Lumber sexuality

Canfor's latest labour recruitment campaign is all about lumber sexuality.

That's right - lumber sexuality. The idea merited an essay in the online edition of The Atlantic about what it is (one word - lumbersexuality - according to them), the myths behind it and the cache it carries, particularly in urban centres.

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Forget the Old Spice guy because a man concerned about how he smells, especially while mocking other men for using lady soap, is of questionable manhood. Metrosexuals need not apply in their skinny fit suits and well-coifed hair. Older examples of outdoor masculinity have long gone stale and the Marlboro Man died of lung cancer long ago.

Who's back in style?

Paul Bunyan and the lumber sexuality he represents.

Whoever designed the recruitment and accompanying ad campaign for Canfor was paying attention to what's happening on the streets of Vancouver and the other metropolitan Canadian and American cities. Bearded men wearing plaid flannel shirts, jeans and boots are hip, not in sawmills or lumber yards, but at Starbucks on Robson Street.

As Willa Brown's essay in The Atlantic notes, the lumberjack holds a revered place in the American (and Canadian) imagination. He is a rugged outdoorsman, the possessor of great strength, even more impressive stamina and utterly devoid of modernity, femininity, urbanity and pretension. A timeless figure, he enjoys more freedom than some peasant farmer, tied to his crops, and he is far hardier than a cowboy, chasing cattle on the back of a horse. There are no women in the world of the lumberjack, nor is there even home. The only sense of place is in the forested wilderness, alone except for his wits and fellow lumberjacks.

In other words, in a modern world where fewer and fewer men have jobs that involve getting dirty or using their hands for more than typing, where the outdoors and forests have been neutered into parks and where women hold more power than ever, the lumberjack is the alpha-male, harkening back to a time when men were men and the wilderness was a worthy adversary in need of conquering.

In B.C., it's not Paul Bunyan but Johnny Canuck, the historic comic book character that's been reborn as an alternative team logo for the Vancouver Canucks, harkening to the team's history before joining the National Hockey League in 1970. The Canucks brought back Johnny Canuck, first on goaltender Roberto Luongo's mask and then as part of the team's third jersey.

The visuals for Canfor's campaign, that stereotypical red flannel shirt, can be seen in billboards across Prince George and in the company's TV ad, Jacked About Lumber.

The spot stresses how Canfor is more than just a company of good-looking bearded guys in flannel shirts and then hilariously depicts biologists, chemical engineers and electricians all wearing red plaid, right down to their hardhats, as they work. Canfor is an "equal opportunity employer," the viewer is informed, and a woman turns to stand by the traditional lumberjack, proudly wearing her red flannel shirt, dark tuque... and a full beard.

The ad ends with the action statement: "it's time to take another look at the forest industry." The message is clear - forestry has changed and become modern and now there's something sexy, alternative and quintessentially Canadian about working in forestry in general and Canfor in particular.

For folks in central and northern B.C., this kind of marketing is as confusing as the grizzled Captain Highliner fisherman stereotype must be in the Maritimes and New England. Sure there's some truth behind the myths but the marketing incarnation has been so shaped by marketers that it comes across as satire, not sincerity. The only time a modern lumberjack has need for an axe is when he goes camping and needs to split some firewood so the kids can roast marshmallows. For the most part, he doesn't even work outside anymore, preferring the warm and cozy confines of the cab of his harvester or skidder.

Whether it's the Vancouver Canucks, Canfor or urban style, the lumberjack remains a potent symbol of strength, freedom, masculinity and virility for both men and women. The sexual cues are both blatant and subtle, from the linguistic puns about wood and lumber to the phallic imagery of a man confidently wielding his powerful axe.

Red flannel shirts are back in style, riding a wave of lumber sexuality, but for many B.C. residents, fashion's got nothing to do with a perfectly good work shirt.

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