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The controversy surrounding the Gillette advert is unnecessary

Gillette launched their latest advertising campaign with a short film called “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be”, which reimagines modern masculinity. Following the release of this film, there was a predictable backlash from those who felt attacked and belittled by the depiction of men as bullies, lecherous street-harassers, and smug mansplainers.  

The Sun journalist Nirpal Dhaliwal branded Gillette’s advert as a, “vile man-hating ad [that] is just selling a wimpish new way into women’s knickers”, whilst other opponents took to Twitter to lament that Gillette seems to no longer want the custom of masculine men. Piers Morgan waded into the debate to say that he would boycott Gillette because of the advert.

The advertisement features clips of news reports, an old Gillette advert, a TV show, and a recent music video which sets the film up against the background of the #MeToo movement and, more broadly, the feminist movement.

In my mind, the heart of the debate lies with the question of who is allowed to tell men that there is a problem with masculinity

I find Gillette’s inclusion of its own past advertisements an encouraging sign, one which shows that as a company, they are taking responsibility for the part that they have played in creating and perpetuating a harmful narrative of masculinity. When we consume media portraying masculinity in terms of power, aggression, and physicality it is easy to idealise these traits and become complicit in the narrative surrounding ‘toxic masculinity’.

The film also depicts scenes of a group of boys chasing and cyber-bullying another boy, a man being condescending to a woman in a professional meeting, and scenes of men barbecuing in their gardens as their sons play-fight. These are all commonplace occurrences which have been normalised to the extent that they are accepted.

To take just one example of a scene from the film that is fuelling controversy, any suggestion that boys should not aggress one another is taken as liberal mollycoddling. I agree that play fighting is harmless fun and is actually developmentally important, but I disagree that the scenes in the advert showed play fighting. The distinction boils down to consent; violence is not a game. When one child no longer wants to play-fight, Gillette shows the fathers intervening and teaching consent.

I personally applaud the public commitment shown by Gillette to constructing a healthier masculinity which does all men justice

Opponents have branded the advert a piece of “feminist propaganda” which suggests to me that they either don’t acknowledge the reality of gender relations today or that they see no need to change the toxic masculinity which engenders sexism, male aggression, rape culture, and economic inequality (to name a few cultural issues being addressed by feminists).

For me, the advert was not about women at all. The advert focuses on the relationships men navigate on a daily basis. Gillette undoubtedly portrays some men as predatory, condescending, and intimidating in their new advert, however the outraged responses to the advert ignore the positive representations of masculinity it depicts.

When I watched the advert I saw a boy seeking comfort from his mother which tackles the insidious ‘boys don’t cry narrative’ that stunts emotional development. I saw a father boost his daughter’s confidence and neighbours resolving a dispute constructively. I saw men becoming positive role models for their sons. I saw men having higher expectations for themselves and holding each other accountable.

Gillette undoubtedly portrays some men as predatory, condescending and intimidating in their new advert, however the outraged responses to the advert ignore the positive representations of masculinity it depicts

Many critics have accused Gillette of ‘virtue-signalling’. I can see that P&G have capitalised on the current climate when making this advert and, for some, this delegitimises their message. I have to ask whether critics who dismiss the advert on the grounds of insincere corporate opportunism are actually disguising their desperate need to cling to traditional masculinity behind this superficial commentary.

In my mind, the heart of the debate lies with the question of who is allowed to tell men that there is a problem with masculinity. It’s become clear from the ongoing disbelief surrounding allegations against men, like Harvey Weinstein and Robert Kelly, that women and the feminist movement cannot challenge the aspects of masculinity which damage everyone. If critics of Gillette won’t listen to the news, to statistics, to the women in their lives, to history, then is it any surprise that they won’t listen to a ‘woke’ advert?

I personally applaud the public commitment shown by Gillette to constructing a healthier masculinity which does all men justice.

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