The Gillette Ad – Why the Backlash?

The Gillette Ad – Why the Backlash?

Earlier this month, Gillette released an ad that depicted several scenarios in which men exhibited toxic masculinity. The point of the ad was to address issues of toxic masculinity in society and how to make positive changes for the better moving forward.

It was not received well.

A large portion of the online male community was outraged by the ad, claiming that Gillette had turned its back on men and alienated its target audience. But did it?

Public discourse on certain topics can be difficult, to say the least. A large part of the problem is that there is often a significant disconnect regarding what opposing sides of an argument are saying and it leads us nowhere. This is the case with toxic masculinity.

What is Toxic Masculinity?

Whenever the discussion of toxic masculinity comes up, there is often a kneejerk reaction from men to ignore the points of argument and insist on a straw man fallacy without much accuracy to what is being talked about. I think the best way to preface this definition is by drawing attention to what toxic masculinity isn’t.
Toxic masculinity is not:

  • Saying masculinity is bad
  • An attack on men
  • See points one and two

There are many traits associated with manhood such as integrity, honesty, and strength. These traits play roles in our behaviors such as how we play sports, handle relationships, and interact with our work environments.

The problem, however, occurs when negative (or toxic) traits become associated with masculinity.

Toxic masculinity describes a set of behaviors in which masculinity is used as an excuse. It is important to note that these behaviors exist outside of masculinity, which is why they are incompatible and should be labeled separately. These traits include excusing cheating on a partner with rhetoric such as “What, I’m a guy! I can’t help myself!” or teaching young boys to suppress their emotions by telling them to “Man up! Quit being a sissy.”

So that Gillette Ad…

On January 13th, 2019, Gillette released an ad titled: We Believe: The Best Men Can Be

It’s a short film that depicts many instances of toxic masculinity common in today’s age. Some of the scenarios depicted include:

  • A male boss cutting off and speaking for the only female employee at a business meeting
  • A man groping his maid with a studio audience laughing (to highlight that sexual assault isn’t taken seriously)
  • Two children fighting at a barbecue, where one is clearly not enjoying it but their fathers brush it off with the mantra “boys will be boys”

The point of the ad was to draw attention to certain behaviors, which have been normalized, and point out that these traits are not what makes a man; men can do better than that. The ad is empowering to men and presents us with a call-to-action to call out other men when they display such toxic behaviors. Essentially, the ad is saying, “Men are capable of great things. Let’s get rid of the bad stuff and set better examples.”

The Internet did NOT like this.

The Criticisms

The reason I chose to preface this article by defining what toxic masculinity isn’t, is due to the ridiculousness of the backlash that ensued. The ad presents a very reasonable argument, but the issue that men seem to be taking with it is the wording. The phrase ‘toxic masculinity’ seems to trigger some because it connotes that masculinity itself is toxic, despite claiming the opposite.

I scoured hours of videos worth of reactions to this short film to gain better insight into why people are so against the idea of being better and, after permanently ruining my YouTube recommendations, it seems the largest issue is disagreement on said definition. Nearly every commentator I found claimed that the ad (and feminists as a whole, by extension) is trying to demonize masculinity.

Obviously, this is not the case. The ad is applauding masculinity and urging men to reclaim it by correcting terrible behaviors and setting better examples for the children who will come after us. But this universally positive message is being misconstrued as an attack on those who refuse to acknowledge what the term actually means.

The further I dug into why people felt this way, I noticed that the more vehemently people seemed to be against the ad, the more…problematic the people seemed to be. The arguments shifted from an issue of understanding the term “toxic masculinity” and morphed into “I’m mad that minorities are portrayed in a positive light!”

In a video by (white supremacist) Stefan Molyneux, he criticizes a scene in which a man, who happens to be black, stops a white man from harassing a woman on the street. His argument is that it’s not accurate to display all of the white men as sexual assaulters when (and please keep in mind that this is a direct quote):

“…for instance, South Africa is the rape capital of the world because blacks rape women at ungodly levels”

In case it needs to be spelled out, the problem with that statement is that it only regards race. It does not account for systemic issues in nations that are underdeveloped and disgustingly implies that rape and sexual aggression are something genetic to black people.

The more I researched people against the ad, the more this sort of thinly-veiled racism became apparent. I found myself amazed by how open it was. I figured the best way to gain a better understanding of this culture was to speak with someone from it directly.

This is where Dominic comes into the picture.

Understanding the Opposing Viewpoint

Dominic Andre Quiros was a peer of mine when I was in college. We crossed paths occasionally as we were in the same major. Our post-college interactions are limited to Facebook arguments over differing worldviews.

It was actually Dominic who posted the video by (Holocaust denier) Stefan Molyneux, which led me down the rabbit hole of reaction videos to the Gillette ad. I messaged Dominic and told him that I had been working on this article and asked if he would like to do an interview with me. We scheduled out a half-hour time slot and ended up talking for a little over three hours. We started talking about the short film but, as we compared our standpoints, we found ourselves bouncing from issues regarding how consent is handled in society, the morality of sex, and some (problematic) solutions to making black communities better.

In the interview, I tried not to interrupt too much and, honestly, let him say as much as possible. I already knew what the views of the people behind the backlash of the ad were, but I wanted to gain insight into what sparked that backlash.

For full context, the interview in its entirety (save for two brief cuts when I ran out of disk space) can be found here.

