Gentlemen’s Expo Returns to Brand Masculinity
At the city's third-annual festival of manhood, the patriarchy goes corporate.
In his 1990 book Iron John: A Book About Men, the poet Robert Bly warned that masculinity is in crisis. According to Bly, the lack of “male authorities” in our modern society has led to generations of “soft men,” and America’s sons and husbands need to get back in touch with their instinctual selves. To help “unleash the wild man within,” Bly called for male-centric mentoring groups, support networks, education programs, and even drum circles (!) where men could gather together in all their manly maleness.
A counterpoint to Bly’s back-to-basics view was offered last weekend at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, where the Gentlemen’s Expo returned for its third year.
“A celebration of all things that encompass a true gentleman,” the expo sought to prove that there’s no crisis of masculinity that you can’t solve with the help of a few good brands.
We’ve all heard a lot of harsh words about the patriarchy, and this reporter–a licensed and registered penis-haver–has never really felt at a loss for representation. So why, exactly, do men need their own convention? “Media used to portray men as sort of the butt of the joke,” said Settimio Coscarella, co-founder of the expo, in an interview. “It was always like a frat boy or doofus dad, or lowest common denominator, ‘Guys like cheap beer and boobs,’ right? That’s not really representative of what I think men really like.”
Though it’s hard to think of men as an underserved market, Coscarella made a case for the changing role of the man in the marketplace. “On average, guys are staying single a little bit longer, focusing on their careers, staying in school longer, getting divorced more often. Where the traditional mindset from advertisers was that women controlled 80 to 90 per cent of the household spend–well, if there isn’t a woman in the household, does anybody spend any money? So I think that as times progress, guys are taking more of an active role in their own purchasing behaviour.”
If nothing else, the Gentlemen’s Expo proves that even the most powerful demographic in the world can still be positioned as a niche market. There were dozens of booths with artisanal clothing and cigars and beer and cologne (including Clinique and Estée Lauder, who were launching men’s products). There was Sony Pictures and Belvedere Vodka’s “Spectre Lounge,” where you could order a shaken, not stirred martini, just like Her Majesty’s most beloved man. There was a SportsNet booth, decked out like a man cave with pool tables, comfy chairs, and big TVs (where there was always a crowd to watch the Blue Jays, who seem to have taken a bite out of the expo’s attendance this year). There were options to use your masculinity for a cause, including at least one charity bike ride, and an armed forces station. And, in a gesture to man’s more testosterone-clouded impulses, there was a 30-foot scaffold from which one could jump onto a large airbag.
To the expo’s credit, it was mercifully free of the ugliest elements of the manosphere: the pickup artists, the men’s rights activists, the GamerGaters. “It’s not really the format we’re going for or the vibe we’re going for,” said Coscarella. “Again, that’s sort-of that lowest-common-denominator thing, and I don’t think it really works. And I guess, de facto, calling it the Gentlemen’s Expo, you get people who come in and act like gentlemen.” Indeed, a number of presentations on the expo’s main stage made the case that men could benefit from listening to their lady friends: “We are way past the era of ‘Men don’t ask for directions,’” said Megan Collins, founder of StyleGirlfriend.com, and one of several honest-to-goodness women who took the stage.
Liveliest of all was Friday’s night’s “Sex with Dr. Jess,” in which sexologist Jessica O’Reilly told us the common mistakes that men and women (but, let’s face it, mostly men) make during sex. “Now, in porn, the porn stars, they squirt like they’ve got a Super Soaker 2500 down there,” she noted. “None of us can fit a Super Soaker up there! … So No. 1, squirting: it is a real thing, but it’s not a circus trick! Okay? You’re not ‘better’ if your partner squirts across the room; you’re not ‘better’ if you’re a squirter!” Emcee Gregg Zaun pointed out, “I don’t know about you gentlemen, but if I have a question about sex, I don’t ask my buddies–I ask a woman,” and the sad truth is, your once-proud correspondent did indeed learn more than he’d care to admit.
Though the expo tried its best to remain politically correct, it also demonstrated a longing for a certain bygone era of manhood. “When you take a look at stuff like Mad Men,” said Coscarella, “I mean, the debauchery aside–how they carried themselves, the way that they looked, the suits that they wore, how they took care of themselves, there was more of an artisan quality to that.”
At the expo, many of the hair-care businesses had old-timey logos, lettering, and barbershop chairs. Several of the beer companies had booths made up to look like old-fashioned Elk Lodge parlours. Sleeman Breweries went so far as to set up a makeshift “speakeasy,” which visitors had to say a password to enter. As with many of booths, it was staffed by model-gorgeous women (in this case, wearing tight flapper costumes, which goes to show how easily a protofeminist archetype can be repositioned for a male audience). There’s a crisis of masculinity at the Gentlemen’s Expo alright, and it comes from two clashing narratives: the expo pitched at the sort of “modern man” who cares about his appearance and his clothes and all that other girly stuff, but it’s also nostalgic for a time when gender was a little less ambiguous.