blue red and pink graffiti of a screaming man

“The best men can be”, Gillette, Piers Morgan and the crisis of masculinity

Gillette’s short film Believe caused quite a stir. When I saw the commotion online, I hadn’t actually seen it yet. So I went to find out what was causing so much offence. To be frank, what I found was pretty underwhelming.

I was expecting something far more radical, to have caused so much fuss. What I found was a pretty reasonable assumption that there are some behaviours typical to the male gender that are in need of improvement. It didn’t suggest that men are intrinsically bad by any stretch of the imagination. 

The troubling behaviour that it brought attention to really shouldn’t have made any half decent person disagree with them, or so I thought. So what’s really going on? 

It shouldn’t be so difficult to acknowledge that the world and gender relations are not perfect. Whether you identify as a feminist or not, this is not mere opinion. This is fact. We live in a world in which female infanticide is staggeringly high in two of the world’s leading economies China and India. It’s not exactly a paradise of equality in the West either. According to the UK Office of National Statistics, 2 women per week are killed by a partner or ex-partner, equating to roughly one murdered women every 2.6 days. An EU-wide survey conveyed similarly bleak results:

  • One in 10 women have experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 15, while one in 20 has been raped
  • One in five women have experienced some form of stalking since the age of 15, with 5% having experienced it in the 12 months preceding the survey. 
  • However, three out of four stalking cases reported in the survey never come to the attention of the police
  • One in 10 women have been stalked by a previous partner
  • Of women in the survey who indicate they have been raped by their current partner, about one third (31%) say they have experienced six or more incidents of rape by their partner
  • Just over one in 10 women experienced some form of sexual violence by an adult before they were 15
  • Most violence is carried out by a current or former partner, with 22% of women in relationships reporting partner abuse

A similar situation can be observed in the US.  

This normalisation of male violence as demonstrated by the “boys will be boys” trope must be the underlying cause here. The comparatively smaller issues such as cat-calling and the like – as shown in the advert – are symptomatic of this blasé attitude to male culpability. I would hope that most men would attempt to distance themselves from these behaviours.  has proved that, even if it isn’t the reaction that feminists were hoping for. If you don’t identify or engage with the behaviours that are being criticised in the advertisement, then surely it doesn’t apply to you, you should actually like the advert? Surely you should agree? 

Evidently not. Piers Morgan, in an article for the Daily Mail, described the advert as an “absurd load of PC-crazed bilge” and asserted that “It’s basically saying that it’s wrong, and harmful, to be masculine, to be a man.” Is there any truth in this? Does he have a point? 

Let’s play Devil’s advocate for a moment. To be sure, there is a lot to unpack here. There are some potential issues, perhaps one could be cynical and view Gillette as attempting to commodify and capitalise on feminist sympathies. Putting said concerns aside, one may then ask: is there, as Piers Morgan has said, a war on men?

Just hear him out: is there a war on men?

Certainly the onset of third wave feminism has brought about some worry on the subject. In fairness, hashtags that promote anti-male sentiment such as  or  would not be tolerated from a liberal audience were the roles reversed. This is not equality, it’s misandry. That is not to say that women don’t experience threats of violence and trolling online. They actually get it all the time. The trouble with  and  is that it is mandated and even encouraged by people who claim to fight for equality. It is somewhat plausible that Gillette could be seen to be pandering to this extreme leftist ideology. Are Piers Morgan and co., therefore, projecting a different issue onto the Gillette advert? Is there a deeper issue that is informing the context of the Gillette debate?

man breaks up a fight between two young boys at a barbecue in Gilllette's Believe

Traditional Masculinity in Decline 

What do we mean by traditional masculinity? Morgan quotes David French: “‘The assault on traditional masculinity – while liberating to men who don’t fit traditional norms – is itself harmful to the millions of young men who seek to be physically and mentally tough, to rise to challenges, and demonstrate leadership under pressure. The assault on traditional masculinity is an assault on their very natures. Are boys disproportionately adventurous? Are they risk-takers? Do they feel a need to be strong? Do they often by default reject stereotypically ‘feminine’ characteristics? Yes, yes, yes and yes.’”

(Side note: I find this assertion that men are “disproportionately” more adventurous and risk-taking than their female counterparts particularly unconvincing. I have a twin brother and I would say I have always been the more “adventurous” of the two of us. I have travelled to the other side of the world on my own on more than one occasion and met plenty of other solo women (perhaps more than men) while I was there. Solo travel is arguably more “risky” for women than for men, but it doesn’t seem to stop us. Purely anecdotal, I know, but I felt irked by that assumption.) 

