Gillette, the razor company, has released an advertisement calling on men to abandon traditional masculinity. Masculinity, we are told, is toxic.
In this post, I intend to explain the meaning of the ad itself and then show what’s wrong with Gillette’s vision of manliness.
A Slight Detour
Before we get into the Gillette ad, let’s take a short detour to consider how to understand an advertisement.
In 1983, Apple ran an ad called “1984,” introducing their the Macintosh computer. The commercial has been hailed as a masterpiece of advertising.
When I first saw it, years later, my reaction was “what was that?” There are a few pieces of context that are really necessary to understand the meaning of the commercial. In the eighties, Apple expected their intended audience to “get it,” but today it might need some explaining. First, the year 1984 was made famous years in advance by a novel named “1984,” which gave us the character of Big Brother as a symbol of totalitarian government. Second, one of the major themes of dystopian science fiction, starting with 1984, had been oppressive conformity. Third, in the early 1980’s, IBM introduced the IBM PC, which quickly led to a host of PC-compatible computers. The compatibility of these computers provided great efficiency, since the same software would run on all of them. But some people felt that this conformity was stifling innovation. This is the context in which Apple kicked off the Mac vs. PC debates. Their ad suggested that the Macintosh would save the world from the oppressive conformity of the IBM PC clones.
When it comes to understanding advertising, sometimes context is necessary. This is true of Gillette’s new, controversial ad, “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be” I invite you to give it a watch, if you haven’t yet.
It is possible to watch the commercial and still not quite “get it.” Despite running nearly twice as long as the classic Apple ad and featuring abundant narration, Gillette’s new spot is never completely straight forward about what it’s saying. It’s hard not to suspect a bit of corporate cowardice even as Gillette offers up a brave, new world of masculinity.
Just as you need to know about the book 1984 and the PC computer to understand the old Apple ad, you need some context to understand this Gillette spot. Here are the highlights:
- Wave after wave of feminism – Feminism has been attacking the distinction between men and women for generations. The narrative is that traditional ways of recognizing gender are oppressive, and that this oppression has been carried out for the benefit of men at the expense of women and of society in general.
- Masculinity is toxic – America, with it’s highly refined consumer life and highly controlled environments, tends to see masculinity as unnecessary and inconvenient. Men don’t shy away from conflict. Men possess strength and have a disconcerting willingness to use it. All of this seems so unnecessary while we are shopping at Nordstrom. We don’t need men to protect their families, that’s why we have police officers. And wouldn’t it be much more convenient if high school boys were more like high school girls?
- #MeToo movement against sexual harassment – A society that simultaneously embraced feminism and the sexual revolution has produced widespread sexual victimization of women. Men ruled by lust have done terrible things, and we are all disgusted by it. Faced with the need to condemn lustful men, the sexual revolutionaries have decided to focus on the men rather than on the lust.
- APA guidelines – The American Psychological Association recently announced new guidelines for dealing with men based on “…40 years of research showing that traditional masculinity is psychologically harmful.”
Analyzing the Commercial
What exactly do we see and hear in this new Gillette commercial? Let’s break it down. First, various men look at themselves in the mirror in distress, while hearing the phrases “bullying,” “#MeToo movement against sexual harassment,” and “toxic masculinity.” This communicates men undergoing painful introspection, as they are literally taking a hard look at themselves in light of “toxic masculinity.”
Then we cut to a Gillette ad from decades ago, because Gillette has been doing some soul searching, too. Their previous advertising has been part of the problem. We see this symbolized as a horde of “toxic masculinity” comes crashing out of the projector screen on which the old ad is displayed.
Next, we are shown a cavalcade of toxicity, including social media bullying, sexual harassment and violence. Well, actually no, it doesn’t show violence; it shows running, which stands in as a symbol of violence. Even a brief moment of realistic violence would apparently be too edgy for Gillette.
The climax of the commercial’s presentation of bad behavior is suburban dads standing behind barbecue grills saying “boys will be boys,” as two young boys fight. The surreal image of an endless line of dads and barbecues is the darkest point of the commercial because it represents the transmission of traditional masculinity from one generation to the next.
Then the news reports of sexual harassment start coming in and everything changes. The music transitions from tense and uncomfortable to exciting, stirring and noble. Men began acting as heroes before our very eyes, and more importantly, before the eyes of their sons.
The Gospel According to Gillette
Throughout the commercial, the voice over gives us the gospel according to Gillette. They are going to give us what they intend to be at least partial answers to some of life’s fundamental questions.
- What’s wrong with the world?
- What’s the solution?
- What is our destiny?
Before we go on, I’ll point out that these are some of the fundamental questions that every religion must answer. These are deeply philosophical, but also deeply practical. How you answer these questions determines how you live and what kind of person you will be.
The truth is that we were created by God, sin is what’s wrong with the world, Christ is the solution and his final triumph is our destiny. But Gillette suggests an alternative view.
“We can’t hide from it,” the narrator informs us, “It’s been going on far too long. We can’t laugh it off, making the same old excuses. But something finally changed, and there will be no going back. Because we? We, believe in the best in men.”
In case you’re having trouble connecting the dots of these slightly veiled statements, this is Gillette’s endorsement of the feminist narrative of history. When the voice over says “it” has been going on for too long, what is the “it?” How is violence and bullying and sexual harassment a single issue? The “it” is maleness. Men are the problem, but don’t worry, they can be reformed! At thebestmencanbe.org, Gillette clarifies that they are calling for “a new era of masculinity.”
