Errol Morris’s High Life Man and the Changing Idea of Masculinity

Errol Morris’s hilarious new movie Tabloid premiered over the weekend to rave reviews. Morris is best known for documentaries like The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War, but my first encounter with his work (though I didn’t know it) was on TV. Between 1998 and 2005, he directed an extensive series of commercials for Miller High Life, starring “The High Life Man.”

Morris himself considers the more than 100 ads, “his most impressive achievement.” All of the spots are available online, and they benefit from serial and even repeated consumption, preferably with a High Life in hand.

(I should mention: they are very effective beer commercials.)

But the High Life Man so thoroughly captures the aesthetic of a certain kind of idealized American male, that Morris’s work also addresses issues related to the so-called crisis of contemporary American masculinity. The High Life Man is played by roughly interchangeable middle-aged, able-but-perhaps-a-little-soft-bodied, usually white men, most of whom boast of either receding or non-existent hairlines. A voiceover reminiscent of History Channel WWII documentary narrators laments the decline of manly virtues over scenes of barbecues, home maintenance, bowling, and lawn care. The High Life Man begrudgingly accepts the few cultural achievements of the French, has an outright hatred for fancy coffee, loves his grandmother’s food, and knows a million uses for duct tape.

With a meticulous attention to tone and consistent application of subtle humor, Morris deconstructs a previous generation’s definitions of manhood, suggesting that the list of characteristics of the “high life” were operative for a large set of middle class American men. He does this without passing judgment, and at times the commercials often seem to long for an idealized time when it was easy to define what it meant to be a man. The High Life Man is a character to ironize and mourn at once, and in 15 and 30-second stretches, Morris probes at what it means to be “authentically” male in our own context.

Consider “SUV,” a 30-second spot that has many of the key characteristics of the High Life Man campaign.

The ad begins with disdain for what appears to be the degeneration of the contemporary moment. After listing the features of the vehicle in the frame, the narrator says, “nowadays you’ll hear people call this a truck.” Against the grain of this accursed present, it’s “a man” that “knows a station wagon when he sees one.” The station wagon here seems to allude to traditional categories of feminine work: caring for the family, grocery shopping, picking up the kids after school, shuttling sweaty 10-year-olds to get ice cream, etc. In other words, the rhetoric of the commercial sets up an unspoken opposition between the kind of car that a man would drive to work, and one that a woman would drive while taking care of the home.

It’s assumed that men drive un-air-conditioned, manual transmission trucks. The ad specifies what kind of masculinity it has in mind, as the camera gives us a close shot of a “high and tight” haircut when the voiceover says “a man.” These are men that work, sweat, know how to water a lawn, and drive stick.

These are men who would never drive an SUV.

The voiceover continues: “If this vehicular masquerade represents the high life to which men are called, we should trade our trousers for skirts right now.” In other words, it’s not that the driver of an SUV is not a man simply because he drives an SUV. Rather, the narrator laments the act of “masquerade” implicit in the choice to drive an SUV. A real man — an authentic man — would never drive an SUV because it’s the kind of car that pretends to be something it isn’t.

The opposite of being authentically male is to be inauthentically female: to put on a skirt and drive the SUV — to take up the mantle of tasks conventionally assigned to women. On one hand, the violation of the High Life Man’s authentic internal code and the encroachment of a new kind of masculinity look like the makings of a crisis. But at the same time, the hyperbole of the High Life Man’s gripes, and the ridiculousness of his punch line produce the humor. From the viewer’s position, to say that there’s anything inherently feminine about driving an SUV, or that SUV’s constitute the demise of masculinity are dubious claims at best.

The problem is not the car that a man drives — but the fact that a rigid set of arbitrary attributes disguised as principles constituted masculinity in the first place. The crisis of masculinity seems like a crisis only when viewed from a particular perspective: that of the High Life Man himself.

