This week, Gillette released an ad campaign that has ignited public discourse — including over 20 million views on Youtube — about what should be considered “normal” male behavior and what needs to go for men to be “the best men can get.”
Gillette’s tagline is thirty years old. It has always been designed to inspire men to be their best selves, and Gillette’s new ad aimed to provoke a conversation about what that means today. A conversation indeed! It has triggered a torrent of criticism from those who claim that Gillette is attacking masculinity and men in general. On the other side, many applaud their daring and say that Gillette is calling for honest reckoning on what it means to be a good man and what has got to go. Watch here.
Masculinity. The gender constructs of “masculinity” and “femininity” are as ancient as human civilization itself. But as much as gender roles have always existed, they are shaped by culture and reflect what a society expects and considers appropriate behavior for each sex. The Bem Sex-Role Inventory (BSRI), created by Sandra Bem in 1974, identifies traits that are commonly viewed as masculine, feminine, or gender neutral. Thousands of studies have employed the BSRI to understand gender as it relates to nearly every aspect of human experience. The findings are fascinating at many levels. Most important to the Gillette ad, findings show time and again that mental health, wellbeing, and social and professional success for both men and women is associated with a balance of masculine and feminine traits – not an excess of either type.
Boys will be boys. We have all heard that expression too many times to count. But gendered behaviors are not preordained nor immutable. Certainly, biological hormones (testosterone and estrogen) and chromosomes, which differ for males and females, are important to understanding sex differences in behavior. For example, males biologically have greater levels of testosterone, which is associated with aggression and competitiveness, but such biological differences do not mean that bullying and sexual assault should be accepted as gender-appropriate. And it is these behaviors that the Gillette ad suggests represent forms of aggression and competitiveness that take men far from being the best they can be.
Toxic masculinity. Gender norms around masculinity have created a narrow and rigid definition of what it means to be a “real” man in many societies, including the United States. When masculinity is defined in terms of strength, status, and aggression and attacks emotional vulnerability as feminine, the risk is a gendered experience that has been defined as toxic masculinity. At its worst, toxic masculinity can encourage violence as a means of asserting power and dominance, which Gillette is suggesting is not men at their best, and I would agree.
Gillette meet Dove. For decades, eating disorders professionals and sufferers have campaigned to change advertising that promotes and perpetuates a toxic ultra-thin beauty ideal. This thin ideal is associated with poor self-esteem and body image for many and eating disorders for a significant minority. Dove’s Real Beauty campaign was a courageous step in challenging the multibillion-dollar beauty and fashion industry to rethink messaging about beauty and femininity. The campaign has been a long haul, but major changes can be seen across these industries. Gillette’s campaign is asking us to do the same around masculinity. Gillette is stepping up to say that behaviors like bullying, sexual assault, and interpersonal violence are toxic deviations or extremes of behaviors that can no longer be tolerated.
Why this matters to mental health. Current norms around manhood have clear implications for the mental health of men and boys, and thus for all of society. Definitions of masculinity that teach men not to share their emotions, that vulnerability is to be avoided at all cost, and that success in life depends on public status and power can lead to men being cut off from social support, using more alcohol when stressed, and being unlikely to seek help when exposed to stress, all leading to poorer mental health outcomes and higher rates of substance abuse. So this ad raises critical questions that are intrinsic to the mental health of our men. And when we consider the serious mental health sequelae associated with bullying, sexual assault, and interpersonal violence, the issues raised by this ad are all about promoting mental health.
Some are not happy with Gillette’s recent ad. I say “kudos” to Gillette for having the courage to step forward and challenge all of us to rethink what it means to be a good man in today’s world. I have no idea about the shave, but after this ad, I have no doubt Gillette is still “the best a man can get.”