If you live anywhere near enough to an internet connection it can be assumed that you have heard about the new Gillette advert, or more so the widespread negative reaction it has received. Much of the controversy around the advert focuses on the fact that it aims to address toxic masculinity by pointing it out in society and calling for more people, to speak up against it. Many of those who viewed the advert seemed to interpret it as a personal attack on men, one of the many of the so-called “war on men”, the beginnings of which can seemingly be traced back to the beginning of the #MeToo movement.
Much of the backlash to the video can perhaps be understood from reading the comments underneath. While some of the criticism featured phrases like “hairy feminists” and other similar sentiments befitting most social media comments sections, some attempted to address the more serious points pertaining to gender inequality, noting the disproportionately higher ratio of male suicides, homelessness and incarceration. The commentators also noted that bullying is common between girls and can often be more vicious and traumatic, concluding that bullying should not be brought down to being a gender-based issue.
Explaining the outrage around this involves looking first and foremost at what toxic masculinity is.
The viewers reaction seems to explain it as the idea that masculinity, and men, as the demographic of which masculinity is almost emblematic by definition, is being conflated with the separate idea of toxic masculinity, with words like “male" and “masculine” used almost interchangeably by some people.
Some of the interpretations can almost be explained by equating toxic masculinity to the idea that masculinity itself is toxic, and by extension that men are toxic, and so addressing toxic masculinity would require changing men and “the masculine” at its core.
However this interpretation falls quite far from what the phrase “toxic masculinity” sets out to confront. As a term, it is used to address the cultural phenomenon accounting for instances when men are denied the right to feelings that are perceived as acceptable for women, deemed “emasculating” for men. Toxic masculinity does not refer to bearing masculine features or being a man, but to the phenomenon of gatekeeping masculinity itself in a manner that contradicts the idea of a healthy society. Toxic masculinity is believed to be one of the key causes of the wide disparity between male and female suicides, disparity in incarceration rates and other inequalities.
Statistically, women are more likely to feel depressed or experience suicidal thoughts, but are far less likely to act on them. This is because from a young age women are raised in a culture where communicating how they are feeling is acceptable, if not encouraged, and so in times of hardship it is not surprising that women are more likely to reach out for help, whether by consciously deciding to see a professional or by simply letting a close one know they are struggling, and feeling relieved and less lonely as a result. This is far less common among men, as culturally, from a young age, men are told that paying attention to feelings is a sign of weakness, or a waste of time and is across the line not masculine, or even worse, feminine.
A similar explanation can be provided for the gap in incarceration rates. According to the the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in the US, 93 per cent of federal inmates are men, and only 7 per cent are women. There are a few causes that can be attributed to this. One of them is that women are culturally perceived as less inclined to violence, and also ‘weaker’ and less able to deal with prison, making it seemingly too harsh a punishment for the same crime.
While men are ‘not supposed’ to be affected by the experience to the same extent, the resulting increases in violence, aggression or continued crimes are accounted for by their ‘criminally-intentioned personalities’, not the socially denied opportunities to process their experiences and move on in healthier ways.
The limited amount of alternatives when it comes to men addressing their feelings can also, to some extent, explain the higher rates of violence that results in initial convictions. A reflection of this perception of women as lesser criminals and men as less likely to be psychologically affected by events in their lives can be seen in child rape cases. In the cases, where the rapist is female, sometimes even in a position of authority, resulting in comments along the lines of “Why is the kid complaining? If this happened to me I would be honoured.” This denies the male child victims the right to address their trauma, implying that young men cannot be traumatised in the same way as is natural for human beings. The “humorous” remarks made on prison rape, mainly targeting men, have somehow also continued to persist and be perceived as “light-hearted” and just short of “well-intentioned”, again denying the male victims opportunities to process the trauma as human beings.
The cultural barrier that makes it harder for men to adequately and healthily address their concerns, issues and insecurities, with people choosing to cling on to an interpretation of masculinity over one’s own and others’ health and wellbeing is toxic masculinity. This definition portraying the “lack of masculinity” as worse than suffering and pain, leading to people ultimately not seeking help in the name of appearing “strong” and “masculine”. It stems from an unfortunate definition of masculinity, that glorifies macho bravado and ignores a significant amount of characteristics that are definitive of a human being, such as the fact that internalising anger, fear, pain and insecurity leads to external increases in aggression, abusive behaviour, isolation and a significant number of mental health problems.
This interpretation is dehumanising and the root of many issues disproportionately affecting men over women. Addressing toxic masculinity is not done with aim of vilifying men, but highlighting their status as human beings, suffering to the same extent from this culture as women.
Toxic masculinity is one of the main cultural occurrences that feminism sets out to address. Feminism has a history of being a movement that campaigned for mainly women’s rights, as that was where the disparity was widest, but as women’s rights evolved so has the movement. In recent years, feminism as a movement now attempts to address the gender inequality as it exists today, focusing on how society views gender and which interpretations of gender do not originate in reality but in unrealistic ideas and ultimately hinder individuals’ well-being and society as a whole. The response to the Gillette advert helped to highlight the lack of understanding of terms and ideas surrounding today’s conversation on gender equality. While the initial reaction has been almost overwhelmingly negative, it can still be taken as a step forward, as it has also ignited the conversation on what toxic masculinity is and the damage it does to all members of a society, therefore improving the general understanding of toxic masculinity. Hopefully, the ad will still result in similar successes for the brand to those seen by Nike after their launch of the controversial Colin Kaepernick ad.