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.