About that Gillette ad …

So, yesterday the razor manufacturer Gillette published an advertisement contrasting examples of harmful expressions of masculinity, such as fighting and sexual harassment, accompanied by fatalistic or enabling attitudes such as “boys will be boys” (and an entire line of men standing behind barbecues saying this in unison, no less) and a scene of a woman holding her son while a group of boys tear through their kitchen (strangely ignoring them), with more positive examples such as men intervening to stop said fights and protect boys from bullies and women from harassment. The ad attracted a fair amount of anger on social media with Piers Morgan, the former newspaper editor, now US talk show host, claiming that he had always bought Gillette’s products not because they were better than the competitors, which he says they are not, but because their advertising makes you “feel good about being male”, “make you aspire to be a winner and successful achiever, [and] also encourage you to be a good father, son, husband and friend”, but opines that the company has “cut its own throat” with these adverts: “there’s only one thing Gillette really wants to achieve with this new campaign, and that’s to emasculate the very men it has spent 30 years persuading to be masculine”. The BBC claimed that there was a boycott afoot, but used as its ‘source’ an individual on Twitter with, at the time, just 18 followers (the account has since been deleted).

The petty and exaggerated complaints from so-called Men’s Rights Activists aside, my problem with this campaign is that it makes the promotion of harmful ideas about masculinity solely men’s fault, and the only person shown protecting a boy from bullying in the first part of the film is a woman, presumably his mother. The truth is that women have a role in upholding these norms which is rarely discussed because of a prevailing ideology that states that women are victims, not agents, and they do not always protect their children when they are being bullied or threatened at school or anywhere else; quite often they tell them that what they are experiencing is just the way of the world or their fault for one reason or another (too weak, too mouthy, holding themselves the wrong way or giving out the wrong signals, for example). Many women like what they see as masculine men and do not care for ‘wimps’ (and do not their sons to be ‘wimps’ or “mummy’s boys” either); for all the feminists who rail against “male violence”, many women do not mind a bit of it as long as the victim is a man (or boy) who has annoyed them. I’ve encountered this personally, but a well-known incident was that of Kevin Tripp, who was killed by a man whose girlfriend called him after a dispute with another man over a place in a supermarket queue.

The idea that “boys will be boys” is related to the ‘science’ that dictates that girls’ and boys’ behaviours develop fundamentally differently from before birth, and women have been heavily involved in promoting this. Many of the popular books that promote this are written or co-written by women: Why Men Don’t Iron: The Fascinating and Unalterable Differences Between Men and Women by Anne and Bill Moir, Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Don’t Read Maps by Allan and Barbara Pease, The Female Brain and The Male Brain by Louann Brizendine. While it’s true that women have also written books refuting some of the pseudo-science behind this (notably Cordelia Fine), women also freely share this on social media. The mid-market tabloids which promote this kind of “common sense” conservative thinking, although edited by men, are written in, bought and read much by women. This pseudo-science dictates that girls’ and boys’ behaviour are dictated by their sex, their chromosomes, their hormones; they said that foolish feminists had tried to turn boys into something a bit more like girls in the 1970s by taking away their toy guns and failed miserably. It is not only stereotypes about boys and men which are considered to be ‘scientific’ facts; I have had women, one of them a police officer, tell me that they cannot read maps because they are female, as if the idea of learning to do so did not occur to them.

Of course, adults should intervene when a child is being bullied and of course, men should challenge their friends when they harass women, and I appreciate that there is only so much a mother or other woman in a boy’s life (aunt, older sister, female teacher or other professional) to reinforce ideas about positive manhood and masculinity. But in my observation, there are a lot of women who subscribe to and reinforce the bad ideas about masculinity and false, pseudo-scientific notions about men’s and women’s natures and very many women who will excuse or even encourage violence by men and boys. This advert does not address that; it places all the blame and responsibility on men, not all of whom are in a position to force men to change or “hold them accountable”.

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