Man Showers: Redefining or Reinforcing Masculinity?

by | May 27, 2012
filed under Feminism

"En brudgum i Sorunda"There are few customs more gender ritualized in Western society than those associated with the wedding planning process. The wedding industry, a money making monolith boasts 40 billion a year in revenue. It is a seemingly untouchable empire wrought with timeless tradition, cultural significance and deeply embedded gender stereotypes. The contemporary wedding has become a veritable commodity and multiple pre-nuptial parties are par for the course.

The usually hyper-feminized bridal shower in particular is one of the tried and true traditions that centers on the bride and typically precludes the groom. In recent years, men, ever the gender-busting pioneers, have expressed their desire to cash in on the fun. And thus was born the “man shower” or – in some crowds – “bro baths” or “man gatherings”.

These testosterone-infused affairs blend the gift giving of the bridal shower with the male merrymaking of a bachelor party. A closer examination of this crossbreed reveals a stale reproduction of restrictive gender roles and reinforcement of traditional definitions of masculinity as nowadays some pay a visit to the Testosterone Replacement Therapy Physician to reinforce said identity.

The bridal shower’s origin dates back to sixteenth century Western Europe. It was adopted in the late 1890s in the United States as an event that could help the bride supplement small dowries. From there it grew into a traditional gathering that primed the soon-to-be-bride for domesticity. It aided in providing her with the necessities that would equip her for her new life as a wife.It lacks the gender convergence it suggests and continues to wholly ignore those who do not subscribe to a definitive male/female identity.

Expanding to later include lingerie, linens and trimmings to furnish the matrimonial abode, bridal showers typically conjure images of colorfully coiffed packages and fancy finger food. Showers are generally female-focused and despite modern movement in the direction of co-ed celebrations, prenuptial rituals are largely rooted in traditions that reinforce gender stereotypes.

Spreading technology and the rise of reality TV have aided in creating and glamorizing a consumer fantasy of the wedding process. Reality TV boasts a litany of inflated programming centering on wedding planning and prep work, many depicting excessive events, unaffordable venues, and costly couture. They characterize brides as hysterical, stressing over the conundrum of cake fondant and flower arrangements with hovering mothers and submissive grooms along for the ride.

Weddings themselves have become commercialized and mass marketing efforts gender skewed. They pander to the bride who is marked as the matrimonial decision maker and project planner. So we certainly should not be surprised that some grooms are piping up.

Wedding specialists speculate that the evolution of “man showers” and other male-centric celebrations as an organic outgrowth of grooms becoming more involved in the wedding planning process. One MSNBC article cited the Executive Director of the claimed it to be driven by more material pursuits, believing the drive was the gift-receiving piece.

So what exactly goes on at these groom-geared soirees? Oh just some “manly” shenanigans: poker, pizza, Xbox tourneys and nail pounding competitions to name a few. Nearly every piece I read on man showers made some note of breaking out of sexist stereotypes but in actuality all evidence points to the contrary: an unwavering adherence to traditional symbols of masculinity.

All of the examples illustrated informal social gatherings that emphasized “male bonding” and clichéd gentlemen gift giving: home improvement tools, electronic gadgets, etc. One piece even highlighted a self-proclaimed “man shower” pioneer who had adopted these gatherings as part of a family tradition to welcome in new male members. This was an important rite of passage where attendees ate wings and sausage off of rustic license plates and participated in contests that judged how “manly” they dressed up.

There was a depiction of the men participating as casual, wedding role renegades, reaching in to claim their slice of the pre-nupital pie. But what about the Bachelor Party? Isn’t that essentially the same thing? Au contraire; manly men need gifts to aid in building their new life, literally and figuratively. Not all these gatherings channel convivial camaraderie, poker tourneys and chalking cue balls. I would be remiss if I did not mention the ridiculous relative of these “man gatherings”, the “Groom Roast”.

According to Urban Dictionary, multi-generational men in the groom’s life can celebrate him, at his expense of course, all for the noble purpose of fostering a sense of communal camaraderie prior to the wedding. This is done by collectively engaging in “public-appropriate comedic insults, praise, outlandish true stories and uplifting tributes.”  All things that men are supposed to enjoy and endure because they are purportedly emotionally immune to all things women are not: jocular jabs and crude commentary and supposedly relish and readily endure theatrical retellings of their most mortifying moments.

While these guy-geared gatherings are innocuous to many, there are larger problematic elements at play in lauding something that encourages gender conformity and is rooted in sexist stereotypes. In each article I read heterosexuality was a blind assumption. There was nary a mention of gender diversity or same sex unions, presumably because as a nation we have not legalized it.

Propagating the sexist underpinnings of traditional marriage can alienate those who are unjustly barred from participating in ritualized celebrations that honor their love and commitment because of their sexual orientation. Rather than helping to deconstruct marriage roles, these “man showers” simply reconstruct the traditional bridal shower, stripping it of its feminine stigma. They effectively sanction male participation without a threat to one’s masculinity.

They are a crafty redressing; trading bows for beers and billed to the heteronormative community as role reversal renegades. Unfortunately, this is far from any actual progression in dismantling the patriarchal formation of marriage. To me, the opposite is true, juxtaposing the male and female versions of a bridal shower merely serves to highlight the stodgy restrictions of gender stereotypes in pre-wedding preparations.

Yes, modern day bridal showers have certainly evolved from their antiquated archetype, but they wholly lack progression and remain embedded in narrow sexist stereotypes. I support the idea of an integrated bridal shower, but the gendering of gift giving and separation of sexes for this sort of celebration has got to go.

As our society expands its definitions of gender and identity, so must the wedding industry and the development of segregated showers is certainly not the answer. It is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a seemingly innocuous take on tradition. In reality, it is just another pernicious reinforcement of a social norm that supports traditional heterosexual marriage roles, lacks consideration of other gender identities and panders to an exclusionary social framework.

(image of lithograph above in the public domain accessed via Wikimedia Commons)

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