Maybe it was the opportunity to debate anything but Brexit, but the January 2019 release of Gillette’s new advert ‘Believe’ was a hot topic among my friends.
The advert, released only in the US but sparking enough controversy to propel it out of America and across the pond, challenges their long established slogan ‘The best a man can get’, with the razor blade company affirming their belief in ‘The best a man can be’. Intended to be an indictment of the culture of toxic masculinity and a plea for men and boys to hold one another accountable in order to support ‘a new generation working toward their personal ‘best’’, the advert uses clips of behaviour including mansplaining, bullying, sexual harassment and fighting interspersed with news clips related to the #metoo movement. As the advert progresses, it shows men stepping in to challenge this behaviour and calling it out.
While, admittedly, I am easily taken in by clever ad campaigns, I found the advert moving and welcome. That said, there are legitimate debates to be had about companies seeking to profit through alliances with specific causes and also legitimate questions about Gillette’s arguably sexist ‘pink tax’ which has seen shaving products packaged to appeal to women costing more than those marketed at men. I am therefore open to critique of the advert, both in questioning the appropriateness of Gillette being the company to release it and in the way in which the advert has been put together. What I do not accept criticism of, is the message the advert is trying to put across, and the importance of challenging the concept of toxic masculinity more broadly.
In the outrage media environment we all live in, it is not surprising to see the more extreme reactions issues like this can provoke and, quite frankly, there is a reason the ‘mute’ and ‘block’ buttons exist on twitter. However, I was surprised by the offense taken by some of my millennial male friends (who I would otherwise have assumed to be more ‘forward thinking’ people) who saw this as further evidence of what they perceive as a ‘war on men’. They didn’t see toxic masculinity as something holding both men and women back.
It was this radical difference in outlook that most concerned me, how can we seek to achieve ‘balance for better’ if we are starting from such fundamentally different perspectives? How do we bring men on board, both in terms of acknowledging the toxicity out there and being pro-active in helping to achieve a more equal footing between men and women, for the benefit of both genders?
A quick glance at the comments section on any article or tweet on this issue (or even a broader range of feminist issues) will quickly reveal the number of people committed to opposing the idea that there is such a culture. ‘There are toxic people, not toxic masculinity.’ ‘This is just ‘PC’ run amok.’ ‘Men aren’t allowed to be ‘men’ anymore.’
It may help at this point for me to explain what we actually mean by toxic masculinity. To me, this refers to socially constructed attitudes which ascribe particular characteristics to the masculine gender role. These characteristics may include ‘aggression’, ‘violence’, ‘lack of emotion’. The impact of these attitudes in society is both conscious and unconscious, and their role has been identified in everything from a lack of gender parity in the workplace through to the crisis of suicide rates among men and the epidemic of mass shootings in the US.
In fact, the sheer pervasiveness of this concept may account for some of the backlash; people don’t want to consider that these commonly accepted attitudes may be perpetuating a system which can lead to such dire outcomes for men and women.
But acknowledging that toxic masculinity exists and plays an influential role in our lives and in society is not the same as being accused of perpetuating the subsequent action. Acknowledging that these attitudes are a fundamental part of our society is in fact a really important part of changing them. That is because, once we recognise these behaviours at a macro level, we start to notice all the smaller actions and comments which help to feed into that bigger picture. By noticing these, we can start to call them out and it is this process which will ultimately lead to change.
This is why I will continue to defend the Gillette advert. Not only because it started important conversations on this issue, but because, for all the criticisms, it does focus on the change which is needed in order to create a better future for all.
However, any potential change will rely on all of us reaching a common understanding about existing cultural attitudes and their impact on society as a whole. We are still a long way from this shared point of view but if we are to achieve balance for better, and become the best we all can be, finding a way to bring more people together on this point must be a priority.
IWD is an opportunity to build on the progress that has been made towards gender parity and to celebrate the achievements of women on a global scale. This year, #BalanceforBetter.