Manpacks

I keep the ads running on my Twitter client even though I have license — every so often something jumps out at me. Typically it’s software for optimizing the research experience, but this time it is Manpacks.

The idea behind Manpacks — which appears to not be a joke — is simple: you sign up for their subscription service, and every three months they will send you fresh tshirts, socks, and underwear. The site describes itself as ‘girlfriend approved’ and touts its service as ‘more efficient’ than shopping for clothes, and ‘easier’ because you ‘don’t have to think about it’. I am fascinated by what this says about contemporary masculinity in the US.

What does it mean that a business believes that men are willing to pay to have someone clothe them, and that they are unable or unwilling to decide for themselves that their underwear, socks, and tshirts are too dirty to continue to wear?  To a certain extent the site reflects a sort of passive consumerism in American culture that critics of consumerism have rallied against for decades — the penetration of very basic personal and household reproduction by the market, the obsession with convenience, and so forth.

But the site is clearly also about masculinity — the founders “believe in working *with* human nature, rather than fighting against it. Encouraging men to more regularly shop for underwear is not the answer.” Despite their claims that the site fosters ‘self reliance’ (by not having to wait to receive socks as gifts) and that men are ‘fully capable’ of buying underwear, but that they do not because it is a low priority, I find the overall message here one that men have trouble keeping track of their cleanliness or appearance.

On the one hand, such an idea is about masculine power and privilege: effortless comfort, not having to deal with the burdens of everyday life, the idea that you are entitled to (or should be able to purchase) a solution to all of the mundane problems in life so you can get on with the real business of living. But too often in contemporary American culture masculine privilege has flipped over into infantilization as men come to see themselves as incapable of even the most basic tasks, reliant on mothers, girlfriends, and of course the market to provide for their needs.

I see Manpacks as part of this broader trend in American society — one that resonates for me particularly as a teacher. It is now widely accepted that men struggle more and more in school, caught between learned helplessness on the one hand and peer pressure to appear effortlessly successful (when, that is, academic success is considered a good thing at all) and women have outpaced men in education and earning (although we still have a long way to go before full gender equity is achieved).

As a professor living in Honolulu who only distantly remember what ‘socks’ are, I imagine myself to be in a different demographic than twenty-somethings who expect a free ride out of life and tons of sex with scantily-clad women who love their choice of light beer. Am I wrong to find something sinister and enfeebling about Manpacks, or did they just catch me checking my Twitter feed at the wrong moment?

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

20 thoughts on “Manpacks

  1. Great rant.

    I think it also points to commercially imposed gendering, for men.
    If a guy has a sense of personal style, he is somewhat demasculated in many popular cultural discourses. It isn’t until we get older and have our wives or long term girl friends “clean us up” and “domesticate” us, that we ever leave the house with clean underwear and matching socks.

    This aspect in this case is connected to the capitalist work force. We are not to stand out at work, only become faceless cogs in a structured machine, until of course we reach upper management when we can finally afford to wear “power suits.”
    Women are often compelled to show case their femininity with high heels, and tight dress suits, while men become subdued outside blue collar work.

    Funny side note. In the army, the backpacks that carry speakers for public broadcasting are also called “Man Packs.”

  2. You are correct of course. But at the risk of revealing more about myself than I should on the Undernet, let me just say that I have been buying underwear and t-shirts for myself for long enough to know exactly what I want without having to “shop” for them. To me, it’s clear that the service isn’t designed for people who don’t do laundry, it’s designed for people who don’t like wearing old clothes, and don’t have time to hang out in a mall looking for replacement underwear. Every three months for a couple of pairs of underwear sounds about right to me. It actually seems a bit metrosexual to be concerned about how new your undies are…if all you want is clean try http://www.dormmomlaundryservice.com/ or any of a million other wife/mother-replacement services.

    If American Apparel, or Victoria’s Secret offered the same service, would your rant sound the same?

