MMA fighter takes on masculinity in flowery new fashion campaign

Photo: Bradbury Lewis for Karen Walker

No one embodies Muhammad Ali’s motto of “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” better than Israel Adesanya, an MMA fighter who started out as a dancer. He’s now modeling in Karen Walker’s latest eyewear campaign looking a lot less macho than he does in the ring. And we love it.

Monumental by Karen Walker Eyewear: The Second Collection is launching this month, and the newly dropped ad campaign is fierce. It features Adesanya wearing different sunglasses, some wire frame, some thick plastic. Styles include tortoiseshell and even a more feminine cat’s-eye. In some images he’s wearing a shirt, in others he’s shirtless. In all the photos he has a bright flower tucked behind his ear, softening his buff, tattooed appearance. The flower changes in each image, but it’s always big and blooming, giving the photos even more personality than they already had, thanks to Adesanya’s warm grin and tatted chest.

Photo: Bradbury Lewis for Karen Walker

The whole thing is a bit of an oxymoron — Walker’s earth-tone glasses line accessorized with colorful blossoms, and modeled by a professional athlete most wouldn’t consider flowery. The message it’s sending about gender is loud and clear: Men can be soft and still be men. Even the most seemingly “macho” ones.

“Our work always carries a gender message,” Walker tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “With this campaign, and with everything we’ve done with Monumental and beyond, it’s all about the contrast and what ‘masculinity’ looks like. With the images of Israel, the styling perfectly expresses the duality of his personality and also our work.”

Photo: Bradbury Lewis for Karen Walker

“He’s an interesting man. An MMA fighter who started as a dancer is a very modern take on masculinity,” Walker says. “His nickname, the Last Stylebender, captures his subversion and reinvention of his craft, and that’s a place where we love to work as well — reinventing classics and throwing together opposites.”

Gender experts agree that this campaign is a meaningful move. “What is really significant about it is that it’s been some decades now since we’ve had terms like ‘androgyny’ or ‘gender-bending’ thrown around, but what has been well-documented is that 50 years after the second wave of feminism, it’s still much more socially acceptable for women to play with elements of masculinity than the reverse,” points out Juliet Williams, professor of gender studies and chair of the UCLA Social Science Interdepartmental Program. “And that has to do with the underlying gender hierarchy. There are still rewards for identifying up and penalties for identifying downward on the hierarchy,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “So, arguably, one of the most important frontiers right now for dismantling the gender hierarchy is to really pay attention to transforming masculinity, as much as we have been transforming femininity for several decades now. I think this campaign is a signal that that’s happening.”

However, in Williams’s eyes, there is still room for improvement. “The caution that is always there is that in examples of male femininity, the fear is that it’s only possible in situations in which the man performs a kind of hypermasculinity such that there’s an excess, or that there’s some femininity to spare,” she says, referencing Adesanya’s fighting profession. “When you look at an image like these ads, the flower is really amazing, but what you always want to be sure about is that it isn’t depicting something acceptable only because everything else about the image is allowing the possibility of a hegemonic masculinity.” Meaning, it’s important to push the idea even further to ensure that super secure machoness is not required for men to play around with stereotypical girlishness (like flowers).

“I think these images are better than an image without the flower, so it’s good, but we are still in a place that, the farthest we’ve come is, he’s man enough to wear a flower, which is different from saying, ‘Men and women and everyone can wear whatever they want whenever they want as part of their full self-expression,’” Williams explains. “Man enough to wear a flower, that’s a step on the path, but it’s not where we need to get ultimately.”

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