Friday, January 25, 2019

Too Hot to Handle: The Best Men Can Be?

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Hey, the new Gillette commercial is being talked about everywhere else. Why not here?

Bullying. The #MeToo movement against sexual harassment. Toxic Masculinity.

[Shots of pensive men of various types reflected in shaving mirrors.]

A serious voice intones, “Is this the best a man can get? IS IT?”

[Shot of a woman kissing a man on his shaved cheek from an old Gillette commercial.]

“We can’t hide from it. It’s been going on far too long. We can’t laugh it off, making the same old excuses: ‘Boys will be boys.’ ”

[Shots of bullies chasing a boy, a mother comforting her weeping son, cartoon executives from the forties whistling at a woman, a fifties man pinching a female rear end, tattooed men hanging out with party girls, an executive touching a subordinate on the shoulder and correcting her patronizingly, and finally, an endless line of men at barbecue grills chanting “Boys will be boys.”]

“But something finally changed …”

“Allegations regarding sexual assault and sexual harassment …”

[Shots of TV talking heads covering the various #MeToo scandals.]

“… and there will be no going back. Because we … WE believe in the best in men.”

[More serious men in mirrors. Actor and activist Terry Crews is shown speaking on C-SPAN.]

“We need to hold other men accountable …”

“To say the right thing. To act the right way. Some already are, in ways big and small.”

[A black father teaching his little girl to say ‘I am strong’.]

“But some is not enough.”

[Shots of multiple men staging bullying interventions and a twenty-something man telling his friend to “cool it” with his remarks about a girl.]

“Because the boys watching today will be the men of tomorrow.”

[Cut to the Gillette slogan, “The best a man can get” followed by the tag line, “It’s only by challenging ourselves to do more that we can get closer to our best.”]

Tom: After almost 26 million YouTube views, the commercial is certainly the single most down-voted ad I’ve ever come across. Currently, 713,000 people give it a thumbs-up while well over 1.2 million give it a thumbs-down. This week it crept into the Top 30 most disliked YouTube videos of all time. In addition, viewers who have been watching the comparative ratings since the commercial first aired insist the current ratio of approval/disapproval is phony and that the numbers are being fudged to make the commercial look a lot less hated than it actually is. Some people say they plan to boycott Gillette products; others say nothing will come of that.

Immanuel Can, what did you think of it?

The Advertisement as Lecture

Immanuel Can: I think there are other razor companies. From now on, they’ll have my business.

Tom: #MeToo. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) Once anything is marketed to me with a lecture, I’m out. That’s just a general principle. Growing up, I was the kid being bullied in the ad, not one of the bullies. But what I don’t need is a cynical corporate nanny cashing in on last year’s news cycle to pretend to stand up for me, thanks all the same.

What was it you found off-putting?

IC: Well, the ad has a general definition of “man” that it wants to foist upon us. And it begins by indicting men generally with the bad behaviors of specific men … and not very plausible ones, I might add. They had to invent a lot there.

Tom: Of the two butt-pinching, whistling and ogling clips they showed (white males always, because singling out men from any other ethnic group might raise the question of whether Gillette is not just absurdly misandrist but racist too), one appeared to be nicked from a 60-year-old cartoon while the others were obviously staged for the commercial. That stuff happens, sure, but not at all the way it used to.

The “Epidemic” of Bullying

Bullying, too, has been dealt with very strictly by schools, at least in Canada — to the point where I wonder if it’s almost over-policed. Being bullied is not a fun experience, but what you discover from being on the losing end of a few mismatches is that punches don’t kill you. I don’t support bullying and I wouldn’t wish a pummeling on anyone, but my experience is that outside interference from adults only makes bullying more intense, or makes the nastiness come out in other, even more hurtful ways. Kids really have to negotiate these things for themselves. And I’m not sure how you learn courage without conflict. Even David had his lions and bears …

But I meant to come back to your “general definition of ‘man’ ” comment. What did you think they were trying to communicate there?

IC: Their idea is that “manliness”, as presently understood, is quite immoral. A “man”, according to them, is somebody who bullies, or who grabs women, or who laughs at and encourages those who do, and who doesn’t intervene when someone gets hurt. But nobody sensible has ever had that definition of “man”. It’s quite a stupid and bigoted view of masculinity, one that has nothing to do with actual history.

Boors, Bullies and Buffoons

Tom: That’s certainly how the ad comes across. I don’t recall seeing a single soldier, and that’s probably intentional. They would hate to leave the impression that men have ever sacrificed themselves for others or for the greater good, or have stood up to be counted when nobody else could. That doesn’t fit the binary “male-as-predator-or-ninny” narrative.

IC: Right. Where is the courageous fireman, the hard-working laborer, the skilled craftsman, the stalwart police officer, the committed athlete, the brilliant professor, the intrepid leader, the rugged outdoorsman, or any of the other positive models for “manliness” that were available? They are not shown. What we get instead is what you say — the boor, the bully and the buffoon.

