Reason magazine writer, and critic of political correctness Robby Soave, asks in his article (http://reason.com/blog/2019/01/15/gillette-ad-toxic-masculinity-men-me-too) why Gillette’s recent advertisements calling upon men to “do better” have caused a strong sense of offense among men and, in particular, some commenters on the political right.
I write this article to answer Mr. Soave’s question.
I believe my voice is valuable here, since as a man whom is not conservative, who frequently and flagrantly defies traditional gender norms, and who has been a victim of extensive social persecution that has been enabled and rationalized by certain aspects of these traditional gender norms, I think I have more first-hand experience of “toxic masculinity” than Soave does.
The concept of “toxic masculinity” actually didn’t originate with feminists or leftists. Rather, the term originated in the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement of the early 90s; this movement was apolitical and focused on the use of mythological texts and Jungian analyses thereof to connect to a more authentic sense of masculine identity than one provided by mainstream society (the latter being described as “toxic masculinity” with the former being described as “deep masculinity”). The concept was eventually picked up by a subset of feminists, some of whom pointed out that certain aspects of the social norms which dictate the bounds of “acceptable” masculine behaviors can actually cause damage to the lives of men or encourage men to harm others.
The obvious example is that men are socially discouraged from seeking help and therefore those men who refuse to seek help may end up not seeking medical or psychological treatment for certain physical and mental health problems. Another example is that if traditional masculinity requires men prove their toughness and endurance, this may encourage risky-to-abusive levels of the consumption of alcohol and drugs. Further examples include the fact that men are sometimes encouraged to restrict their emotional expression in an unreasonably narrow and unreasonably attenuated fashion, and that some aspects of masculinity (such as the desire to prove oneself the “most masculine man” within a group) can subvert male solidarity and encourage men to spend time and effort on dominating, degrading, humiliating and undermining each other. It may be argued that these aspects of traditional masculinity made sense when living in the cruel and harsh world of premodern society, but the utility of these aspects of traditional masculinity seems to have massively diminished or perhaps even become negative in the modern, technologically advanced dignity culture of the post-Enlightenment West.
I regard toxic masculinity as a real thing (by the same token, I regard toxic femininity as a real thing too, and I think its important to have a discussion about that as well). But the advertisement Gillette made is not a nuanced discussion about how traditional gender roles can be destructive to the lives of men or counterproductive to their flourishing and happiness.
Let me explain the levels upon which this advertisement is offensive.
1. Not All Men, Not All Masculinity, and The Blame Game
The concept of toxic masculinity, when correctly understood, only refers to certain components of traditional masculinity when expressed in certain contexts and/or to certain extreme degrees. Yet this advertisement treats toxic masculinity as a norm rather than an extreme or aberrant phenomenon.
As Soave points out, the advertisement “challenges men to behave better toward women and each other.” But Gillette isn’t some sort of niche product; it is a product that is intended to be purchased by all men. It is a mass market brand. Ergo, the advertisement is targeted at, basically, all men.
Does Soave truly not see why directing this message towards all men is offensive? Through conveying this message at “men” in general, the inescapable presumption is that all men are prone to toxic masculinity. Are all men prone to bullying? Are all men prone to mistreating women or other men? As Soave points out, the ad depicts “men deciding not to bully each other, harass women, or commit violence,” but yet again Gillette is a broad-market product that aims to speak to “men” in general. Do “men in general” need to be reminded not to bully, not to harass women, and not to commit violence?
Is toxic masculinity representative of the typical/average man? Why isn’t it offensive to seemingly presume that such toxic masculinity is the norm? Because this is what the Gillette advertisement does. It even brings #MeToo into the equation, thus associating the normal everyday behavior of men with the atrocious behaviors of exceedingly rich and monumentally powerful entertainment moguls like Harvey Weinstein. The message of the ad, therefore, is that Weinstein represents what men “really are like.”
A final point that needs to be stressed is that, as Soave points out, the ad depicts toxic masculinity as a simple and essentially arbitrary choice on the part of men. But men make these choices in the context of a society that has extensively socialized men from the moment of birth and that polices men’s behaviors through constructing and enforcing an elaborate system of costs and benefits. Why are men being held as entirely responsible for toxic masculinity, when (as even the proponents of toxic masculinity accepted) men are no less socialized into gender norms than women are? Feminists never blame women for the norms that society inflicts upon women, so why is it acceptable to blame men for social norms which men are socially incentivized to comply with?
2. Because You’re Worth It: Male Edition
A second point that needs to be emphasized is that Gillette’s new messaging is a savage betrayal, and a complete reversal, of Gillette’s old messaging.
“The Best A Man Can Get” is a message that can be fairly described as reinforcing a man’s sense of self-worth. The idea behind it is that not only is it the best you can get, but that a man deserves the best. A man should buy a premium product to take care of himself. A man should do this, not for others but for himself. In essence, “The Best A Man Can Get” was the gender-flip of the L’Oreal slogan “Because You’re Worth It” (a slogan which has entered the popular lexicon and is experienced as a kind of female empowerment; see https://www.lorealparisusa.com/about-loreal-paris/because-youre-worth-it.aspx).
