Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Wear the Pants: Be a Man at Penn Station


Recently, when I entered Penn Station to take my daily train to work, I noticed an advertisement while riding the down escalator. The ad has no images, only a logo; the text reads “It’s never too late to be a man.” As I read the ad, I felt annoyed, uncomfortable and puzzled. What is this ad all about and how does it relate to the binary gender regime under which we all live? When I disembarked from the escalator, I saw that this small ad was part of a larger campaign that blanketed the entire train station. The campaign is for Dockers, specifically their khaki pants.


As I read the other text advertisements that appeared throughout the Amtrak area of the station, I realized that this campaign to sell Dockers khakis was meant to be half serious and half funny, but I wasn’t laughing. Now, before anyone thinks I am humorless and can’t take a joke or that I am a bit esoteric (this is of course partly true), I am also witty and sarcastic and I would never call myself “politically correct.” However, something about the Dockers’ ad campaign in Penn Station troubles and intrigues me because of its deployment of orthodox masculinity in order to sell khaki pants to (real) men.

Like the first ad I saw, “It’s never too late to be a man”, some of the ads are in the form of admonishments or directives in which the (male) speaker of the ad tells the (male) spectator/c0nsumer that masculinity can be achieved with one pair of khaki pants. Throughout the station, the command “Wear the Pants” is repeated often. dockers1 And this achievement is only a block away: “Purchase a one way ticket to manhood, Macy’s Herald Square, Lower Level.” Within the system of consumerism, gender is a commodity that can be bought and sold as long as the purchaser buys the appropriate item for the correct gender. The other parts of the Penn Station advertising blitz further address the male viewer with a command: “You put the man in Manhattan.” and “Face it you’re a man.” or with an authoritative statement: “Gender has a dress code” and “Mankind has arrived at the station.

This Dockers’ campaign needs to be seen, I believe, in the context of the rise of the metrosexual as a new male subject position. The term was first coined in 1994 by Mark Simpson and gained popularity with Simpson’s 2002 article on Salon.com, "Meet the Metrosexual" In the article, Simpson writes:

The typical metrosexual is a young man with money to spend, living in or within easy reach of a metropolis – because that's where all the best shops, clubs, gyms and hairdressers are. He might be officially gay, straight or bisexual, but this is utterly immaterial because he has clearly taken himself as his own love object and pleasure as his sexual preference. Particular professions, such as modeling, waiting tables, media, pop music and, nowadays, sport, seem to attract them but, truth be told, like male vanity products and herpes, they're pretty much everywhere.

For some time now, old-fashioned (re)productive, repressed, unmoisturized heterosexuality has been given the pink slip by consumer capitalism. The stoic, self-denying, modest straight male didn't shop enough (his role was to earn money for his wife to spend), and so he had to be replaced by a new kind of man, one less certain of his identity and much more interested in his image – that's to say, one who was much more interested in being looked at (because that's the only way you can be certain you actually exist). A man, in other words, who is an advertiser's walking wet dream.

The metrosexual despite his sexual preference is in one sense a challenge to the traditional male heterosexual. He pampers himself physically and sartorially and allows himself to be an object of a desiring gaze. In fact, he seeks out this gaze and displays himself for all to see within the urban megalopolis. And what is even more interesting, the metrosexual is both the product and the need of consumerism- a new capitalist class who wants to spend their money on grooming products and designer clothes.

The Dockers campaign is in part a critical response to the metrosexual and his gender undermining consumerism. Dockers still want men to be consumers of course, but rather their advertising campaign seeks to promote the act of buying khaki pants as a means to reconfirm and redeploy an orthodox masculinity. It is a codification of the retrosexual as their own consumer class. (The term, retrosexual, was also coined by Simpson to denote a traditionally masculine man who was uninterested in or unnerved by the metrosexual’s self-involvement.) As the ad states, “It’s never too late to be a man” and discard and reject the foolish primping of the metrosexual.

