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Earlier this week, Gillette dropped a new advertisement called “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be.” Well, you would think they had dropped a match in a puddle of gasoline.

Using all the slick production values a $17 billion corporation can muster—including a lush musical score and portentous voiceover—the ad directly affirms the #metoo movement. Scenes of men engaged in bullying and harassment culminate in a line of straight-faced guys stationed at backyard grills intoning “boys will be boys.” The ad then pivots with a brief snippet of a #metoo news reports. Voiceover: “But then, something changed. And there will be no going back. Because we? We believe in the best in men.” Next we see scenes of men intervening in bullying, breaking up two little kids fighting, and shutting down catcalling. “Not cool,” says a guy, as he holds his friend back from chasing after a woman on the street.  

Is it heavy-handed? Is it preachy? Sure. I mean, it’s got a title and everything.

Personally, though, I’m pleased to see it. You go, Gillette! Of course, not everyone feels that way. Some people are so incensed that they’re tweeting photos of their Gillette razors tossed into the toilet. [Note: don’t do this. You can’t flush a razor, so you are just going to have to fish it out again. Gross.]

I might sum up responses to the ad, roughly, like this.

Some men: You’re attacking masculinity! I’ll never buy your products again!
Other men: No, I think they’re just saying that men shouldn’t be a**holes.
Women: Thanks for asking men to hold other men accountable. We’re tired of doing all the accountability work here.

One objection to the ad, according to online comments and tweets, is that ads shouldn’t tell us what to do, they should just tell us about the products.

Sorry, but that is laughable. Ads are never just about the product. They draw on “social imaginaries” to trigger our desires and fantasies. They have always told us what to do, what to want, how to be. In a thirty-second ad, a husband surprises his wife with matching, gargantuan, GMC trucks, parked in the driveway of their splendidly stylish mansion. “I love it,” she says, jumping into the black truck. The husband is charmingly chagrined because the black one was supposed to be for him, the red one for her. This ad has no preachy voiceover, but it’s still meant to shape our values. We should aspire, it implies, to wealth, power, and freedom—all embodied in that home and those trucks.

Ads have always engaged in behavior norming, including gender behavior norming. Gillette, in this case, is just surfacing the usual implicit norming function of advertising, making it explicit.

It’s worth wondering why. One possible answer: profits. I don’t imagine that the ad is purely a gesture of moral altruism. No doubt it was heavily focus-grouped and based on extensive market research. Markets can be effective listening devices, and Gillette seems to have made its calculation about where the country is heading. A sufficient majority of our market, they have concluded, is moving toward disapproving of “boys will be boys.” Gillette wants their products out there on the horizon, where we’re headed. Apparently, their calculation is proving correct already.

Still, the objection that ads shouldn’t preach raises another question. Why get preachy now? Have we reached a place in American cultural life where the institutions of supposed authority have failed so utterly in upholding a common denominator of decent values that corporations feel they have to step in to become our moral teachers?

We’re supposed to learn values from our families, schools, churches. But when we look for models of admirable manhood, for example, in public life, what do we see in many of our male political leaders or church leaders? It’s painful to ponder.

The main objection to the ad—that it attacks masculinity—is easily answered. A criticism of toxic masculinity is not a criticism of masculinity. If you feel shamed by a shaving company, well, the ad is a call to self-reflection. Note all the shots of men looking in the mirror. The ad asks men to monitor their own behavior, hold other men accountable, use privilege wisely (as Kirsten Powers observes). And think of the children. The final shots depict a series of diverse young boys’ faces—and they’re all looking at you, man.

So exactly where is the line between “toxic masculinity” and masculinity in general? For a fair-minded and sensible consideration of that question, I suggest this article by Thomas B. Edsall of the New York Times, responding to the guidelines recently released by the American Psychological Association for working with men and boys. Edsall’s main point in the article is that Americans’ views on masculinity fall along political lines in rather fascinating (and not entirely logical) ways.

While examining some of the objections to and defenses of the APA guidelines, Edsall requests comments from a variety of experts, and what emerges along the way is a kind of masculinity sorting scheme. Some qualities typically associated with masculinity are “toxic” and damaging to men as well as women. Other qualities, however, add up to what we might call “noble masculinity.” Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker observes:

“One could argue that what today’s men need is more encouragement to enhance one side of the masculine virtues — the dignity, responsibility, self-control, and self-reliance — while inhibiting others, such as machismo, violence, and drive for dominance.”

