Reflecting on the just-passed holiday season, slightly over a week ago on Christmas day, I failed Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan’s test by not eating at a Chinese restaurant. Instead, my husband and I stayed home. With him in the kitchen cooking a delightful dinner, I took the day off from researching corporate law and watched whatever programming our cable TV provided.
And that programming contained a seemingly disturbing amount of “manliness,” whatever that means.
Decades of published research demonstrate negative consequences that flow from reinforcing sex and gender-conforming (“cisgender”) roles and behavior. Worse, gender nonconformity is a risk factor for harassment, bullying, suicide, and other violent acts. Black or Latino males expressing varying degrees of femininity particularly have been subjected to gender-based killings.
For example, “50 Under 30" examined the killing of 50 non-cisgender people who ranged in age from 13 to 30. The research detailed how people such as Gwen Araujo were targeted and killed, at least in part due to their gender nonconformity within “the context of a wider ‘gender culture’ that rewards hyper-masculinity [and] loathes ‘sissies’” (emphasis added).
Since the late 1800s, a "sissy" has referred to a gender-nonconforming man, and even manly World Series MVP Ray Knight apologized earlier this summer for using “sissy” on TV.
So I watched as the Travel Channel devoted an hour’s worth of programming to discussing the nation’s “Manliest Restaurants.” The show’s language mirrored the linked article’s phrases, such as claiming that “real men” go to such-and-such restaurant for the delightful cherry pie or what have you. And even The Huffington Post isn’t off the hook on this one, as it uncritically published a press release in which Men’s Health asserted that “sit-down restaurants are for sissies.”
Regardless, fed up with the Travel Channel’s manly feeding, I began watching sports and saw some ads for Miller Lite beer. Miller’s ads tell me to “man up.” Miller’s commercials are particularly offensive in light of the earlier evidence regarding violence toward gender-nonconforming people.
To illustrate, this ad(To watch it, click here) features an ostensibly attractive female bartender sarcastically telling a man that the she won’t serve him a Miller beer because he is “wearing a woman’s scarf.” Following this scene is the announcer’s deep, husky (manly?) voice saying, “Man up,” adjoined by the commercial’s ending, where another ostensibly attractive woman wears the same scarf, leaving the scarf-wearing man appearing awkward. Now I’m still not sure what “man up” means, but I know what manly men eat, and I now understand that real, manly, gender-conforming men apparently don’t wear scarves.
Given the wide audience that regular cable TV — and sports in particular — attracts, nearly anyone of any age is a conceivable viewer of these ads. And the ads’ message is that “not only is something wrong with being gender non-conforming, and not only are we going to point out non-cisgender characteristics and ridicule them, but we’re also going to implicitly tell you to stay away from bars because you’ll feel uncomfortable or ridiculed for being non-cisgender.”
Before I get scolded for being so easily offended, I appreciate satire, parodies, and comedy, although restaurants, bars, and scarves aren’t quiche. Similarly, Steel Panther’s amazing instrumental and vocal artistry recently landed their new Balls Out album in Billboard’s Top 200. But the band’s ability to understand how to market its satire also explains why the album entered at #1 on Billboard’s comedy chart during its release week, despite explicitly sexist, gender-reinforcing lyrics too filthy to be played on commercial radio, and despite the fact that Miller would likely deride of the character of the band’s scarf-wearing bass player.
But explicitly sexist satirical music and books are goods that require a conscious choice to consume. At home, however, people of all ages may choose only to view seemingly innocuous programming about sports or travel but become subjected to non-satirical marketing ploys. These ploys help to a) ingrain viewers’ misbeliefs about what constitutes a normative, gender-conforming person, and b) heighten viewers’ insecurities that even the slightest deviations from the purported dominant gender norms merit ridicule.
Digging deeper, MillerCoors, LLC owns Miller. And the self-professed “largest civil rights organization working to achieve equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans” — the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) — awarded MillerCoors HRC’s highest Corporate Equality Index rating of 100 for the most recent year, for MillerCoors’ apparently stellar corporate treatment of LGBT Americans.
And despite claiming that “when media is used as a platform to … stereotype LGBT people, GLAAD takes action,” GLAAD apparently nominated Miller in 2010 for a media award in advertising, and my research shows nothing on GLAAD’s website condemning the linked ads.
And HRC’s views on corporations and other liability-shielded entities garner significant media publicity. The widespread distribution of HRC’s findings matter because we don’t live by the theoretical rules of neoclassical economics, and we lack perfect information in our decision making. Understandably, for efficiency’s sake, we often rely on intermediaries to help us sift information. Two large-scale, self-professed LGBT groups, as intermediaries, appear to have assisted the companies that produced this harmful imagery and messaging, free from any adverse consequences.
Perhaps HRC and GLAAD should “man up,” or they should simply stop rewarding and start effectively condemning companies who irresponsibly perpetuate and exploit blatantly heightened gender norms.
UPDATE: A previous version of this post asserted that Cox Communications, Cox Enterprises’ wholly owned subsidiary, owns the Travel Channel, the entity that produced the “Manliest Restaurants” show, and on that basis criticized Cox Enterprises and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) for awarding Cox Enterprises a high corporate equality index score. However, Cox sold the Travel Channel to Scripps, which thus owns the Travel Channel and owned it when “Manliest Restaurants” was produced. Cox Enterprises therefore merits no criticism with regard to the “Manliest Restaurants” show, and given that HRC did not include Scripps in its corporate equality index, it also merits no criticism regarding this particular show.