  3. Another interpretation–

    When I read the description, what popped out at me was not what this says about masculinity, but rather masculinity vis-à-vis femininity. The message is not that in some absolute sense men have trouble keeping track of their cleanliness, but that rather men are engaged in relationships that demand a different standard than one they themselves might ascribe to. Who are the others and gift-givers that encourage men to shop more regularly? Women, of course. So this is where the product says that we are in gender relations: men are engaged in relationships with women, and men and women have different standards not necessarily of cleanliness, but of decrepitness–of what constitutes an acceptably used versus unacceptably used piece of clothing. It implies that in gender relations of yore, it was acceptable for a man to assert his authority and ignore what women in his life wanted. But power differentials in this dimension have apparently moved toward equity over the last several decades, and now this is an issue that a man cannot neglect, but must negotiate. Changing the state of his underwear need not mean ascribing to a new set of values—such as embracing feminine pastimes like shopping—but rather you can stay the same and still meet the demands of day. Men stay men, women stay women, but no more holey, stained underwear to fight about.

    What triggers me to rant about this representation (rather than doing my work) is not in the consumerism, but rather what I read as an applauding of male entitlement. The implicit message is “you meet demands without changing.”

    Can women subscribe, or is this just another patriarchal dividend?

  4. “It implies that in gender relations of yore, it was acceptable for a man to assert his authority and ignore what women in his life wanted.”

    I think that such a time in most cultures would probably be more mythological that actual.

  5. When I first read this I thought “Metrosexuality for the fakers”. Then I clicked through to the site, and noticed how web 2.0 it all looked. Which made me think this was more for the coders and gamers who dare not move from their screens. Bundle this with Pizza and you have a winner: Pepperoni with a side of undies.

  6. I’m going to guess that “Manpacks” is an attempt to fill a perceived gap in the market created by either the aversion of women to buy underwear for men (as they presumably did in the past) or the increasing numbers of male bachelors, especially among Twitter users where the ad was targeted. What might be “sinister” about the Manpacks, to my mind, is that they misleadingly suggest that there will be no “shopping” involved. The act of choosing to purchase the Manpack service is, indeed, shopping. They’re shifting buyers away from a “free” act (i.e. someone going to the store) to a paid-for service (assuming that they’re charging a fee for this service on top of the cost of the underwear).

    Also, did anyone notice this as another iteration of the “GTD” ethos? It sounds like a further push for greater efficiency.

  7. Nicole, I think that your critique is indeed very valid. However another interpretation is that some men subscribe to this service simply because they are accustomed to women normally buying them underwear, but do not currently have a woman in their life to do these things for them. For them, to buy their own underwear at the store, it may seem too feminine and so thus they either go commando or subcribe to this type of service.

    I guess by looking at all the different views, it seems that when it comes down to it, that their might be A LOT of different reasons why men would use such a service.

  8. I think maybe we are reading in the “women buy men underwear” thing. I’ve never heard of a woman actually buying a man underwear. My wife has never done it, and none of my friends women do either. Some couples could have that dynamic, but men probably buy women more underwear than the other way around as gifts.

    I went to the sight and it looks like they just send enough to replace out all undergarments in about 2 years. It is true that men, for the most part, really don’t care about these things the same way women do. So, if a person is a busy office worker that has to have these things that go with a suit, then it seems like a convenience thing.

  9. I see there are an awful lot of men replying to this post and in most of the early messages men seem to be offended at the suggestion that they can’t keep enough care of themselves without the help of a woman. I have to say, as a women, no man I’ve ever been close enough to to see his underwear or sock collection has ever demonstrated to me that he cares how many holes or stains there are in his under things.
    I think the point is not so much that men CAN’T take care of themselves, its a difference in the standard men set for clothing no one that doesn’t love them is going to see. Maybe you have that one good pair for date night, but otherwise, what does it matter.
    On the other hand, women are constantly fed the idea that what they already have is not good enough. I think the idea of clothing with an expiry date is more strongly stressed on women by popular media, than on men. As a women, almost all advertising, whether clothing or beer, has to do with YOUR sexuality. And underwear plays a bigger part in that image than as a basic subject; and larger for women than men. Therefore we are both more highly conscious of our underwear AND who’s looking, as well as more impressed with the belief in disposable clothing and time-regulated consumption.
    I am more curious to turn the idea around: if a man went through his girlfriend’s underwear and socks upon moving in with her and created a “pass” and “fail” pile, what would that look like? Or if a man got his hands on her underwear drawer and said “do you actually wear these? they’re full of holes!” Why is it acceptable and expected that a woman will “clean up” her guy, as Rick pointed out?