This celebration of the retrosexual is further underlined by the advertisement which states, “Gender has a dress code.” While at first glance, this statement could suggest gender as performative, as a masquerade in which donning particular clothes expresses a certain gender despite biological sex, the use of the word “code” implies regulation and containment rather than an unending chain of sartorial signifiers. As Judith Butler states the initiatory performative of gender, “It’s a girl” or “It’s a boy” begins:

the process by which a certain girling (or boying) is compelled, the term or rather, its symbolic power governs the formation of a corporeally enacted femininity (or masculinity). This is a “girl” (or a “boy”), however, who is compelled to “cite” the norm in order to qualify and remain a viable subject. Femininity (or masculinity) is the forcible citation of a norm, one whose complex historicity is indissociable from relations of discipline, regulation and punishment…this citation of the gender norms is necessary to qualify as a “one” where subject-formation is dependent on the prior operation of legitimating gender norms.

Clothing is one of the norms which a male individual must cite from in order to be understood as a “viable (masculine) subject.” The Dockers statement “Gender has a dress code” is an attempt to reassert the significance of clothing and khakis in particular in the production of a proper gender identity for men, but not in the terms of the metrosexual. Rather khakis are positioned as signifiers of traditional masculinity.

It is partly in reaction to the blurring of sartorial boundaries by the metrosexual in which clothing is meant to signify more than just utility and masculinity, but rather it is also a display, a signifier of wealth and good taste and an expression of the wearer’s objectness. In a sense, the metrosexual gives too much importance to his clothing. His relation to it is too feminine. Within the Dockers gender code, clothing is meant to blend in, to be functional. practical and sturdy, to express gender without feminine display and taste and to exude an male realness.


This notion is again emphasized by the advertising line, “Face it, you’re a man.” as if having a penis is the only needed confirmation of one’s (traditional) masculinity (and heterosexuality). There is no nuance or subtly here. If you have a penis you must live according to the rules and boundaries that began with “It’s a boy” at the moment of your birth. You have to “face” it. It is undeniable and you can further achieve and display your manhood by wearing Dockers khakis.

“Face it, you’re a man” is also, I believe, a homophobic statement. It implies a chain of sex/gender/desire in which a male sex produces a masculine gender with a proper heterosexual desire. Such a system precludes same-sex desire as a viable expression of an individual by asserting heterosexuality as natural and mandatory. Butler states, “The institution of a complusory and naturalized heterosexuality requires and regulates gender as a binary relation in which the masculine term is differentiated from a feminine term, and this differentiation is accomplished through the practice of heterosexual desire.” Therefore, gender is a system based upon and confirmed by heterosexuality. A gay man is unintelligible within this system because he does not fulfill the proper sequence of sex/gender/desire. Likewise, the metrosexual could also be seen as outside this chain of sex/gender/desire as well because he cites from a norm usually associated with femininity. He does not successfully differentiate the terms, but blurs them.

The Penn Station Dockers advertising campaign participates in and asserts the current gender regime by securing gender as a binary relation in which the masculine term is secured, differentiated from, and privileged over the feminine term. “Face it you’re a man” calls upon the male viewer to live up to the rules of this ideological structure and in turn negates gay men (and women, both gay and straight).

The further line “You put the man in Manhattan” continues this homophobic tone. In the campaign, Manhattan can be understood as a space of metrosexuality and gayness and the ad calls for the potential wearers of Dockers to “put the man in Manhattan”, a traditionally masculine man, a retrosexual, in contrast to all the metrosexuals and homos who inhabit the city. In this regard it is interesting that this Dockers campaign is within Penn Station where men from the suburbs enter the city everyday for work. Perhaps, they are the target audience for these advertisements by playing on their own fears and fantasies about the city as a place of metrosexuals and gays, of men who are not like them. Perhaps, therefore, my unease on seeing these ads is in part because as a urban queer/vext man I am not their target audience. Indeed, one of the ads reads, “Mankind has arrived at the station” as if traditional masculinity must come from outside the urban space of New York City, a space defined by metrosexuality and homosexuality.


