Gillette & Toxic Masculinity
A Positive Message or an Attack on Men?
If you read the news or participate in social media, you have no doubt seen the phrase "toxic masculinity." If you haven't, the concept is simple on the face of it: behaviors and expectations of what a "real man" is that cause or increase likelihood of harm for self and/or others. The is an ad produced by Gillette that has taken the internet and news media by storm in the last two days that attempts to highlight "toxic masculinity." Here's the rub: what the hell does that mean? Why do we even care?
Why Dads Should Care
Boys or girls, biological, step or adopted, uncle, grandpa or just mentorship-related; we influence children and adults through our interactions and through our value systems. These value systems are held in close connection to our self identification. We define ourselves through our values, and our values should influence our actions. As we hold these values so closely, we tend to try and pass them on to others. If the values have served us well (or more accurately, when we perceive that the values have a positive influence on our lives) we want share our beliefs so others can have our success. What if our values are actually holding us back or causing other harm? That is the reason why we should care about this "toxic masculinity" discussion.
It is far too complicated cover all of this in a single post, but lets take a quick look at what is going on in this ad and what we can do; perhaps more importantly - should we do anything?
Gillette - The "Mens" Company that Jumped into the Discussion
In the last two days, my news feed has been swamped by reports and discussion on this advertisement by Gillette (a company that makes razors and other personal care products for both men and women) which "calls out" the "toxic" behaviors of men. I suggest you watch it for context for the rest of this post.
Gillette "Toxic Masculinity" Advertisement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=koPmuEyP3a0
Welcome back. How are you feeling? Happy? Sad? Confused? Angry? I felt all these things. It is a complicated and emotional topic. Look at the stats on the video (again this is just the last 2 days):
The comments on the video are quite "enlightening" as well. Wade into the comments with care - they are not known for their "depth" but they give a good reading on a commentators emotional state at the time.
The initial gut reactions are telling. Large numbers of men feel attacked and respond negatively. Why wouldn't they? The question is: Are the feelings justified?
What is masculinity?
Hell of a question, isn't it? I will take a stab at, though.
Think of belief and action systems that are often held up as "good and virtuous" or as the highest forms of "masculinity": a "classic/old school gentleman," the "chivalrous knight," or the "hardworking father." All of these share common threads - responsibility & bravery among them. Think of the actions and believes these archetypes, the typical example of a thing, tend to have: kindness and consideration to others, forgiveness, mentorship/leadership, resoluteness, protectiveness, and strength in the face of adversity. (Disagree? Feel free to say so in the comments!) Each of these requires one to have both a sense of responsibility to act and bravery in order to live up to these concepts.
With this idea of "masculinity" in mind, does the commercial attack those things? Spoiler alert: no. The ad doesn't attack any of these concepts; rather it highlights and encourages these concepts. I am thinking of breaking it down scene by scene but that a bit long for today - let me know if you would be interested in more commentary on this ad.
So if the ad was mostly positive, why so much backlash?
Where it went Wrong (for me)
I can identify nearly every scene, but the one that stood out the most for me was the scene with the two boys 30 seconds into the ad. The narrator says "making the same old excuses" and the video cuts to two young boys "fighting" (more on that in a moment), then the dads standing idly by the grill repeating "boys will be boys" over and over again. The narrator continues, "but something finally changed," and a news caster talks about accusations of sexual assault. It was at this point that I had my negative emotions.
The preceding scenes made me sad - bullying, sexual harassment, party culture, the "sitcom dad" attacking the maid, the board room guy using power and authority to silence the woman and "assume" her thoughts - these are situations that I believe represent harmful beliefs and actions. I was on board and supporting the message thus far; there are elements in our culture (and specifically in the culture of men) that are wrong and need to be confronted.
Then the "fight scene." I became confused. I fell attacked and my mind went into defensive thoughts. I have two young boys and they do this all the time. Am I a bad parent? The narrator set it up - "making the same old excuses." What excuse am I making for my two sons when they fight? "Boys will be boys." I believe that boys DO have certain tenancies, and whats wrong with that. "Finally something changed," "sexual assault," "sexual harassment," berated me, the vision of my two sons wresting on the ground still in my mind. I became angry, and it clouded my view of the ad completely. Here's why:
Attack on a Core Belief
The scene, unlike the rest, lacked clarity. We see the two boys, of similar size and age, start to tussle. No context. Just a yell and down they go. From my perspective, I see two "boys being boys." To me, that is a thing - my sons like to wrestle with each other. They love to wrestle with their dad! This sort of play is not negative or "toxic," not any more than baby chimps or lion cubs tussling in nature. It gives an opportunity for my children to play and discover things, learn lessons, and connect with each other. Such play fighting or sport cannot be the entirety of a persons existence, as that would have a negative effect for sure, but in measured amounts, it serves to be a teaching tool; teaching about self, others and the world.
