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Daniel Arrigg Koh Headshot

Redefining Manliness

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I turned on the television recently to see an advertisement where a man, after spraying cologne, witnesses droves of women immediately surround him. In the next ad, a man professes his love for beer over that of his girlfriend. Finally, the commercial set ends with an invitation to dine at a restaurant with scantily-clad women.

The stereotype of the independent, confident male vs. the dependent, superficial female is omnipresent in our society today. These images of gender roles are a misrepresentation of reality, whereby men are pressured to act in a dated fashion. In truth, a new definition of "manliness" has emerged, one in which men are more openly affectionate than ever before, in a way that we as a society should celebrate, not suppress.

This change can be seen in our everyday interactions. Only a short time ago, the sight of a man hugging another man in public was atypical. Today, male friends often greet each other with a hand-slap followed by an embrace. Such is commonplace in society, and accepted as a sign of respect.

The change can also be seen in the ultimate public stage, electoral politics. Less than 40 years ago, Senator Edmund Muskie, a presidential candidate, allegedly lost his parties' nomination after publicly crying in reaction to a newspaper article that criticized his wife. In contrast, when Mitt Romney shed tears on Meet the Press during the 2008 presidential election, few argued it hurt his candidacy.

Despite these changes, strong social pressures still exist to act in the mold of the dated stereotype of manliness. To act "tough" and not admit one's sadness when things aren't going one's way. To feel that the man, and not the woman, should serve as the sole leader of a family. At business school, this mentality is on full display -- seldom are family considerations noted as a concern by case protagonists (the vast majority of whom are male).

As a son of a household in which both parents worked full-time jobs and shared all responsibilities, I think such a mentality as described above is misguided at best and heavily sexist at worst. We live in a society where the nation's leading universities' enrollments are majority female, and it's time the media started recognizing that women and men should no longer feel pressured to follow strict, dated guidelines of gender behavior.

So how can things be changed? It must start with the media, who need to stop portraying men as beer-drinking, sexist individuals (as seen in numerous ads in which humor is evoked at the expense of the female) and women as weak, superficial beings. It doesn't accurately represent today's society, and its distorted picture is having major ramifications on how we view ourselves. Only with more publicizing of this problem and active engagement in discussions about this issue will a substantial perception shift ever occur.

From a business perspective, some companies are noticing this trend and profiting highly from it. In 2010, Kotex released an advertisement series mocking traditional tampon commercials -- and their first-quarter sales doubled as a result. Old Spice recently released a set of ads mocking typical deodorant commercials that have received nearly 100 million combined hits on YouTube.

And as for me, I'm happy and secure in what I view as living the new form of manliness. A man who isn't afraid to cry at an emotional scene in a movie. A man that will shy away from a night of heavy partying in favor of a quiet night in. A man who wants to do all he can to make his girlfriend feel special. And as I grow older, I look forward to cooking dinner for my wife, taking my kids to their sports practices, and walking my daughter down the aisle. In my view, that doesn't make me effeminate, weird, or exceptional. That makes me a real man.

Daniel Arrigg Koh is a second-year MBA candidate at Harvard Business School. He holds a B.A. in Government from Harvard College. He can be reached at dkoh@mba2011.hbs.edu.

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