Kathy Sheridan: Gillette’s toxic masculinity ad cuts close to the bone

A noxious, belligerent, misogynistic streak has leached into every social and political interaction

Shaving brand Gillette have released a new commercial in response to the Me Too campaign. Some have criticised the ad as "insulting" and "emasculating". Video: Gillette

 

The beardy male universe has always been a roller-coaster of identity politics. The Gauls equated the loss of their beard with castration. In the 18th century, a vogue for heroic, male Graeco-Roman images combined with new razor technology made a marble-smooth face the ultimate mark of a man. Then the Victorians strutted onstage, reviving beards as a way of reclaiming masculinity and the God-given rights of the British male.

Even now, certain cultures within faiths that seek to police gender and sexuality ensure that boys will be boys by obliging them to grow beards.

The fact that George Clooney and dozens of pretenders sprouted beards en masse at the 2013 Oscars is a germy mystery but historian Dr Alun Withey has discerned a historical parallel between beards coming in and out of fashion and periods when the masculine identity as a whole is threatened. The fact that Gillette has managed to ride out the squalls for well over 100 years suggests that its marketing skills are tuned to the zeitgeist. So it’s hardly a shock that its latest campaign is an appeal to men to be sound and . . . well, that’s it.

Its video has been accused of being patronising and preachy, and worse, of reducing the #MeToo movement to an ad for shaving. It wouldn’t be the first to harness a progressive cause as a marketing ploy. Brands that do so are accused of “woke-washing”, ie “woke” as in alert to social injustice. (See “green-washing” for earlier examples). They also take big risks in doing so.

It’s over a year since #MeToo took flight so the video is hardly sending out a prescient message

Last August, Paddy Power sent an empty, open-top bus to Brighton Pride, calling it the “official bus of gay professional footballers”. The mission was two-fold: to make a statement about the “statistical anomaly” that not one of the top 500 Premier League players are out and proud (which certainly tells us something deeply questionable about soccer culture), and to “encourage gay players to step up and come out, not just for themselves, but for the millions of LGBTQ fans and athletes worldwide that need a role model”. Could anyone take issue with that?

Pressurising people

The LGBT rights group, Stonewall did, making the obvious point that pressuring people to come out or speculating over why they don’t come out, ignores the many valid reasons why individuals may not want to come out. The bus may have been the fruit of the gambling company’s purest altruism of course but it demonstrated the folly of appropriating a cause without thinking it through.

Fearless Girl, the heart-lifting sculpture of a little girl, hands on hips, facing down Wall Street’s charging bull was an ad, although not widely recognised as such at the time. Commissioned by State Street Global Advisors, the aim was to advertise an index fund featuring companies with a high percentage of female leadership.

Sadly, as it turned out, State Street itself was no exemplar. At the time, women accounted for only 18 per cent of the company’s leadership and its parent company paid five million dollars to settle an action for allegedly underpaying women and employees of colour.

From Gillette’s We Believe: The Best Men Can Be commercial
From Gillette’s We Believe: The Best Men Can Be commercial

Still, Fearless Girl survived and retains her power to inspire. As she prepared to fly into Ireland in November to support Climate Week events, State Street issued a report asserting she had inspired 300 companies across the world to hire female directors.

As for Gillette, there is no doubt that danger lies in the commodification of the Me Too movement. But it’s over a year since #MeToo took flight so the video is hardly sending out a prescient message. It simply encourages men to give good example, to intervene where they see bullying, boorishness, everyday sexism and harassment, whether against boys or girls, women or men. Interventions are portrayed in a way that is unaggressive but firm; men are seen breaking up fights, discouraging others from harassing behaviour, encouraging their daughters. Radical, eh?

‘War on masculinity’

So it has been genuinely shocking to see right-wing male commentators rage against it, calling it “a war on masculinity” and seeking to taint “all” men.

A noxious, belligerent, misogynistic streak has leached into every social and political interaction

But what brand of masculinity is being defended here? The irony is that the behaviour being critiqued in the ad constitutes precisely the kind of crude language, entitlement and sexual licence that the right once railed against – right up to the arrival of the current US president, in fact.

Many men of the left have also been exposed by the #MeToo wave but if the massive electoral support for Donald Trump has taught us anything, it is surely that disgusting “locker room talk”, routine harassment and entitlement are not just the province of “some” men. The tens of millions who supported Trump knew precisely what brand of masculinity they were supporting and seem to regard it as a bonus feature of his unpolitical “authenticity”.

There are plenty of ordinary, decent men who are able to acknowledge all this without ifs or buts. Doubters could begin by reading the criminal court reports, or getting a peek at some WhatsApp exchanges or standing outside the British houses of parliament for a while to eavesdrop on some Brexit “protests”.

A noxious, belligerent, misogynistic streak has leached into every social and political interaction. Yet a razor company is criticised for urging personal responsibility and moderation. How odd is that?

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.