If men are the problem, what is the solution? In Christianity, Christ himself redeems us by his transforming power. But in the gospel according to Gillette, the solution is a new commitment to morality. Men need to repent, and dedicate themselves to a new moral code in order to justify themselves and save society.
And what is our destiny, will humanity struggle against sin until Christ comes and makes all things new? Why, no! The #MeToo movement represents a turning point in history, it’s the catalyst that will awaken the internal goodness in the human spirit. As the narrator says, “there will be no going back,” instead we will welcome ourselves into a glorious new stage of history.
So then is the Gillette commercial “merely” a matter of garden-variety moralism? Moralism, which encourages people to trust in their own good intentions rather than in Christ, is a soul-jeopardizing danger. But is that all that Gillette is guilty of? Actually, no. Because the morality Gillette encourages is not true morality at all.
Gillette is lying about traditional masculinity
Contrary to what some have written, Gillette’s message is not “bad things are bad.” The razor company’s message is that “traditional masculinity is bad.” It is not an ad decrying bullying, violence, catcalling and chauvinism. It is an ad condemning traditional masculinity as being responsible for bullying, violence, catcalling and chauvinism.
Modern sensibilities would immediately detect and reject any condemnation of womanhood as bad, even in the face of long lists of typically feminine shortcomings. We don’t allow any recitation of typically feminine weaknesses to be used as a condemnation of women as women. And we shouldn’t allow it. Why then is our society prepared to accept a condemnation of men as men? It is true that men are more likely to engage in violence. Women are more likely to hire it out. So what? The thing to condemn is the covetousness, the envy and the out-of-control passions that lead to violence.
To deal directly with the accusation that Gillette is making, namely, that traditional masculinity is the root of male misbehavior, I must make a defense of traditional masculinity. This is not especially difficult, but there is some subtlety involved. No tradition of masculinity is perfect, but then, Gillette isn’t attacking a particular tradition of masculinity, they are attacking every tradition of masculinity. They are attacking the very notion of a tradition of masculinity.
If we speak of tradition, we must differentiate between the specific traditions of particular cultures and what we might call the universal human tradition. Specific traditions are always flawed, they all have their blind spots. But modern man likes to pretend that he can improve on the universal human tradition with new ideas. In reality, man has no new ideas, he has only what he has always had: the same universal standard, and his own particular blind spots.
One of the particular blind spots of our culture is the idea that men would be better, if only they were more like women.
What should a tradition of masculinity be, ideally? It should be an acknowledgment of the divinely intended role of men (as distinct from women) in the design of creation. What do men add to the picture and how can they fulfill the intent of their own design? That is the question that every particular tradition of masculinity is seeking to answer.
Traditional masculinity means cultivating strength and eschewing weakness. It means ability and activity. It means having the wisdom to know what needs to be done, and the discipline to get it done. It means developing a mastery of one’s self and one’s surroundings. The ideal man is powerful, passionate and self-controlled.
In traditional cultures around the world, men have condemned violent temper, unrestrained lust, and shortsighted greed as weaknesses in a man. These are not the things that build empires, they are the rot that makes them collapse. These are not the motivations that build fortunes, they are the impulses that squander them. It doesn’t take modern sensibilities to recognize these things as deviations from the ideal, the ancients have recognized it. Just because no man and no society has ever measured up to the ideal doesn’t mean that no one ever noticed.
How Gillette hopes you will respond
First, obviously, they hope you will abandon traditional masculinity. Stop teaching boys to be strong, that’s for girls. They hope you will allow radical feminists and transvestites to teach your boys the subtleties of being a real man. They hope that surrendering manliness will usher in the era of virtue and happiness we’ve all been waiting for. And they hope you’ll buy some razor blades.
But suppose you’re not ready to follow them into this new era? In that case, they hope you’ll have mixed feelings about the message and the images they’ve presented. They hope you will at least partially accept the lie that masculinity is toxic. They hope you’ll be suspicious of men and manhood. They hope you’ll try hard to identify what crosses the line as “too much” manliness. They hope they have created an association in your mind between traditional symbols of manliness, like barbecue grills, and the behaviors you hate, like catcalling and violence. They hope that ten years from now, you will see a man acting in a typically manly fashion and just feel slightly icky. All the better if you can’t even remember why it makes you feel icky.
How I hope you will respond
Instead of falling partially or wholly for the lie, I hope you will see what Gillette is up to, and reject it in its entirety. As I said before, they aren’t condemning bullying in this ad. They are attempting to manipulate us by using the way everyone already feels about bullying to make us feel bad about teaching boys to aspire to manliness.
I hope you will notice that political correctness is rotten to the core. For instance, modern Americans are careful not speak ill of women as women, which is good. But if this good action flowed from a deep commitment to moral truth, you would expect it to transfer easily to a rejection of a commercial that condemns men as men. After all, the same principle of justice is at stake. The fact that this carefulness doesn’t transfer, tells you that the commitment is to something else. The commitment is sexist. Here we all thought we were avoiding sexism, when what we were actually doing was walking around with this nagging sense of “woman good, man bad.”
I hope you will start meditating on the word of God that addresses differences between men and women. The scripture should be our source of understanding for these things. Let God describe the role he intends men to play in his creation. Let’s allow him to tell us the responsibilities men have towards their families and communities. We’ve lost sight of much the role that men are to play in society. The result is that men are unfulfilled and women are un-cared for. If America’s men and women will give up their own ideas and submit to God, he will help us rebuild what is broken.