Hanna Rosin brought the rhetoric of “Masculinity in Crisis” to a recent climax in last year’s July/August issue of The Atlantic. Her wildly popular and controversial essay “The End of Men” suggests that economic trends over the last several decades have made it possible to argue that women will soon take the place of men as the dominant sex in the workplace and at home. Analyzing sweeping changes in productivity since the 1970’s, Rosin’s piece revolves around the question, “What if the modern, postindustrial economy is simply more congenial to women than to men?” This question implies that contemporary American society will eventually trade one form of gender hegemony (male) for another (female)—and Rosin asserts that economic transformations have made this possible.

In other words, in the post-Great-Recession economy, women will be selected (in a Darwinian sense) and men, well, won’t. To Rosin, even the stubborn gender gap in corporate leadership positions “feels like the last gasp of a dying age rather than the permanent establishment.” After all, women outnumber men in colleges and universities; fill positions in many of the top growing industries; and take advantage of increasingly flexible employment culture to work from home, all while still spending time with their children. Men, with their jobs in manufacturing and finance terminated, have been chastened by the global economic downturn, and have been dropping out of school.

Apparently they spend most of their time sitting at home, playing Xbox, and drinking High Life.

Rosin offers a compelling account of why the balance of the labor force has shifted over the past four decades, but work alone (or fishing, or barbecuing, or lawn mowing, or bumbling attempts at romance) does not make a man. It makes a High Life Man—a kind of man that probably never actually existed outside of the High Life Man’s projection of himself in the first place. What constitutes masculine work today precisely includes grocery shopping, cooking, and laundry, alongside picking up the kids from soccer in a sensible Prius.

In the past four decades men have shrugged off many of the rigid expectations about what constitutes masculinity in America, and this should not necessarily be viewed as a decline. To view it as such would constitute a continued denigration of the importance of homemaking and spending time with one’s family.

And at the same time, cultural norms have expanded to include categories of men that lay outside previous notions of “ideal” conceptions of masculinity — particularly when it comes to race and sexual orientation. This is demonstrably a good thing and places less psychological pressure on the responsibility to be a man of a certain type.

Of course, this does not mean that the economics that Rosin has pointed to haven’t led to the rise of a new kind of imagined ideal man.

It’s this guy:

Everything about the new Old Spice Man contrasts with the High Life Man. He’s not white. He’s fit, and has a rapid-fire delivery of a silky-smooth voice that sounds less like it’s been through a war and more like it’s been through acting classes.

He is unconcerned about expressing his feminine side.  The exact opposite.  He wants to know female desires intimately so that he can satisfy (or manipulate) women by performing a certain way.  So he bakes and builds houses, walks on logs in casual outdoor-wear, and “swan dives” in such a way that his body can be on view the entire way down into the whirlpool below. He lands on a crotch rocket. He seems to have everything a man should have to be appealing to women, and though he insists upon his heterosexuality, this is ultimately a commercial for a men’s product. Men are supposed to look at his body and say: “I want that.”

But does he feel authentic? I don’t know, ladies: “You tell me.” The definition of his masculinity doesn’t come from an internal code of authenticity — but rather from women. Perhaps in Rosin’s view, this new ideal of masculinity stands as the product of the new female imagination.

When it comes to portrayals of ideal men, we have seen a movement away from the High Life Man, and toward the new Old Spice man. Away from the beer-bellied grill master, and toward a suave, bare-chested, handsome, social-media-savvy lothario. This is a man who doesn’t sweat, who builds his biceps at the gym (not in the backyard or the garage). He stands a great distance apart from the High Life Man, and the question now becomes: how far does he stand from “real men?”

(And what kind of crossover vehicle does he drive when he’s not on that motorcycle?)

A-J Aronstein drinks High Life and uses Old Spice Deodorant. This article is an adaptation of two shorter pieces written on his blog The Tasty Spoonful. He lives on Chicago’s Northwest Side and teaches writing at the University of Chicago.

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