Manliness is associated with being tough, but it seemed awfully delicate on Monday. That’s when Gillette released a razor commercial that opens with men embracing classic stereotypes: barbecuing meat, belittling women and insisting that physical violence is endemic to their gender.
After a montage of news clips about the anti-harassment and sexual-violence movement #MeToo, a narrator announces the dawn of a new era. Finally, the men in the ad start to criticize each other for catcalling and rush to break up fights in the street. They’ve realized that they want a different future for their sons.
They also look in the mirror a lot, admiring their shaves.
This latest bit of corporate feminism is a bit rich coming from Gillette, which charges women more for pink razors than it does men for blue ones. Over all, though, the message largely reflects the mainstream conversation about equity, which has finally turned to how traditional masculinity hurts men and boys, not just everyone else.
It’s hardly a cutting-edge concept but still too sharp for many, as seen by the barrage of complaints that parent company Procter & Gamble was attacking men. Some called for a boycott of P&G products, claiming that decades of brand loyalty had been irredeemably betrayed.
The insistence that certain ways of being are “natural,” yet in need of constant reinforcement, is so confusing. If steak-eating and bum-goosing are in men’s DNA, unchangeable no matter how they’re nurtured, it shouldn’t be so frightening to take a close look at masculinity.
Helping health-care providers better understand the male psyche was the goal of the American Psychological Association when it recently issued its first-ever “Guidelines for Psychological Practice for Boys and Men.” A 30-page document reviewing 40 years of research, its introduction highlights many issues that so-called “Men’s Rights Activists” purport to care about.
That men usually die earlier than women, for example, and are more likely to be victims of homicide or suicide is true. Unlike those who hate the Gillette ad, though, the APA doesn’t treat male health issues with nostalgia for stricter gender roles.
The organization defines traditional masculinity as “marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression,” and considers it harmful on multiple fronts, particularly risk for violence. One 2007 study cited found that “the more men conformed to masculine norms, the more likely they were to consider as normal risky health behaviours such as heavy drinking, using tobacco and avoiding vegetables."
The solution proposed is to move forward by imagining a more flexible masculinity. Therapists are advised to help men stop suppressing their emotions, yes, but also to embrace positive traits often associated with their gender, including courage and leadership.
As unwelcome as Gillette’s commercial, the guidelines led to an overwhelming backlash aimed at the APA members who had developed them. One psychologist told the Washington Post that he was accused of “not liking” traditional men.
“I do like them! That’s why I don’t want them to suffer!” he said.
Male suffering is at the core of last year’s spectacular documentary Minding the Gap. The first 15 minutes are fun, if predictable: teenage boys skateboard around a dying Rust Belt town, filling their evenings with partying. There are no female skaters, just attendant girlfriends.
Filmmaker Bing Liu started recording his friends’ skate tricks as a tween, eventually amassing thousands of hours of footage. Over the years, he realized that he had captured more important stories, and the focus shifts when an unexpected pregnancy introduces the spectre of growing up.
At that point, Mr. Liu begins slowly pulling apart the life lessons that he and his friends absorbed from their fathers and other adult men. His camera watches the boys learn that internalizing pain is the price of becoming a man, and when that buried pain prevents some of them from fulfilling their potential.
The result is a raw, intimate examination of unyielding masculinity as it cycles through generations, leaving a trail of devastation.
At 110 seconds long, Gillette’s ad is a simplified message created to provoke a reaction. Minding the Gap spends 93 minutes asking its audience difficult questions with complicated answers. Mr. Liu is obviously protective of those he loves, but determined to tell the truth.
The movie is screening in a few Canadian locations this winter, an opportunity for those wounded by Gillette to go deep. That requires mustering up the strength for a little bloodletting, though, instead of slapping on a quick Band-Aid.