I began by asking him what he thought that the ad was about.

Dominic: I watched the ad myself and, at first I was confused because everyone was like ‘toxic masculinity’ but, quite frankly, I don’t think the message hit the nail on the head when I first saw it.

He went on to explain:

Dominic: I’m not trying to dilute the issue; like, I completely agree that people with toxic characteristics whether female or male, are bad. Hands down, you have an abusive drunk father, it is not a representation of fatherhood. There shouldn’t be like ‘toxic fatherhood’ movements. People suck. People are going to suck. You don’t need an entire movement to overinflate a problem in order to fix it.

As we spoke, he kept circling back to this idea that we shouldn’t focus on toxic masculinity as an individual issue, but rather focus on the big picture. He came up with a line of reasoning that I consistently found in many of the communities I researched.

Dominic: All these problems, people suck; there is rapists, yeah. You aren’t going to stop people from being bad.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that it seems to agree with the condemnation of bad traits within society, but ultimately decides that there is no point in trying because ‘you aren’t going to stop bad people from being bad.’ This argument ignores the advancements we have made as a society and, ironically enough, positive changes in culture have been made through movements such as what was portrayed by the Gillette ad.

Much of the issue also came from the terminology in itself. Dominic and many others online were in agreement that toxic masculinity was bad; they just didn’t like that it was described in those terms.

HF: It seems to me that you understand the issue, you agree with me on it. I feel like a big part of it is just not wanting to use the term and I’m not understanding that disconnect there.

Dominic: Every person has a bad and a good side. Where is the fine line, right? What defines the fine line? And in terms of this phrase of toxic masculinity, you can do one thing and it can be either toxic or non-toxic and that is the problem with toxic masculinity with the whole label thing. I get the label. I get what it directs to. I get what it’s aiming at. But the problem is that you can so easily misrepresent and mispurpose [sic] that. Which is why I am also against the label.

A common thread I found in many online communities that were in line with Dominic’s reasoning is that if they accept the concept of toxic masculinity, then they can easily be labeled as toxic for innocuous behaviors that are suddenly offensive.

…if they accept the concept of toxic masculinity, then they can easily be labeled as toxic for innocuous behaviors that are suddenly offensive.

The problem with this reasoning is that it disregards the idea of applying logic and reason. It comes from a community that has been fear mongered by ‘CRAZY FEMINIST OWNED’ compilation videos on YouTube and Jordan Peterson lectures to the point where the view of reality is warped. Anyone who actually understands the concept of toxic masculinity can easily grasp the criteria and see that it is only denouncing negative attributes that are excused by manhood.

This insistence that if we acknowledge toxic masculinity, then it is just a slippery slope until we are labeled as such is a silly argument. But when you view how this community makes it a point to only look at the big picture and avoid the nuances of the subject, it is easy to see why they think discretion wouldn’t be used. While this thinking can easily instill worry in the ill-informed, there really is nothing to worry about. Essentially, if you’re a good person, you really don’t have anything to worry about. The evil social justice warrior boogey(wo)men aren’t coming with their torches and pitchforks to take grilling and football away from you.

I’m not going to sugarcoat it: if you are against the ad, you should hold a mirror up to yourself and ask why. What attributes were pointed out in the ad as negative and why do you identify with them? “Boys will be boys” has been used as an excuse for far too long and for no good reason. Would certain conduct be okay if a boy did it but not a girl? If yes, then why? And if no, then it isn’t an okay thing to do in the first place.

Looking Out for Your Fellow Man

The Gillette ad was essentially a call on men to hold other men accountable for their actions and to hold ourselves to a higher standard. It discussed how common it is for men to make excuses for each other and avoid changing problematic behaviors. In the end, it was simply telling men to be better. Not threatening, but politely stating that we set the example younger men learn from and when we exhibit these toxic behaviors, we are teaching them the wrong things and renewing the cycle.

Toxic masculinity extends into all branches of the male environment when manhood is used to justify negative behavior. Per the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, American men committed suicide over 3.5 times more than women in 2017. Men are taught to suppress their feelings and that being emotional is a ‘womanly’ trait. Not only is this unhealthy, but it teaches that something as natural as having emotions and reacting to them is a problem. It also says that feminity is a bad thing. Communication is a vital way to keep your mental health in check, and that bottling everything up for the sake of ‘being a man’ can be detrimental.

Reasons like this are why, as men, we need to look out for each other and take back masculinity from toxic individuals, let them know that they need to grow and mature as people if they want to be accepted by society. We want to nurture a generation of men who can take care of each other, contribute to society, treat women right, and love themselves.

We want to nurture a generation of men who can take care of each other, contribute to society, treat women right, and love themselves.

Gillette is not trying to take away masculinity. It isn’t saying that sports are bad or you can’t enjoy a good steak or any other associated stereotype. It’s saying we should enjoy all the things we love while leaving the trash outside. Gillette has always marketed itself as ‘the best a man can get,’ and now it’s calling into question: “what is the best men can do for themselves?”


About Ray Cartagena

I first got into writing by working on the staff of my high school's literary magazine and through college worked my way up until I was the head writer for a local live sketch group. These days I spend my post-college years blogging about whatever I think is important in this day and age and when I'm not typing away, you can find me reading, doing improv comedy, playing with my pet rabbit, and trying to get my hair just right.