Masculinity and Advertising

In its study of masculinity and sports media, the research group Children Now found that most commercials directed to male viewers tend to air during sports programming. Women rarely appear in these commercials, and when they do, they’re generally portrayed in stereotypical ways. [1]

In fact, in his analysis of gender in advertising, author and University of North Texas professor Steve Craig argues that women tend to be presented as “rewards” for men who choose the right product. He describes such commercials as “narratives of playful escapades away from home and family.” They operate, he says, at the level of fantasy—presenting idealized portrayals of men and women. When he focused specifically on beer commercials, Craig found that the men were invariably “virile, slim and white”—and the women always “eager for male companionship.” [2]

Author and academic Susan Bordo (University of Kentucky) has also analyzed gender in advertising, and agrees that men are usually portrayed as virile, muscular and powerful. Their powerful bodies dominate space in the ads. For women, the focus is on slenderness, dieting, and attaining a feminine ideal; women are always presented as not just thin, but also weak and vulnerable. [3]

These critics and others suggest that just as traditional advertising has for decades sexually objectified women and their bodies, today’s marketing campaigns are objectifying men in the same way. Research and anecdotal reports from doctors suggest that this new focus on fit and muscled male bodies is causing men the same anxiety and personal insecurity that women have felt for decades. [4]

Advertising also contributes to the narrow range of roles for men through the aggressive gender-coding of toy packaging. Despite boys’ interest in cooking and the popularity of shows such as Iron Chef among young boys, for instance, few makers of cooking toys have made any attempts to offer their products in gender-neutral packaging. [5] This is important because once boys and girls reach school age, they begin to prefer toys they see as being “right” for their gender, and to reject toys associated with the other gender – even if they had previously played happily with those same toys. [6] If we want to provide both boys and girls with a wide range of possible roles we need to make sure our homes and classrooms include toys that allow them to explore those roles.


[1] Messner, Mike et al. Boys to Men: Sports Media. Children Now, 1999.
[2] Craig, Steven. Men’s Men and Women’s Women: How TV Commercials Portray Gender to Different Audiences. In Robert E Kemper (Ed): Issues and Effects of Mass Communication: Contemporary Voices. San Diego, CA: Capstone Publishers pp. 89-99
[3] Bordo, Susan. Reading the Slender Body. Body/Politics: Women and the Discourses of Science. Routledge, 1990         
[4] Cafri, Guy et al. Pursuit of the muscular ideal: Physical and psychological consequences and putative risk factors. Clinical Psychology Review 25, 2005.
[5] Newman, Andrew Adam. Toy Pitches Half-Baked. Adweek, March 14 2010.
[6] Gold, Marta. Gender and the toybox. Postmedia News, October 26 2011.