Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The High Life Man, Part II: What Women Want

In Part One of my discussion of the High Life Man, I suggested that an aesthetic transition has taken place in the portrayal of men over the course of the last decade.  Using the new Old Spice Man as my point of comparison, I suggested that the masculinity embodied by the be-toweled Isaiah Mustafa "doesn't derive from an internal code, but from the female gaze."  This ostensibly stands apart from Errol Morris's High Life Man, whose code of manly behavior comes from within: from adherence to an internal ethos of manhood.  To understand what this transition could mean, it seems appropriate to analyze what the High Life Man actually says about female desire (and women in general) and compare that to a reading of the Old Spice spot.

In Questions, the contemporary Old Spice Man asks ladies, "Do you want a man who smells like he can bake you a gourmet cake in the dream kitchen he built for you with his own hands?"  That is, do you (ladies) want a skilled man to satisfy your every (sexual) need?  "Of course you do," because then you can "Swan dive!  Into the best night of your life."  Proficiency in baking, construction, and log rolling correlates with sexual desire, and ultimately, sexual performance.  The Old Spice Man's proficiency has everything to do with seamless understanding of female desire.

The High Life Man--in Casanova (above) for example--needs instructions about female desire, primarily because women don't occupy a great deal of his attention.  "Here's a lesson for the would-be Casanova," says the voiceover.  "Every so often it's advantageous to remind the little lady she hasn't dropped off the radar."  Already there are significant differences between this spot and the Old Spice ad.  The man--the would-be Casanova--is the object of address, whereas the Old Spice Man speaks directly to "ladies."  In other words, Old Spice shuttles sexual desire through women, whereas the High Life Man tries to educate a hapless Joe on the mysteries of his "little lady's" wants.  The Old Spice Man's every cake and kitchen is made with women in mind, whereas the High Life Man can only "every so often" remember that his monogamous partner even exists.  The significance lies in the difference between heterogeneous (but definitely heterosexual) desire--general sexual availability to women--and a monogamous (but, yeah, still definitely heterosexual) relationships.

Granted, the Old Spice Man says he stands in for "your man," which does imply a consistent relationship.  But in the spot, he is plugging himself as a viable alternative to any man.  He can take the place (and, with his wry smile, suggests that he gladly would) of any significant other, in any woman's arms.  Finally, while the Old Spice Man promises the best night of a woman's life, the High Life Man throws a flower into a used bottle (it seems probable that he's been drinking already) and can expect satisfaction of his sexual desires by his little lady that evening. 

What goes unsaid about the characterization of heterosexual monogamous female desire in the High Life Man spot?  The High Life Man has a very low bar to meet.  A relationship can be sustained by periodic affection that is geared toward the satisfaction of male sexual need.  I'm not saying that either commercial gives us a rosy picture of the way that men and women relate to one another, but the importance here is not that the High Life Man has no clue what women want--rather that he thinks a woman's desire should be channeled through his own.  The woman gets his spent beer bottle and, as thanks, will satisfy his sexual desire.

What, in turn, does this say about the kind of woman that the High Life Man desires?  Usefully, the campaign gives us a direct answer:

The "newlywed gal" stands in front of the beer case in her sensible shoes and plaid skirt that rises tantalizingly above her calves.  What kind of man does you want, future little lady?   "Correct.  You want a High Life Man."  The commercial seems to offer a conceit similar to that of the Old Spice Man, asking the woman what she desires.  But this turns out to be a false gambit because the voice-over confirms the rightness of her decision.  The man still controls the world of the supermarket, and the woman chooses correctly because her beer purchase validates the man's desire for High Life.  What does an investment in High Life by this young bride mean for her future?  Chances are, it means something like the future painted in Casanova.

This has started to sound a bit depressing, but there are two things that complicate the equation here and may redeem the High Life Man in the end.  I'm not sure.

The first: these two commercials are pretty clearly ironic--as are many in the series. There's another reading of the High Life Man's attempts at romance too.  Chances are he's a lovable galoot who makes mistakes and takes flak from his little lady with some regularity.  She probably keeps him in line. In exchange for consistent fireworks, we get the slow burn of a committed relationship. A good example of this is in Mr. Fix-It: the man's competence here is very different from that of the Old Spice Man.  Here, proficiency with a wrench (wink wink) is kept within the confines of the marital bedroom.  The High Life Man doesn't cheat.

And finally, in its very sincerity--its clarity or apparent surety of what women want, the Old Spice Man might be a little more nefarious in his rhetoric.  The voice of the commercial is so certain and confident in what appear to be genuine female desires, it's possible to read it as attempting to manipulate ladies' desire.  There's no way a woman would be satisfied by a flower in a High Life bottle--(although, yes, my girlfriend does love High Life, and I love that about her, though I hardly think she would describe me as a High Life Man...or a Casanova)--but there is something that aims to be compelling about cakes, walking on water, swan diving, hot tubs, and building a house.  Women are supposed to like this.  That's the manipulative part of the Old Spice Man.  He convinces ladies he knows what they want.  The High Life Man just tries to get by.


  1. Hi A-J, This is a great read and I think the importance of delving into the cultural fecundity of these ads shouldn't be undervalued. The text/sub-text of Casanova's red flower interests me. I'm surprised by how heteronormative culture still allies flowers with women, as tokens for women... if a High Life Man puts a flower (tritely plucked, maybe even from his wife's garden) in water, it's not for his own enjoyment, but for the Little Lady's. Just as this demeans the Lady, it didactically tells the man, "No, you can't like flowers (and maybe even beauty at large), you only use them as a commodity to get what you really want, which is sex."

    Also, did you notice the Casanova voice-over takes on sort of a Mid-western "da bears" accent?

    Angela Argentati (MAPH '09)

  2. Angela - thanks for the comment! I can't believe I just totally glossed over the flower itself as an object (clearly because flowers are for girls), and I LOVE the notion that the HLM potentially plucked it from his wife's garden like an insensitive idiot.

    But now I'm also interested in the symbolism of the flower itself. It's so clear in its rhetoric as an object that it doesn't *actually* take any thought for him to choose it as a gift. It's not "thoughtful" because it adheres so rigidly to, as you put it, heteronormative narratives of romance.

    Meaning, what is actually giving? I dunno.

    And yeah, the identity of this narrator has been driving me nuts. I'm giving a nickel to whoever finds out who this mystery voice is.