(For those who haven’t seen the ad: here)
Strap in folks, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.
You know, every time I’ve gotten close to a political or social justice rant on this blog, I’ve stepped back for a few reasons. First, I don’t want to be yet another voice in the cacophony, shouting opinions nobody is likely to take seriously because of the flood of opinions already out there. Second, I don’t want this blog to become my own ravings about these issues and lose sight of why I’m here – to try to provide guidance and chronicle the life of a new writer and educator. Third, I just don’t like writing about this stuff. It makes me too angry.
But the gloves are coming off today, because I can’t believe what I’m hearing from other men and from people on social media.
Let me come out first as saying I am 100% in agreement with the message in Gillette’s recent “We Believe” ad/short film. If you haven’t seen it, the link is above – it’s a call-out of toxic masculinity and a plea for men to be better role models for the sake of the next generation of boys.
In order to not immediately lose credibility with people who found the ad offensive, I’d like to list a few of the most prominent arguments AGAINST the ad I found in social media, and to talk about why I disagree with them.
If you’re reading this as a person who was offended by the ad, I can only ask that you keep an open mind about what I’m going to say. Please, this is an extremely important conversation right now.
And as a side note, I’ll be using gender-binary terms “men” and “women” in this article. I apologize for not taking into consideration intersex, genderqueer, and other folks, but I don’t think this ad was aimed at them. And as another side note, I’ll be limiting my focus on the United States, since this is already shaping up to be a long post.
Here we go.
Argument 1: Gillette doesn’t give a shit about the MeToo movement; it’s just doing this to make money.
Of course this is somewhat true. People generally accept that all marketing strategies are driven by the financial bottom line and, no matter how relatable they may seem (or how woke, in this case), ads are always about generating attention and increasing purchases of products.
I feel like I’m seeing people online rationalizing why Gillette made this ad, when all I can think is, So what? Why does the reason for making this ad matter? What I’m interested in is the propagation of important messages to the public. If a newspaper were to air an op-ed about this very same topic, we could argue they’re only doing it to be controversial and appeal to certain groups of people who read their paper. Yeah, agreed. But again, so what?
I’m at a point in my life where every single message that comes out surrounding these important issues (whether I personally agree with it or not) is important to me. They inspire conversation, raise awareness, and allow for critical examination of our society and its norms. Especially in the case where a large, well-known company is backing the message instead of an easily dismissable fringe group… well, we can see the response online.
So, TL;DR: I don’t care what the reason is for Gillette making the ad; they could have made any number of noncontroversial ads for their products. I care that a company is supporting a message that allows us to critically examine our society.
Argument 2: This ad is attacking and stereotyping all men when only a small portion of men promote toxic masculinity.
There’s another implicit argument here – that men are tired of being under fire ever since the MeToo movement began – but I’ll handle that one a bit later. For now, let’s examine the idea of stereotyping men as being toxic males.
Now, as a neuroscientist I have an academically informed perspective on this. Let’s consider the idea of so-called “Implicit Bias”. If you haven’t heard the phrase, the idea is that, even in those who show no external signs of prejudice – even in people like me who like to pretend we’re super woke – there is always some degree of implicit prejudice.
There’s a series of tests you can take online (I’ll link it here) to determine implicit biases you might have. One of the test involves flashing pictures of stereotypically white and black faces, paired with positive and negative words. Most people – not just most white people, but also many black people and people of other races and ethnicities – will more quickly associate negative words with black faces and positive words with white faces. It happens on such a microscopic scale that you might not even be aware of your biases without taking the test.
Even then, you might wonder how much this implicit bias actually affects the experiences of black and white people (or men and women – isn’t that what we’re talking about, after all?) The simple answer I can give – which is backed by multiple studies I’ve read in college and courses I’ve taken – is that implicit bias can have enormous explicit repercussions. Consider a suspect cornered by the police who reaches into their pocket for their ID. There’s an actual implicit bias test on the site I linked where, instead of flashing positive and negative words between the faces, you’re flashed pictures of a device that might be a weapon or might be a phone or wallet. Can you guess which faces are more associated with the weapons?
What does all of this have to do with toxic masculinity and stereotyping? Well, you can feel free to take a third implicit bias test about men and women. The vast majority of society has some degree of implicit bias whereby they associate men with aggressiveness, anger, and confrontation, and women with passiveness, emotionality, and pacifism. These biases do filter into our society, whether or not we are consciously aware of them. Only by accepting our biases and working on them can we minimalize their impact on other people – and even then, we’ll never be entirely rid of them.
So, yes, all men (and all women, and probably many intersex people as well) have a stereotype of masculinity which they implicitly promote in young boys. And you might be asking, if women are also promoting these stereotypes, why aren’t they coming under fire?
This one is simple. Men are the role models for masculinity in young boys. Boys will model what they see men do in their lives; they will look to men for acceptance and approval of their burgeoning masculinity. Women can promote implicit masculine biases towards boys, but with nowhere near the effectiveness of men.
We all do it – even if we think we don’t. We all carry biases and prejudices about masculinity. It’s not even an insult to say so – it’s something so common to human and even animal experience, it’s a given. But just because it’s a biologically ingrained habit doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be trying our hardest to adjust for it, and to bring up our boys outside of that stereotypical masculinity.
Argument 3: We men are tired of being targets for all these perceived social problems.
Well, here’s the thing. We’ve only very recently seen men as the targets of social issues like this. Second-wave feminism, in which gender norms and cultural inequalities were first being highlighted and men first started taking serious criticism from women, began in the 1960s. The real honest man-bashing didn’t happen on such a powerful, nationwide scale until the beginning of the MeToo movement (which, I might remind you, became popular in October of 2017 – less than two years ago).