Despite all that, there are some fair points made here, that many young men aspire to be leaders and to physical and mental excellence (though, it should be pointed out, so do many women). There should not be an attack on or an attempt to eradicate all elements of masculinity. But it is the issues that come with traditional ideals of masculinity: harassment of women, bravado, cat-calling, female objectification, machismo, violence etc. that we really shouldn’t be sorry to see the back of. A distaste for the potentially harmful and aggressive aspects of what have come (perhaps wrongly) to be associated with manhood, may actually be a good thing for both men and women. After all, machismo and aggression is not equal to strength. These qualities could even represent a weakness of character, a fragile masculinity that needs protection and coddling and cannot withstand challenges or criticism.

Is it not an insult to men’s moral and intellectual agency that they should be debased to such a low standard? Men aren’t violent, mindless, reasonless brutes. Men aren’t inherently bad, so why should anyone be defending the right to act like it? Gillette disputes the idea that physical violence is natural to boys and men. The backlash to Believe, consequently, is somewhat confusing. Morgan accuses Gillette of branding all men “a bunch of uneducated, vile, sexist, harassing predators”. But it seems that he’s missing the mark; Gillette’s point was that this violence and this lack of respect for females isn’t in actuality what is natural, this isn’t what men are. The point is that men are better than that. 

Strength can be more than a simple show of brute force, exerting will over those too physically weak to stop you. It can mean strength of mind and strength of character, and sometimes strength of body used to defend those who need it. There are ways of embodying all that’s right with traditional values of manhood; courage, conviction, protectiveness, without taking it to a violent or oppressive extreme. There is room for both traditionally masculine and feminine traits, both are valuable, both are important, both should apply to both modern men and modern women. Traditionally feminine traits such as compassion do not have to be in conflict with masculinity.

 

row of middle aged men folding their arms whilst barbecuing in Gillette's Believe

Positive versus Negative Masculinity

You can take the good without the bad. Popular shows such as Brooklyn 99 and Sex Education are very different, but both present modern, healthy versions of positive masculinity. In Brooklyn 99, Sergeant Terry Jeffords – played by Terry Crews, whose testimony regarding his own sexual assault was used in Believe – is a prime example of positive masculinity. He is traditionally masculine in the sense that he is physically strong (Herculean even), he demonstrates leadership in times of crisis, is brave and successful. He also has a family, a wife and 3 daughters, who he loves and cares for dearly. He is sensitive and compassionate as well as being strong and confident, Terry never uses his physical magnitude to unjustly intimidate or control the people around him. He is fine balance of strength and softness. Like Brooklyn 99, Sex Education has been praised for its fresh take and nuanced representation of positive masculinity. Jackson is probably the most traditionally manly character on the show. He’s athletic, he’s man’s man, popular, funny but not possessive or aggressive. Like Terry, he only ever uses his strength and status to protect. He is also open and honest in his love life and conveys emotional vulnerability to facilitate a healthy relationship. Why should any of that be so difficult? Why should that be threatening?

Terry Crews giving his testimony

Terry Crews may be a hero to so many young men not least because he is physically astounding, undoubtedly, he is the real life embodiment of what can be and what is so wonderful about men. He is  a prime example of how feminism can be a force to uplift and empower men as well as women. He stood by other survivors of sexual assault, bravely told his story, knowing that sexism and ignorance could lose him fans and possibly a lot of respect.

Crews made a very important point about how physical strength often is not the most important factor regarding assault, it’s so much more than that, it’s about power. But I digress. Gillette’s clip of Crews saying “men need to hold other men accountable” is extremely significant in that it addresses the “us and them” mentality that surrounds the feminist debate. 

Emma Watson at the United Nations Headquarters in New York in 2014
Watson at the UN Headquarters in 2014

HeForShe (and SheForHe)

Nearly 5 years ago Emma Watson gave a speech at the UN conveying the importance of feminism as a unifying force rather than a polarising issue for men and women – she received a backlash from feminists and non-feminists alike – this was disappointing particularly for the former. If nothing else, women attempting to possess and put an embargo on feminism is peevish. More than that, it’s not conducive to a health cooperative society. At worst, it could likely lead the gender equality movement to failure. Feminism should be for everyone, whether you like it or not. Feminism is for everyone. That is the only way it can put an end to the problems that affect people of all genders. Divisiveness and the alienation of would-be allies does nothing to help any of us. And, lest we forget, gay men, trans men, men of colour, men with mental health issues etc. are all men too, and can contribute to and benefit from feminist activism.While I understand and acknowledge the argument that the male angle on feminism can derail important conversations about women, I think feminism’s scope should be infinite. We should be able to have conversations about everyone, of all genders, races and orientations, in the context of feminism. Conversations about sexism and its effects on men does not have displace or replace conversations surrounding women’s issues. There is room for all.

 

“I have realised that fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man-hating. If there is one thing I know for certain, it is that this has to stop”

– Emma Watson

On the other end of the spectrum, the problem with the men representing a form of toxic masculinity is that they are seeing feminism as the enemy, as a force that tears down men and raises up women, not to meet them but to take their place. To some extent, they are not entirely to blame for this ideology. When women fly the flag of feminism whilst hashtaging “kill all men”, you can see where they’d get the idea that equality isn’t the end game here. A matriarchy is. 

