author: mimi moustapha | contributor
Gillette has been on everyone’s social media feeds this past week as the result of an ad they released on Jan. 13 that went viral. Known colloquially as the toxic masculinity advertisement, the video shows clips of sexual harassment, cyberbullying, men making excuses that “boys will be boys,” and then encourages men to not only abstain from these behaviours, but also to stand up against them when they occur.
While the advertisement has received positive feedback from many, it also has received a wave of backlash. Not from people who point out that Gillette has benefited and perpetuated the unrealistic expectations that women are completely hairless (their advertisements would have you believe women use razors to shave the flowers off their legs), but largely from angry men.
Much of the backlash goes something along the lines of “not all men” and “What about male victims of sexual abuse?” Of course, if those men actually cared about male victims, perhaps they would have realized that the video actually featured former NFL player and actor Terry Crews, who came forward as a victim of sexual assault in 2017. These defensive reactions are typical anytime someone suggests men could improve their behaviour in some way (gasp!).
Some have also pointed toward the execution of this ad as the root of the problem, stating that most people are not receptive to messages that tell you how to act. They suggest that the message should have been conveyed in a more implicit manner. This, too, I have an issue with.
Discussion of this ad is almost always paired with the term toxic masculinity despite the fact that the term was only explicitly used once throughout the video. Many commenters and opinion pieces have made a point of criticizing this term as a means of criticizing the ad, arguing that there is nothing wrong with being a man. Of course, this is a complete strawman argument; conflating the term toxic masculinity with manhood as a whole is completely inaccurate. However, it seems futile to even mention this. Just like the question, “if feminism is about equal rights, why is ‘fem’ in the name?” It reeks of deflection and deliberate misrepresentation. Just like a person objecting to the fem in “feminism doesn’t actually care about the historical context of the feminist movement, Gillette critics don’t actually care about the nuances of the term toxic masculinity.
That is because features associated with toxic masculinity actually benefit men. To be clear, features of toxic masculinity, such as aggression and emotional repression, are certainly damaging to men as much as they are to women. However, in some ways, maintaining these qualities also advantage men. If nothing else, defending toxic masculinity is a means for upholding the status quo, which is considerably easier than trying to go against the system. To challenge any traits associated with masculinity means putting in considerable thought and consideration of one’s actions. Many men are actually aware of this, and it is reflected in their complaints such as “nowadays, you can’t even give a woman a compliment,” which basically boils down to “it is such a pain to have to consider the feelings of other people.” Never mind that women have long been an expected to focus on how others feel, even at their own expense.
In addition to the extra consideration, actually addressing that there are negative features associated with masculinity would have to be coupled with some sort of accountability. The stereotypes of men being naturally more physical and aggressive have provided much leeway for men to get away with verbal and physical harassment and sexual assault. From Brock Turner to Brett Kavanaugh, we’ve seen disgusting behaviour trivialized and dismissed with terms such as “locker room talk,” or the infamous “boys will be boys.” To defend these qualities as natural of men is to say that they cannot be held accountable for their actions, effectively absolving them of the responsibility to exert self-control. Furthering this narrative, men who don’t display these attributes are shamed for being wimps, or are compared to women. We see the consequences of this on the opposite side of the equation, where blame is redirected onto the victims for supposedly provoking or eliciting the violence or harassment.
Therefore, it is not surprising that when an established household brand like Gillette with a wide reach challenges men to take responsibility and hold each other accountable, it is met with harsh criticism. The main criticisms echo those of toxic masculinity, accusing Gillette of vilifying all men and portraying them all as the perpetrators, despite the many visuals in the ad of men helping other men or being good role models. Some argue that it is unfair for Gillette to target men specifically, as they face equally (or more severe) societal issues such as higher suicide rates. This is deeply ironic, though, as stereotypically “masculine” traits like self-reliance, toughness and not displaying vulnerability can result in isolation, depression and decreased likelihood to seek help – all contributors to suicide. If helping combat the societal issues that plague men was truly a priority, you would expect that these critics would actually be on board to move away from the toxic expectations put on men that exacerbate them. In addition, it should be noted that according to StatsCan, women are actually more likely to attempt suicide – men are, however, more likely to actually die from those attempts.
Ultimately, was one advertisement made by a razor company going to improve centuries of gender roles ingrained in our society? Obviously not, and if we are being honest, the only thing Gillette is likely to care about improving is their sales. Regardless, discussions about gender roles, sexism, and harassment aren’t disappearing any time soon. Of course, people who deliberately misconstrue concepts to derail valid criticisms don’t seem to be either.