If you throw a fit about the message here, you reveal little but your own insecurities and guilt.
The recent Gillette ad targeting patriarchal definitions of masculinity has already sparked backlash from conservative douchebags (hi, Piers Morgan!) and bratty, whiny “incels” and men who just, like, don’t understand why you hate all men, bro. What a surprise.
Recently, in a nonfiction class, my students read Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, and, even though she takes great pains to state some version of “#NotAllMen” approximately 347,000 times and to define specifically what kind of man she’s talking about, some of my male students felt attacked. Even some of the women in my class felt Solnit’s piece seemed too aggressive. (There were no anecdotes or data on other genders to cull from that section, so apologies for having to stick with the old binary here.)
My students were smart, often sensitive, frequently left-leaning people. Imagine how the average Trump voter feels when confronted with something like Gillette’s ad. For a bunch of He-Man Supremely Awesome Dudes, your average male sure seems fragile, and the way that fragility bleeds into some women’s outlooks illustrates how insidiously patriarchy works on all of us, constantly. And yet, in asking us to re-think what we mean by terms such as “man,” “men,” “masculinity,” “the best,” “boys will be boys,” and so forth, Gillette creates a vehicle for critical thinking and resistance. If only all commercials aimed so high.
Look, I’m not naïve. I know Gillette’s goal is to sell its product. I know the company’s past ads have hardly embraced a progressive vision of gender, sex, or sexuality. But in the wake of overt stupidity and supposed-to-be-ironically-funny-but-don’t-stick-the-landing ads like Dr. Pepper Ten’s bizarre “It’s Not for Women” campaign, Gillette’s commercial feels like a cool drink of water in July. And what are you guys (let’s do this: #NotAllGuys) so upset about, anyway?
The commercials open on images of several cisgender men looking introspective while audio clips mention terms like “bullying,” “sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement,” and “toxic masculinity.” A voiceover asks, “Is this the best a man can get?” Then we see a brief clip of an old Gillette ad using the same famous tagline. That clip ends with the image of a woman kissing a smiling, handsome guy on the cheek. Right away, the new commercial deconstructs the company’s traditional conflation of hyper-masculinity with heterosexuality and suggests that men have a lot of thinking to do about how that old conception of manhood relates to bullying and sexual harassment.
If you think there is no connection, you’re probably a CisHet man who has never examined his privilege. Did the commercial lose you so quickly? If so, have you asked yourself why you feel so defensive? Or do you believe you’re entitled to your outrage, as well as others’ bodies?
The commercial then takes those abstractions mentioned above and makes them concrete: a teenaged boy is chased by a mob of his screaming, enraged peers; a woman comforts a weeping child while bullying text messages (“FREAK!” and “Everyone hates you” and “Sissy,” et cetera) are superimposed on the screen; their television shows pop-cultural imagery reinforcing women’s roles as sexual objects. Then we move onto real-world situations so many of us have encountered—the sitcom that finds humor in men’s voracious sexual appetites; the mansplaining boss whose unwelcome touch and powerful voice make a woman feel small and devalued; a long line of men standing behind their grills, shrugging off a fist-fight between grade-schoolers and chanting “boys will be boys.” It’s just locker-room talk, right?
“Then something changed,” the narrator intones, and we see clips of sexual harassment allegations on the news. “And there will be no going back. Because we? We believe in the best of men.” Actor Terry Crews is shown testifying that “men need to hold other men accountable.”
Next, we see images of men actually holding other men accountable, or at least stopping their buddies from being jerks, as the narrator says, “To say the right thing. To act the right way.”
“Some already are,” we are assured, “in ways both big…and small. But ‘some’ is not enough, because the boys of today will be the men of tomorrow,” the voiceover concludes, and the ad leaves us with images of young boys who could grow up to be anything and anyone.
Look, it’s easy to dismiss this commercial as a zeitgeisty, cynical attempt to commodify a progressive moment. (Forbes has already dismissed it, from an advertising-strategy perspective that nonetheless reveals exactly the kind of male experience the author invests in.) But if you’re going to be offended by it, don’t claim Gillette is using “men” as code for “all” or “most men.” Like Solnit, the commercial specifies that some men are already doing good work. If you throw a fit about the message here, you reveal little but your own insecurities and guilt.
And what, exactly, are you in favor of? Bullying? Do you want to live in a world where children, never weaned from a steady diet of toxic masculine modeling, chase each other through the streets and beat each other in backyards? Value your own physical dominance over others, and you will always feel desperate to prove yourself over and over and over again until you are smashed to dust by stronger people or you look back on a life filled with bitter, broken possibilities.
Are you down with cyberbullying? Are you incapable of feeling empathy for kids who suffer anonymous, continuous attacks until their self-images are ruined or they commit suicide? Or are you so invested in being a Manly Man that any shred of weakness, even emotional vulnerability in the wake of constant assault, is antithetical?
Do you believe that women exist to serve you? Are you somehow more human than they are? Does your momentary desire outweigh their right to life, liberty, and happiness?
Let me answer this one for you, guys. Women are human beings, not objects or chattel. No woman owes you a smile, a conversation, an overlooked hand on the breast or the buttocks, silent subservience, or sex. If you are incapable of understanding that at a fundamental level, seek therapy. If you understand it but don’t like it, you’re an asshole, and you need to check yourself. The world isn’t wrong. You are.
No, if you want to be offended by the Gillette ad, then be offended because it makes men central to its narrative, even as it tries to deconstruct that ideology. “Something” didn’t happen to change things. Women—and, yes, forward-thinking male allies—happened. Whether through marches or movements or public office or legislation, women happened, just as they have been happening all along. The difference now seems to be that we’ve reached a tipping point where those who support them might—just might!—finally outnumber those who want them back in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant. Mothers, and fathers, are hopefully not just raising girls who know how to defend themselves and “avoid rape-y situations”; they are also raising boys who know not to rape or harass, not to bully and strike, not to expect intimacy as a right instead of an earned, mutual, equal privilege. Men are helping do all this, but women are leading, and while it’s fine that Gillette wants men to be the best they can be, it’s a bit disheartening how the commercial doesn’t do more to acknowledge women’s centrality to this cultural moment.
Not something, Gillette. Women.
If this ad offends your manhood; if you hate women so much you fear the commercial will “turn you into a sissy” (read: too traditionally feminine, thus too weak and oppressed); if you wish Gillette and women and writers would just shut up and let things go back to your twisted version of “normal,” you’re what’s wrong with the world.
Brett Riley is the Pushcart-nominated author of The Subtle Dance of Impulse and Light (Ink Brush Press) and the feature-length screenplay Candy’s First Kiss, which won or placed in five contests. His short fiction has appeared in journals such as Solstice, Folio, The Wisconsin Review, Red Rock Review, The Evansville Review, and many others. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @brettwrites.