Every November, famous tire company Pirelli releases its world-renowned trade calendar. Sent to a restricted number of important customers and celebrity VIPs as a corporate gift, the calendar features the world’s most beautiful women, scantily (or not at all) clad, and shot by a celebrated photographer. Appearing in it, both behind the lens and in front, has become a mark of distinction.
The Pirelli calendar is the sort of cultural artifact that precedes itself; much like the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue. Its pin-up pages (or at least an idea of them) are ingrained in the cultural consciousness, even if most people’s names never make it on the mailing list.
So much has been made of the news that for the first time ever, Pirelli is departing from its tried-and-true (and frankly, tired) formula of sex and eroticism. For 2016, the calendar will feature intimate portraits — fully clothed — of 13 women who are shaping the world today, photographed by world-renowned photographer, Annie Leibovitz.
Hailed as Leibovitz’s “celebration of femininity,” current PR commentary lauds the tire company for paying tribute to the evolving meaning of female power, for recognizing the diversity of roles that women play by spotlighting their strength and achievement — not just their seductive sexuality.
But this leap in content and style is not just an example of jumping on the girl power brandwagon; it also sheds light on a just-as-important dialogue in culture around the shifting definition of masculinity.
Compared to this era of female empowerment, the attention paid to masculine identity has been scant. But the veneer is beginning to crack. Articles are being pounded out by both sexes, frustrated by one-dimensional portrayals of themselves, their friends, and their partners. Mental health charity, BringChange2Mind, has launched a campaign featuring men speaking out on the importance of talking about their feelings, in the vein of attempting to reduce one of the main killers of men: suicide. #MasculinitySoFragile is being employed to satirize perceptions of stereotypical “male” behaviors, harnessing the populist idea-distribution tool of the “feminist” masses: the hashtag.
It’s true that in redefining what it means to be a woman, we’ve rested on our one-dimensional, musclebound-sex-addict-sports-enthusiast stereotypes of what it is to be a man. Which is why recognizing Pirelli’s decision to depart from their house style as a watershed moment for both sexes is so important.
In one giant step, the brand is transforming itself from something that represents an archaic remnant of masculine stereotype, namely garage backroom centerfolds, to something at the forefront of an important, emerging cultural conversation on the future of how we see men — using the lens of how men see women as the starting point.
It’s one thing for female-positioned brands and categories — soap, deodorant, makeup, baby wipes — to champion multifaceted depictions of women. It’s another thing altogether when a brand explicitly positioned for men — that uses the bodies of women as its central signifier of its hetero-male orientation — does the same. After all, can we imagine the brand altering the most prominent representation of its worldview without considering the ROI? Absolutely not.
So the Pirelli decision must be rooted in a fundamental recognition that the calendar recipients, historically male, have definitions of self — particularly with regard to women and the roles women play in the world today — that are broader than the cultural construct the brand has traditionally allotted to them. By changing the way the women in their classic calendar are photographed and portrayed, the company poses an interesting question: could male gazers be more than just their gaze?
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