The Manly Vasectomy: When a Symbol Gets Snipped

A bag of frozen peas

Some of you may have heard the recent hubbub surrounding urology clinics that are running March Madness specials. The idea is that men might be more likely to have the procedure done if their recovery can be timed to coincide with a period of sports-related TV watching that might otherwise be considered indulgent. As Time magazine tells it, the practice of advertising vasectomies with March Madness isn’t particularly new, but simply makes public a scheduling trend that had already long been in place, one initiated by men themselves. Time also reports that for those who like their sports with pizza, there is also at least one urology clinic that will throw in a pie with one’s procedure to accompany that bag of frozen peas.

This might strike many as somewhat laughable, but for me it reveals a rather ordinary (if often interesting) practice by which we socially negotiate the demise of a critical symbol. If one’s virility — the marker of manhood across the millennia — is now gone thanks to a vasectomy, then that masculinity can be rebuilt simply by symbolically interjecting a masculinized sporting event (and presumably being pampered by one’s wife, as these adds often imply) on the procedure’s other side.

Indeed, there are many examples of how the disruption of a powerful symbol due to social shifts is very quickly counteracted by a new set of meanings that restore some of the old ones, thereby mitigating too much social change. Take, for instance, the daddy diaper bag (this one from Target) called “The Diaper Dude”:

A green mens diaper bag.

Here’s how Target describes this essential daddy accessory:

“This fresh, masculine take on the diaper bag features multiple pockets, a convenient and adjustable crossbody strap, handy pouches for tablet and phone, even a checklist of the essentials, so Dad and baby are ready for anything. The rough and ready fabric, in great outdoorsy shades of olive and cocoa brown with burnt ochre lining and zips, add great guy appeal. You’ve found accessibility, functionality and style brought together in one ‘dude friendly’ bag.”

The bag is “convenient” and “handy” and “outdoorsy,” something that helps to counteract the fact that is filled with products (diapers, wipes, and the like) that are associated with not just helpless babies, but also femininity.  This latter point may seem somewhat manufactured, but the very fact that retailers don’t need to market “mommy diaper bags” is because infant care is still presumably a woman’s work. Its “crossbody strap” is no accident, for the fact that it is designed specifically not to rest on a single shoulder is another symbolic cue that it’s not like a purse.  Its “rough and ready” fabric makes it a diaper bag made for MacGyver.

And here’s another similar marketing strategy by the folks at Home Depot, who have developed a line of pink tools and accessories for their female customers. Women who buy the tool belt (below) and the pink gloves, box knife, and hammer (not to mention other items) can be assured that pink is “fun and eye-catching,” enabling function “without sacrificing style.”

A pink tool belt

The online description of this particular item indicates that “two pouches with multi-purpose storage pockets hold all of your essential tools, from screwdrivers to hair dryers to eye liner to gardening tools. Adjustable belt with stylish pink loops provides a lightweight, comfortable fit.” As a last reminder, women are told not to “be fooled by the cool color of this tool belt — it’s built to last and comes with a limited lifetime warranty.”

This is a somewhat disingenuous last sentence because the reason to make these items pink is precisely to imply a certain distinction. Put differently, being “fooled” in this way is part of the marketing. In a world where tools often imply masculinity, turning them pink functions not just to reassure both men and women of their gendered separation, but the overtly sexist product description turns the tool belt into a makeup holder and vanguard of style, something that most men (let alone women) would never think to associate with a DIY weekend.

It’s probably quite easy to talk ourselves into thinking that these marketing techniques are just giving “the public what it wants,” which is a convenient way to dismiss the power relationships that work their way into the symbol exchanges that comprise culture. Yet if we remind ourselves that what the public wants is almost always a function of cultures attempting — even subconsciously — to mitigate change, to create psychological security, and when possible, to maintain the power status quo, then virtually everything from a pink hammer to an elective surgery may be telling us more than we think.

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