What’s With the New Gillette Ad?
By now most of us have seen the new Gillette ad put out over the last week. Apparently, people feel strongly about it. Many people applaud with an, “Its about time,” while others are wildly upset and feel that it depicts men as evil villains. But what is in the commercial and what is the main point?
First off, whenever I see an ad or commercial that sets off this sort of firestorm reaction across the interwebs, I always ask myself, “who is the marketing genius who came up with this idea”? After all, there is no such thing as bad publicity, right? Let’s not kid ourselves, sales and money are always the first thought when these ads are created. To be sure, a secondary motive might be creating social awareness, but this is a corporation after all. Their job is to boost sales.
Second, I think the commercial did a great job of grabbing our attention with emotional images: physical and emotional bullying, sexual harassment, and complicit bystanders who choose not to step in. These depictions are meant to be unsettling. Most people have either experienced bullying and sexual harassment first hand, know of someone who has, or fear that their own children might go through these experiences. The images are personal. Aside from identifying the victims (women, girls, and other boys), it also identifies the perpetrator. This is where accelerant is doused on the conversation.
Visually, we all see the common denominator – males. Boys and grown men. Is this the intention of the commercial? To broad-brush the male gender as being the lone perpetrator in these harmful depictions? Common sense and social experience tell us otherwise. Many times females are the culprits in domestic violence, on-line bullying, mean-girl tactics, verbal and physical abuse, and using sexual aggression to harm and control others (think female teachers who seduce and molest male students). So, it goes without saying that bad and inexcusable behavior crosses both genders.
The real culprit here is not all men. Guys chill out. The real culprit is embedded in the phrase, “toxic masculinity.” But, what is toxic masculinity? Social psychologists say it’s the idea that males have been socially shaped to be aggressive, violent, oppressive to females, insensitive, and unempathetic. These expressions of masculinity, social they say, are indeed toxic and responsible for actions including sexual harassment, rape, “mansplaining” (attempts to demonstrate intellectual superiority over females by “speaking for women” or talking down to them), bullying, violence, aversion to crying, and ridiculing other males who appear or act “feminine.”
Many men that come to my practice recall one or many of these traits, witnessed in their fathers, brothers, or friends growing up. So, we cannot deny that there has been a certain machismo and chauvinism that has been intertwined in the male social experience in the last few generations (and ongoing). In fact, many of these traits continue to become normalized. So, the fact is that men cannot deny that the depictions in the Gillette are true (although the dads watching the boys fight at a barbecue and not stepping in was pretty cheesy and unrealistic). But is this true of all men? Is it possible that the majority of men are getting blamed for the actions of a few? And if so, does that explain the intensely emotional reaction from many of the men who’ve seen the ad?
Traits vs. Behavior
I think we need to narrow the discussion, however, from critiquing male (biological) traits to certain male behaviors (cognitive and willful). For example, being forward or sexually assertive doesn’t equate to harassment and assault. One is a trait, the other is a behavior. Many men are sexually assertive and are not in the habit of harassment or assault. Likewise, being protective doesn’t equate to violence or abuse. One is a trait, the other is a behavior. Many men would gladly put someone in the hospital in order to protect someone from danger or violence while at the same time showing kindness in their everyday lives.
These distinctions are important because it gives us the context as to why bullying, targeting, harassment, and abuse are so awful. It’s not the tool (trait), it’s what you do with it (behavior). A scalpel versus a sword. So, this is really a conversation about willful choices by men, not about masculine traits.
The last thing that stuck out to me about the video is the call for men to hold each other accountable. The call is to use the inherent trait of protectiveness to help those around us. To stick up for those being bullied, to protect women, to step up, and man up. This actually happens more than men get credit for. Unfortunately, the bad can grossly outweigh the good. #Metoo created a needed and relevant conversation. As a father of two girls, I listen. I am keenly aware of their need for protection and education about the world around them. I will gladly be a part of that. That’s why this conversation is so important – because its about people not just ideas. Men, don’t let the current climate of identity politics prevent you from seeing the work that needs to be done. This should not be about changing masculinity. It’s about changing behavior. So man up.