This post has been updated.
With Super Bowl 50 just one week away, American sports fans should expect to see many more highlight reels of athletes slamming into one another over the next few days. Contact sports have long been a national tradition in the United States, with millions of fans tuning in to see the allegedly controlled violence of sports like football, boxing, and hockey. Our obsession with hitting each other has, not surprisingly, becoming entrenched in our idea of masculinity. The message we receive when we watch sports is not only “this is fun to watch,” but “this is as manly as it gets.”
Traditionally, big brands have capitalized on sports’ association with masculinity to sell their products. Buy this deodorant and you’ll be tough; buy these shirts and you’ll be buff. But in the past few years, some brands have finally started to leverage sports and sporting events to promote healthier depictions of masculinity. This Super Bowl will likely continue the trend.
But can brands really affect the way we perceive masculinity? And perhaps more importantly, is it possible for men to psychologically reconcile the violence of sports like football with more progressive masculine qualities?
The machismo of contact sports
Many men in the US are socialized from a young age to conform with standards of so-called “toxic masculinity.” These include refusing to show weakness or fear; never crying or showing emotions other than anger; demonstrating heterosexuality; dominating women; and being physically tough.
Contact sports do not inherently promote toxic masculinity. Yet clearly a lot of the qualities required to be successful in contact sports overlap with stereotypical and arguably regressive male traits: unrestrained aggression, strength, an unwillingness or inability to show vulnerability. From a fan perspective, the hyper-masculine, on-field personas of sports heroes are often the only ones we see. Between sports and the emotionally limited depictions of men in entertainment and advertisements, boys and men are constantly exposed to unhealthy representations of masculinity.
This is particularly true when our sports idols bring their aggression home with them. Boxing’s biggest star and the world’s highest-paid athlete, Floyd Mayweather Jr., has a history of serial violence against women. The National Football League and National Hockey League have both struggled to deal with high-profile incidents, prompting Jeffrey Kluger to write in 2014 that professional football was experiencing a “crisis of violence.” The NFL’s reactions to these violent off-field incidents have been inconsistent at best, sending the equally inconsistent message that the rules can be bent if the athlete is a top performer.
Dr. Paula Dobbs-Wiggins is a psychiatrist in Dallas, Texas who has treated several professional football players over the years, whom she cannot name because of confidentiality. Dobbs-Wiggins tells Quartz that it can be difficult for some players to reconcile the violence of the game with real life. “This is a sport that requires an aggressive edge to be successful,” she says, “but some players can encapsulate that, recognize that it is part of their job, and still be capable of a full range of healthy emotions.”
Unfortunately, some players can’t.
Changing the culture of masculinity
Dealing with off-field aggression issues will likely always be a challenge for individual players. But the media and fans can at least insist that our male role models depict more progressive masculine values as part of their public personas.
Progressive masculinity holds that men should act as their authentic selves, even if those selves don’t conform with stereotypical qualities such as stoicism, aggression, and dominance. Activists including Michael Kimmel and Tony Porter have drawn links between toxic masculinity and violence against women, garnering widespread support and national attention. In Hollywood, male celebrities such as Matt McGorry and Terry Crews (who wrote a whole book about progressive masculinity) have been celebrated for speaking out.
Research sponsored by Unilver suggests that more men are getting on board with a new way of thinking about masculinity, pushing back against the outdated depictions featured in television and film. Personally, I was particularly disappointed by the cartoonishly misogynistic James Bond of the new Spectre movie and by Calvin Klein’s decision to use uber-womanizer Justin Bieber, of all the men in the world, to represent its spring line of jeans.
Brands have a large part to play in changing popular perceptions of masculinity. Last year, Dove Men+Care bet big money on progressive masculinity in the form of empathetic Super Bowl ads that showed men caring for their children. After years of sexist GoDaddy and Carl’s Jr. commercials, the change was a welcome one
This year, Dove is rolling out a new slate of commercials—and some big-name talent—to promote progressive ideals. Green Bay Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson and Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer are both featured in ads that aim to reinforce the message that kindness and caring are indeed masculine traits. While the spots will not air during the Super Bowl itself, their timing is no coincidence.
The power of advertising
Jennifer Siebel Newsom, founder of the nonprofit The Representation Project, tells Quartz that shifts in advertising can correspond, and even encourage, important shifts in cultural attitudes. “Depictions of healthy masculinity and men being their whole, authentic selves are critical for modeling an alternative for consumers, particularly boys and young men,” Newsom says. The Representation Project, an outgrowth of Newsom’s documentary “Miss Representation,” has acted as a media watchdog for gender stereotypes over the past few years, calling out video games, politicians, brands, and movies for sexism and homophobia.
But while it’s nice to see pro-football superstars lending their support to these types of campaigns rather than, say, a truck ad or Campbell’s soup commercial, it’s hard to ignore the underlying tension that exists between these athletes’ day jobs and their Dove personas.
Nelson, a Pro Bowl athlete and father of two young boys, tells Quartz that he does have to make sure he balances his on-field competitive drive with his home life. “You might worry you will get looked down on if you’re not this rough, tough, don’t show your feelings guy, but being a father opens that up and brings those emotions out,” he explains.
When his kids see men in media, Nelson says he wants them to understand that being a man is about being “comfortable in who you are, not someone that’s just fitting in because that’s the cool thing to do.”
Since joining the NFL as a second-round draft pick in 2008, Nelson has developed his own strategies to manage and compartmentalize his aggression. In his case, the 15-minute drive home from the Packers practice facilities operates as a sort of cooling-down period, allowing him to “flip a switch,” as it were, from football player to husband and father.
Which brings us back to the Super Bowl. Jessica Luther, a reporter who covers the intersection of culture and sport, tells Quartz that brands can play a big role in changing the way we look at professional athletes. (Whether brands can change the way athletes look at themselves, however, is less certain). “It matters as much what viewers are seeing in commercials between plays” as what fans read in player profiles, Luther says.
So far, there have been small shifts in the media’s depictions of masculinity. But viewers are too often left with seemingly contradictory messaging: aggression is good, and so is caring; fearlessness is important, but so is being comfortable with vulnerability. Reconciling these contradictions is not always so simple. But as Luther says, “We live with all kinds of contradictions and so it’s certainly possible to live with that one, too.”
Update Feb 3, 2016: Dove clarified to Quartz that the ads, while timed to the Super Bowl, will not air during the actual event.