On the Dockers website, there is a so-called Man-ifesto which additionally signals this ad campaign as reactionary, homophobic and a response to the rise of the metrosexual:


The Man-ifesto alludes to metrosexuality and homosexuality through the use of words such as disco, non-fat latte, androgyny, salad bar etc. Society has become genderless and is in peril of collapse because of it. Little old ladies have no one to help them cross the street. The use of this image intrigues me the most. It reminds me of an image of the Boy Scout helping an old woman across the street. The Boy Scouts are a training ground for traditional masculinity and are one of the most homophobic organizations in the United States. And indeed, I think the inclusion of the little old lady image is not by chance in the Man-ifesto, but a direct allusion to homosexuality. The Dockers campaign states, “little old ladies remain on one side of the street” because of in a sense the presence of gay men and metrosexuals. Their presence within the urban space are undermining orthodox masculinity and causing cities to “crumble”. Again the salvation and rebirth of orthodox masculinity remains outside the urban sphere. “Mankind has arrived at the station.

In response to this world in gender turmoil, people with a penis are asked “to get your hands dirty”, “to answer the call of manhood” and to reassert traditional masculinity with the simple act: Wear the Pants. The entire Dockers campaign may seem harmless in its use of gender. Surely, we are not meant to take its brand of masculinity seriously. Surely, we are meant to laugh at its reactionary nature. According to the campaigns’ creator, Draft FCB of San Francisco, the “Dockers brand of masculinity is less about ‘Don’t eat quiche’ and more about being chivalrous and mature.” The campaign was also supposedly tested with women “to make sure it’s not sexist.” “It’s not about men taking over again” nor is about whether men are “gay, straight or whatever,” says Julie Scelzo, creative director of Draft FCB.

Yet, for me the Dockers ads hide behind this humorous and tongue-in-cheek approach. It is not mature or chivalrous, but rather it plays to the fears and prejudices of (straight) men. (Straight) men are its audience. It hails the retrosexual as a new consumer class in opposition to the ambiguous metrosexual. In this regard, the Dockers advertisement blitz at Penn Station speaks to, acknowledges, participates in and uses the homophobia so prevalent in our society to sell khaki pants. Perhaps I should have been in a test group.


  1. I kind of want to vandalize these ads.

  2. The personal style associated with "retrosexuals" is a legitimate choice, one could market to fans of that image without making negative comparisons to "foamy latte" people. One wonders what a truly creative and nonhomophobic version of this marketing campaign might look like.

    "Women of Manhattan: As a matter of fact, that gorgeous gay man DOES have a brother." [The guy on the right is wearing dockers. Both are smiling and clearly comfortable with each other]

  3. Wow, great post! I love that Simpson quote about how being looked at is "the only way you can be certain you actually exist."

    I am fed up of advertising that pretends that there is a default position which is either male or doesn't mind the sexist/homophobic shit being spouted to sell you something you will buy to make you feel slightly less inadequate than they have made you feel already. No thank you, I don't want to buy your toothpaste or liqueur or chocolate or lip balm that pimps parts of a women's body (viewed in that way that confirms that women are either thoughtlessly or ruthlessly seductive, innocent or 'naughty') as though it were the most natural thing in the world.

    It would seem hard to make people feel alienated in the great pick'n'mix that is New York, but they've achieved it. Go home, suburban Docker fuckers.

    So yes, I feel your pain.


  4. What is also interesting in terms of advertising is that men have also become objects of the gaze, but is symmetry really the goal here. I am reminded of the words of writer Kate Linker in her essay "Representation and Sexuality" from 1984. She writes: "The prevalence of these images, their power in prescribing subject positions and their use in constructing identity within the patriarchal order indicate that an exemplary political practice should take as its terrain representation, working to challenge its oppressive structures. However, these discoveries have also revealed the inadequacy of the equal rights or gender equity strategies that informed cultural politics of the seventies. These strategies, based in the elimination of discrimination and in equal access to institutional power, in no way account for the ideological structures of which discrimination is but a symptom...they aim to recover in the direction of complementarity and symmetry, the structured appropriation of women to the order of the same, to the standard of masculine sexuality." Thus, simply objectifying men (and one might look at the way ads which do this, also recoup the male as subject in the end) is not the way to balance or critically examine the politics of representation. Rather the very structure of representation itself based on male subjectivity (what film theorist Kaja Silverman calls the "dominant fiction") must be critically undone to achieve true equality. Linker wrote this over 25 years ago and the same gendered and heterosexual representational system is still dominant.