  10. “I am more curious to turn the idea around: if a man went through his girlfriend’s underwear and socks upon moving in with her and created a “pass” and “fail” pile, what would that look like?”

    I can’t even imagine an answer to that question, because honestly I’ve literally never had the thought of doing something like that go through my head. Some of this is probably rooted in our biology. Not that our brains are hard wired to consider kinds and state of underwear, but the differential biological experiences and expectations that we each deal with, and how those are mediated via language and symbols.

    The idea of motherhood is not far from a woman’s reality when she becomes involved in a sexual relationship, and especially one that is equally emotional. The same thoughts simply aren’t as immediate or real for a man, so the idea of searching out for cultural and social symbols surrounding a mate to check on their viability as a mate, someone that and stick around with a kid, just aren’t the same for men. I mean I think there are styles of underwear that I find sexier on a woman, but that’s not something that’s going to pass or fall a woman. I don’t really see it in an innate personality thing, the way a woman would.
    So, the idea of looking through a woman’s anything when we first start dating is strange to me, yet I know that every woman I’ve seriously dated has gone through all my shit, and through my cell phone, computer, etc… Women are like detectives looking for a serial killer.

    I have to put this opinion in perspective in saying that I’m pretty far from the average guy. There are a lot of aspects of relationships that I’ve never “gotten” like the feeling of ownership of another person. I think that’s a minority position for most people.

    “Why is it acceptable and expected that a woman will “clean up” her guy”

    I think this is also gendered. I think that this is expected and acceptable to women, but not to men.

  11. Women are like detectives looking for a serial killer.

    That totally reminds me of the scene from The 40 Year Old Virgin where Catherine Keener’s character is convinced that he is in fact a serial killer.

    Lindsey, do you think it might be the case that women in our society are generally socialized to actively notice what’s wrong with things?1

    1 With some gendering within what is noticed, though. In my experience, when my girlfriend says she or I need some new clothes I normally think the new clothes are optional rather than necessary and when I say the car needs its oil changed she tends to think the same. Sussing out what the what is noticed tends to be would probably be telling.

  12. “Why is it acceptable and expected that a woman will “clean up” her guy”

    I find myself thinking of George Lakoff’s theory about the two basic frames of American politics, the patriarchal and nurturant family models. The patriarchal model postulates a world in which men leave home to do battle in an amoral war of all against all and home is a paradise to which the wounded warrior returns for the love and affection not found outside the home. In this model, the woman’s role is, yes, to care for, clean up and heal the wounds inflicted by by the outside world. Could this include the wear and tear on the wounded warrior’s clothing, including his underwear?

    Or, from a totally different perspective, it is commonplace in societies where inequality is openly acknowledged for subordinates to cultivate the art of quietly observing superiors and tending to their needs lest they get angry. Patterns developed under the more overt sexism of the past may now seem “sneaky” in a world where egalitarianism and personal privacy are more highly valued.

    What do you think?

  13. “The same thoughts simply aren’t as immediate or real for a man, so the idea of searching out for cultural and social symbols surrounding a mate to check on their viability as a mate, someone that and stick around with a kid, just aren’t the same for men.” – Rick

    Well, that’s a relief! Whether men do or not we are told and believe that they do. I don’t feel that the underwear judgment would result in a rejection of a possible mate. I think its recognized that this is a symptom of a serious relationship, something not likely to shatter based on a hole in the socks. So what then is at issue? To address Johns suggestions I think that the second point, regarding undertones in an equal society, is possible close to the mark, though not in the same way.

