“The Man Aisle” – On the Masculinization of Grocery Shopping

 — Cross-posted at Femme-O-Nomics

Spatial segregation does a lot of things simultaneously. It physically separates groups while its very existence provides structural (spatial and even architectural) justification for continued separation. Bathrooms are the example that we often use in classrooms to talk about this issue. In Erving Goffman’s work on gender, he found it fascinating that we have designed toilets that make no sense for women to use–urinals. Now, there are plenty of other reasons for bathroom segregation that get brought up when you address that issue in particular, but it’s a great example of how we literally create the infrastructure that perpetuates our belief that men and women must be separated.

A grocery store on the Upper West Side of New York City recently opened a new aisle. It’s just for men, dubbed “the man aisle”–or, as the store prefers “The Man Isle.” The New York Post announced, “Get ready to stock up your man cave!” as the aisle challenges men to consume the right things. I’ve written before about how men were sold the historically feminized activity of consumption by challenging the masculinity of those who failed to consume (here).

Ian Joskowitz (COO of Westside Market NYC) and the store’s CEO, George Zoitas, both decided to open up this space in the store after learning of an interesting finding from a study conducted by ESPN. The study showed that 31% of married men are grocery shopping for their families today–compared with only 14% about 30 years ago. Excited about this “new” consumer group, they decided to market directly to them. Most of the gossip about it celebrates the ridiculousness of the aisle or asks whether or not it will succeed. I don’t care much about whether or not this endeavor succeeds (though I have serious doubts). I’m more interested in what the creation of this space in grocery stores means.

Before I tell you about that, let me tell you a bit about what’s in this masculine consumer paradise. Well, for starters, nothing actually good for you is here. I’ve written about the cultural association of masculinity with unhealthy eating before (here), but this is a bit different. The aisle is complete with barbecue supplies (charcoal briquettes, buns, barbecue sauce, hot sauce, ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, and pickles), chips, beef jerky, beer, nuts, shaving supplies, the new shower and hygiene products marketed to men (think of the Old Spice commercials for their body wash), condoms, energy drinks, muscle supplements, and more. It’s basically a cornucopia of the more pathological elements of masculinity that some (many?) men ingest, slather themselves with, wear, use, and display. In short, it’s a shrine to a certain breed of man.

Whether or not it works–by which I mean, whether or not men frequent this aisle AND buy things in it–is less interesting than what the creation of it actually means. It’s a great example of spatial segregation. First of all, all of this started because of a finding from an ESPN survey illustrating that married men are going shopping more. But few of these items are actually for families. They’re just products for men. Though they were smart enough (maybe) not to, the owners could have brought up the fact that some aisles are primarily used only by women, carrying things like tampons, pads, makeup, romance novels (sometimes), hair dye, hair accessories, nail polish, etc. There’s actually a great argument to be made that these aisles are actually for men too–just in a bit more of a round-about way.

As with all spatial segregation of groups, it involves making some generalizations about what the group being segregated “needs” in their space. The store’s CEO stated, “Guys don’t like taking lists when they go shopping. This [the man aisle] helps them remember what they need” (here). Okay, so now we learn that there are not only “masculine” (and by default, feminine and unmasculine) things to buy, but there’s actually a masculine way to shop: without instruction.

It’s interesting that this aisle emerged in the aftermath of the “man-cession”–an economic disaster that left a great deal of men (and women–though in smaller numbers) out of work. In Julie Brines’ classic article on the division of household labor (here), she found that men’s housework was most equal with their wives when they are their wives earned similar amounts of money. The more he earned relative to her, the less housework he did (this seems to make sense). The really interesting finding was that the less he earned relative to her, the less housework he did as well (see figure). There’s no way to illustrate this using her data, but it seems like a sort of last outpost for masculinity when men feel emasculated. The Man Aisle steps in at a cultural moment when the number of married (or partnered) men feeling emasculated might be at a high.

But, the mere existence of this aisle implicitly reinforces cultural scripts that tell us that shopping (particularly grocery shopping) is for women. If men need their own aisle, the rest of the store is, by default, for women. This subtly contributes to the ways in which care work is gendered: the products that are used to actually care for members of our families are, in “The Man Aisle,” simply out of men’s reach.

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