“Is this the best a man can get?”
That’s the question behind the nearly two-minute video the shaving giant Gillette put out earlier this week. In the video, a series of opening scenes show young boys beating each other up, others bullying a boy they call a “freak” and a “sissy,” grown men ogling women, and a pervy businessman getting handsy with a female co-worker, all followed by a long line of middle-aged dads chanting over and over the familiar apologist mantra, “Boys will be boys.”
No sooner had Gillette released the commercial on Monday than the oracles of outrage weighed in. On Fox News, a predictable round of meltdowns over the ad immediately ensued. Elsewhere, the actor James Woods and others threatened they would boycott the company. Piers Morgan blasted it as a “pathetic man-hating ad,” proof of the “global assault on masculinity.” The conservative commentator Candace Owens concurred, calling the commercial the “product of mainstream radicalized feminism.”
But far from radical, the Gillette commercial is actually deeply traditional, even conservative, in its depiction of masculinity. Rather than an attack on manhood or a radical call to overthrow the patriarchy, the commercial instead celebrates men and affirms long-standing notions of masculinity as honorable and virtuous.
While “toxic masculinity” is in the commercial’s crosshairs, men are not. Instead, they are its heroes. After the ad’s opening scenes, the bulk of the commercial shows men saving the day: breaking up fistfights, defending a woman’s honor, fulfilling their parental duties. If chivalry had a national media campaign, this is what it would look like.
Far from a “war on masculinity,” the ad may think too highly of men and their ability to self-reform.
Notably, the ad is titled “We Believe.” In the wake of the Me Too movement and Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Brett Kavanaugh, who now sits on the Supreme Court, that statement of belief might have been about trusting in women who have told their stories of harassment, assault and discrimination ― a vital expression of solidarity considering how often women are still doubted when they speak up.
But that’s not who ― or what ― Gillette is saying they believe. Instead, the commercial says, “We believe in the best in men.” Rather than a condemnation, the commercial is an exhortation that men be their best selves ― and a certainty that they can be. The ad’s closing lines ― “it’s only by challenging ourselves to do more that we can get closer to our best” ― demonstrate that confidence.
In Gillette’s world, there’s no need for a systematic dismantling of the patriarchy, no plea for a reassessment of entrenched gender roles. Men can fix it. “True” masculinity ― or what the evangelical writer John Eldredge has called in his best-selling book Wild at Heart “authentic masculinity” ― is the answer.
Yet Gillette’s critics can’t see all that. Or won’t. In today’s political landscape, it’s far more useful to feign offense and stir outrage than to recognize common values.
Still, it says something significant when a sizable portion of conservatives decide that the manliest response to American culture is feeling wounded by everything it produces. And it’s odd that what critics of the ad see as Gillette’s condemnations of men are the very things that conservatives have historically viewed as the virtuous emblems of masculinity ― men as protectors, defenders and sexually chaste.
From the Victorian period through most of the 20th century, social reformers and conservative commentators depicted the ideal man as, in the words of one historian, “self-reliant, strong, resolute, courageous, honest,” the very sorts of characteristics Gillette wants men to demonstrate as it encourages them “to say the right thing, to act the right way.” Men’s ability to self-regulate, to tame themselves ― and by doing so, society ― was upheld as masculinity’s positive good for civilization.
That’s the basic, if perhaps problematic, message of the Gillette ad. But folks like Brian Kilmeade of “Fox & Friends” worry the commercial might make men “lose their toughness.” In reality, the ad repeatedly showcases male toughness as the solution to society’s ills. When the ad includes a clip of a father doting on his young daughter, it shows him teaching her to say, “I am strong.” There’s no softening of manhood going on here, no feminization of masculinity. Even the girls in it are taught to become tough.
Rather than a condemnation, the commercial is an exhortation that men be their best selves -- and a certainty that they can be.
That’s probably why some conservatives have embraced the ad. On Fox, Ainsley Earhardt pronounced the commercial “wonderful.” At the National Review, Ben Shapiro, while not exactly praising Gillette, acknowledged that “the vast majority of violent criminality ... [and] sexual misconduct comes from males.” Essentially making the same point as Gillette’s ad, Shapiro argued, “If you want to raise a generation of men who will treat women well, act as protectors rather than victimizers, and become the bedrock for a stable society, you need more masculinity, not less.”
Given the state of conservatism today, Earhardt and Shapiro’s voices are a needed response. Considering the man in the White House, however, most conservatives are unlikely to see things their way.
By accepting Trump, by adopting his “locker room talk” defense of male sexual violence, Republicans have ceded the very moral high ground on which they constructed their vision of noble masculinity. In aligning with Trump and overreacting to stuff like the mild reproach of a razor company commercial, conservatives have painted themselves into a corner, forced to defend the very type of male behavior ― uncouth, unrestrained, violent and sexually aggressive ― they once viewed as the antithesis of authentic masculinity.
“Boys will be boys,” conservatives now defiantly argue. All Gillette’s ad is asking for is a traditional, even conservative future where men will be men.
Neil J. Young is a historian and the author of We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics. He hosts the history podcast “Past Present.”