    It could be that women are care-taking of their men, proud to meet his needs, but going again to popular media, I have to reject this. If the case were an issue of support, why not just slide some new socks and underwear into the drawer when he’s not looking? That’s is not the way this ritual is portrayed in film and TV. The performance we see, and I suggest model behavior after, is one of judgment and humiliation. The man’s belongings are hauled out, held to the light and deemed worthy or not. Every article is reviewed, he’s told how and why his things don’t make the cut. All done in jest, of course – it’s a comedic scene in the film, and everyone laughs identifying with it. So instead of an attempt for a subordinate to please and appease the superior, perhaps its a covert play at control?

    As for the suggestion that women are more socialized to actively notice flaws…I think that these days everyone living in North America (at least) is trained to be Hyper-sensitive to flaws in any thing. Women’s gender roles expect them to more actively CHANGE these flaws. I think men notice things like the oil needing changing is fitting with a man’s gender role – it’s just not considered “manly” to be concerned about ones appearance, which is why we have developed the term “meterosexual” in pop culture.

    I tried to find a video link to demonstrate the scene I claim to have seen in movies and TV, but instead I found this ad. Presented in a rather “manly” venue, the Super Bowl, I think find it shocking that THIS is what men identify with, and this is how women are perceived and portrayed. Its off the topic of underwear, but on the topic of perceptions of equality in society. For the record, my pet topic is sexism against men, and I think this advertisement demonstrates beautifully how ingrained in pop culture it has become. Turning the tables again (for perspective, because I know it doesn’t directly translate) change the star to a woman and how well would it go over? Its not so much the dialogue, but the facial expressions of the men shown. I’m way off topic now, but I couldn’t resist.

  14. OMG!!! Lindsey, are you married? FINALLY a woman who understands men!
    :)
    Seriously you are absolutely spot on. Men are vastly more limited in their ability to push the boundaries of normative behavior for their gender in contrast to women who are constantly pushing the boundaries in many career fields once thought to be the domain of males. Likewise in modern relationships, it is now common for women to have full-time careers where they often find themselves making more money then their male partner. Another example of changing roles in relationships is very very simple. Look on the highway when you’re driving and count how many women you see driving with male passengers. 20 years ago, it was seen as demasculating for a man to allow a woman to drive him around unless there was no other option. Now it’s taken for granted and is commonplace. Now those things in and of themselves are not a big deal and personally I’m all for equality. However what I’ve observed very often is that couples start to compete against each other in a very negative way in struggles for dominance.
    That is why I completely agree with you when you said that the underwear ritual is perhaps a subtle means of asserting control and dominance.
    What I have seen in the most healthy marriages is that the roles of each spouse are well defined and understood. They feel comfortable in these roles and work harmoniously as a team with mutual respect and deep friendship. The underwear ritual is just a way of reinforcing those roles.
    In contrast, in the worst examples of marriages I’ve seen, this battle for dominance is not resolved. Even worse, it often comes at the expense of children in the relationship, where the children are but a tool in the battle of egos common place in our “ME FIRST” culture.

    What we are touching upon here essentially I think is a very complex issue that ties in with psychology, sociology, cultural anthropology, as well as physical anthropology. I think that we are often in denial of our own basic biology as well as the rich variation within that biology that may challenge cultural norms.
    I strongly believe that the classification of “metrosexual” that you mentioned, is in fact, a cultural niche that has been carved out by men who do not fit the normative concept of masculinity in North American society, but who are not homosexual. However, whether or not such a sub-culture survives is largely dependent on the acceptance of the mass-media (pop-culture), acceptance by other men, and ultimately and most importantly, the acceptance of such “metrosexual” men by women as possible mates. For that reason it’s always frustrated me to no end talking to extreme-feminists who rant and rave against patriarchal society, but who treat with contempt, males who are passive and who are not assertive in their relationships. In other words often, without even realizing it, these types of feminists are feeding and supporting the very patriarchal society that they reject.
    Having been involved for many years with progressive civic/political activist organizations, I’ve seen such behavior time and time again and it has always made me curious as to whether such behavior is based upon pure biological desires for a strong, confident, assertive male who can “take care of business” in a wide range of aggressive male roles including physical labor, martial combat, earning an income in a competitive market, and finally in performing sex.
    It honestly has surprised me that the study of gender relations has not been well explored in the field of anthropology. Perhaps I am wrong and just ignorant of current research.
    As this perhaps is in your field of study, what are your thoughts on that Lindsey?