A child has a toolbox of skills they can use solve conflict. The younger one is, the far fewer the available tools. One of the earliest tools is physical action. That physical action can take many forms: one could walk away, one could sit still, or one could attack another. The youngest attacks his brother on a regular basis, as the oldest is quite astute in driving the little one to "madness." And generally, I let them fight. Why?
It teaches them something. I am not completely laissez faire a la "Lord of the Flies" - I am monitoring my children. I am not stepping in right away though. If I step in EVERY TIME they have a physical confrontation my sons learn one thing: if we fight a parent will stop us. While this seems like a good lesson, but is it? To stop every fight at the earliest sign of conflict prevents them from exploring conflict resolution in a most critical situation - after violence has started. What happens when we apply this to the larger world, where there are no parents to step in at all times? My sons do NOT learn to avoid physical confrontation, the learn to avoid getting caught. They do NOT learn that physical solutions often extract more in cost than in reward, only that violence will make parents become involved. They do NOT learn how to de-escalate violence or violent action, they learn others will de-escalate the situation for them. They might never learn there ARE times when violence is necessary, and that even in those cases, there is a cost.
By allowing them to fight (supervised) they are actually developing their ability to make judgments and to reach agreements. They learn (the eldest already knows, as he does it on purpose) that you CAN push someone to violence through non-violence. There is a level of teasing, harassment, or just plain "button pushing" that will make violence justified in the mind of another. That is not the same thing as saying the justice is justified - only that it becomes justified to the other person. That is a VERY important lesson. It re-enforces civility and respect. They also learn that violence has consequences. Not just physically, though physical consequences have occurred; bruises, scrapes, bumps and cuts have all happened.
More often than not the consequence is social, not physical. It could be a consequence within their relationship; they are far less likely to participate with one another after a significant fight. Less likely to share both physical possessions and knowledge. They are less likely to be trusted. It causes all sorts of problems. I notice the fight and I remember for the next time they ask me for something and then I remind them that those that fight do not get rewards. All of this helps teach that violence has long term consequences.
Justified vs Unjustified Violence
I have heard people say " no violence is justified," and I completely disagree. There are times when extreme violence is justified: self defense and the defense of others being the central pillar of that belief. More importantly, there is "unjustified" violence, and I think that was what Gillette was trying to highlight in their advertisement. They just did it poorly - there are time of justified violence and without context it is impossible to determine if this either of the cases.
Indiscriminate violence is bad, we can all agree. Some violence might be justifiable - but how do we learn that? Through conflict as a child TEMPERED by the guidance and wisdom of adults. Interaction is key - to never intervene is tantamount to abuse, but some risk must be taken in order to allow experiences to happen. Once those experiences happen, it is our responsibility to provide context beyond the immediate situation so that they can learn to apply the experience to the larger world.
Where else can we see justified violence? In sports. In many ways sports are the way in which modern societies find a way to allow physical action to manifest itself in a positive manner. Extreme examples are the martial arts (MMA, Boxing, Karate), less extreme is football, wrestling or rugby, but these are violence, make no mistake about it. What makes these justified vs unjustified violence? Agree upon rules and consent to engage in the activity. That is the lessons we need to teach, and by having "zero tolerance" for all physical violence we take away the ability to have learning experiences. Without these experiences (and the guidance from our role models) we cannot understand the world and how we should interact in it.
Gillette Actually Gets it Right - They just did it Wrong.
A minute later we see the resolution of the fight - the dad steps in and says "that's not how we treat each other, okay?" Small problem, i can hear the kids giggling. Maybe that's my subconscious hearing what I want to hear, but I don't hear complaints, screams or protest. I hear two kids having fun in a physical way. Two boys being boys. That's what touched the nerve. I won't lie, it took some introspection to fully understand the "simple" feeling of anger at this scene. It takes introspection and self reflection to unpack all of that. Going though the exercise is good and has allowed me to better grasp concepts I am teaching to my children.
If Gillette wanted the ad to be a conversation piece, they have succeeded. Overall, the message is positive and one that dads can support. Kindness and consideration to others, forgiveness, mentorship/leadership, resoluteness, protectiveness, and strength in the face of adversity. Each scene in the ad highlights at least one of these concepts as being positive (or conversely, a scene shows that lacking these virtues leads to negative results) and that is a huge takeaway.
Is that the only takeaway? The idea that some ways of acting are bad? Hardly. To me there is a much larger message that is getting ignored in this discussion of outrage - positive male role models are critical to the development of strong men. That's for a different post though.
Let me know in the comments below what virtues you are teaching your children or mentorees; or let me know if you think the commercial was actually an attack and where it went wrong.