When I see a man drinking bourbon, I expect him to be the sort of man who likes to drink bourbon. I guess I could project some kind of cartoonishly rugged masculinity onto him — like the ability to build a bookshelf from scratch without math and picture myself watching adoringly/helplessly while he does so. But since this is 2014, and I like bourbon, and know how to use tools sometimes, that seems a bit patronizing. That's just one of the many reasons the Woodford Reserve bourbon commercial that aired last night during Mad Men is dumb.
First off, the ad looked pretty slick and considered in a way that suggests the company exists in 2014 with the rest of us. It uses interspersed sun-glinty, black-and-white and color stills of extremely symmetrical people in various outdoorsy/beachy/woodsy scenes, doing a lot of free-spirited socializing and gazing about. Pretty sure there was a big communal table made from reclaimed wood, raw denim, well-tailored suits, rugged aging, general affluence and great bone structure. And what appeared to be a meticulously casted blend of generations and ethnicities to showcase how diverse the people who enjoy Woodford are. The shuffly beat made it feel all, you know, fast and loose and artful. Actually, it felt like the commercial version of an issue of Southern artisan revival mag Garden and Gun.
So why is it still all single-mindedly focused on the bourbon man? With a sultry female narrator giving good voice-over, it celebrates precisely that brand of nu-masculinity that manages to look very "now" while romanticizing throwback notions of what it used to mean to be a guy: looking ruggedly handsome like your grandpa in his youth, but actually still being able to do stuff. Like, with your hands. Like, while you drink or whatever.
Gawker calls the narration "margins-of-high-school-notebook blank verse," and it goes something like this:
When I see a man drinking bourbon,
I expect him to be the kind who could build me a bookshelf.
But not in the way that one builds
a ready-made bookshelf.
He will already know where the lumberyard is.
He'll get the right amount of wood without having to do math.
He'll let me use the saw,
and not find it cute that I don't know how to use the saw.
We love your Woodford way.
I gotta say to this narrating woman with the bookshelf fantasy: One thing a seasoned shelf-builder is probably going to do right off the bat is use math. That person is what we call a carpenter, and carpenters are big fans of numbers, probably even when they have some bourbon. Is not using math sexy here because it means the guy is so experienced, or is it because we think math is hard?
Second — what will you be doing with the saw if you don't know how to actually use it? This sounds really dangerous. I'm not hearing any mention of protective eyewear either. Or hell, for a carpenter who doesn't use math, I'm guessing he won't even have the right setup. Also…not to be a buzzkill, but drinking while sawing is never a good idea.
Also, why don't you know how to use the saw? You're a grown woman? Saws don't seem that complicated. And what does it mean that he doesn't think it's "cute"? You said you he'll let you use the saw but won't think it's cute that you don't know how to use the saw. If he doesn't think it's cute, does he think it's sad? Will he at least offer to teach you? Or will he just silently drink Woodford Reserve while you are sawing your hand off because he is so stoic? I can only assume he is stoic? From your description, he doesn't seem like a talker.
But underneath the weird logic of the Woodford Reserve Red Shoe Diaries we have something else going on: The he in the commercial is doing the "man thing" — knowing how to build shelves from scratch with no math — and the she in the commercial is doing the "woman thing" — watching, finding this sexy, adding nothing to the scenario but reverence for his skills.
And the thing about this ad is that with even one slight tweak of the line, this artisan craft love story out of a J. Peterman catalog could've gone from silly to at least decently modern. It could've been a completely different vibe and still had all the mythological masculine mystique it was going for — he could (unfathomably) know how to measure wood without doing math (LOL), but she could've said:
He will let me use the saw,
and won't think it's cute when I can use it too.
Because arguably, this is the precisely the difference between old-school masculinity of the past and new-school masculinity of today: Dudes are still dudes right, only gender roles have changed and they are fine with women being their equals. Hell, even Ask Men backs this up:
More specifically, our findings indicate that "the new masculinity" is a combination of, on the one hand, "old-school" values such as honor, loyalty and hard work and, on the other hand, a more contemporary set of beliefs about gender roles at a time when they are changing both at home and on the job.
To me, the contemporary version of this via the Woodford Reserve ad would be that you could use the saw in the first place. Not that a guy wouldn't find it cute that you couldn't — I still don't even know what it means.
Instead, we are treated to dumb gender stuff — she worships his masculine mathlessness, he does not find her incompetence cute but ostensibly finds it something else (disturbing?), because whiskey?
Actually, yeah. Because whiskey. Bourbon has traditionally been considered a dude's drink. Women have long enjoyed it (and distilled it, and marketed it, and owned shares in companies), and recent figures show that women are about 30 percent of the drinkers of whiskey, even though ads like this one are clearly still struggling to figure out this demo from the perspective of her actually drinking it.
The group Bourbon Women — formed by industry exec Peggy Noe Stevens, a former master taster at Brown-Forman (who owns Woodford Reserve) — exists to promote women's role and heritage in bourbon making and drinking, and prove that such a consumer does in fact exist and should be catered to. Pretty sure at this point we know what a bourbon man is. But tell me, Woodford Reserve, what is a bourbon woman? Someone who pines for off-angle storage furniture?
For what it's worth, Woodford Reserve is also the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby, and their stuff apparently goes into a $1,000 mint julep you can buy at the races. Given that the Derby still struggles to even let women ride and train the horses, I guess it's not hard to see why they both have trouble thinking of women as much more than well-dressed onlookers at an age-old tradition usually practiced and enjoyed by men.
But can you imagine the opposite of this ad? Where a guy pines for a woman who drinks bourbon while she puts the finishing touches on her latest wagon wheel coffee table made from reclaimed centuries-old Southern barn wood? Seems pretty hot? She wouldn't even snicker when he didn't know what lacquer was, you guys.