  15. By the way, I just watched that TV commercial you posted a link to. WOW! I had never seen that, but I can tell you that it was one of the THE MOST effective car advertisements that I have ever seen. What that add is tapping into is the suppressed masculinity that most men feel. That is a huge reason why many men go into sports and into the military. It is also why MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) has become wildly popular. These are outlets for the expression of pure unbridled masculinity where a man can absolutely revel in it with no sense of shame or guilt. In that car commercial, the powerful sports car is a symbol of power, thrill seeking, and just truly living life in what has become an all-too claustrophobic world.

    I am curious however as to what the female equivalents would be to such a commercial, showing pure unbridled femininity.
    Or… perhaps such male marketed commercials resonate with women as well? I’ve always found some women to feel very much the same emotions regarding such commercials and their own feelings of suppressed aggression.
    It may be that we are not all that different.
    I know I love cuddly animals and respond to advertisements with such things, but God forbid if I ever say that out loud around potential female mates. (Which I have done and suffered the consequences of immediately and without mercy being placed into the “gay male friend” category with them).
    lol!

  16. “In that car commercial, the powerful sports car is a symbol of power, thrill seeking, and just truly living life in what has become an all-too claustrophobic world”

    When you ask what the female equivalent of the car, the ultimate image of femininity would be to create the gender-flip commercial, my first thought was “why can’t I have the car?” I agree that the car represents power, freedom and thrills – and I want it! I find myself suddenly worried whether saying this outright puts my own femininity into question?

    For the purpose of dissecting the gender representation in the commercial the idea was to create an image of repression blown apart by an image of freedom. I think the flip-side commercial could have listed all the concessions women make in relationships which are the current stereotype, followed by the same car.
    My alarm in watching was this image of suppression. The influence pop media have on how we define our gender roles also has its fingers into how we define our roles in relationships. Besides the various expressions of masculinity, this advertisement overtly represents men as partners who are subservient and emasculated – remember, something the company is expecting a large audience will identify with – so unhappy that they deserve a big-ticket consumer item to reward their faithful service. Here it is presented in a venue which is traditionally considered to be an exhibition of the brute masculinity of American football. Representing EITHER sex as subservient I find as a giant leap in the wrong direction for equality.

    Both men and women are uncomfortable breaking outside their defined boundaries of their gender, however women have a stronger secondary gender construct to support their movements outside of traditional femininity. Perhaps this is what meterosexuality is or will be for men. What this TV commercial shows me is not that there are other sides to men, but that the traditional expression of masculinity is on uncertain ground. The problem with men finding alternate masculinities is compounded with the rejection of strong “traditional” masculinity by some pop culture.

    Have men become uncomfortable identifying with masculine power due to imposed guilt caused by the feminism legacy? In undergrad social science classes men are almost always drastically underrepresented. I had a class on Melanesian culture in which two of the text books discussed gender culture. Discussion surrounding the book written by Donal Tuzin and discussing the destruction of traditional masculinity in New Guinea and the importance of the male secret-sacred was dominated by women. In a class of 50 the three men were deliberately asked their opinion and the tension in the room was opaque. The discomfort they felt in sharing their honest opinion was joked about, and the conversation moved on. I saw situations like this repeated, but in that context it couldn’t be more obvious to me that, yes, masculinity, proud masculinity (however defined) was threatened.

    Does the development of alternative masculinities have to come at the expense of the gender we love to hate: traditional masculinity?

