Recently I saw a fascinating ad by the razor producer Gillette that targets toxic masculinity by asking the question, “Is this the best a man can get?” The commercial paints a broad picture about the state of manhood, showing men engaged in bullying, mansplaining, and sexual harassment. The voices of media reporters can be heard in the background, breaking headlines about the #MeToo movement and past allegations of sexual harassment. The commercial shows a line-up of men, standing over the open flames of barbecue grills, repeating the age old excuse for adolescent misbehavior, “Boys will be Boys.”
The voice of the narrator turns hopeful: “We believe in the best in men.” The advert then cuts to a clip of Terry Crews, the stereotypical epitome of manliness, testifying before Congress saying, “Men need to hold other men accountable.” Gillette’s “short film” ends showing men preventing misogynistic catcalling, breaking up fights, and standing up against traditionally “masculine” behavior.
My first reaction to the ad was overwhelmingly positive. I thought it was impressive that a company was taking such a bold social position.
During the first 15-20 minutes of my work day – where I typically procrastinate on the day’s to-do list, while mindlessly scrolling through the news – I noticed a headline that struck me: “Backlash erupts after Gillette launches a new #MeToo Inspired Ad Campaign.” When I saw the words “backlash,” I immediately figured that feminist critics had found a flaw in the commercial. I watched the video again before clicking the link, looking for blind spots. Maybe Gillette should have been harsher on men? Perhaps people who lean towards progressive ideology thought it disingenuous for the company to take this position, given its anti-feminist history. In the past, some have accused Gillette of charging more for women’s razors compared to the same product for men.
But I was wrong about the type of backlash occurring. Feminist and liberal-leaning critiques of the commercial were few and far between. The backlash was coming mostly from older white men, acting aggressively defensive, claiming “Not All Men” – a phrase used as a defense to say that not all men are committing these toxic behaviors. Several conservative pundits had a field day with the ad, claiming that it makes all men out to be accusers, harassers, and rapists. Watch Piers Morgan bash the commercial as he angrily throws the razors down on the ground. Or, even better, check out the cast of the Fox News political talk show “The Five” fiercely dismantle the advert and argue that there is no such thing as toxic masculinity.
The backlash in response to this commercial allows us to see, in crystal clear picture, the divide between men on whether or not “toxic masculinity” truly exists. Many men do not believe that masculinity has reached a point to where it can be described as “toxic.” Further, it is unlikely that the same men and women critiquing the Gillette ad would believe in the concept of the patriarchy, which Bell Hooks describes in her book “The Will To Change” as:
“a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence”
4 or 5 years ago, I would have scoffed at that definition, and denied its validity. Perhaps I would’ve said, “But that’s not what I do!” It wasn’t until I came across Bell Hooks’ work in a men’s book club and support group that I began to understand the nature of the crisis men are facing today. The more I have learned about men through the reflection of my own experience and the scholarly opinions of feminist thinkers, I have become increasingly confused at the stark differences between male and female behavior. Consider these statistics on men and violence in the United States:
80% of arrests for violent crime
97% of arrests for mass shooting
98.9% of those arrested for forcible rape
87.9% of those arrested for robbery
People see these statistics and say that it is more natural for men to commit acts of violence. In her chapter on Stopping Male Violence, Bell Hooks explains, “Their violence is deemed ‘natural’ by the psychology of the patriarchy, which insists that there is a biological connection between having a penis and the will to do violence.” She continues, “This thinking continues to shape notions of manhood in our society despite the fact that it has been documented that cultures exist in the world where men are not violent in everyday life, where rape and murder are rare occurrences.”
I would argue that it is in the interest of “patriarchal psychology” for masses of United States citizens to believe that it is biologically natural for men to commit acts of violence. The patriarchy — our social and political system of male dominance and privilege — teaches young men to be tough, to not show emotions, and to act out violently to get what they want. The pent-up emotions that result in years of believing these values results in rage. This rage could be a major contributor to the problem of male violence, but it is also a helpful tool in our country’s pursuit of globalization and control. “This rage is needed,” Bell Hooks explains, “if boys are to become men willing to travel around the world to fight wars without ever demanding that other ways of solving conflict be found.”
Violence is only one piece of the complicated patriarchal puzzle. To begin to understand the patriarchy and its individual effect on the man, it is also important to examine the intersection between emotional abuse and manhood. Our earlier definition of the patriarchy included the term “psychological terrorism” which is used to describe the more covert tactics men use to silence and belittle women and other marginalized groups. We know, for example, that a woman is raped every 2 minutes in the United States. But the statistics bury a silent, prevalent issue: “The facts address actual physical assault and do not cover the widespread emotional abuse that has practically become an accepted norm in male-female relationships.”
An interesting fact is that men are almost always more likely to cheat on their wives. It makes me wonder if people would be apt to use the same defenses: that perhaps men are more naturally inclined to cheat because they are men. It seems as though these behaviors, like domestic violence, cheating, and crime, have become normalized and further strengthen the phrase, “Boys will be Boys.”
Men are at a crossroads on this issue and are not talking about the system of control that we both subconsciously and unconsciously uphold. Many men actively ignore it or claim that it does not exist, that it can’t exist. They will point to the advancements made by women in the workplace, or to the increasing numbers of men who are taking up more responsibilities in the care of children, or to the growing number of women being elected to Congress.
In addition, this blog post only looks at the issue from a white cis male perspective. It is true that the dynamics and negative qualities of the patriarchy effect same-sex relationships, transgender individuals, and people of color.
This Gillette ad points to a troubling divide among men in how they view themselves and the effect they have on others. On one side, we can see that the fortress of the patriarchy is well defended. On the other side, however, we can see that more men are courageously turning away from the allures of power and dominance and turning into themselves to discover what it truly means to be a man. In that respect, I think the ad highlights a powerful movement. But it’s going to be a long time before we find common ground.