What the Gillette ad gets right: Men need to hold other men accountable, to battle misogynistic attitudes

  • Amid the noise surrounding the Gillette ad, let's not lose the chance to have a real conversation.

  • Men are conditioned to react and behave a certain way through years of exposure to misogynistic attitudes and tropes.

  • Young boys see the same in the media, in the world around them and learn these behaviours and think them normal.

Offence. It's everywhere.

People lose the ability to listen to rational, well-argued points because they're "offended"  before they even hear the argument — be it a conversation about racism, gender, LGBTQ issues, people with disabilities, religion, you name it. And this isn’t a "conservative problem". Everyone does this: If you belong to a certain group and you’re criticised, you get defensive. It’s instantly “What! How can you demonise a whole group for the acts of a few! We’re all not ______.” It doesn’t matter if you’re ally to one cause. That very rarely stops you from being completely myopic to another (especially where your identity is involved).

Which brings us to the recently released Gillette Ad. Gillette’s ‘We Believe: The Best Men Can Be’ commercial takes on toxic masculinity; it says toxic masculinity exists and men should challenge other men in order to change the world.

I agree with the ad, in principle. The problem does exist and men are the only ones who can drive other men to be better. Do I believe Gillette is the best brand to be putting this out? No. For decades, their ads have sold how “perfect, chiselled, shaved” men get the girl. Those guys don’t look like us, everyday dudes. So, it’s kind of like Fair and Lovely asking me to own my dark skin tone. Is it possible the company is trying to make an about face on decades of stereotypical advertising? Sure. But I’m going to wait till I hail them for being the new face of Feminism. But does that take away from the ad's core message? No.

Reactions to the ad have been mixed: one school of thought believes the ad recognises the status quo and acknowledges a problem. Others feel the ad demonises all men. Does it though?

It says bullying, sexual assault, sexual harassment, catcalling etc exist. Men have the power to talk to other men about this and make them aware that certain actions and behaviours need to change.

Google 'masculinity' and this is what comes up:

masculinity
/maskjʊˈlɪnɪti/

qualities or attributes regarded as characteristic of men.
"Handsome, muscled, and driven, he's a prime example of masculinity"
synonyms: virility, manliness, maleness, vigour, strength, muscularity, ruggedness, toughness, robustness

Now, just for a second, look at the synonyms: strength, muscularity, ruggedness, toughness; nothing about sensitivity, charisma, empathy, communication or kindness. Because these aren’t considered “manly” traits? There is a very stereotypical, entrenched view of manliness and it’s a social construct. There is also a rejection in these tropes of anything resembling “femininity”. You couldn’t be seen to have any semblance of the softer traits lest it affect the social understanding of being a “man”.

In Roger Horrocks’ Masculinity in Crisis: Myths, Fantasies and Realities, the author talks about redefining masculinity in the modern era as men try to realign themselves to a world where traditional gender roles aren’t as set in stone. There’s also a whole section on how men are trapped by the stereotype of “machismo” and how they’re conditioned to reject emotions and feelings in order to embrace aggression which is inherently self-destructive.

 What the Gillette ad gets right: Men need to hold other men accountable, to battle misogynistic attitudes

Still from the Gillette ad

What are some things men (and some women) do to feed the narrative?

Here, I’d like to talk about rape culture. According to Marshall University Women’s Centre report, this is defined as “an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalised and excused in the media and popular culture. Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamourisation of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety.”

Just a few examples of rape culture:

  • Blaming the victim (“She asked for it!”)
  • Trivialising sexual assault (“Boys will be boys!”)
  • Sexually explicit jokes
  • Tolerance of sexual harassment
  • Inflating false rape report statistics
  • Publicly scrutinising a victim’s dress, mental state, motives, and history
  • Gratuitous gendered violence in movies and television
  • Defining “manhood” as dominant and sexually aggressive
  • Defining “womanhood” as submissive and sexually passive
  • Pressure on men to “score”
  • Pressure on women to not appear “cold”
  • Assuming only promiscuous women get raped
  • Assuming that men don’t get raped or that only “weak” men get raped
  • Refusing to take rape accusations seriously
  • Teaching women to avoid getting raped instead of teaching men not to rape

Can you tell me that as men, we haven’t seen instances of at least half these situations in our lives and everyday conversations? This isn’t saying “all men rape”. It’s saying there’s a series of behaviours that allow rape to happen. Our reactions to the #MeToo movement indicate where we fall in the spectrum. In the face of tens of thousands of women’s stories from around the world, do you still doubt sexual harassment is rampant and systemic? The normalisation of unacceptable behaviours under the guise of “boys will be boys”, or “that’s the way it is” is a real problem. And this behaviour is everywhere.

I’ll reiterate: This isn’t behaviour all men showcase. But it’s just as bad when you see it and don’t say anything.  In Bengaluru a couple of years ago, there was a news report of a New Year’s celebration gone terribly wrong. Around midnight, hundreds of men went around groping and assaulting women on the street. The outrage across the country questioned what the police on the scene were doing. My question was, what were the thousands of men who were witnessing this in silence doing?

I met a young man recently who told me that he wanted to win a girl’s affections who had a boyfriend. And when I asked him what made him think he had to “win” her, he said “the movies of course. How else do you get the girl?” Men need to challenge men when they see negative behaviours. And sure, it can be uncomfortable but that’s alright.  We fight every day against very deeply rooted cultural stereotypes, the media and just bad people.

