Shaving off toxic masculinity

What makes men, ‘men’? That seems to be a redundant question, doesn’t it? Most people would say that it depends merely on the reproductive organs that a person possesses; but, it isn’t limited to that. The question has become redundant because there exists a social construct which allows us to measure the degree to which men resemble ‘real men’, so to speak. We don’t bother asking the question anymore, merely because we already have a notion about the ideal man, in the eyes of society. He must be tall, well-built, fit, confident, etc.; the list is endless. In short, a man must be ‘masculine’ in the eyes of society in order to earn validation as an ideal specimen of the gender.

However, the idea of masculinity can be interpreted in different ways, which leads to some problems. Confidence in a masculine man signifies his ability to attempt to seek what he wishes to gain without any hindrance of self-doubt; and, if he does not succeed, he shows humility and accepts the outcome. This is especially relevant in romantic endeavours; an ideal man would have the confidence to approach, and woo, a person who he is attracted to, while having the humility to accept no as an answer. However, this is where interpretation plays a negative role in shaping actual human behaviour; some men would think that ideal behaviour would be to relentlessly pursue their final goal, without humbly accepting denial. This warped interpretation of masculinity is what I would define as toxic masculinity, and I believe this is what Gillette seeks to address in their recent advert. The said advert asks men to rein in this toxic masculinity, rewriting their iconic tagline, ‘the best a man can get’, as ‘the best men can be’.

There are definitely a few things P&G (the parent company that owns Gillette) has failed to consider before releasing this advertisement. Although their intentions seem inclined to raise awareness of the rampant sexual harassment that exists today, they fail to understand that they have played a significant role in shaping societal notions of masculinity. Historically, their advertisements depicted men who transformed after using Gillette razors to shave, having an aura which inadvertently pulled women towards them. The company perpetuated this idealistic notion, to its benefit, for many years, before realising the consequences (with the emergence of the #MeToo movement). In my eyes, this is too little, too late. They appeared in clear conflict with their historical brand positioning in this advertisement, with no clear viewpoint on how this volte-face took place. There is no clarity on how Gillette will attempt solving this issue, either. Although the company has pledged USD 1 million every year, for the next three years, to charity for supporting this cause, it remains unclear where and how these funds will actually be used to fight this problem.

There are many varied opinions on this issue, ranging all across the spectrum. There are some who laud the move by Gillette, appreciating the attempt to focus on toxic masculinity and its impact on sexual harassment and related issues. However, there is a significantly larger majority lashing out against this advert; unsurprisingly, this majority consists of Gillette’s core target consumer. Men are enraged about the light in which they’ve been shown, and they are right to be so. The advert does appear to show that a significant proportion of the male gender tends to display or condone such toxic masculinity (the advert eerily shows a large number of fathers allowing their young boys to behave immaturely without correcting them, because they take it for granted that ‘boys will be boys’). Even if that may not be the intended message, the company must face the flak for it. Whether this risk was a valuable one for the brand, only time will tell.

I would refrain from passing judgement on this advertisement campaign launched by Gillette, even though I agree with the message that it broadcasts. Why so? Simply because there is no clarity on the motives behind it. Did Gillette actually intend it for an altruistic purpose? Does the company really wish to upturn toxic masculinity and make the world safer? Or, did the company merely see an opportunity to boost sales by appealing to emotions in a certain way? Did they want to unfairly profit from the suffering and exploitation of innocent people, by making an ad campaign they thought would appeal to the emotions of many potential buyers? Until we understand this, there is no way to adequately judge whether this campaign is positive or negative. We are yet to understand whether Gillette’s intention to shave off toxic masculinity has an ulterior motive; till one knows otherwise, one must be wary of showering it with praise or merit.

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