The new campaign “The Best Men Can Be,” on the other hand, implies that normal men are exceptionally deficient relative to the “best.” It equates normal, everyday men with bullies and sexual abusers; in other words it says normal everyday men are not worthy of The Best A Man Can Get. Because You Aren’t Worth It is hardly an inspiring slogan and many men do experience that as an attack on their dignity and sense of masculinity. For a brand that previously portrayed itself as a symbol of a man’s inherent worth to suddenly begin undermining that will cause backlash.
3. “Man Up And Protect The Women In The Name Of Feminism!”
Some may defend this advertisement, not as debasing men but as issuing a challenge for men to rise, to improve themselves and to become heroic and benevolent protectors. But the irony of this defense is that it literally works out to reinforcing the same traditional gender norms it attempts to criticize.
“Be the best man you can be” and other slogans of this nature are often directly used by military recruiters. These slogans appeal quite directly to the traditionalist ideal that “real manhood” is something you must attain and prove and defend. What this advertisement does is postulate an ideal of “real manhood” and command men, whom are presumed to fall short, to start living up to it. Those who do live up to it are portrayed in the advertisement as better men (i.e. more manly) than those who do not, thus reinforcing the ironically-traditionalist message that buying Gillette is a pathway to the desirable status of Real Manhood.
Even the content of this role – the heroic protector of the weak and of women – is part of what traditional gender norms frequently expect men to be. In our society, men are expected to be chivalrous and to defend women’s interests. This is being pushed with feminist rhetoric. This campaign essentially works out to feminists demanding that men “man up” and become better at chivalry. Liberation from the gender roles is, apparently, only for the fairer sex.
Not to mention, whilst there is an example of men defending other men in this advertisement, the overall thrust of this advertisement is that men should act for the sake of women. But, to borrow a feminist phrase, what about teh menz? Where’s the concern for men’s welfare for the sake of men? Quite clearly such concern is a second-tier one in the world of this advertisement.
4. Men Kampf
The final way in which this ad is offensive is that it singles out men for the kind of treatment which no other demographic would or can be subjected to.
“Men Kampf” is a satirical community on Reddit where pieces of feminist rhetoric are taken, and any words discussing males are replaced with the appropriate term discussing Jews. The objective of this community is to highlight the double standard at play; broad statements about men, masculinity or “male culture” are considered acceptable but similarly-situated statements about women or religious/ethnic/sexual minority groups aren’t. A similar technique was used by Boghossian, Lindsay and Pluckrose in one of the “Sokal Squared” papers (where a portion of Mein Kampf was taken and references to Jews were replaced with references to men; the resultant paper actually got published in a feminist academic journal). This advertisement doesn’t adapt Nazi propaganda, but the point being made is that it targets men for treatment which no other group could be given.
Let’s say that a sportswear brand which targeted the African-American community decided to put out an advertisement that negatively depicted anti-intellectualism among African-American youth, misogyny and the glorification of violence among famous African-American rappers, and homophobia and anti-Semitism coming from famous African-American preachers. The advertisement then depicted, as positive rolemodels of “non-toxic blackness,” an African-American child in school that studied hard to get into college to take a degree in a science field, an African-American entertainer with a ‘clean’ act that is viewable by a wide variety of age brackets and avoids going into contentious social issues, and an African-American preacher that speaks out against homophobia and any kind of ethnic prejudice irrespective of the ethnicities of either the prejudiced or the prejudged.
Would such an advertisement be accepted by the African-American community (or at least its intellectual leadership), or would the advertisement be taken as the perpetuation of offensive stereotypes and an act of cultural imperialism? Were the advertiser to defend themselves as merely “opposing toxic blackness, not all African-American culture or all African-Americans” would this be considered an acceptable reply? We all know the answer already.
Mr Soave is correct to point out that encouraging less bullying, less harassment and less violence are not inherently or even predominantly leftist social priorities. But as one of Soave’s fellow libertarians, I think it is important to point out that the message of the advertisement cannot simply be reduced to “less bullying, less harassment and less violence are good things.”
This advertisement associates bullying, harassment and violence not with a small number of dangerous and predatory men, but with men in general, and proceeds on the basis that the majority of men somehow don’t already know that bullying and harassment and violence are bad things. The advertisement comes from a company that used to tell men that they deserved the best, but now it tells men they aren’t good enough yet and only deserve the best when they comply with their traditional role as women’s protectors, and hypocritically does so under the aegis of “opposing” traditional masculinity. The advertisement delivers the kind of criticism of men and “male culture” which would not be tolerated were it to be directed against any other group of people.
Whilst, yes, some right-wing commentators are desperate to “own the libs,” the reality is that one need not be conservative or even in favor of traditional gender norms in order to see what is offensive about this advertisement. As a libertarian and someone who has previously given financial support to the Reason Foundation and the Cato Institute, I understand Soave is trying to give the kind of interpretive charity to this advertisement which some on the left systematically deny to libertarians; I know how important it is, for many libertarians, to take the epistemic high road and steadfastly remain the principled and intellectually honest ones. But sometimes, a large degree of interpretive charity is unfairly given, and in this case Soave is simply presuming far too much good faith on the part of the advertisement. The message of this ad is far more extensive, and far more degrading, than Soave’s modest characterization of it as “taking the position that maybe hurting people is bad.”
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