Recently Gillette released their “the best men can be” ad and the Internet went bonkers.
Gillette – The Best Men Can Be
I’m not writing this to shill for Gillette. I don’t use any of their products and haven’t for years. I found lower cost alternatives that work for me so I have no skin in the Gillette game – see how I did that – skin – Gillette – shaving cream and razors…
I liked this ad. I appreciate companies that take steps to change the conversation and challenge norms. In this case, like Dove Men+ Care before them, they are encouraging men to be caring people. (I do use Dove Men+ Care products and appreciate their years of support of the annual Dad 2.0 summit).
So in this Gillette ad, there are men and boys shown harassing women, bullying other boys and mansplaining the ideas of a woman in a board room. In a great scene there is a row of men standing at BBQs chanting ‘boys will be boys’ (I really dislike this phrase and concept – more on that shortly). Then a man snaps out of it and steps in to stop two boys from fighting. Other scenes show men stopping other men from harassing women, stopping a group of boys from beating up another one, and preventing street violence. The ad encourages us to do better, to be better. The ad is called “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be”. This is of course an updated version of their tag line – “the best a man can get.”
Gillette is Taking a Stand
This ad encourages viewers to visit their site thebestmencanbe.org, where you will find a note from Gillette about why they decided to run this ad. I am going to quote them here because I think this is an admirable stand to take.
“It’s time we acknowledge that brands, like ours, play a role in influencing culture. And as a company that encourages men to be their best, we have a responsibility to make sure we are promoting positive, attainable, inclusive and healthy versions of what it means to be a man. With that in mind, we have spent the last few months taking a hard look at our past and coming communication and reflecting on the types of men and behaviors we want to celebrate. We’re inviting all men along this journey with us – to strive to be better, to make us better, and to help each other be better.
From today on, we pledge to actively challenge the stereotypes and expectations of what it means to be a man everywhere you see Gillette. In the ads we run, the images we publish to social media, the words we choose, and so much more.”
So – good for Gillette. They are of course now dealing with a whole pile of backlash from men and women who claim they will now boycott Gillette for suggesting that men can be better people and encouraging men to be respectful of other humans. I mean, nobody wants to see men stand up for what’s right, prevent violence and harassment or encourage and give space for women – right?
Those opposed to the ad seem to feel that Gillette wants men to be weak and … I don’t know. The blowback is hard to understand and the arguments that the company is somehow diminishing men or anti-men are ridiculous. There are legitimate criticisms to make about the ad, as there are with all ads, but anti-men is not really one of them.
January 20, 2019 there was a confrontation in Washington DC between a group of primarily teen boys from a catholic high school in town for the March for Life and a small group of native Americans (including an Omaha elder) in town for the Indigenous Peoples March. There are now a couple of contradictory versions being promoted about what happened in this particular incident.
I’m not here to figure out which version is accurate. I’m more interested in the reaction.
MAGATeen and the Internet
Quick on the heels of the release and discussion about the Gillette ad there came this short video which appeared to show a teen boy staring down an Omaha elder who was drumming and singing. They were surrounded by a group of mostly teen boys. The expression on the boy’s face looked like the smug face of a teen who believes himself to be superior to others and that combined with his red Trump MAGA hat drove many – myself included – to assume he was a racist entitled punk and the crowd of teens – mostly boys from the same Catholic school – a gang of bullies.
The boys were in town to participate in the antichoice March for Life. This annual demonstration is all about denying reproductive rights and bodily autonomy for women and people who can get pregnant.
I’ve read an account of the incident by the boy and he has a different perspective than was presented in that short video.
The reactions I saw online to that video ranged from accusing the boy and his peers of being examples of the worst kind of Trumpian racist, white supremacists to those saying “boys will be boys”- I really don’t like that phrase.
MAGATeen – Where were the adults?
What I wondered – where were the adult chaperones who brought these kids to the March for Life? At the time I wondered why they weren’t putting an end to the apparent intimidation of the Native Americans who were surrounded. Now I just wonder why they didn’t step up and separate their students from what was obviously a tense situation no matter how it all started.
The school these students attend is an all-boys catholic school so presumably the chaperones were men. So where were the men that Gillette is calling for us to be in their ad? Where are the men setting a positive example for these boys? There is additional video showing the boys mocking these Indigenous men and no evidence of any chaperones stepping in to put an end to the behaviour. There is also footage of the boys being taunted by another group and again no evidence of men stepping in to put a stop to the confrontation.
We can do better.
Boys will be Boys
Have I mentioned how much I dislike this phrase? It is used to excuse all manner of bad behaviour by boys and men. It appears in the Gillette ad and I saw it used by many supporting the catholic school boys in this confrontation.
This phrase is the ‘man box’ captured in one handy easy to use phrase. Boys or men in a fist fight – boys will be boys. Boys calling a classmate a faggot – boys will be boys. Men catcalling a woman passing by on the street – boys will be boys. Boys or men mocking a boy who likes to wear pink/play with dolls – boys will be boys. Boys or men groping a girl or woman on the bus – boys will be boys. Young man gets drunk, assaults a woman and decades later gets nominated to the US Supreme Court – we can’t hold him responsible for that past behaviour because boys will be boys. Teen boys surrounding a small group of indigenous people mock chanting, laughing and doing a tomahawk chop – boys will be boys.
In all of these cases the phrase is a verbal throw up your hands and say what can we do, boys are just like that.
Boys will be men
In most cases those boys whose behaviour is being excused and ignored will grow up to identify as men. What kind of example are we setting when we excuse bad behaviour – regardless of whether it is racist, sexist, homophobic and/or violent? What lessons are we teaching when we allow these behaviours to stand?
There is plenty of talk about ‘toxic masculinity’ these days and it is an important discussion. I do however, think the phrase is pushing a lot of men away who we need to engage in the conversation. We haven’t traditionally done a good job teaching boys how to be caring men. Many men – especially those who have grown up in the ‘man box’ – feel attacked when they hear that the man they were taught to be is considered to be toxic and dangerous.
While it is boys who police the behaviour of their peers and teach them about the rules for being a boy, they don’t come up with those rules themselves.
It is us, the adults in their lives who teach them about what we consider acceptable in a boy or man. We teach them to suck it up and that boys don’t cry. Adults teach them that violence is an acceptable way to resolve differences. They learn from us that any hints of anything that might be considered feminine is suspect and an indication of weakness. We teach boys that gay, bisexual, queer, gender non-conforming boys and men are weak and not real men.
It is men who bear responsibility for changing this culture and these norms that lead to violence, homophobia, sexist, racist behaviours and the sense of superiority that comes from being taught that you are meant to be the strongest in the room. This is especially true for the white boys in the room.
Let’s teach our boys to be men
It can be a challenge to teach boys to be kind and supportive and recognize the equal value of all people when the American president is the epitome of toxic masculinity. We can all be role models for the boys in our lives and communities.
I am a father of daughters and I don’t have any young boys in my immediate family. There are ways I can still be a role model – like those featured in the Gillette ad. I can show them that is possible for to walk down the street past an attractive woman without harassing her. I can step in and block other boys and men who might think they have the right to harass her. It is important to demonstrate that people who don’t look like me or who don’t engage in hetrosexual relationships are just as normal and worthy of respect and fair treatment as other white guys like me. As a role model I can boost ideas and opinions put forward by women/people of colour/LGTBQ+ folks without claiming them as my own or mansplaining what they must have meant. We can demonstrate what healthy relationships look like. We can show that it is ok and healthy to express a full range of emotions.
We can all do better.