Originally posted on March 3, 2009
One of the things a lot of young men and boys learn as they approach adulthood is that being a man is not really a positive thing. Certainly some people find value in men, especially when someone needs to be saved or tough physical labor needs to be done. Men are valued when they can provide for others, typically women, financially. Men have value when they can entertain through sports, music, acting or other popular arts.
However, in general there is nothing about being a man that is in and of itself good. There are no billboards or TV spots glorifying manhood. There are no ads stating how men inherently have certain good qualities. There are very few fund-raising events done just for the sake of helping men. Instead, boys and young men grow up hearing generally negative things about men, from deadbeat fathers to abusive husbands. They are also bombarded with TV shows, films and commercials portraying men as hapless, barely functioning, uncaring buffoons
So it is refreshing when a group, a college men’s group no less, makes an effort to raise awareness about the needs of underprivileged young men in their community. Of course, not everyone views such an effort as worthwhile, especially not when the word “man” is part of it. Jennifer Luo from Rice University paints a much bleaker picture:
The Hanszen College Men’s Resource Center (MRC) has been selling “MAN” shirts both to raise campus awareness and to raise funds for its Hu(man)ity Campaign to help “young men in the Fifth Ward Enrichment program become responsible adults and productive members of the community.” I thought it a perfect example of the kind of socially conscious civic engagement projects Rice students should engage in – that is, until I saw a shirt with the slogan “COM(MAN)D” with the word “man” displayed in a larger font and bracketed within the whole word.
Understandably, the MRC was probably trying to make a statement by using funny or enticing slogans as part of its campaign. Most of the slogans are indeed so, such as “WO(MAN),” “(MAN)GO” and “BRO(MAN)CE,” but this particular slogan, “COM(MAN)D,” is particularly offensive and potentially misleading.
“Command” is a word that connotes power, control, force and dominance. This meaning is obvious in every dictionary definition of the word. One cannot command without being obeyed. “Command” and “obey” form a basic binary opposition, just like “male” and “female.” If a man “commands,” then a man cannot “obey,” which leaves anything that is not man to “obey.”
Alas, what cannot be man? Woman. One potential argument is that the use of “man” is sexless here, which is what I had thought originally. But given the context of the people who created the shirts, in addition to the goal of helping underprivileged young men in Houston, it becomes clear that the usage of “man” takes on a gendered meaning. The concept of dichotomy here therefore becomes hierarchical in terms of gender.
To be honest, I cannot follow Luo’s logic on this. The (MAN) concept is a play off the (Product) Red line featured in GAP and its affiliate stores. Some of the past slogans featured on products were Inspi(red) and Desi(red) along with Hamme(red) and Sco(red). While one could find some of the slogans politically motivated, one would be hard pressed to conclude that GAP endorsed people getting drunk or wanted to reduce people to be racked up on a sexual score card. If one followed Luo’s logic, however, that is what one is left to conclude.
Luo makes the leap that because “command” denotes power that the MRC intended people to view the slogan COM(MAN)D as meaning man = power. That does not make much sense considering that, according to Luo, the MRC used WO(MAN) as well. If they intended anything other than to play off words that have “man” as part of the spelling, why does Luo not conclude that the MRC wanted people to think man = woman?
It seems more like Luo takes a political agenda she has and superimposes it onto the MRC campaign. She goes on to make that quite clear:
By emphasizing the noun “man” in such a strong word, this slogan exudes a sexist view of the world in which one gender is consistently associated with certain characteristics, either negative or positive. It sends a message that is not constructive to gender equality. In associating “command” with one gender, this slogan primes the viewer to associate certain qualities and positions with the male gender. In doing so draws on the chauvinistic notion that men should command while women should obey.
Some may argue that if the Women’s Resource Center (WRC) can give out shirts promoting feminism, then the Men’s Resource Center can give out shirts that empower men. But the nature of the messages promoted by the WRC is completely different from the nature of the messages promoted by the MRC. Shirts from the WRC say, “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” or “I say the ‘F’ word, Feminism.” This message is fundamentally different from one that says “COM(MAN)D.” Here, the shirts are saying that feminism is about gender equality.
Technically, they do not, because the overwhelming majority of the people who will buy such shirts will be female. The shirts also do not mention anything about equality whatsoever. If Luo views feminism as promoting gender equality, that is her perspective. The shirts, however, are a political statement akin to “Jesus Loves You.” They endorse the ideology itself without any mention or any regard to the ideology’s purported position on certain issues.
All of which has nothing to do with the MRC campaign. The campaign is based on raising awareness about men’s needs, not about promoting gender equality, which is why the campaign plays off words with “man” in their spelling. The idea is to get people to think man regardless of the other word presented, just like the (Product) Red campaign intends. Luo states that the use of “command” denotes some kind of chauvinistic notion that men ought to be in power while women should obey. However, if that were the case, why would none of the other slogans also contain that message? Why would all the other slogans simply be a play on words? More importantly, why does Luo not take issue with the MRC calling the campaign the “Hu(man)ity Campaign?” Would that not lead people to assume that man = humanity, leaving women out in the cold and somehow less than human?
Luo continues with:
Furthermore, people who already have conscious or unconscious prejudices toward women tend to gravitate to this kind of ambiguous message that verges on the edge of sexism, which in turn fosters their pre-existing bias in addition to reaffirming values that had hindered sexual equality in the first place.
Again, that is quite the leap, particularly considering she brushes off BRO(MAN)CE as funny, despite the potential reading by men with prejudices against women that they clearly can do without women. One could also argue that (MAN)GO is another prejudiced slogan suggesting that men ought to go out into the world and do things while women ought to remain at home. Every use of the word “man” can easily be twisted by Luo’s framing, turning each slogan into another feminist example of bias against women. It takes little effort to do so, although it does require a person to ignore the actual intent of the campaign.
The issue seems to be more that perhaps the campaign is working. Perhaps the MRC has managed to gather funds for underprivileged men. Perhaps the campaign is getting local notice. Perhaps it is just that the MRC is helping men instead of women. Luo says it is not:
I am by no means attacking the existence of the MRC. Groups in the Rice community have a right to foster organization for a good cause if their founders feel that certain needs or problems, such as men’s issues, are not paid enough attention to on campus.
However, that organization stops being beneficial when it empowers one sex at the expense of the other and reinforces certain gender stereotypes. This is what the slogan of the “COM(MAN)D” shirt does, by priming viewers to associate the idea of power with one particular gender, a notion that has no place on this campus. Therefore, I strongly urge the MRC to stop selling the “COM(MAN)D” shirts and to be more sensitive in the framing of its messages.
I would strongly urge Luo to stop writing such articles and be more sensitive in the framing of her messages because the framing she has presented so far suggests that one ought to find the word “man” something wholly negative. I would also advise against framing men’s organizations as sexist because they used a word like “command” as part of a slogan. It would perhaps help if Luo were less sensitive about groups helping men in need. While she may not consider the MRC’s efforts genuinely valuable, it would go a long way to demonstrating the gender equality she frequently mentioned if she were less judgmental.