This month, the razor company Gillette released a television commercial that plays off its signature tagline” “the best a man can get.” In the ad, a voiceover highlights the role of toxic masculinity in our culture, focusing on issues such as bullying and sexual harassment before moving onto the #MeToo movement. It ends on a positive note, showing how men can hold other men accountable and be role models for boys. The ad is part of a new campaign by Gillette that acknowledges that “brands, like ours, play a role in influencing culture… we have a responsibility to make sure we are promoting positive, attainable, inclusive and healthy versions of what it means to be a man.”
Somewhat predictably, the commercial set off an avalanche of criticism from those who felt that any criticism of men or masculinity was wrong. Some even called for a boycott of Gillette, based on what they felt was an advertisement that degraded men. Most of those who were angry about the ad missed its central point: that men deserve better than what society assumes of them with cliches such as “boys will be boys.” The commercial is not denigrating men. Instead, it is asking men to let go of toxic masculinity and uplift healthy forms of masculinity, such as interceding when other men are catcalling women or standing up against bullying. That isn’t slamming men — it’s the opposite. It is saying that men are capable of so much more than what our culture assumes.
The backlash against this commercial came on the heels of anger over the release of new guidelines by the American Psychological Association. These standards linked traditional notions of masculinity to harmful behaviors like violence, mental health problems, and suicide. The science behind these guidelines is solid. We know that men who suppress their emotions are 30% more likely to die prematurely than people who regularly express what they are feeling. Men who repress their emotions also have an increased risk of depression, anxiety, aggressive attacks on others and self-harming behaviors. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the suicide rate for men is four times higher than it is for women. Yet despite these facts, there are those who would prefer to attack the American Psychological Association rather than examine the culture that causes so much harm to all of us — men included.
While there are a number of factors that drive the anger over the notion of “toxic masculinity,” one of the primary issues is the inability to distinguish between masculinity and toxic masculinity. It is important to remember that when we discuss “toxic masculinity,” we are not saying that all masculinity (or men!) are toxic. Instead, we are saying that a certain type of masculinity (the kind that says that boys don’t cry or that objectifying women is a good thing) is toxic. One way to understand this concept is by drawing an analogy to mushrooms. Poisonous mushrooms are just a variation on mushrooms. Their existence does not mean that all mushrooms are unsafe, but that one type of mushroom can be dangerous to consume. Similarly, when we talk about toxic masculinity, we are only talking about one variation of masculinity. We are not saying that all masculinity (mushrooms) are bad — just the one type that leads to harmful outcomes for women, men and children.
Ultimately, the Gillette ad, refreshing though it is, is a commercial, meant to sell razors. Gillette’s parent company, Proctor and Gamble, still advertises on shows where toxic masculinity is celebrated. We need to put in real work at a grassroots level to truly change our culture — and we can do that through groups like FAME, or by participating in Walk a Mile in Her Shoes. Together, we can make a difference!