As I read the more reasoned reconsiderations of masculinity in America, many from entirely secular thinkers such as Pinker, I’m struck by how consonant “noble masculinity” is with any good list of Christian virtues. It’s puzzling to me how some Christians hold so tightly to gender essentialism when Christian virtues aren’t gendered at all. The fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control. Love is patient and kind, not arrogant or boastful. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in the right. The seven heavenly virtues are faith, hope, charity, fortitude, justice, temperance, prudence. Men and women may, on average, fight somewhat different demons on the way to those virtues, but our destination is the same.

I’m grateful for those people who are calling the church to account where it has tolerated, protected, and even promoted distorted masculinity. We ought to have a much clearer picture of what redeemed humanity looks like than a shaving products company does. Do we?

Debra Rienstra

I am a writer, professor, amateur musician, science fiction fan, and lifelong member of the Reformed Christian tribe. I am also the mother of three children old enough now that I can’t tell you exactly where all of them are at the moment. For my day job, I teach early British literature and creative writing at Calvin College, where I have been on the faculty for twenty years and still need to pedal fast to keep (mostly) ahead of smart, feisty undergraduates. I have published three books, over a hundred essays for The Twelve, and numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers.

16 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Great stuff. Shaving with a razor is a very satisfying ritual. Maybe the closest many men get to Matins. So in a Jamie Smith sort of way, no wonder it’s ethically formative in a way that liturgy is supposed to be.

  • Jessica A Groen says:

    I still have not yet listened to the 2019 ad, only listened to various passionate opinions about it. Your essay is a wonderful and thoughtful addition to the commentary. Thanks for bringing it to us readers!

    The other day, a radio commentary on this ad played a clip of the old musical jingle that Gillette first used on their 1989 TV commercial: “You’re looking good, you’ve come so far . . . . Gillette! The best a man can get.” I hadn’t heard that tune in so long, but that is really what got me thinking about the continuity in their rhetorical purpose (promoting aspirational ideation of gender performance to an audience for rhetor’s purpose of profit). 2019 is same purpose as 1989, even though they are now banking on a pitch that updates these aspirations to a skill set beyond looking hot in whiteytighties while shaving, or strong and successful in threepiecesuits and tracksuits

    Your final question to Christ-followers, anchored to the “we ought” in the sentence preceding, is so important and powerful. I keep hoping, though, that whatever the aspirations for conduct that a culture chooses to norm and sell in that particular decade, we who follow Christ can stay clear that our pulpit/ev-angel news announcing purpose is not now, and never was supposed to be, dedicated to a corporation-like rhetorical purpose: hawking a product/service that claims to help people achieve ideal behavior norms and virtues. We don’t perform or purchase or behave into the fruit of the Spirit, the fruit is generated as a response to the resurrection-powered release from our old dependence (for bodily survival or social acceptance) upon any moral achievement program, whether it’s pitched by The Gillette Corporation or by The Gospel Coalition.

  • Susan says:

    Excellent response to the ad and the controversy surrounding it.

  • Bruce Garner says:

    Gillette is just acknowledging a reality. I’ve referred to the hyper-masculinity I have seen in Congress and in other legislative bodies, including those of faith based organizations, as testosterone poisoning. It is not healthy. It doesn’t create anything positive. Note the incidents of men who take forms of testosterone for muscle building and who go off the rails with their behavior. A lesser form of that seems to be found in gatherings of us men. Why do we feel the need to be that way? What do we fear? Why are we insecure about who we are? After all, men, particularly straight white men, are the ones who have held “the power” for centuries. We are also the ones who have repeatedly abused that power for reasons that benefit no one but ourselves and our egos. My conclusion: If you are so offended by this ad, maybe it’s time to do some soul searching as to why it offends you. Could it be that it calls out behavior and attitudes that need to be changed? We as Christians follow the true model of masculinity in the Carpenter from Nazareth. I think Gillette gets that and highlights the best characteristics of the One who became incarnate for our benefit.