In my opinion, the Gillette ad got its message right. Men are conditioned to react and behave a certain way through years of exposure to misogynistic attitudes and tropes.  Young boys see the same in the media, in the world around them and learn these behaviours and think them normal.

Men need to hold other men accountable. But don’t take my word for it.

Read on Firstpost: Gillette's controversial ad essentially asks men to be better — and then sets the bar really low

A woman’s perspective on the Gillette ad

Jackson Katz, author of The Macho Paradox, conducts this exercise with college students in the US: First he asks the men — ‘What steps do you take, on a daily basis, to prevent yourselves from being sexually assaulted?’ Katz reports the question is usually met with an awkward silence, some stunned looks, a smattering of nervous laughter, pithy retorts like “I stay out of prison”. Then Katz poses the same question to the women, and this is what their list looks like:

Image via Twitter/@JenAshleyWright

Image via Twitter/@JenAshleyWright

(Unless you’re a woman yourself) it’s incredibly difficult to understand what a woman feels on encountering a group of men, especially in an environment she perceives as hostile or belligerent.

The responses to the Katz experiment are mostly similar, allowing for some variations among women living in rural, urban and suburban areas. I presume the lists of Indian women — whether from rural or urban areas — would begin with ‘I ensure I’m fully covered up; always wear a shrug or a dupatta around my neck, even when the temperature is at 40 degrees C’.

A month ago, having travelled to Blagaj, Bosnia, to see the famous dervish house, I had to walk a substantial distance to take a 5 pm bus to my next destination. I was lost in contemplating the beauty around me — until I heard the roar of an engine ahead of me, and saw a group of men roll down the windows of their vehicle, all of them holding cans of beer. Instinctively, my shoulders stooped, my steps quickened, I frantically began to assess the time it would take to make it to the bus stop, clutching my keys to jab wildly if someone came close. A group of men represented a collective — that had greater power to hurt.

Two years ago in Prague, I got into an elevator with three men (one of them inebriated) and survived the most excruciating one minute of my life, berating myself for not being hyper-vigilant, for having walked into a building that didn’t have lights in the courtyard, for having forgotten to pay attention to the little window that was selling beer and for having been stupidly happy. I always took the stairs after that — no matter how insurmountable they seemed, or how tired I felt.

The host of the #Resist podcast Danielle Muscato started a Twitter thread not too long ago that asked women a question: “What would you do if all men had a 9 pm curfew?”

Women, non-binary people, gender nonconformists answered:

“I would go running in the park at night, after work”, “I would book any goddamn place that I liked on AirBnB and not worry about the streets being poorly lit”, “I would finally jog with my ear phones on, and listen to music”, “I would wear a plunging neckline and go hit the bar”, “I would stop looking over my shoulder”.

I would finally go back to taking the elevator.

When in Split, Croatia, my AirBnB host asked me (with a natural curiosity about India): ‘Why do men rape in groups? One man rapes because he is sick, he has no morals… But how does it happen in a group? Here in Croatia, you’re very safe in group — even if one man is sick, other men stop him!’ The question got me thinking about the moral latitude of a group of men. Shouldn’t more numbers imply greater chances of moral rectitude?

But men have historically displayed an astonishing lack of intervention when they witness misbehavior, an insinuation, a lewd or derogatory remark, an inappropriate touch. Often, it becomes a question of fraternity — “Let him have his fun, it’s innocuous”. As a man, you allow him to catcall, comment on the ‘hotness’ of a co-worker, pursue a woman despite her incessant no’s — simply because nobody has told you otherwise; because social conditioning, the movies and even literature, have created a sort of cultural complicity.

A woman shouldn’t have to be molested or raped, to finally elicit a response or a movement.

Every raised eyebrow, every expression of disapproval and every gesture of reproach, from one man to another — which is what the Gillette ad asks men to do — goes a long way.

Watching from the sidelines — which the Gillette ad asks men not to do — is tantamount to condoning the act (however harmless it may seem in the hetero-normative male-centered rhetoric). Locker room banter eventually reaches the corridor of consent and propriety; look at how #MeToo spawned baffling responses like: ‘Okay what’s really acceptable to a woman anymore? Can I tell her she’s wearing a nice dress or not? That’s taboo too? Let’s just do away with women at workplace — figuring this out is way too stressful! Can I sit at the same lunch table, or am I violating her right to consent?’ These reactions would have been silly, if it were not for their prevalence.

Boys had gone on “being boys” for so long that it seemed it was difficult for them to be anything else.

Until #MeToo, men hadn’t really understood scale; until the Katz experiment, men hadn’t really understood the myriad checks and balances a woman wedges into her every day to keep herself safe. Because it’s almost impossible for a man to fathom this fear that crawls under a woman’s skin, the multi-layered assaults on her everyday freedom. Because a man has rarely if ever had to look over his shoulder, quicken his steps, have his heart leap into his mouth, when he’s caught in a deserted parking lot — with a group of women.

Let’s hope that amid the noise surrounding the Gillette ad, what is not lost is the chance to have a real conversation.

Srikanth Suvvaru is a marketing, HR and employer brand specialist, working to promote responsible allyship and  LGBTQIA+ inclusion at the workplace. Aishwarya Sampath is a diversity and inclusion trainer, solo traveller and writer.

Updated Date: Jan 30, 2019 19:17:23 IST