Up until recently – and even if we go back to the very beginning of feminism and women’s suffrage, that’s only about two hundred years – men have never fallen under the crosshairs for perceived social problems. In fact, it’s been literally everyone else besides white men – African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans, Jewish people, Islamic people, the LGBTQ+ community, the Middle East, and other nations – who have taken the blame for society’s perceived problems.
We’ve gone two years with the burden of social issues, and we’re already cracking. Imagine the plight of other people who’ve had to deal with these issues for centuries, the pressure-cooker of prejudice informing their development, actions, and place in society.
Argument 4: But you can’t hold men accountable for atrocities committed in our grandparents’ time. We don’t do that stuff anymore, so we shouldn’t be catching shade for it now.
First off, yes we do. Remember implicit bias? We all continue to let our invisible prejudices inform our daily interactions with others. And if you want to tell me that at least we’re not lynching people or promoting rape culture, I can dig you up quite a few news articles and studies that suggest that’s not the case.
Argument 5: But it’s 2019 now, and we’re in a more socially aware era. Why should anyone – men, women, anyone – be a target for discrimination and hatred?
Well, I agree with you on the hatred part. I can’t look a black person in the eye and say, “I know my ancestors oppressed yours for centuries and that people like me are still holding you back from social equality, but would you mind not hating me?” I just don’t think it’s fair. But I do wish people could act without hatred.
On the other hand, I don’t think men shouldn’t be a target for discrimination. I think with the privilege most men feel, we have no idea what it’s like to face this kind of discrimination. Black men may know discrimination for their ethnicity; gay men may know discrimination for their sexual orientation. But none of us know discrimination for our sex and our gender identity.
And here’s the thing – societal discrimination is completely separate from discrimination caused by a specific person or group. If you’re walking down the street and someone calls you a slur, that’s an example of a person being discriminatory.
But (and this one goes out to all my fellow straight cis white males who honestly, truly have never known discrimination) there’s a completely different feeling of being discriminated against by society. It’s harder to get a job; your education can be lacking; your housing options are limited; you find yourself in a cycle of poverty and criminality that never ends.
Do all women face this? Of course not. Some women grow up with incredible privilege. But one thing they will never be able to shake is the pervasive discrimination of a (uh oh I’m saying it) patriarchal society against them. And every single man who denies it exists is just adding to it. We are the silent defenders of the status quo, where the status quo is meant to support men just like ourselves. And that, to me, is unacceptable.
But people are lazy and self-serving; the only way we’re going to make moves to defend people who aren’t like us is to feel a little bit of their burden. To share a little bit of that discrimination. So no, I don’t think it’s “right” for men to be discriminated against right now. But I don’t think it’s right for everyone else to be discriminated against as they have been for time immemorial and I happen to believe that, if men feel the burn a little bit, they might suddenly take an interest in these issues.
Or maybe they’ll continue to react with vitriol and aggression, as they have to the Gillette ad. Who the hell am I to say.
Argument 6: There’s nothing wrong with stereotypical masculinity as it stands now. It teaches boys to be go-getters, successful.
This is the argument that scares me the most. I mean, yeah, certain traits about masculinity are great. I personally think every person should feel comfortable standing up for themselves and asserting themselves when they need to. I also think a drive for success isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
But the problem is that the stereotypical male right now achieves at the price of others. They edge out the competition of those who, by nature of their own stereotypes which have been ingrained in them since childhood, cannot or will not compete. Women may no longer be taught to stay at home and take care of the children (except, oh yeah, some people do still teach that), but they’re not exactly encouraged to be CEOs and presidents.
And some things about the stereotypical male I do find very flawed. How many of us men can say that, at some point in their childhood, they were called a crybaby for reacting emotionally to something? The vast majority of boys are taught that the only emotions they can express are anger and competitiveness. This leads to emotionally unhealthy men who might think that the only acceptable solution to an emotionally complex problem is anger. And who do they take that anger out on? At least in part, they take it out on the “others” – women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people. It’s another tool in the oppression of those groups.
It’s not fair to men, the reinforcement of this stereotype. It’s unfair to them as it is to women. And that’s what’s hard for me to understand, if I’m being honest. A revitalized understanding of what it means to be a man – of the wonderful diversity of things men can be, feel, think, and say – could benefit ourselves as well as everyone else. It could ease so many social tensions.
So why is this ad getting attacked?
It’s a threat to traditional masculinity. It doesn’t hold back to hit where men have been hurting in the past few years. “Mansplaining” (God, I know so many guys who hate that term, and I used to as well); the “boys will be boys” mentality; explicit encouragement of violence and aggressiveness; dismissal of sexual assault; media portrayal of sex as conquest… we’ve heard about these things over and over again recently. It feels like the shitstorm never stops, like men are being blamed for so much.
Is this fair?
Well, you’ll have to decide for yourself. But it’s my opinion that, so long as we continue to promulgate harmful masculine stereotypes; as long as we refuse to accept and struggle with our implicit biases; as long as we continue to be the voice in power that doesn’t speak up for those without power… we do need to keep seeing these kinds of ads. We do need continued attacks on our masculinity. Because while the majority of people may hate what they fear, some people – some wonderful, open-minded people – will take that fear, that attack, and use it to learn about themselves. To improve about themselves.
I believe men can be better. I believe the first step is to accept our biases, and the subtle ways in which we harm ourselves and others.
I believe in you, readers. If you’ve made it this far without ragequitting or thinking what an ignorant lefty shithead I am, please see if even a small part of you agrees with what I’m saying.
I welcome discussion in the comments section as long as it doesn’t get super toxic. Please let me know how totally wrong I am if you feel that way.
Yours, with love to all men out there,