April 15, 2019

The Men of Tomorrow: Gillette’s Call for a Healthier Masculinity

Todd SchoepflinBy Todd Schoepflin

The phrase “boys will be boys” irritates me. It suggests an inevitable outcome; that no matter what happens in life, it’s in the nature of boys to behave a certain way. It goes against what I’ve learned and believe as a sociologist, and runs contrary to my own experiences and observations as a parent. The idea that “boys will be boys” grossly downplays the significance of how children are raised, and says nothing about social contexts and cultural influences.

Contemplating how our social environment shapes masculinity is something that occurs on a regular basis in sociology courses. It’s not the kind of content you’d expect to see depicted in a commercial for razors. But the recent “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be” Gillette advertisement critically addresses the subject of masculinity and got a lot of attention for doing so.

Near the beginning of the ad, we hear a voice ask, “Is this the best a man can get?” followed by images about bullying, sexual harassment, and mansplaining. A man pinches the butt of a woman on a sitcom set, and we hear the voice say “It’s been going on far too long. We can’t laugh it off. Making the same old excuses.”

Next, we see a group of men, arms folded, stoically repeating “boys will be boys” as smoke emanates from food on grills. The voice in the ad declares “But something finally changed”--we see a brief image of newscasters reporting on sexual assault and sexual harassment--and the voice continues by saying “and there will be no going back. Because we…we believe in the best in men.”

As the ad comes to a close, men are challenged to hold each other accountable, and to say and do the right thing. We are reminded that boys are watching and learning from the people and behaviors that surround them, and that the boys of today “will be the men of tomorrow.”

I can imagine what a cynic might say: “They are trying to sell razors. It’s designed to be a progressive advertisement to gain positive attention for their brand.” Another cynic might outright dismiss it: “It’s just a commercial, it doesn’t mean anything.” And it’s easy to find criticism of the ad. For instance, in a discussion about the ad, one commentator asserts, “There’s nothing wrong with masculinity” and refers to “the feminization of America.” A writer described the ad as “gender shaming” and suggested it won’t be long before Gillette tells men to shave their legs.

In an opinion piece with a headline characterizing the ad as “idiotic,” a writer complained that the ad belittles and insults men. Another writer criticizes the ad for “invoking every cliché in the male-bashing handbook” and generalizing men as enabling violence. Several outlets offered recaps of reactions, both positive and negative, including The New York Times, Vox, NPR, and The Guardian.

Cynicism and criticism noted, my view is that the ad is in tune with the #MeToo era and reflects a time when the definition of masculinity in under scrutiny. It’s a rejection of toxic masculinity, a type of masculinity that features toughness and discourages vulnerability. As Maya Salam points out, toxic masculinity does not mean that all boys and men are inherently toxic). If masculinity is being redefined in a way that emphasizes kindness and awareness, I think that’s a change for the better.

Awareness is a good alternative to “mansplaining.” I can understand why it’s become a popular term, as it seems clear to me that women have the shared aggravating experience of being treated in condescending ways by men. It’s not too much to ask of men that we don’t interrupt women and put forth our explanations in a posture of expertise (in a classic example on the subject, a man was telling the writer Rebecca Solnit about a very important book that she should read, unaware that she had written it). I think it’s also quite reasonable to ask that we be mindful of how body language is gendered and how men often take up more space than women in public.

So what’s the opposite of toxic masculinity? In other words, if we can identify a type of masculinity as toxic, then what constitutes a healthy masculinity? To me, a healthier masculinity is one that relaxes the tough guise and instead encourages being kind, considerate, compassionate, and empathetic. As I like to say to my students, why wouldn’t these characteristics be incorporated into the definition of masculinity? Furthermore, can we agree these are human traits that we can emphasize as important for all of us to cultivate?

To claim there is no problem with masculinity is to deny obvious social problems, such as the link between masculinity and mass shootings. It ignores how masculinity is policed in our social institutions (for example, as C.J. Pascoe explains, how homophobic taunts are used to harass and intimidate boys in school, serving to reinforce traditional definitions of masculinity). It doesn’t confront the misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia that corresponds with a rigid definition of masculinity (for more discussion related to this point, see Jonathan Wynn’s post “Masculinity So Fragile”).

It fails to acknowledge and examine the damage men do when committing sexual harassment and assault, or when men don’t believe women’s experiences of sexual misconduct or look the other way when the misconduct occurs (a few examples of insightful writing on the subject are by Rebecca Traister and Roxane Gay).

In thinking about the #MeToo movement, I’m reminded of Oprah Winfrey’s speech at the Golden Globes Awards in 2018, when, after telling the story of Recy Taylor, she said:

She lived, as we all have lived, too many years in a culture broken by brutally powerful men. For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dared to speak their truth to the power of those men. But their time is up. Their time is up.

She ended the speech on an optimistic note, declaring a new day is on the horizon:

And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say ‘Me too' again.

I hope Oprah is right in saying a new day is on the horizon. And I hope a better version of masculinity is in the making.

One of the many things I miss about Peter Kaufman are the conversations we used to have about masculinity. I’m certain we would’ve discussed the Gillette ad, as we liked to compare notes on the news of the day, especially about overtly sociological items. Back in 2017, in a creative Twitter thread, Peter turned the phrase “man up” into “man down” and wrote definitions for “manpathy” and other terms related to masculinity. Using his innovative terminology, we wrote a short story together called “A Manmade’s Tale” that imagined a compassionate masculinity, one in which men would feel free to express their emotions and not get defensive when their worldview is challenged (the story appears in an edition of So Fi Zine).

Ultimately, I think the Gillette ad does a good job of promoting a positive change in masculinity. At the end of the commercial, we see the message, “It’s only by challenging ourselves to do more that we can get closer to our best.” I don’t see anything controversial in the message that warrants backlash. I think it’s a good thing to be challenged to be the best we can be.

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