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Why Gillette's ad slamming toxic masculinity is drawing cheers -- and anger

It shouldn't be a controversial proposition: The best a man can be is kind instead of cruel, generous instea...

Posted: Jan 15, 2019 7:45 PM
Updated: Jan 15, 2019 7:45 PM

It shouldn't be a controversial proposition: The best a man can be is kind instead of cruel, generous instead of petty, protective instead of predatory. But already, Gillette is facing backlash for its latest ad, which takes on toxic masculinity, bullying and harassment.

The ad presents some of the worst of male behavior -- a boy bullied and called a "sissy," audiences laughing along as a man on a sitcom grabs at a woman's behind, a businessman in a corporate boardroom condescending to a female employee -- while a voice over notes that men keep on "making the same old excuses": Boys will be boys.

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And then it transitions to images of men doing better: Intervening against sexual harassment, teaching self-love to their daughters, promoting peace over violence, all while little boys watch and absorb. "It's only by challenging ourselves to do more," the ad concludes, "that we can be our best."

It's sad but predictable that imploring men to be better -- not just for women, but for other men and boys -- is met with such hostility from people who apparently accept the lie that cruel and predatory behavior is part of men's natural makeup. There's a stereotype that feminists hate men, but the opposite seems to be true: Anti-feminists who claim to be defending men are the ones who actually seem to have a fairly low opinion of them.

The Gillette ad, and the backlash to it, illustrate the peculiarity of this time in American history. First, Gillette isn't trying to promote a more gender-equal society as much as it is trying to sell something. This ad wasn't made out of the goodness of the company's heart; it was made because the company of course knew it would merit significant media coverage and boost sales.

And Gillette needs it. The company has been hit hard by the trend away from a clean-shaven face and toward beards; direct-to-consumer affordable-razor companies have also undercut the company's prices and its profits.

Backlash and an alleged boycott led by a handful of loud and angry men? More press, which will surely be countered with pro-feminist consumers buying more razors in defiance of the Piers Morgans of the world.

Buying consumer goods won't bring about the end of gender inequality, and Gillette is far from the first company to use feminist ideals to sell a product (remember that Dove "Real Beauty" campaign? And Pantene's "strong is beautiful" spot?

No, the revolution will not be advertised. But feminism can indeed be co-opted to sell you stuff.

But that doesn't mean the ad is bad. While the Gillette ad is hardly a way to move gender equality forward, it is a marker of that movement. Companies don't advertise on concepts they think will tank their brands. That's why so many ads have been so sexist for so long: There was very little cost to misogyny in the service of capitalism. But thanks to significant feminist progress in recent years, that calculus is shifting.

That the advertisers behind the Gillette spot believe men will be receptive to these ads -- or perhaps that those mothers, wives and girlfriends who do the family's personal care shopping will be receptive to these ads -- suggests a significant and feminist-minded cultural shift.

Advertising is still a boys' club, but the people who tell us aspirational stories to sell their products apparently believe that a good chunk of the American public, including men, yearn for greater gender equality. They believe we are so sick of male entitlement and aggression, and so attuned to how those behaviors are nearly as damaging to men as they are to women, that we will want to buy products from companies that share our values.

And the backlash shows that that progress has been less linear than we would like, and that with forward movement comes those reactionaries who dig in their heels.

The monetization of feminism is far from the dreams of our foremothers. But we do live in a capitalist nation awash in advertising, and these campaigns tell us a lot about ourselves -- and what some savvy and powerful people believe we want to see.

Gillette advertising on gender equality isn't a feminist victory, and feminists need not do their advertising for them. But it is an indication of feminist progress.

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