By Sophia Obrecht
Just last month Gillette released their latest ad campaign. Under a reworked tagline, ‘The best men can be’, the advert focused on ways in which men themselves can work to halt negative aspects of masculinity in our society. From catcalling, ogling and intimidating women, to boys fighting, and men holding back or suppressing their emotions, the advert asked men to challenge traditional behaviours and ideas associated with toxic masculinity.
For most women and a large proportion of men, at least those I have spoken to, the advert proved a success. Many praised Gillette’s message, some even reacted with emotion because for once an advert had got it right…the situations and behaviours portrayed in the advert were real, and not the exception. Here was a large corporation, a global brand, sending out a positive and empowering message to men, here was an advert that understood that feminism, women’s rights, men’s rights, and equality are part of one whole.
The advert was a positive call to action, it was as if someone had looked into my mind and mirrored exactly what I wished society could see, that equality is not just about pay, it’s about men being able to be more than what the media portrays them as, more than the negative behaviours our society sanctions. In return women are more than the just a traditional gender image, more than just an object of sexual desire.
Not everyone was happy about the advert, and the backlash which erupted among many men, demonstrates just how fragile and negative toxic masculinity can be in our society. Some men felt attacked by the messages and images in the video which supposedly showed all men to horrible, violent and creepy.
However, those who criticise the video fail to understand their own privilege, and their defensiveness demonstrate their failure to understand the consequences of toxic masculinity on themselves and others in society. They fail to understand the effect that the pressures of being the ‘provider’ or ‘bread-winner’ might have on a man’s mental health; they fail to see that the images of strong and tough men, and that a culture of banter, might make it hard for men to express their emotions and share the burdens of life with their peers. They fail to see the link between violence and toxic masculinity, and the effect that this has on men and boys. They fail to understand that the objectification of women and that laddish behaviours depicted in the media and sanctioned in society negatively affect women’s life, and not just in extreme cases of sexual violence. Most women have felt intimidated in public by men, perhaps by a rowdy group of men on the train, largely unaware that their behaviours come across as threatening, or when being catcalled whilst walking down the street. To some men these situations may seem harmless or insignificant, but for the women on the other side, it can be nerve racking and embarrassing to be placed in such a difficult position, due in large part to male privilege and the ignorance of others.
I spoke to one male friend, who on the whole liked the video, but believed that men were not portrayed as they should have been…as a product of our society. When he watched the advert he saw men being blamed for what society had made them. In some ways he was right, the advert failed to highlight the damage that the media has done. For the most part masculinity in shown to be one dimensional, men are portrayed as strong, dominant, and successful. From music videos, to action films, even to older Gillette adverts, men are portrayed in one box, women in another.
Men, just like women, have been forced into a stereotype by the media, by politics and by culture. But it’s time for change from the bottom up. Since the late 1800s women have fought to change their status in society initially for themselves but gradually effecting change for other groups, setting a precedent for equality.
Masculinity does not have to be something negative, it doesn’t have to be toxic. Men should be able to show their emotions, they should be portrayed as multi-dimensional, they should be depicted in a positive and balanced light. But this can only happen if men themselves work towards change. Men cry and men get angry, just like women. Men can be caring, just as women can be strong (and vice versa). A man can be masculine and vulnerable at the same time, just like a woman can be feminine and strong. With the progress of feminism, equality for men and women can be achieved. But men must work with women to challenge the status quo, for themselves and for others. Perhaps if our ideas of gender, of masculinity, and of femininity, were less extreme, society would be a fairer place for all.