But that’s not what real feminism is, or at least should be. Emma Watson was right all those years ago to point out that we are not vying for dominance. We should be working together to make sure that the injustices that face us, and have faced our ancestors before us, are eradicated. So many men argue against feminism, citing statistics regarding the disproportionate numbers of male suicide and authorities that are in place to help and protect people not taking violence against men seriouslyIt is sexist attitudes like these that silence male victims of abuse and tell men they must be in control, especially in control of women. If they admit to being abused, particularly at the hands of a female partner it’s seen to be emasculating  and they are often ridiculed as weak or as not being a “real” man. It is sexist attitudes such as these that hurt men. These are the ideologies and misunderstandings that caused 50 Cent to mock Terry Crews for speaking out about his assault; the idea that to be assaulted, worse yet, to admit to being assaulted is shameful.

But feminism could be the answer to those problems if we all allowed it to work as it’s meant to for everyone. Feminism could be the antidote to the patriarchal societal values that tell us “boys don’t cry” and that “real men” don’t allow themselves to suffer abuse.  These institutionalised ideas are the root cause of the shocking statistics for male suicide, owing to the inability to voice emotions and the pressure to be “tough”, leading eventually to severe mental illness and death. 

 

model looks through mirror into the camera

Fragile Femininity?

Morgan asserts in his article that “If I made a commercial aimed at female customers predicated on the generalised notion that women are liars, cheats, psychopaths and murderers (such women exist: I’ve interviewed many of them for my Killer Women crime series) and so every woman has to be taught how not to be those things, all hell would break loose and rightly so.” 

In fairness to those who have found fault with Gillette’s short film, if the tables were turned and it was a women’s beauty/healthcare brand presenting an advert that criticised femininity, some women may have been up in arms in the same way many men have been. But wouldn’t that then be a form of fragile femininity? That would be representative of a fringe feminist group that immaturely denies any fault or possible flaws in females. We should all be able to take criticism. Having said that, equating an advert that claims that women are murderous psychopaths with the critique of toxic masculinity in Believe is a bit of a stretch. Murderers, whether they be male or female, are not common. Female murderers are statistically even less common. Morgan’s very own series alludes to this in its title Killer Women, suggesting that this combination is unusual or even shocking. Gillette has hardly accused men of being sadistic, murderous, bloodthirsty maniacs. Now that really would have been worthy of controversy. It merely shows common behaviours that are generally considered harmless like boys fighting and cat-calling. 

A more fair equation would be an advert that showed, for example, girls bullying other girls with cruel comments at school or at work. That would be a valid way of showing that girls can do better. Indeed, we can all do better and we should work against the negative stereotypes that concern our genders, rather than deny they exist.  for example does tackle that issue, encouraging and drawing attention to instances where girls and women are seen to support one another and raise each other up, rather than adhering to the traditional stereotype of women deliberately tearing one another down.

 

row of male friends sit on top of a mountain laughing and joking together

Men Supporting Men 

I thought Believe made some pretty fair points. The focus was not actually on women, it was primarily on men and what they can do to help one another. There was, of course, reference made to the negative impact of female objectification and harassment but the main focus was actually on men treating other men with more compassion. Not bullying other boys/men for being sensitive, calling them “sissy” and not accepting violent behaviour: “we don’t treat each other that way.” Allowing the old “boys will be boys” mentality to continue will impact badly on women, yes, but it may impact worse on men. As stated above, domestic violence in the form of male on female crime are statistically horrific (women are far more likely to be killed by a partner or family member) but men are actually far more likely to be killed by other men than women are: “Globally, 79 per cent of all homicide victims were male and 21 per cent female. The global average male homicide rate is, at 9.7 per 100,000, almost four times the global average female rate (2.7 per 100,000 females). Males lead homicide trends both as victims and as perpetrators.”

Traditional masculinity tends to hurt the men that believe in it most. An attack on traditional masculinity is not an attack on men, it is the opposite. Putting an end to this normalisation of male violence towards one another is beneficial first and foremost to men. 

 

“Until men stand up and say, “This harassment, this abuse, these assaults are wrong,” nothing will change. Men need to hold other men accountable.”

– Terry Crews

 

In any case, it cannot be argued that Believe is directly misandrist. It even says “we believe in the best in men” and shows a reel of examples of men exhibiting courage and strength, stepping in and stepping up to behaviour that they don’t deem acceptable. This is chivalry, is it not? This is the heroic ideal in its 21st century form.

Isn’t all this violence, all this hurt, the real war on men?

Perhaps the central question here is: what kind of man do you want to be? What makes a man a man? In these questions, perhaps, you will find your answer. 

 

 

 

* Images are not my own. All images used have been sourced from Gillette’s Believe, the United Nations and Unsplash. No copyright infringement intended.

 

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