What do men really want?
The proper study of mankind is man, and in America that's just what they're doing
Sunday 03 August 1997
Market indicators suggest demand will be great - especially among women, who have consistently outnumbered the men at a well-attended six-month seminar on Theories of Masculinity that Hobart and William Smith have been holding since 1992. Universities around the country offer more than 500 courses exploring the riddle of male behaviour and always the pattern is the same: female attendance is much higher.
Upscaling this popular topic to a full-on degree would seem to be an idea whose time has come. For if the formula has worked so well for so long in the women's magazine market, it ought to prove commercially viable in the no less competitive sphere of American private education. A 19- year-old female student at Williams and Hobart who has decided to enlist explained why in a recent interview with the Associated Press. "There have been experiences in my life where men have done odd things to me or around me," she said, speaking for every woman alive, "and taking this course is a kind of therapy".
There are endless articles to equip women for the eternal battle of the sexes. The secret behind the success of magazines like Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire is their ability to answer the question: what do women want? But ask what men want and the only answer appears to be Dockers trousers. Some 70 per cent of American men own a pair, according to numerous recent articles. A degree course for young women embarking on the rocky road to adulthood might serve a useful prophylactic purpose by alerting them early on to such mysteries of the male psyche.
Where would the fields of study lie for such a degree course? What would be the required texts? Books anatomising the male of the species are not as plentiful as those dedicated to the task of uncovering the feminine mystique. Charlton Heston had a crack at doing a masculine Betty Friedan with a book called To Be A Man but it has not sold well, readers having failed to discover much relevance to their contemporary predicaments in the ethos of Moses and Ben Hur. A number of "How to..." books are on the market setting out ways for a Bud man to fool a first date into thinking that he is au fait with the wine list. Then there is the Robert Bly (of Iron John fame) school of banging drums, building sweat-lodges and generally getting in touch with terrified 20th-century inner man. These have certainly been bestsellers but since it always turns out to be the mother "whodunit" these have not gone down well with women. By and large, the literature available suggests a gap in the market for a genre that earnestly explores the way men think and feel in these complex empowered female times.
FILMS could provide American Men's Studies students with a more amenable curriculum. Hollywood has provided plenty of material to help ponder the question that has vexed women since the time of Adam and Eve: can men really be as brutally simple as they seem? There's Forrest Gump, for example. Or the Rocky and Die Hard series, and any other film featuring Sylvester Stallone or Bruce Willis.
The stars - the "role models" to which Americans are so addicted - would offer abundant scope for academic inquiry. Why is it, for example, that according to recent surveys Tommy Lee Jones (starring on British screens now in the US import Men in Black) is more popular among men than Tom Cruise? It might be that men would rather identify with gravel-voiced, craggy-faced, self-contained types than with sensitive pipsqueaks attracted to assertive babes. Or maybe the ideal they strive for is something in between, someone like Harrison Ford, whom People magazine described last week as "the biggest box office star in history".
Ford is currently smashing new records in American cinemas with the recently released Air Force One, where he portrays a US president who engages in hand-to-hand battle with terrorists from Kazakhstan. While he has always played larger-than-life heroes in his successful films, Ford's success lies in his ability to convey a sense that he is just a regular guy dealing with extraordinary circumstances. He is not the drop-dead gorgeous type who effortlessly snares every Bond girl to cross his path. He comes across, if anything, as a little awkward with women, an old-fashioned family-values type who is just a tad uncertain how to behave with an empowered Nineties woman. Given a choice between a candle-lit dinner with Claudia Schiffer and a night out with the boys the truth is that, really, he'd be more comfortable with the boys.
He is, in short, the kind of guy who wears those Dockers trousers. Which brings us to the most fruitful vein of exploration currently available for those wishing to deepen their understanding of the science of men. As has been pointed out in a spate of recent American magazine and newspaper articles, 70 per cent of American men between the ages of 25 and 55 own a pair of Dockers, a brand of casual clothing known generically in the US as khakis. Why do so many American men buy Dockers? The answer to that is the key to understanding contemporary Homus americanus.
It all boils down, pundits in the clothing industry agree, to a fabulously successful advertising campaign. The genius of the campaign is that it taps into the well-springs of the male head, heart and libido. It is called the "Nice Pants" campaign and its commercials are now showing on American television. The plots turn on a chance encounter between a young, reasonably good-looking, all-American man and a stunning supermodel. One of the spots begins with a shot of a slightly unkempt American tourist sitting in a cafe in Paris. He glances up and is enraptured to see a devastatingly attractive woman looking him straight in the eye. As the music swells, she walks straight towards him ... then slides right by. "Beau pantalon," she says. In a frenzy, he rummages through his French phrase book. A waitress steps up. "Hey," she says, "nice pants."
A professor of Men's Studies dissecting the larger significance of that evocative little drama might begin by noting that the Dockers commercial seeks to appeal to men as they really are, not as the idealised Grecian fantasies portrayed in glossy advertisements for Hugo Boss. The target of the ad, after all, is the mass market, not the rarefied stratum of affluent males who purchase Vanity Fair.
So what does it say about your average American man? It tells us the following.
First, he does not kid himself that he is beautiful in the manner of Tom Cruise or Keanu Reeves, and neither does he allow himself the vanity of imagining that at the very sight of him supermodels will fall at his feet. The looks of Tommy Lee Jones or Harrison Ford - if he worked out a bit - is the best he could plausibly aspire to.
SECOND, he does like to believe, however, that he is attractive, possibly in a subtle, certainly in a profound, sort of way. And he would like very much to think that at least one of these total babes who might otherwise be inaccessible to him would have the insight required to spot his unique attractiveness and respond to it with instinctive, unfettered passion.
Third, he likes the idea of being seen as effortlessly attractive. It is unmanly, he believes, to think too much about clothes. You just throw them on and if someone tells you they're nice, well, that's fine but what they are really saying is that you're just a naturally stylish guy.
Fourth, he is a straightforward and uncomplicated man who does not mind admitting that deep down he feels a touch uncomfortable, a little out of his depth, in a city like Paris with its fancy ways. With a chuckle, he recognises in himself that guy in the commercial for whom the combination of the encounter with the beautiful dame and her high-falutin foreignness is, frankly, overwhelming.
Fifth, he admits that part of the reason he identifies with the haplessness and confusion of that guy is that he finds sexual confidence in women alluring and intimidating in equal measure. The "beau pantalon" babe elicits in him a more general anxiety in the face of the liberated modern woman. After all, he tells himself, the notion that a woman can be your boss has only become conventionally acceptable in the past couple of decades, hardly long enough to alter mental habits of male superiority evolved over the preceding 500,000 years.
Last, to conclude this introductory lesson in Men's Studies, our average American male recognises in that guy in the commercial not only his own demeanour and behaviour, but that of every man. And he finds that deeply reassuring because, in the end, what he most wants is to be accepted as a member of the pack. As the Dockers marketers know to their considerable profit, any study of men that ignores the strength of that conformist impulse is off beam. Buying Dockers pants allows him to satisfy a powerful craving to be one of the guys; to belong to the large extended club of like-minded, similarly confused, subtly attractive men.
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