Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The High Life Man: Masculinity in America

Overture: The High Life Man's Credo
I went up to the Block Cinema at Northwestern University last week to see Errol Morris's latest documentary Tabloid.  I'm a longtime fan of Morris's extensive series (more than 100 ads in all) of advertisements for Miller High Life.  According to Morris's website, so is he.  The director of documentaries like The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War considers the High Life commercials "his most impressive achievement."  Their sheer volume aside, Morris's meticulous attention to consistency of tone, humor, and warmth throughout the campaign is pretty amazing.  Because they ran for so long (almost eight years), and seem to establish a consistent aesthetic for a certain kind of ideal American man, Morris's commercials raise a lot of issues related to the supposed crisis of confidence plaguing American masculinity.

The ads chronicle the attributes and lifestyle of the "High Life Man," played by roughly interchangeable middle-aged, able-but-perhaps-a-little-soft-bodied, usually white men (I think there's only one commercial featuring a black High Life Man--more on that soon), most often with either receding or non-existent hair line. Upon the retirement of the campaign, Jonah Bloom of Advertising Age wrote:
In an era when much of advertising feels fake, especially brewers' ads, which tend to depict too-preened girlymen prancing around predictably beautiful women, the High Life man has been an honest, authentic campaign that regular beer drinkers could relate to.
But how did the High Life Man relate to his viewers?  And how might things have changed during the span of his run as Miller's spokesman?  Finally, what--if anything--can the High Life Man tell me about where American masculinity is today?

Trading Pants for Skirts

Consider "SUV," a 30-second spot that has many of the key characteristics of the High Life Man campaign.

The ad begins with disdain for what appears to be the degeneration of the contemporary moment.  After listing the features of the vehicle in the frame, the narrator says "nowadays you'll hear people call this a truck."  Against the grain of this accursed present, it's "A MAN" who "knows a station wagon when he sees one."  The station wagon here seems to allude to traditional categories of feminine work: caring for the family, grocery shopping, picking up the kids after school, shuttling sweaty 10-year-olds to the ice-cream parlor, etc.  By comparison, it's assumed that men drive un-airconditioned, manual transmission trucks.  The commercial is very specific about what kind of man: the camera gives us a close shot of a "high and tight" haircut as a voiceover that sounds straight out of a World War II History Channel documentary says "A MAN."  These are men that sweat and have agency and control over their vehicles.  These are men who would never drive an SUV.

But perhaps more important is the commercial's punch line.  The voiceover continues: "If this vehicular masquerade represents the high life to which men are called, we should trade our trousers for skirts right now."  There are two significant rhetorical moves here.  First, it's not that the driver of an SUV is not a man because of what he drives.  Rather, it is an act of "masquerade" implicit in his choice of vehicle that the narrator laments.  A real man is thus the "authentic" man, and the question of authenticity is one that extends throughout all of these commercials.  Secondly, the commercial does not accuse the SUV driver of being a woman, but perhaps more accurately, a cross-dresser.  That is, a sissy, a ninny--also a kind of performer or poser.  It's not beyond bounds to say that this is an unsubtle gesture toward homophobia, but the commercial is not as homophobic as much as it is deploying this rhetoric against posing as a man.  In all of these commercials, the High Life Man is portrayed as heterosexual--in a bumbling, disturbingly unhealthy, lovable brute way--but to understand their importance, it's vital to keep hold of where the commercials deploy the language of authenticity.

Throughout this series, I'll be tracking these characteristics of the High Life Man campaign in order to probe what the commercials said about masculinity during their run, and what they might have to say about American manhood now.  I argue that the campaign tried to foster nostalgia for the "authentic" male.  What is being lamented is not the contemporary moment, but rather the loss of the possibility of authenticity embodied by the High Life Man himself.  Manhood does not end when the High Life Man retires--but a particular kind of manhood is already being eclipsed.

The End of Men (?)

We can take the opposite view.  Let's assume, like The Atlantic did last year, that the end times of men have arrived.  Senior Atlantic editor and founder of DoubleX Hanna Rosin supports this claim in her article "The End of Men" by analyzing sweeping trends in economic productivity since the 1970's (a period characterized by the rise of what is frequently referred to as Postfordism).  The piece revolves around the question, "What if the modern, postindustrial economy is simply more congenial to women than to men?"  In other words, Rosin considers whether contemporary American society is trading one form of gender hegemony (male) for another (female)--and that this is due to a shift in the kind of labor necessary in leading productive economies.  Since we no longer build things, we rely on individuals who are better at providing "affective" labor.  That is, in a service economy, women will eventually be selected (in a Darwinian sense) and men, well, won't.

Rosin offers a compelling account of one reason why the labor force has become more balanced over the past four decades.  And I think I would agree with her perspective by posing a very simple question:  Can you really picture this guy working in a factory?:

Everything is different about the new Old Spice Man.  He's not white.  He's fit, and has a rapid-fire delivery of a voice that sounds less like it's been through war and more like it's been through acting classes.  He is unconcerned about appearing feminine.  The exact opposite.  He wants to know female desires intimately so that he can satisfy (or manipulate) women by performing a certain way.  So he bakes and builds houses, walks on logs in casual outdoor-wear, and "swan dives" in such a way that his body can be on view the entire way down into the whirlpool below, landing on a motorcycle.  He seems to have everything a man should have to be appealing to women.

But does he feel authentic?  I don't know, ladies: "You tell me."  The definition of his masculinity doesn't come from within--but from women.  Put another way, his masculinity doesn't derive from an internal code, but from the female gaze.

Perhaps the "crisis" of the American male might not be one that arises solely out of politics and economics, but rather one that is deeply rooted in an aesthetic shift in the way men are presented in the media.  Simply: we have seen a movement away from the High Life Man--and toward the new Old Spice man: a suave, bare-chested, handsome, social-media-savvy spokesman.  This is a man who doesn't sweat, who works out, and who probably drives a BMW Crossover vehicle with leather seats--the next logical performance activity vehicle after the nadir of the SUV.

To give a little body to my argument about the High Life Man, I aim to put an analysis of Morris's work in conversation with Rosin's article.  I'm not concerned as much with economics, as with aesthetics and their relationship to the rise of a fundamentally different kind of "ideal male" that has emerged since the turn of the Millennium.  That is to say, I'm also concerned with a more compressed period of time than the one that Rosin engages with.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I'll be writing about several of the standout ads to ask what they tell us about American Male today.  Can we, even now, aspire to the High Life?  And should we?


  1. Did you see this Mother Jones article, Was That a Gay Soldier in That Beer Commercial?

  2. Interesting to come up against this. I have been saying for a long time that men have become way too weak and feminine, and women have become more masculine. While that's a sweeping overgeneralization, I hold to it and think there is a lot of truth in it.