NECC Observer

The student news website of Northern Essex Community College, Haverhill and Lawrence, Mass.

Gillette’s commercial gets it wrong

In rapid fire sequence, the words “bullying,” “metoo,” and “toxic masculinity” are rattled off as news reports play in the background. From a filmmaking standpoint, this opening is an effective and concise summary of the message of Gillette’s controversial advert “The best a man can be,” but it also betrays the skewed perspective and condemning nature with which it is presented. 

These misrepresentations and accusations against men as a homogeny have been lorded over the millennial generation since early childhood, and are now being pressed in turn on their sons. Bullying is a recurring theme throughout the commercial, from a crowd of older boys chasing a younger one, to another boy’s living room as he clings to his mother. 

Rough-housing is presented as two young boys squabble in the grass under the indifferent gaze of older men parroting the axiom “boys will be boys.”  A shot of a sitcom stage shows the father character mime grabbing a maid as the audience chuckles at the implication.  These are, in the minds that conceived the commercial, and by association at least some at Gillette, masculinity.

“There are three things wise men fear, the sea in  a storm, a night with no moon, and the anger of a gentle man” – Patrick Rothfuss

While the second half of the commercial is definitely intended to be an uplifting and encouraging declaration that men can be better, I didn’t buy their appeal for a moment. The proposed solutions seemed little more than a showcase of a more cowed man, of little will and even less volition. Of particular note, the final scene in the play fighting sequence shows one of the fathers present breaking the boys up and telling them “that’s not how we treat each other, okay?” This is simply not representative of reality.

According to Eileen Kennedy-Moore in her article for psychologytoday.com, “Do boys need rough and tumble play?” Sixty percent of elementary school boys have play-fought, and less than one percent of playfights devolve into actual fights. Kennedy-Moore further states that boys enjoy rough play as it is both an outlet for energy and a way to challenge themselves and one another. Play Fighting can help develop a sense of restraint and self control, as well as helping young boys understand how to be a gracious winner, or loser.

Boys like to fight, and men like to fight. This is not a defect to be taught out of them, rather it is a disposition that can, and ought to be, cultivated in such a way as to help young men be confident, assertive, and equipping them with self control. In studying martial arts for over a decade, never once did someone tell me learning how to fight is  free license to employ the lessons for no reason, and definitely not on people who cannot fight back. Instead, it is a skill that develops dedication, discipline, and confidence.

Confidence which can help a young boy overcome fear, and confront and stop bullying. Another major mistake of Gillette’s ad is displaying an adult breaking up bullies from their victim. Once more, I can say from experience, that man did nothing to improve the boy’s long term situation. No matter how many rallies a school holds, no matter the programs, posters, or number of times a teacher or parent intervenes, nothing stops bullying in its tracks like the victim developing confidence.

Never once did I have to fight my bullies, but once I had developed confidence, and did not rise to their provocation, they got bored and left.  Children develop hierarchies, and for young boys especially, not being able to stand up for themselves is like rock tied to their feet, and will surely drag them to the bottom. But in this is found one of the core failings of Gillette’s message, as well as the error of the wider narrative of Toxic Masculinity in general. Toxic masculinity is not presented as a specific kind of masculinity, it is not a perversion or corruption of a noble, traditional masculinity. Toxic masculinity is a statement that masculinity itself is toxic, as opposed to an idealized femininity. The theory driving this short film is that masculinity is something to be fixed. Men, therefore, are dysfunctional by nature.

What is missing from young boy’s lives is an understanding of honor, and a distinct feeling of responsibility. The feeling that they ought to do right, because if not them, who? When a young man is dedicated to being noble, strong, happy, and skilled, and is praised and guided in doing so by a male role model, he won’t fear being toxic. He will learn to be respectful and upstanding, and the likes of the “metoo” perpetrators will evoke disgust, contempt and anger, not fear and guilt.

Instead of raising boys under the assumption that they are defective and prone to reprehensible behavior, we should guide them toward an ideal. Set before them examples of great and upstanding men of the past. Stories of mythic heroes and paragons inspire a love of honor for sure, but especially men of their own family. Regale sons with stories about how their great grandfathers made a new life for their families, how their grandfathers served their country, how their fathers came to own their own businesses. Stories like these are probably not as grand as Alexander or Leonidas, but they are real and tangible examples to live up to. Such personal stories ground the ideal of masculinity in reality.   

Masculinity is not toxic. Masculinity embodies the natural disposition of men, and those features and traits that set them apart from women. Masculinity is a toolset men are born with. Like a hammer, it can build a house or break a window. It depends on the man, and as Gillette so eloquently points out, the boys of today are the men of tomorrow.