  • David Stravers says:

    Thanks for quoting Pinker. His books show wide-ranging historical sensitivity but he also shows glaring ignorance of the effects of Christianity on Western culture. Pinker cites the “Christian virtues” as if they were Enlightenment discoveries rather than…well…CHRISTIAN virtues. The one thing we can learn from Pinker, and perhaps from Gillette (?), is that the yeast of the Christian message continues to work invisibly through the dough of history. Things are not getting worse. They are getting better. Much better. Don’t let the network news convince you otherwise.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Debra, for your insight into this Gillette commercial. Quite frankly, I saw the commercial and didn’t even give thought to the “Me Too” movement that is gripping our culture. Maybe I just wasn’t paying close enough attention. I really think this commercial is giving people (perhaps like yourself) an opportunity to chime in on our cultural debate of proper male masculinity. Sin being what it is, a failure of our better selves, we do need to have some ideals set before us, whether from our culture or from our religions.

    But I wonder in all of this new movement, both in culture and in the church, what about women? Don’t women have a power of their own, different from that of men. Don’t women have a sexual power of femininity by which to often manipulate men. Isn’t that power displayed in the porn industry? Consider the advertising for women’s clothing, makeup, perfumes. Why do women wear makeup if not to attract the opposite sex? Aren’t boys being boys because girls are being girls first? Maybe there should be TV commercials calling women to be tone down their sexuality, to dress more responsibly, wear less makeup or even none. Don’t you think that both sexes have a responsibility in this whole debate?

    If you want to follow the Bible’s reasoning, consider 1 Peter 3:1-4, “Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, 2when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. 3Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. 4Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.”

    • Anneke says:

      RLG, as far as advertising is concerned, consider that maybe it targets women in such a fashion because men have set women up to believe that in order to be valuable, they must be desirable. It’s hard to escape that message. As far as my own life, I wear makeup sometimes because I enjoy it. It gives me a different look. In my job it makes me come across as more professional, actually. And yes, sometimes I do wear it because it does make me more conventionally attractive — a function which is sociologically complex in the ways it functions, including making me look more professional (seriously!). I resent the implication that if makeup makes me more attractive, it makes me more responsible for a man’s sin. I would note that people do things to attract the opposite gender in a myriad of ways. Certain kinds of virtue-signaling are meant to attract the opposite gender: consider, for example, a woman who chooses to dress conservatively because she knows it will appeal to a certain kind of man. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that. But I also think she might be dressing conservatively because it makes her feel comfortable. The onus to treat the woman — however she is dressed — is on the men and women she interacts with. It should not matter how she is dressing. And let’s not kid ourselves about the power of outward beauty. OF COURSE, inward beauty is important. But we would be remiss if we did not acknowledge the sway that a person’s physical appearance has on others’ opinions of them. We’re not talking about women here because the #MeToo problem is, unfortunately, largely on men’s shoulders. Boys are being boys because the men they see are teaching them the wrong things about masculinity and the relationships between men and women. They are teaching them entitlement. Case in point: Is that girl wearing a bikini? Well, then of course she’s ripe for the picking! Please try to imagine yourself in a woman’s shoes. Imagine yourself in my shoes. Imagine you dress just like other young women. Imagine you go on dates just like other young women. Imagine that no matter what you wear, whether or not you put makeup on, and whether or not you drink alcohol, men are being disrespectful to you. Not all of them, not all of the time. But enough that you have to be careful. You never go out after dark past a certain point. You don’t go certain places alone. You can’t travel to certain countries or cities alone. You are instinctively trained in thinking ahead about what you would do if, if, if. You hold your keys between your knuckles, at the ready. You think about buying pepper spray. You know how to look ahead and pretend to be oblivious when you are being catcalled. You know how to unobtrusively maneuver yourself away from the man in the subway pressing himself against you. If you call him out, you could get hurt. You guard your drink at the bar. You don’t make small talk with men you don’t know because they might take it the wrong way. You try not to smile too much at the men who you don’t know very well when you do interact with them. Unfortunately, you have learned that even counting someone as your best friend doesn’t protect you from sexual assault by them. Because this is what life looks for me. Men are worried that they will be “lured into temptation” or rejected. Women are worried that they will be demeaned, raped, or killed. All because boys will be boys. So yes, let’s talk about the virtues all genders should espouse. But first let’s make women feel safe and respected, like they deserve to be.

      • RLG says:

        Thanks, Anneke, for your response to my response. First, your suggestion as to advertising, that men have set up women to measure up to their own standard of worth (sex objects) is not true. Do you really think women have not been affected by the fall, not having a sinful nature, and are therefore not sinful, or not capable of deceiving or luring men? Just go back to the fall of Adam and Eve. Consider Eve’s deception of Adam. From the beginning of time, women have been luring men into sin by their outward appearance. Methods may be different but the principle is as emphatic as ever. I quoted 1 Peter in my last comment. Consider also 1 Timothy 2:8-10, “Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing. 9I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, 10but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.” Does that bikini you mention fit into that description?

