Toxic Masculinity?

we believe the best men can be gillette short film youtube

Screen capture: Closing image of “The Best Men Can Be”, Film by Gillette via YouTube

The internet blew up this past week over a video Gillette released titled “The Best Men Can Be.” It may go down as a courageous effort and a bad business decision. As of this writing, the video has been disliked by nearly twice as many as liked it.

I find that reaction puzzling, understandable, and disturbing.

The video shows images of bullying, sexual harassment, condescending behavior toward women, and a row of men behind barbecue grills chanting mantra-like “boys will be boys.” as one child beats another up in front of them. It shifts to a multiple screen portrayal of media coverage of #MeToo, and then to a call for action, a challenge for men to be their best selves, to hold each other accountable to a higher standard in their treatment of women and to call each other out (“not cool”), to help each other resolve conflict peacefully, to intervene when witnessing bullying, to empower one’s children, and to be models to the next generation of men.

The reaction is puzzling. Do we really dislike the message that men should act with integrity, courage, respect, and as positive role models of the same to their sons and other boys? Can we really justify bullying, violence, disrespect of women under the catch-all justification “boys will be boys?”

The reaction is understandable. This has been the ideal of masculinity going around for a long time. I grew up with it. Men were supposed to be tough, and you showed it by picking on “weaklings,” or by pretending you were tough so that you wouldn’t get picked on. Women existed to gratify your pleasures. Real men don’t show feelings or weakness.

The reaction is disturbing. It tells me that this version of masculinity is alive and well. You lash out when criticism gets too close for comfort. And it appears there is a significant amount of that discomfort.

It troubles me when…

  • we confuse bullying with courage–the courage that goes into battle, that fights wrongs, that protects the vulnerable.
  • we teach that resorting to violence is better than the calm word, or knowing when to walk away.
  • we justify objectifying women with looks, catcalls, gropes, and more rather than respecting their dignity as unique and gifted persons capable of running companies, outrunning us in some cases, and perhaps saving our lives.

So we have a society where most of the perpetrators of gun violence are men, mostly young men. So we have a society where men’s stoical determination not to show weakness drives them to an early grave from hypertension, heart disease, and a host of other ills. So we have a society where far too many of those who father children are AWOL when it comes to helping raise them. All of this seems like “toxic” masculinity to me, not good for men or those around them.

Some of the reaction to the ad arises from a perceived “war against boys and men.” I get that, and if you only watched the first part of the Gillette ad, you might have the same reaction. If even half the claims of #MeToo are warranted (and I suspect the percentage is far higher) it is hard time to feel good about one’s gender if you identify as male.

What I appreciated about the ad is that it went beyond “these guys are bad” and”I’m not that guy” to affirm models of masculinity that show true strength rather than posturing. It models calling each other to higher standards of respect toward women, of father’s empowering their daughters, of acting with courage and decency in front of one’s son. What the critics of this commercial miss, in my view, is that none of the positive models are sissies but people who act with strength. It’s not a put down of men but a call for men to step up.

A number of those who read this blog are believing Christians, and some of you may disagree with me. The question I have is, do you think Jesus is a model of true masculinity?  I think of the incident where Jesus’s followers are “chest bumping” over who is the greatest among them–typical toxic masculinity. Jesus replies:

“…whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,  and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:43b-45)

Do we consider Jesus weak because he defines greatness in terms of servanthood, and his own mission as one of serving? Jesus says this as he is walking to the city where he will be betrayed, arrested and killed. Do we not consider perhaps the ultimate show of courage to be when someone gives their life for another? Is this not great strength? Is not every other act of service willingly given to one’s partner, one’s children, one’s colleagues, one’s community, likewise an act of strength?

I think it is something like this that Gillette means when it speaks of “The Best Men Can Be.” The cynics just consider it an advertising stunt. If so, it is probably a failed one. I’d rather call it an instance of corporate responsibility as a purveyor of men’s products. I’ve been shaving with Gillette razors since I started sprouting facial hair. I have Gillette razors in my medicine cabinet. I have no plans to stop using them.

