In the past few weeks a new advertisement campaign has invaded the New York City subway. A brand that claims to solve “men’s issues” called hims covers the walls and advertising panels of subway stations and trains. Hims is a brand that sells products to address “men’s issues” such as hair loss, skin imperfections and erectile dysfunction. Selling products to tackle these problems is in no way a new thing. Viagra has been around since 1998 and hair and skin treatments are fairly popular, both prescription and non-prescription. What hims offers is convenience, something that has become increasingly popular with the exorbitant growth of Amazon and other online retailers that offer quick delivery and minimum hassle.

The men’s care product line seems to take convenience a step further; it not only offers easy online shopping and delivery, but also provides an “embarrassment free” method to get prescription products, selling the product at a lower price than regular prescription drugs.

The underlying logic of the hims campaign is that “guys are allergic to doctors” and “guys find it hard to talk about some of the issues the brand addresses.” Hims provides the “guys” with a way to avoid those problems. By means of an easy-to-use online system, men avoid talking about their issues, they avoid a visit to the doctor, and they get everything they need. After all, according to the brand, “having an issue isn’t weird. not dealing with it is weird.” While I don’t entirely disagree with this last statement, I believe that giving “guys” a way out of these moments of “embarrassment” does not address the problems in any way and actually perpetuates them.

Hims sells itself as a brand that is enabling a conversation that is “currently closeted”: “that men are allowed to care for themselves.” It does so in trendy pastels and with a nice font. It portrays men from different ethnicities. The models are all young, highlighting the fact that erectile dysfunction is not only an issue for older men. It tells the world that they are a “progressive” brand fighting stereotypes. It is a brand that understands guys and tells them that, for the first time, someone understands their struggle. Finally, someone is addressing the issues that men have to deal with in this oppressive patriarchy that for centuries has told them that they don’t get to care for themselves and that talking about their issues is something to be embarrassed about! After all, the mission of the brand is to “create an open and empowered male culture that results in more proactivity around health and preventative self-care.” Bullshit. The last thing men need is empowerment. While it is true that men also suffer the consequences of patriarchy, it is never due to a lack of empowerment. The “closedness” of conversation around themes of self-care for men is built around a toxic sense of masculinity that, if anything, is flooded by empowerment. Care, on the other hand, seems to belong to a different logic that is not structured in terms of power.

© Paula Landerreche Cardillo

Talk of care should not be centered around empowerment, especially when it is the people that hold the power that are advocating for it. When hims advertises that “men’s issues are optional” they remind us that women’s issues are not. While men now have a convenient and affordable way to get products to feed their masculinity, women have to jump through hoops to get medical attention. It is more expensive to be a woman because we are subject to the “pink tax.” Women’s issues are often downplayed because of epistemic and hermeneutical injustices, as well as larger systemic inequalities. Studies report that women are less likely to be treated for pain than men.  Additionally, some “women issues” are often overlooked, like the side effects of hormonal birth control, while studies for hormonal birth control for men are put to sleep after the observation of some of the side effects that women suffer. Not to mention that clinics that benefit primarily women, such as Planned Parenthood, are under serious threats and cut backs under the current administration and abortion rights are currently threatened in the U.S. and are not granted in many countries around the world.

If we continue to think of care and bodies in terms of power or empowerment we come dangerously close to entitlement. This is the case, for example, for the self-proclaimed “incels” (involuntary celibates). Recent articles about the incels revolve around the idea of entitlement to sex. Men, under capitalism, believe they are entitled to sex, explains Rebecca Solnit.  This results in the notion that women owe them sex and that they claim to have a right to sex; women are seen as a commodity. Solnit writes that for incels, “women-as-bodies are sex waiting to happen — to men — and women-as-people are annoying gatekeepers getting between men and female bodies, which is why there’s a ton of advice about how to trick or overwhelm the gatekeeper.” Hims’ marketing strategy does not seem too far from this idea. Although it is approached from a different angle, and the campaign is fully centered on men — it never mentions women or women’s bodies — products for sex and vanity are sold as a commodity that men are owed. Sex is treated as something men deserve to have, to the extent that even the relationship with their penis is not as a body but as a tool for sex. They advertise their sex products saying that “you need erections when you want them, not when it’s convenient to your penis.” Hims will help you with that and will remove the obstacles that stand between you and sex. Through science, convenience and nice branding, they will sell you everything you need to make sure no-body (not even your body) stands between you and sex. The body is only the tool for sex, be it yours or the other’s.