        The fear you live in must be terrible, Anneke. The lengths you go to in expressing the precautions you take to feel safe in your world must be terrible. But what you state is far far from the norm. I live in downtown Chicago and belong to a private business club. Most members (not all, which includes me) are business professionals who come up for lunch or drinks after work. There is a healthy mix of men and women who enjoy the social aspect of this club. Asking around, I have not witnessed nor heard any of what you suggest as being normal for you. So I’m guessing that there is such a thing as toxic masculinity, but it is far from the norm. My suggestion to you, Anneke, is get out of town. Move somewhere safe, like Chicago.

        In the meantime, realize that both men and women bear a responsibility in exemplifying the best of humanity. And in doing so, there will be much less a problem than there is now. I wish you well.

    • Jessica A Groen says:

      “But I wonder, . . . what about women?” Whataboutism or tu quoque is an ineffective response to the problem at hand.
      https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/whataboutism-origin-meaning

  • George E says:

    I’m guessing (because I can’t find any statistics) that women buy razors for both themselves and for men, so Gillette is expecting the commercial to appeal to women who buy the razors. And that men won’t care enough about the commercial to change brands.

  • Eric V says:

    I find the ad offensive. Is bullying solely a male behavior? That’s not my experience. Is harassment solely a male behavior? Also not my experience.

    I also find the ad useless. Someone engaging in bullying and harassment won’t be motivated to change by this ad anymore than attempts to ‘teach men not to rape’ will reduce rape.

    I find the very term ‘toxic masculinity’ offensive. Why do we associate bad behavior with masculinity? What’s wrong with using the word SIN? Am I supposed to be ashamed of being male?

    • Jessica A Groen says:

      Someone else put it this way: the phrase “bad sushi” is describing a particular kind of sushi to avoid. People who love sushi and its benefits would be glad to know what and when such a delightful dish is “bad” and they never would make the logical leap to believe that “bad” applies to all sushi.

      You don’t believe that teaching men not to rape reduces rape? Does anything reduce rape then? Teaching men self-control might be a bit more effective and sane strategy than that of past generations, which was invested in teaching women not to get raped, to not be upset or angry or hurt if they did, and to not “enjoy the spotlight” (Engler’s words) of scrutiny-laden publicity that they endure when they report rape or abuse.

    • Ingmar says:

      I think it could be framed less as teaching not to rape, but critically unlearn possible rape culture messages one could introject from society and environment. The phrasing is unhappy as it makes it seem like a guy is born a potential rapist and has to learn not to be one, while the toxic masculinity is learned.
      Toxic masculinity is not masculinity in itself but a toxic idea of masculinity, the man card the fragile masculinity based on callousness. As it’s almost impossible to say how much of what is being feminine or masculine learned or innate, I think it should be accepted that to an extent such traits can overlap and many people cultivate what they find the best traits and behaviors for the right situations, of course, regardless of them being traditionally masculine or feminine and neither are wrong in itself on anyone.
      I agree that bad behaviour can be both traditionally feminine or masculine or neutral.
      Nothing wrong with whoever prefers more traditional roles, though those luckily don’t go back beyond the 50’s, so they still evolved socially and are not some absolutely set in stone. Though about that I noticed that it’s often more about letting weaknesses supposedly consistent with either role uncorrected on one gender and hypercorrected in the other, which seems unbalanced to me, although I’m probably strawmanning and glad if it does not consist on that necessarily.

  • I just watched the video of the Catholic kids in MEGA caps milling around this old Native Vietnam vet who is singing with a drum. It just happened in Washington DC. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a look; but it will make you sick, maybe especially if you’re male. The vet is an Omaha, from Michigan. Watch the boys in the crowd behind the sneering kid, just watch them. Now anyone who’s ever been within a quarter mile of a middle school knows that toxic behavior isn’t the province of the male of the species alone. Girls can be murderous. That having been said, watch those boys–because that’s what they are–in that video; they’re boys. If you wonder whether there is or isn’t such a thing as “toxic masculinity,” just watch ’em. It makes me angry, very angry. The boys are Catholic, they’re Trumpians, they’re in DC for the Right-to-Life march–none of that matters. What matters is they’re boys exhibiting “toxic masculinity.”

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