Some folks in the United States believe that we have a problem with how mainstream masculinity is taught, implemented, and enforced. And some other folks are pissed about this belief. This blog post is in response to the Gillette razor ad about “toxic masculinity”—a term I don’t like, but a topic that I think it invaluable to discuss. The ad is about the ways that the “boys will be boys” mentality becomes particularly problematic when those boys become men, and how that mentality can translate into sexual harassment and sexual assault.
The ad is asking men to stand up to other men who are behaving badly in ways they may have been trained to do as men, and to pass on a kinder version of masculinity to boys. Playing on the Gillette tagline of The Best a Man Can Get, the ad asks: Is that the best a man can get? We believe in the best in men.
At the writing of this post, there are twice as many dislikes as likes for this Gillette ad on YouTube. What’s most interesting to me, though, is the ways that the ad is perceived as a personal attack to some men. The reactions feel like a “don’t tell me what to do” backlash.
Here are some examples of the YouTube comments against the Gillette ad:
Legal system: innocent until proven guilty. Gillette: Men, guilty until proven innocent
No more Gillette products for me. How incredibly patronising.
“Toxic Masculinity” is a hoax
Emasculation is NOT Women empowerment.
Toxic Masculinity - Any Male action that doesn't conform to liberal ideals of what a man SHOULD be in today's society. If he isn't sensitive and emotional and docile he is accused of toxic masculinity. Jesus Christ its the genocide of men! lol
Never seen anything more sexist in my life! :) Thanks feminists. Making the gap even wider between "equality"
Unlike these folks, I like the ad. It is in alignment with the views I shared in my personal consent story called Sex & the Price of Masculinity. Sociologically speaking, the mainstream masculinity messages are: Be tough, don’t cry, hide your uncomfortable emotions, go for what you want and don’t take a no, get the (heterosexual) sex you want and have a lot of it. But these messages can hurt men, women, and gender non-binary folks.
I genuinely want to understand what is underlying this scathing response by some men. I asked a few men—in person and online—why they are bothered by the ad, or why they think other men are reacting so negatively. Between those conversations and my own sociological analysis of online comments and the state of gender roles in the United States, I’ve come up with five main trigger points behind the various negative response by men.
I think the ad is being interpreted as both insulting and threatening because:
1. They perceive the ad as saying that being a masculine man means that they are sexual harassers and commit sexual assault. So, all men are bad. (This feels very unfair and inaccurate.)
2. They identify as masculine and as a man. They like that identify, but the ad is saying that this means they are bad men. (So, that’s a big blow to an important part of their identity. If they agree with any part of the ad’s message, it also might make them feel foolish for having acted in such ways.)
3. It’s telling men to be like women. (This is tied to the identity aspect, as well as probably the belief that a man acting female-like is an embarrassing thing.)
4. They are being told that they are a bad parent. (This is a very uncomfortable thought for any parent to sit with, as most parents are trying to do the best they can to take care of their kids.)
5. It means their parents were bad parents. (This interpretation probably evokes quite a bit of loyalty towards one’s parents and understandable defensiveness.)*
The ad is imploring men to realize that they can redefine what it means to be a man, in a way that is less harmful to women, and more compassionate to boys and young men. What I think is not clear to some male viewers is that there are many versions of “being masculine.” One of the mainstream versions of masculinity, as depicted in the ad, has some potentially harmful personal and societal impacts. There can also be good parts of this version of masculinity—strengths and commitments to feel pride in—like there are in all masculinities. But it’s important for all of us to question what we’ve all been fed as the “normal” and “natural” way to be.
We are trained into gender roles from birth, based on whether the adults around us think we’re a male or female. When we stray from whatever they think is appropriate for a male or female, we’ll often get chastised or shamed. Specifically regarding masculinity, the encouragement is to act in the way that is appropriate to what it “means to be a man.” This can vary by family, cultural upbringing, religious beliefs, and geographic location. But there is a main grouping of traits that define masculinity that are most prominent in our society. The ad speaks to this version of masculinity that can have negative consequences for men, their partners, and society. We need to be critical thinkers about what we’ve been taught about gender roles, not passive performers.
My approach to every topic for every person is to pause and gently ask about the triggered response. Do you feel offended? If so, why? Do you feel threatened? If so, why? What positive parts of you had to get left behind or rejected because they didn’t fit into what you were told was gender appropriate? What can you learn about yourself based on how you’re reacting to this, and is there any space for personal growth?
We are all trying to be the best versions of ourselves with the tools that we have. And reactivity, versus mindful responding, is a sign that there is something that has power over us. These moments are a great opportunity to pause and consider the above questions, and give ourselves the chance to be kinder humans.
I particularly like this one YouTube comment on the ad:
The comments on this video are disappointing. To critique is not to condemn. This is not a war against manhood. This is an invitation to improve. You might not agree with the message behind each scene. You might not like the messenger. But let's be mature enough to admit that some typically "male" behaviors are negative and that we should work to change them.
Right now our society defines us by gender roles. I think we should work to change and evolve all gender roles, so that instead of restriction and disconnection, they allow for growth and compassion. Hopefully these kinds of challenging conversations can help us all evolve towards being loving humans.
*(There is also the fact that Gillette is obviously using this as a marketing tactic, and they are just a company trying to make money. Yes. They are a big corporation that wants to make money, and no doubt, like many big corporations, they’ve made socially-harmful decisions. But they can be a marketing corporation and be making a positive impact in some ways. There is so much harm done by advertising, playing on human insecurities to motivate spending. Advertising already shapes our beliefs and impacts our zeitgeist. So I believe a company that is using their marketing dollars to try to make humans kinder and more aware, instead of insecure or selfish, is a social step in a positive direction. Most folks who care about challenging the status quo don’t have the power and reach that Gillette does to get this message out to the country.)
~Dr. Jenn Gunsaullus, Sociologist, Sexologist, Intimacy Speaker