13 thoughts on “Toxic Masculinity?

  1. I love your thoughts on this. I personally think the video is great because of the way it ends. I feel that both men and women need direction and not everybody has a positive influence to guide them.

    I think about what’s happening with these young high school boys harassing this Native American man in the news and it makes me sick. Who are educating these youth? It’s almost as if they’ve never been taught respect or how to treat others. It’s scary. So, if a razor ad stops and makes people think about their actions, then I say great. I don’t think it’s negative. Sorry for the rant. 😊 Excellent post.

    • Well, I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who liked the ad! I agree with you that often young men are left on their own or even encouraged toward toxic masculinity.

      • I think that’s one of the reasons so many are angry because it’s like the ad is ‘attacking’ all men. I couldn’t find any positive comments on YouTube. Maybe they could’ve thought of something better? I certainly hope my opinion doesn’t offend anyone.

  2. Thanks for this, Bob. I was really moved by the ad, especially as it showed men setting strong examples for their children, and protecting the weak. I haven’t heard the criticism, but it’s hard to imagine most people would seriously argue against men being supportive of their daughters and protecting someone who’s being bullied…? I didn’t take it as anti-male at all, in any way.

  3. Yes, Bob! Yes!
    Thanks for this cogent response to this disturbing situation, yet again. Keep on writing for Justice. Christ shines a light of hope through your words.

  4. I’m one of the men that didn’t like the Gillette ad, but for different reasons than most. I saw it as an attempt by a corporation to cash in on a hot button social issue. It came off as disingenuous and pandering. Previous ads featured handsome, clean shaven men with beautiful women fawning over them. Pretty much the opposite of the new campaign. This doesn’t mean Gillette has mended their crooked ways, just that they saw the need to shift gears in a changing world.

    I see nothing wrong with the message. It’s how I raised my sons. My issue is with a company that seems willing to do anything to stave off their loss of market share to new business models. First they tried to come up with their own “shave club”, and everybody saw through that as pretending to offer a deal when there was really no deal at all. I simply see it as immoral to preach morality just to sell products.

    However; I think, a lot of men, good decent men, felt betrayed by a company that makes products primarily for men. (Its worth noting that they still charge women more for what are essentially the same products)

    Their mistake was in telling their customer base that they weren’t good people, echoing what we seem to hear everywhere else these days.

    Finally, I’d like to point out that the men who REALLY need to hear this message are not going to see an ad and think “Hmmm, I really need to change.”

    It appears Gillette has backed off from this tactic for fear of losing more revenue. That alone is telling.

    • Thanks for your perspective. You are right. If it was an attempt to cash in on a hot button issue, it failed miserably. A measure of their integrity would actually be if they continue to pursue this initiative. The fact that they have backed off underscores your point. I wasn’t put off by the ad as one who raised my son like you have raised yours. I have too many friends who are women who have experienced the men who are jerks. I’ve seen too many instances of bullying, by boys and adult men. You are right that these men won’t change because of Gillette’s ads. But if the decent men (who are positively highlighted in the ad) step up to create a masculine culture that says real men don’t do this stuff, then in time we might see change. Thanks again for taking the time to read my post and respond!

  5. I agree with every point you just made. I’ve seen much of the same crappy behaviour you have, like so many of us have, and in that regard, you are right, we have to do something. I was very careful in my first comment to not criticize the message, it’s worthy of being carried forward, it needs to be spread. Culture change is difficult, It’s being done where I work and there is a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth, over persecution on both sides, nitpicking, and passive aggressiveness. But it needs to be done. It will take strong people to see it through.

    Considering all of this, and factoring in my ever present willingness to be wrong, I’m willing to forgive Gillette for being the deliverer of a good message.

    Great article, looking forward to more.

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