Gillette ad controversy: what is it and what is it trying to say?

Advertisement is no stranger to controversy. Many of us will remember the banned Tango face slapping ad of our youths, or the KFC ad that drew criticism for depicting people talking with their mouths full. But none of those have reached the level of intense fervour as the latest adverts from razor company Gillette.

The ad, posted with the caption on Twitter ““Boys will be boys”? Isn’t it time we stopped excusing bad behavior?”, shows negative male behaviour, calling to mind bullying, the #MeToo movement, and everyday incidents of sexism. This has led a lot of people, including MRAs or “Mens Rights Activists”, criticising the ad for being anti-male and manipulative.

Apparently they really didn’t pay too close attention to what the ad was trying to tell them. The ad is not saying “men are bad”. Really, it’s giving men more credit than that. It is saying that men are better than outdated ideas of gender and that men can and should hold other men accountable for poor actions, and some men already do which is amazing, so that maybe the next generation can learn the right lessons. It’s a message about positivity, treating others well, and being the best person you could possibly be, a play on Gillette’s slogan of “The Best A Man Can Get”.

Overall, it’s a message that I would say is very empowering, and yet the backlash says that not everyone feels that way. Some people have been calling for a boycott and are posting pictures to social media of them throwing away their Gillette razors, not unlike the people who cut up or burned Nike clothes after the company made Colin Kaepernick, an NFL player who spoke out against racial injustice in America by kneeling during the national anthem, the face of one of their campaigns. It always seems to be lost on people who do this that they are damaging items that they themselves own, meaning that the company already has their money, so it doesn’t really send as much of a statement as they believe.

Some have also called the ad an attack on masculinity. To that I would say that if your idea of normal masculine behaviour is bullying, harassment, and assault, then that says more about you than it does about Gillette and maybe you are part of this problem. By addressing this topic in the public domain, yes, Gillette are selling their product and a controversial ad puts their name in more peoples’ mouths, but they are also causing us to have these conversations about toxic masculinity, and I think that is important.

Toxic masculinity is the aggressive stereotypes of what a man “should” be that is ingrained in various areas of society, emphasising restricting gender roles of men meaning physical strength, asserting dominance, and shunning weakness, things which in small ways are not inherently harmful, but nurtured under the wrong conditions can be. The damage that this does not only extends to bad behaviour against women, but also to men themselves.

I would just like to note here that I fully understand that gender and gender expression is a much more complex and fluid concept than the binary ideas of simply "male" and "female". I will however be talking about gender in those terms because that is what the ad is addressing.

When young boys are not held accountable for bad behaviour, the “boys will be boys” argument, it allows them to normalise that behaviour. It teaches them that they can get away with whatever they want, and over time that can then grow into violence and abusive mindsets. That is one of the most overt and aggressive forms that toxic masculinity can take, but it is also phrases like “man up”, “boys don’t cry” or insults like “girl” or “sissy” when young boys cry or show pain that can take an equally sinister route.

In equating emotions with weakness and being taught that weakness is a bad thing, it can lead to young men fearing speaking out about problems later in life, be they mental or even physical, which can be a contributing factor of male cancer progression and male suicide. It also makes men less likely to step forward in cases of abuse, something the Gillette ad directly addresses using footage of Terry Crews, actor and activist who spoke out about his own experience being groped at a Hollywood party.

Male suicide and sexual assault are both issues that MRAs like to jump to as proof that any ideas of men having unconscious privilege in life is false, and by extension of that toxic masculinity is nothing more than something made up by women to blame men for their problems, but they fail to realise that the systems and mindsets which are in place that cause these very serious problems were created and upheld by men, not women, and that is the active working power of toxic masculinity.

Are women capable of enabling and contributing to that mindset? Yes, absolutely. Are there women who police their own gender with aggressive ideas of what it is to be a woman? Yes to that as well, but that is a separate issue and it doesn’t pervade so many aspects of our modern culture in the same way that toxic masculinity does and that Gillette is trying to bring under scrutiny.

And it’s not all men, another favoured rallying cry of MRAs and another that rings false because nobody is saying that it is all men. Nobody genuinely thinks that all men are aggressive abusers and misogynistic bullies or that. The point is that too many men are, and we all have a role in stopping that whether it’s speaking out about our experiences, holding people we know accountable, or just setting a good and respectful example for young boys.

I believe that this Gillette advert is a well-made and powerful statement of making society a better place for everyone, regardless of gender, and if it makes just a few people look at their lives and realise ways that they can make a change, then it’s done its job.

If you want to contribute to helping men in difficult situations, help that doesn’t consist of trying to flush a razor down a toilet, here are some charities that I hope you will consider giving to:

CALM- Male Suicide Charity

ManKind- Helping men escape domestic abuse

Crisis- Together we will end homelessness

Prostate Cancer UK

Orchid- Fighting Male Cancer

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