the relationship between fashion and masculinity, by interrogating how gay and straight men “read” media images of men—especially those that cast men in newly ambiguous roles of consumption.

As these papers collectively suggest, the interface between masculine subjectivity and consumption is complicated. On the one hand, men are told through aggressive marketing campaigns and other media that they need to look good in order to be cool or cutting-edge. They are expected to care much more than their fathers about looks and personal hygiene, and to be more sensitive and engaged in relationships and fathering (“Man versus Man,” 2005). On the other hand, traditional gendered systems of looking still are very much alive and serve to generate anxiety for men who find themselves in objectified subject positions. Shifts from subject to object (and back) are fluid in a media environment that circulates images of desire. As social theorist Charles Horton Cooley (1902) indicated in his concept of “looking-glass self,” individuals understand themselves through the eyes of others. Individuals use others as mirrors through which they can seek self-understanding.

Together, these four papers address the production and consumption of goods in contexts that visually encode and decode what it means to be “masculine.” They point to the ways in which the masculine images men consume may or may not coincide with their own hopes and dreams as consuming subjects. We hope to shed light on the question of what men want: not only in the goods they purchase and use, but also in the images that resonate most strongly with their conceptions of masculinity.


Jonathan E. Schroeder, Nenad Senic, Klement Podnar, and Susan Kaiser|Michael Solomon|Janet Hethorn|Basil Englis|Van Dyk Lewis|Wi-suk Kwon|Diego Rinallo (2006) ,"Special Session: What Do Men Want? Media Representations, Subjectivity, and Consumption", in GCB - Gender and Consumer Behavior Volume 8, eds. Lorna Stevens and Janet Borgerson, Edinburgh, Scottland : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 20.


Jonathan E. Schroeder, University of Exeter
Nenad Senic, Western Michigan University
Klement Podnar, University of Ljubljana
Susan Kaiser|Michael Solomon|Janet Hethorn|Basil Englis|Van Dyk Lewis|Wi-suk Kwon|Diego Rinallo, University of California, Davis|Auburn University|University of Delaware|Berry College|Cornell University|Auburn University|Bocconi University


GCB - Gender and Consumer Behavior Volume 8 | 2006

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