Last week the internet acquiesced to the roll-out of the Male Romper. Marketed as a comfortable Bro-option that bends the difference between irony and cliché, my Facebook feed would have me believe that this Romper is a polarizing challenge to gender norms and a short new chapter in the never-ending story of our beloved Culture Wars. Despite the hype that quite a number of mainstream media outlets have promoted, I haven’t encountered any men who feel the need to lash out against the Romper trend or otherwise vilify its perceived femininity. But I have observed a number of self-identifying “progressives” share polarizing videos and articles that anticipate some overarching challenge to gender norms and subsequently attack the male fragility that cannot fathom manspreading in a romper. Why has the Male Romper so quickly become a symbol of fluid masculinity for progressives on the internet?
The Male Romper has become a virtual advertising success because of progressive anticipation of toxic masculine backlash. This isn’t to deny hypermasculinity but rather to suggest that the most prominent discussions of the Male Romper are proactive attacks on backlash that does not yet fully exist. AskMen.Com, CNN, and ATTN (which produced a video shared by George Takei’s Facebook) all host media that narrate the reception of the male romper within a relatively simple masculine/feminine polarity supported only by the selective emphasis on a handful of tweets. Other outlets currently provide more nuanced responses. NYMag ran an article describing the Romper as the product of “start-up bros who attend music festivals” but otherwise promoted it as an emerging fashion trend. NPR interviewed the folks behind the recent Romper start-up to discuss the business concept and its niche appeal. The Daily Beast ridiculed the viral marketing campaign’s hypermasculine motifs – drinking, fraternizing, and attractive women – as a conscious effort to exclude gay interest. The National Review defended Rompers as a vehicle for free, individual expression. Interestingly, the latter is a well-trafficked conservative publication and its defending Rompers. I’ve also witnessed a number of conservative friends posting widely-shared videos of Southern “hick” satirists to Facebook, but neither satirist explicitly rejects the Romper.
The Romper isn’t the first time a product has gone viral because of generated outrage. Progressives in December of 2016 adopted the virtue-signaling posture of defending Starbucks’s holiday cups against a (mostly) fabricated religious opposition. Joshua Feuerstein, a conservative internet personality and so-called Evangelical preacher, posted one video attacking Starbucks’s red cups as proof of Christian discrimination. By and large nearly every other conservative and Christian outlet didn’t care enough about Starbucks to make a point of the holiday cups. But great numbers of urban progressives and mainstream outlets posted think pieces and satires against the absurdity that is the “war on Christmas” by conflating Feuerstein’s video with broader attitudes. Both the Romper and the red cups are products marked by capital that want viral appeal. Progressive political outrage perpetuates such an appeal by marking the products as some radical departure against traditional (and “backwards”) political attitudes. And the outrage generated over both allows progressive participants to take pleasure in their enlightened difference against the conservative bigot, hence my use of the phrase “virtue-signaling.”
The “Hick” satirists floating across my social media represent some of the most viral “masculine” backlash against the Romper. Rather than directly critique the Male Romper as a feminine outfit for emasculated men, both sarcastically emphasized the masculine utility of the Romper to underscore its absurdity: a pocket for “chew tobacco,” a pocket for an AR-15 clip, overall mobility and comfort. But their sarcasm is not directed toward emasculating changes in culture. Rather, gender is a vehicle for a point about urban and rural difference: the first admits that he “can’t afford Rompers” while the second describes them as “city boys…fashion.” In both instances their body language, over-emphasized accents, and tone coordinate to dramatize that the difference here is between a feminized, urban, gentrified class and the masculine, rural, manual labor class. In other words, sexism correlates with the Romper but not as an end in itself. Masculine fragility is not seeking to cocoon itself against the Romper, but gendered constructs of class are rejecting a Bougie startup promoting products inaccessible to those lacking wealth-inflected standards of taste. Seemingly progressive outrage against masculine rejection totally ignores the roles of wealth and class by virtue of preemptively forwarding this idealized, hyper-masculine rejection.
Thus, the Male Romper is not a symbol of gendered cultural shifts, but a symbol capital’s adaptability and use of politics to drive its own success. The current, viral romper is the product of two Northwestern business students and its images are not only hyper-masculine (as HuffPo has pointed out) but also wealth driven: expensive shoes, glasses, watches, and social venues are as essential to its appeal as images of attractive women and booze. Moreover, the models are all white with one exception: a black man. The message of the Male Romper isn’t just that of Bro masculinity, but that having access to wealth and whiteness makes it acceptable to appropriate feminized products and expand the definition of masculine. It’s a fashion trend that crosses gender boundaries exclusively for the purpose of flaunting wealth.
And whether it’s a hick satirist or the faux-generated outrage of urban progressives, one need not choose a side in this dichotomy. We can be skeptical of hypermasculinity as much as we are an urban progressive politics that adopts a pseudo-feminism in order to disregard the roles of capital and status.