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On gendered products

ATTENTION MEN! MANLY MANLY MEN: Would you like to buy a toothBROsh? It’s a toothbrush, but for BROs. It’s meatier and more muscular than your average toothbrush – to prove it we’ve coloured it grey and printed ‘GRRR’ on the packaging.

Ever since someone put a selection of different meats between two slices of bread and decided that the resulting ‘manwich’ was so epic it could only be tackled by a rugged lumberjack, marketers have been gendering objects.

Gendered products are odd

My pet go-to example is the ‘man-bag’. Until the late twentieth century, gentlemen who wished to transport items would make use of a product known as a ‘bag’. Alternatively, perhaps a ‘rucksack’, a ‘satchel’ or a ‘briefcase’. These were all items that could be used indiscriminately – your carrying needs had nothing to do with whether you were a ‘Mr’ or a ‘Ms’.

Enter the man-bag. The man-bag is a special manly bag full of slugs, snails, puppy-dog tails and so much testosterone it could probably arouse the late Queen Victoria. This rebranding of the humble bag, despite shifting lots of units and gracing the style pages of all the best men’s magazines, was a complete and total failure. Not for the bag-makers, you understand, but for humanity.

Because ever since the successful gendering of a particular type of bag, men I know have been subject to a bizarre and almost completely incomprehensible form of mockery. “Nice man-bag,” say twats, to advertise their belief that carrying a bag is an innately feminine thing to do, “Do you keep your man-purse in it?” they continue, to the detriment of the entire species.

Thanks, brand people. You haven’t made ‘carrying a bag’ an acceptable thing for men to do, you’ve done the opposite. In trying to encourage people to buy more of one particular style of bag, you have placed another explosive on the minefield of gender presentation.

Other gendered products

It’s not just man-bags, there are plenty of gendered products that are tailored to appeal to our average shark-wrestling, macho dude:

  • Guyliner – it’s like eyeliner, but for guys! Because guys don’t wear eyeliner! Except the ones who totally do!
  • Guybrator – because until now literally all vibrators have been designed purely for women and no dude has ever stuck one up his arse.
  • Mandals – a type of shoe, similar to the ones Jesus wore, but now worn by men! Oh, wait.

There are plenty of other examples of these things – gendered marketing has been around for years and isn’t likely to disappear any time soon. But amongst the obnoxious pink laptops aimed at women, cute squirrel-shaped vibrators and the ‘it’s not for girls’ tagline on a Yorkie bar, these portMANteau words stick out like an even sorer thumb. They’re so obvious. So bizarre. And so utterly othering.

Apart from the fact that any of the above products can be used no matter what your gender, the whole thing is deeply, deeply illogical. You’re presumably saying ‘hmm, men will be nervous about purchasing this thing that is traditionally aimed at women, so to market it we will highlight the fact that it is traditionally aimed at women.’ You’re not saying ‘dudes you know it’s totally OK to use these things as well’, you’re saying ‘dudes it’s basically odd for you to be using these things, but at least now if you do then you have the excuse that you’re being stylish.’

Do gendered objects make money?

As I’ve said before, I actually don’t give a flying fuck if this stuff works. I’d hazard a guess that certain words (guybrator, for instance) help enormously with PR when you’re trying to get a new, and seriously intriguing concept product to market. Saying ‘it’s a vibrator for guys which you wrap round your dick instead of put up your arse’ is a bit of a mouthful, whereas ‘guybrator’ trips off the tongue and makes people want to find out what it is.

But here’s the thing: there are a million and one things that we know are going to help make money. Charities could show grotesque pictures of dead people, payday loan companies could write letters from fake lawyers,  bloggers could include shameless promotional sponsor links and tell you that if you don’t click on them and buy stuff they’ll kill a basket of kittens.

We could do that, but most of us don’t (honest – no kittens will ever be harmed in the marketing of this blog) because we know that it’s wrong, and a bit uncomfortable. Those of us that do think only about the bottom line are usually called out on mistakes, as people recognise that although money is important, ethics matter too.

Most marketers probably think there’s nothing wrong with peddling a manbag, or even a toothBROsh. I’m not saying ‘guyliner’ is as bad as fake legal threats, of course – it isn’t even close – but in slapping a gender label on something otherwise universal, marketers are contributing to a world that focuses on exclusion rather than inclusion. One which stacks us all into neat piles according to the way we’re presented, and draws a circle around the things we can do, have, and be. Gendered products maintain the cycle that made gendered products necessary in the first place. In the short term you’ll shift a few more pairs of ‘mandals’ to guys who were worried that ‘sandals’ were too feminine, but in the long-term you’ve just chained yourself to notion that certain products can only appeal to half of the human race.

So in making that choice, ‘Mandals Incorporated’ has ensured that there’s a huge crowd of customers they will never be able to acquire. A pile of money that they can never take to the bank. I hope someone else does.