This week was my husband’s birthday, so I decided to buy him a gift. In pre-Corona days, I hated shopping, but after a year of hunkering down, a busy mall felt almost refreshing. There is a store in our local mall that specializes in gifts for men, and during lockdown they upgraded their premises, so I decided to give it a try.
The renovated store is black and shiny, and most importantly, is almost exclusively devoted to one item: watches. In its previous iteration, the shop used to have quirky gifts, such as puzzles, pipes, and useless ship-related antiques. This new one is much slicker, with endless glass enclosures and duty-free-like brand names in gold etching lining the walls. The salesman, a friendly twenty-something with a soft beard and earbuds around his neck, was an expert on the various watch styles. He offered intricate descriptions of millisecond precision, battery technology, and lighting. As I considered how elaborate men’s watches are compared to women’s watches, the salesman confided that he owns 7 or 8 watches, but only certain brands. The “watch buff”, as he called himself, surprised me, not only because I personally have never owned more than one watch at a time, but also because some of the ones he mentioned have $2000 price-tags and I was curious how and why he would put so much of his youthful money into something so seemingly, well, excessive. I didn’t get it, but I listened and smiled.
I wandered around the shop to see what else I might discover. I found a lot of dead cow hides -- there was a small section on wallets, a shelf of belts, a wall of black-leather attaché cases along with what can only be described as man-purses, and some other stuff I would never use, like a whiskey set, paperweights, a cushioned wood box for corkscrews, and a red faux-fur set of handcuffs. And right next to that was an enclosed shelf of leather-handled hunting knives and other sword-looking things.
The shop was like a museum of masculinity. For the man who goes to work like Ward Cleaver, tells time to the millisecond like James Bond, drinks scotch like Don Draper, and occasionally needs to skin a rabbit like Crocodile Dundee. That’s a lot to keep up with.
I could not help but consider how this compares to gift shops aimed at women. We get cuddly pillows, coffee mugs with inspiring messages like, “You’re awesome”, pretty chopping boards with recipes for vinaigrette or vegan brownies, signs that say “Pamper yourself”, and massage chairs.
The differences between how women and men are marketed to should not be so surprising. After all, it is done purposely, and there are mountains of books, podcasts, blogs, and courses in business school that teach business executives to do this. Just google “marketing for men and women” and you are more likely to get advice on how to do it than sociological criticism questioning why we should not do it. It’s overt and deliberate.
Nevertheless, I was surprised at how strictly old-school-male this store was. It is, after all, 2021. If ever there was a time when one might think that we have other priorities beyond maintaining such useless veneers of the hunter-gatherer, this should have been it.
Plus, you know, given what we have all been through this past year, I thought that maybe even men could use a pick-me-up and maybe some emotional support. A nice calendar with daily reminders such as, “You’re awesome!” and “Pamper yourself!”
Indeed, what struck me most in the men’s store was not what was in it but what wasn’t. There were no mugs or t-shirts that say “World’s greatest Dad”, no cute chopping boards with cartoons of men cooking or even eating together (did I mention it’s 2021?), no suggestion that men do anything other than work, drink, or kill things. Maybe some BDSM on the side. How sad. There weren’t even any greeting cards, no printed “Happy birthday” messages for me to choose from. The closest thing was a pile of cards with nearly-naked, sexy-posed women right by the register.
What was missing?
Relationships. Emotions. Actually living life.
I feel bad for men in this culture. (Although to be honest, not as much as I do for women....) What feminism teaches us is crucial for men. That we all need to get out of our boxes of gender expectations. The same way our gendered culture traps women, it also traps men. Just as I would like to see expectations of women’s full participation in work, so, too, I would like to see expectations of men’s full participation in, like, life. (Again, 2021.) I mean, men may enjoy the cool-retro feel of pretending to be a cross between Attila the Hun and Get Smart, but I imagine it eventually wears off as they realize how much else is out there in the world for them.
Life imitates art, and in that sense, advertising is a form of art in the world. The store itself – and others like it – share responsibility for sending our culture backwards. Not just for women but also for men. Men trying to envision themselves in this kind of environment will be missing out on so much of what their lives can include.
In any event, I bought a watch. I chose one that was not too fancy, and with no card, obviously. I told my daughter, in case she wanted to chip in with me. She said, “A watch? That is the most boring present in the world.” Yeah, it is.
PS. Happy birthday to the World's Greatest Husband <3
Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is an award-winning Jewish feminist author, anthropologist, educator, indie-publisher and life coach. Her newest book, Conversations with my Body: Essays on My Life as a Jewish Woman, (Lioness Books 2021) is available here Follow her on FB, IG, Twitter, on her blog, www.conversationswithmybody.com