To speak of care in terms of empowerment is to perpetuate the logic of the phallus, if we put it in psychoanalytic terms. The phallus is a signifier that structures relations of power and desire. The phallus always stands in relation to the other’s desire. The phallus is not the penis, but rather the symbolic place that the penis holds. Although in this case, it is quite literally exemplified by the penis, the erection, the banana and the erect cactus. The conversation doesn’t seem to revolve around care but rather around power and desire. For Lacan, speaking in terms of the relationship of mother and son, that will later structure all of desire, “if the mother’s desire is for the phallus, the boy wants to be the phallus in order to satisfy her desire.” [1] Thus, the function of the phallus is always in relation to the other’s desire, or rather, it is what puts one in relation with the other in terms of desire. This is because the economy of desire is built over the phallus as the main signifier, the archetype for sex. There is only desire in terms of the phallus according to this logic. Thus, desire oscillates between the the need have the phallus and to be the phallus, i.e., the object of desire of the other. Although the phallus is not the penis, the penis is taken as the representation of the signifier and it is one that the man possesses and at the same time makes him the object of desire for the other. The feminist philosopher and psychoanalyst Luce Irigaray understands this as an economy of desire that is purely male. The problem with this economy, she argues, is that “there can only be one desire: the desire to ensure dominion by greed, by appetite for appropriation.” [2]

This corresponds to the economy of desire operating in both the incel movement and the hims campaign. It is also the logic of neoliberalism. It is an oscillation between the desire to be the phallus and the desire to have the phallus. The former is exemplified by an idea of empowerment where, through the ability to have erections on demand, and the possibility to fight what will make you less attractive to the other (hair loss and acne treatments), one becomes the signifier of the other’s desire. The latter is exemplified by the desire to possess that which you desire, that which structures desire, and entitlement of the other’s body as the signifier of your desire. And, if Irigaray is right — and I think she is — desire only operates in terms of domination and appropriation. In this same way, the relationship to the body is always inscribed in terms of desire for the phallus. The body is only the tool that represents desire. The men’s body is the phallus, the other’s desire, and the woman’s body is the hole always desiring the men’s, and if she doesn’t, there must be something wrong with her. How can someone talk about care and treat their body as an object or a tool? Can we expect people that don’t even respect their own bodies as bodies to respect other bodies as such?

This logic has no place for care, thus it is no surprise that men are not supposed to care for themselves (or others). We should also recognize that talk involving women’s care is only promoted insofar as it makes them more desirable for men. There is no room for care in a logic where the body is only an inconvenience to the fulfillment of desire. The care industry, be it the medical or beauty industry, has become a provider of treatments to relieve the inconveniences of the body and, according to the neoliberal logic, they must do so without any obstacles. Just as “women-as-people are annoying gatekeepers” for “women-as-bodies,” hims tell us that doctors “got the keys to the cabinet” that stands between you and your erect penis, and that must be eliminated. To eliminate the middle man and, as a consequence, eliminate the conversation that one must have with him, hims is not opening the conversation around care but rather is reinforcing the phallic economy of desire, further closing a conversation around actual care and around bodies as something other than tools.

Paula Landerreche Cardillo graduated with an MA in Philosophy and Certificate in Gender and Sexuality Studies. from the New School for Social Research. She is now a PhD student at DePaul University in Chicago.

[1] Jacques Lacan, “The Signification of the Phallus” in Ecrits trans. Bruce Fink (New York: W.W. Norton & Company).

[2] Luce Irigaray, The Speculum of the Other Woman, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985), 58