Miles Stephenson: Razors, wristwatches and masculinity

Thursday, January 24, 2019 - 4:22pm

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The Michigan Daily

On Jan. 13, Gillette, a titan in men’s razors that has toted the macho “The Best a Man Can Get” tagline for decades, uploaded an advertisement to YouTube titled, “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be.” The ad challenges men to be better in an age where people attribute bullying and harassment to “toxic masculinity” and the #MeToo movement saturates headlines. The backlash was instantaneous. Gillette’s YouTube video faced almost double the number of dislikes as likes, and the comment section is filled with comments such as “I will not apologize for being a man,” “Never gonna buy Gillette ever again,” and “I am a woman, and I refuse to support a brand that insult(s) men so …” It’s clear America isn’t united behind Gillette on this issue.

The central thesis of Gillette’s ad seems noble and well-intended; being a man at his best means upholding what is right and showing compassion for others. Who wouldn’t support that? Are men overreacting and missing the valid criticism of their behavioral constructs? Or are political identitarians unfairly indicting an entire gender for the behavior of a subset of bad actors? And what is “masculinity” anyway? How much of it is innate and biological and how much is inculcated from society? This controversy sparked a dialogue, and with it came an opportunity for others to define the issue.

Two days later, the company Egard Watches uploaded the ad, “What is a man? A response to Gillette.” The advertisement emphasized the good in men, showing vignettes of firefighters, soldiers and civilian heroes paired with statistics demonstrating that men account for 93 percent of workplace fatalities, over 97 percent of war fatalities, 71 percent of all homicide victims, 80 percent of all suicide victims and 75 percent of all homeless people (though numbers taken from SAMHSA suggest 51 percent of all homeless people are single men, 24 percent are single women, and 23 percent are families, usually single mothers with children). The video was dedicated to “all those who sacrifice everything to make the world safer and better for all of us,” and projected a positive message about the nature of traditional masculinity.

The founder of Egard Watches, Ilan Srulovicz, said Gillette’s ad unfairly painted men with a broad brush: “It’s the overwhelming majority of men who sacrifice, who want to be protectors, who want to be good. And how do you effect positive change? … You show the best of us.” Is masculinity an archaic set of tools that have become outdated and problematic for our modern world, or is it a strength men can use to make the world better? While Gillette highlights toxic masculinity, Egard highlights virtuous masculinity, and judging from YouTube’s responses, the majority of viewers decidedly favor Egard’s message.

So perhaps Egard’s critique reflects the issue here: Gillette’s delivery. While many agreed with the message Gillette espoused, the majority don’t believe it is the place of an often morally challenged multinational corporation to feed them their ethical peas and carrots. “Just the type of social commentary I look for in my shaving gel,” said one commenter, garnering over 11,000 likes. A similar sentiment was seen in the backlash to Nike’s Colin Kaepernick campaign. Furthermore, many commented that Gillette’s representations of men were extreme, unrealistic and outlandish, and perhaps a popular video with cartoonish vignettes is not the most sensitive instrument to deal with an important issue like this.

One vignette in the Gillette ad shows two boys beating each other at a barbecue to an audience of complacent men when Gillette’s ideal man swoops in to break them up. “That’s not how we treat each other, okay?” he instructs with a paternal kindness. Gillette’s implication here is the unenlightened men would merely stand by and watch these little boys tear violently at each other. Here, Gillette’s vision was fair, but its portrayal of men missed the mark.

Gillette believes some part of traditional masculinity is flawed. This toxic masculinity — the violent, overly competitive, unemotional or sexually aggressive behavior in men — is a product of our historical attitudes towards men and women. Certainly, it is true that some male behavior considered “masculine” is undesirable. Unfortunately, however, Gillette missed a great opportunity to better analyze this with morally reasonable and instructive scenes.

A viewer must recognize that both of these advertisements are merely business campaigns designed to appeal to consumers in a divided political atmosphere and rake in market share and sales for their shaving razors and wristwatches. There’s no such thing as bad publicity after all, and just as Nike’s sales increased 31 percent after their Colin Kaepernick controversy, Gillette’s trending status may follow suit. Yet both of these videos do offer us fascinating insights into a modern dialogue of what it means to be a man. In the end, perhaps we should be careful about how we paint half the population of the planet, and ensure our well-intended messages inspire rather than alienate.

Miles Stephenson can be reached at mvsteph@umich.edu.