Tom: And the few fathers they showed, with the exception of the black guy telling his little princess she is “strong” — an essentially male quality, note — were a tad on the effeminate side, all puffy and enervated, with no wives to be seen anywhere.

IC: “The best man a man can get”, you mean?

Tom: Er … yeah. So there was definitely a well-crafted tale being told, and one that is not just insulting but doesn’t even ring true.

A Self-Defeating Exercise

IC: There’s something totally self-defeating in that. If one wants men to be “the best they can get”, to ignore all the best aspects of manhood, and to denigrate the rest, is not going to conduce to making good men. It’s a totally negative approach, one that hopes to derive motivation from spite and unjust guilt, and to do it through association with low and even blatantly fictive representations. The men in this commercial are rarities and outliers, which is why they had to make up so many of their own instances instead of simply using stock footage.

Tom: Well, one thing the #MeToo movement did reveal is that the most rapacious and predatory men (and, equally, the best possible targets for negotiated financial settlements — I’ll leave the reader to sort out which men fall into which category) are invariably those with fame, money and positions of influence: Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Tom Brokaw, Charlie Rose, etc. But these power brokers were completely absent from the video. Instead, the director showed scene after scene of perfectly ordinary, average, powerless males either misbehaving or defending misbehavior. In real life, the backyard-BBQ-ing dad has no opportunity to dominate women beyond, perhaps, in his own home, and absolutely no men at all — not even the most jaded Hollywood actors — are currently on the record defending Weinstein or Spacey.

So the director was basically pulling a total bait-and-switch.

Baiting, Switching, Bobbing and Weaving

IC: The director of the commercial is apparently a woman named Kim Gehrig, whose earlier work shows the hallmarks of grievance feminism. Now, I don’t know what she’s experienced in the past — what kind of men have been in her life — but you can see that she has no healthy conception of men at all.

Tom: And, hey, whatever her history and motives, Gehrig was just the director. She didn’t come up with the idea, so far as I know. Even if she did, the bigwigs at Procter & Gamble absolutely signed off on it. In fact, Gillette is now saying they knew before it aired that they’d get serious pushback over the commercial from their client base. And they did it anyway. So it was worth it to them to lose a significant portion of their target demographic to the competition just to be seen virtue signaling about male behavior.

John Stuart Mill spoke about a coming time in which all aspects of society would “converge” towards social justice. It is clear that’s happening already if huge corporations are willing to abandon their primary reason for existing in order to make an ideological point.

I would be curious to see exactly how much money they are prepared to lose.

Acting Like Men

IC: Well, Tom, maybe we’d better say something about what the scripture has to say about being a man. I’m thinking of passages like 1 Cor. 16:13 — “Act like men.” What would you say that means?

Tom: Well, it’s not the Greek word for “mankind” Paul is using there, but rather andrizomai, a word that refers to males specifically. So he’s calling out the men in Corinth and telling them to be brave, I think; to demonstrate moral courage, and do something that only men can do. That particular word only occurs once in the Greek New Testament, but it’s found in Plutarch, Sirach, Maccabees and Plato, and it seems to be a call to be willing to die for others. “Acquit yourselves like men,” is really the sense. We might say, “Don’t be a shrinking violet. Do the thing you were made for.”

IC: You can see it’s associated with alertness, firmness in the faith, strength and (perhaps surprisingly) love. (That love takes courage is a thought that nobody who has ever done it should doubt.) These are heroic characteristics. So are “spiritual”, “dignified”, “wise”, “mature” — other adjectives that are attached to manliness, as the Bible conceives of it. If one reads through, one finds out that too much manliness is never a problem — only too little or something unmanly being substituted for it. We have there a powerful resource for a better conception of man.

Can Masculinity Be Toxic?

Tom: Exactly. Christians need to be careful not to buy into the “toxic masculinity” nonsense these folks are perpetuating. Their idea seems to be, as you say, that there’s something about maleness that is dangerous in large doses. But the sort of thing they’re fearing is not genuine biblical masculinity: it’s sin and selfishness. Both sexes are always in danger of that: men, of using their natural strength to take what they want; and women, of using their powers of persuasion to manipulate men.

In fact, there’s nothing in scripture to indicate there’s anything dangerous about being fully masculine. Other than a New Testament caution to fathers to parent with discretion, the warnings we find in the Bible are mainly about men being at risk of being too feminine: of dressing like women, of being too soft, too tolerant and accommodating of women’s bad ideas, or, in the case of original sin, of failing to lead.

IC: We might say that “the best a man can get” is actually a scriptural kind of concept — men are indeed told to become their better selves. But the last place you should go looking for it is Gillette.


  1. Me Too - definitely. Oops, also could not resist. :-$

    Will now change from my Gillette aftershave to something less toxic. After all it could be the aftershave that's doing it to me?

    1. I hear it could also be bottled water or maybe soy. Switching to a Brita filter and more meat ...