  17. Ya’ll didn’t think that a commercial like that was going to go unanswered by feminists did you? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ou5Ens-qNRc&feature=related

    The only problem with it, is it becomes more of a whining. What makes the commercial for the men and the car more interesting, is because it is more rare. Those thoughts are rarely if ever expressed within popular culture, whereas the spoof for women expresses well worn themes. What is coming out culturally in the car commercial is that the agency of men isn’t as dominant as women think it is. I think that women feel that we have more power than we do, and in fact men are demasculated socially when we express this, therefore we don’t, and therefore the fact remains hidden. Gendered realities remain hidden for men and women. I think the reality of pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood are completely transformed by our culture. I’ve even heard it said that after a woman gives birth her brain is wash over with hormones that help to make her forget much of the previous 9 months, so that she will want to do it again.

    Susan Faludi, a feminist journalist cites “The Feminine Mystic,” and its ability to make visible the “problem-with-no-name” when talking about this issue for men.
    In her book, “Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man,” she writes:

    “Culture… …is the whole environment we live in; to acknowledge its sway is to admit that men never had the power they imagined. To say that men are embedded in the culture is to say, by the current standards of masculinity, that they are not men. By casting feminism as the villain that must be defeated to validate the central conceit of modem manhood, men avoid confronting powerful cultural and social expectations that have a lot more to do with their unhappiness than the latest sexual harassment ruling.

    The very paradigm of modern masculinity -that it is all about being the master of your universe- prevents men from thinking their way out of their dilemma, from taking active political steps to resolve their crisis. If they are the makers of history, not the subjects of historical forces, then how can they rise up?…

    …It should be self-evident that ideas of manhood vary and are contingent on the time and the culture.
    Despite that, contemporary discussion about what bedevils men fixes almost exclusively on the psychological and the biological. Whatever troubles a man must be an essential aspect of that individual, a problem of testosterone surges, sperm counts, Ritalin doses, or the scars of inadequate mothering… …The man in crisis need only picture himself a monarch, pump up, armor himself, go up against the enemy, and prove that he’s in control.

    Women faced their problem-with-no-name by breaking their isolation and organizing, whereas the solutions offered to men generally require them to see themselves in ever more isolated terms. Instead of collectively confronting brutalizing forces, each man is expected to dramatize his own struggle by himself, to confront arbitrarily designated enemies in a staged fight -a fight separated from society the same way a boxing ring is roped off from the crowd.”

    Or to buy a really fast car…

  18. Surely it’s not that the clothes are “too dirty to continue to wear”? Because people do laundry more than every 3 months, I hope.
    But also hard to believe that they would be worn out that quickly.

  19. Both Rick and Lindsey, I totally I agree with you. There is definitely something fundamentally wrong with how our society perceives gender roles.
    Lindsey, I took a “women, sex, and gender” course in Anthropology and experienced something very similar as you described. Overall the discussion was civil, but the tension was definitely there and the men in the class had to speak extremely diplomatically. Interestingly enough, the women in the class seemed to respect the opion of the one male student who was actually quite the womanizer, but who was very charming and funny about how he discussed his views towards women (and maintained a high degree of confidence). I’ve always found it interesting studying different how certain personality traits and behaviour generate more or less interest from the opposite sex.

    I could go on and on about mypersonal experiences on this topic but probably not a good idea to do that on a public forum and I hate coming off like I’m whining (again perceived as a feminine/non-masculine trait as men are supposed to “suck it up and drive on” as they say in the Army). Suffice to say, that I think there is room for MASSIVE research and publishing to be done in this particular area of gender studies as I have really not seen much done in ANY field of social science. This is the type of cultural issue also that could get you a seat on Opra’s couch talking about such issues if you ever published a pop-culture book discussing these issues and then went on the TV and radio talk-show circuit.
    At any rate, I am very happy that some women realize this problem and are not blind to it. It’s a very real problem and I’m quite certain is a major component of marital problems that Western societies are facing today as we increasingly move away from traditional gender roles.

    I tip my hat to you ma’am for being brave enough to do such research that not very many people are willing to tackle. Please continue doing it for the sake of all of us!

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