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Gillette’s advertisement is sharper than usual

Apparently it still stirs up controversy when a major brand launches a campaign promoting a kinder, more tolerant idea of what it means to be a man. Shaving company Gillette’s newest ad has changed its outdated slogan from “The best a man can get” to “The best men can be”.

The ad feels like a rollercoaster ride through everyday sexism: from bullying on the playground, mansplaining in the boardroom, to groping at the pub. The ad went viral, and received a tornado of praise and criticism alike which is, after all — a landslide victory for the advertising industry. But there’s more to it.

Responses to the ad tell us a good bit about where we currently stand in matters of masculinity.

Toxic masculinity may enter the annals of history as one of 2018’s biggest buzzwords — and it may be time for 2019 to move on. Suppose we all got the bottom line: we can actively decide whether or not we want to encourage certain ideas of what it means to be a man.

It’s in our hands whether or not we want to promote a culture in which a “no” is taken for a teasing “yes”, in which forcing yourself on someone else is being a real man, and in which we measure manliness by the number of drinks you can down on a crewdate. What a revelation: we don’t know everything better than women, it’s okay if we’re sad or afraid, and we can actually be something other than either “macho” or “pussy”.

The fact that we treat toxic masculinity as though it were some novel discovery of the dark side of gender self-stereotyping, rather than the millionth confirmation of that being a timeless problem, is telling. Whilst we comfort ourselves with progressive hashtags, there is something deeply conservative about our generation.

The Urban Dictionary reflects a sentiment that is in fact creepily widespread: toxic masculinity, it says, is “a term that far leftists use to try to manipulate real men into feeling shameful for being themselves and feeling like normal men do”. Far leftists? Real men? Normal men?

What’s so particularly left-wing about promoting a version of manhood that is simply open to the various ways of being a man, rather than so monolithic you can only either be (un)lucky to fit the norm or you’ll have to justify yourself every time you don’t?

The let-men-be-men argument (the ultimate Jordan Peterson move) is echoed in social media commentary across the board.

Award-winning actor and fierce Trump-supporter James Woods, for example, accuses Gillette of “jumping on the ‘men are horrible’ campaign” and calls for a boycott of its products.

Many men were happy to follow suit and have posted pictures of razors flushed down toilets or being otherwise disposed of. Far-right magazine The New American confirms how far-from-okay some are with a masculinity that isn’t rough and rowdy: “Men are the wilder sex, which accounts for their dangerousness – but also their dynamism.”

Similar responses are heard outside the Anglo-American world. Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant published an article with the title “Gillette replaces rough stubbles with guilty conscience — and not everyone is happy about that”. One of the comments reads: “Why doesn’t a sanitary pad company create an ad in which women are told not to exploit men and not always to play the little victim? Or is that sexist?” Meanwhile in Germany, a journalist tweeted that the ad was “an insult for millions of decent men who shouldn’t have to change anything other than their shaving brand”.

Ours is a generation that yearns for the recuperation of all that which postmodernism has so skillfully smashed: fixed categories, stable meanings, hard facts. While our Facebook feed may suggest otherwise, our generation is just as much about Jordan Peterson as it is about Pussy Riot.

The divide between the two runs deep and is, forgive the pun, razor-sharp. It’ll continue to be a daily task to point out that certain ideas of manliness are outdated and simply unacceptable. But that can’t change without normal men, real men, in fact: all men reflecting on their own behaviour, and taking their own share of responsibility.

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