That Gillette ad: the best a man can be?

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For a week or so, my social media feeds were awash with commentary around the recent Gillette ad: what exactly was it all about, how should we judge it and who should be offended? And then, like so many rich and extremely important conversations, it was relegated to last week’s ‘issue’ and has been largely lost down my Facebook timeline.

I like the ad. The first time I saw it, I thought it was a bit sketchy in the quality of its delivery; a very relevant message which could have been transmitted more elegantly – however, I was still moved by it because, as the broadest of brushstrokes, it depicts men doing something wonderful: standing up against violent and aggressive behaviour. It made me feel hopeful. I felt that the kind of strong, protective vigilance shown in the ad, a trait so often attributed to those with far more testosterone than me, could make my world feel a safer place.

This is obviously my own particular filter in action. You see, having been assaulted once by two men, as well as experiencing various other ‘minor’ incidents such as sexually aggressive comments from strangers and random intimate gropings on public transport, I really like the idea of these things not happening. So to anyone willing to be a part of the sea change that brings that to pass, thank you, because I know that it can take courage and strength to stick your head above the parapet and make your voice heard at the very real risk of making yourself a target. This is why I question the fact that the Gillette ad presents a ‘weak’ version of masculinity. For me it celebrates the exact opposite.

It reminds me of the men I know and love in whom vulnerability, authenticity, integrity and strength go hand in hand. In our relationships, I am sometimes the one doing the supporting and at other times, fortunate enough to be on the receiving end of their wise insights, grounded presence, kindness and humour. Our friendships feel like equal partnerships. We’re flawed, we’re always learning and we trust each other completely.

In the midst of #metoo (it’s a movement not a moment, it’s not just for women and it’s not over) men and male voices must be heard and have a vital role to play in creating a culture where people (again, not just women) are less likely to be harassed, bullied, abused or physically attacked. Part of this process involves holding those responsible to account for overstepping such fundamental human boundaries. This may mean confronting women, who can be as vicious, manipulative, corrupt, inauthentic and abusive as any human being, but the acts of physical violence and harassment depicted in the Gillette advert are still most likely to be committed by men.

And thus the scene is set for another round of the toxic masculinity debate. Which is not the condemnation of all men, but the acknowledgement that some men are behaving destructively because of a system, in many respects patriarchal, which limits and controls the full human potential of EVERYONE. Toxic femininity is a side effect of the same system, and there’s plenty to say on that subject too which absolutely needs to be addressed, but that’s not what this ad is about.

However, social media being what it is, the question of whether there’s more that men could do to prevent violence was swamped by the predictable polarisation of opinion (and genders) along with some vociferous agenda pushing. What appeared were plentiful ‘them and us’ arguments, a lot of point scoring and gleeful smugness as someone thought of something much cleverer to say than someone else or saw an inconsistency in an argument and jumped in to prove how ridiculous – and completely wrong – the other person was…

Getting to the root of any social, sexual or cultural issue, gender-based or otherwise, requires a willingness to put our egos to one side and really listen to what others have to say about what life has shown them, and to do this with compassion, courage, humility and the desire to understand, even if we have a negative part to play in their history. Ultimately, we all want the same things: to feel respected, loved, and connected and one way to achieve this is to stand side by side as human beings not adversaries.

Responding to violence with violence, either physical or verbal, just doubles the violence. An alternative is responding with our humanity, which may mean calling on our power or our gentleness, our humour or our own experiences of grief or loss – or all of those things – but ultimately it means actively seeking out where we can connect as the starting point for a solution. It’s not about building walls between us.

There are questions that men can ask each other, and women, and vice versa, and whether the razor ad was a Gillette own-goal is less important than the fact it raised the issue of people getting hurt and that men are an invaluable part of the movement that can stop it.

Image: Patrick Coddou