“Let boys be damn boys. Let men be men”
Some of you might recognise the diatribe above from Piers Morgan, directed at Gillette in reference to their latest ad campaign which, he suggests, ‘attacks’ masculinity. I won’t dissect the ad itself other than to comment that it tries to inspire the audience to break away from traditional male stereotypes which revolve around physical and verbal dominance, roughhousing, aggression and demeaning sexual expression.
While many have praised the advert, others have described it as another blow against masculinity and part of the continued effort to emasculate men everywhere. In part, this is true: the ad is critical of how we often tolerate violence amongst boys, ‘casual’ sexism and aggressive behaviour, all of which combine to form our concept of masculinity. But why the stark opposition?
Nature or nurture?
Many of the objections stem from the fact that people often confuse ‘gender’ with ‘sex’ and assume that how we behave, as men or women, is derived from our biology.
For example, one far-right magazine (The New American), in their criticism said:
“(It) reflects many false suppositions. Men are the wilder sex, which accounts for their dangerousness - but also their dynamism.”
Statements like this enforce the idea that our biology determines our character and behaviour. That male aggression and ‘dynamism’ (and, by implication, female ‘passivity’) are in our ‘nature’. We can’t help how we behave, it is just our biology.
However, years of gender theory and research, show that gender is a social creation. It is a type of identity that is constructed, through interaction in the course of socialisation (i.e. your development), based on societal views about what ‘makes’ you a man or woman. This means that it is not fixed, but liable to change. We have the power to reshape our expectations of the behaviours and characteristics that define the roles of ‘male’, ‘female’ or ‘gendered’ and alter our notions of gender.
Change and accountability
However, this recognition of the social and fluid nature of gender identity poses a problem for some. If gender is something that we create, it becomes a matter of choice, and choice brings accountability. If biology isn’t responsible for men being ‘wild’, overtly sexualising women, struggling to express their emotions, resorting to physical violence to deal with anger, etc then it is up to the individual to actually think about, and mind, what they do. Each individual becomes personally responsible for their actions.
Gender, power and the ‘male activist’ backlash
An added complication is that our society has been built upon values that holds men in greater standing than women, resulting in unequal access to power, whether in the form of money, influence or authority. These structures are so intricately woven into our everyday ideas and behaviours that they can make the status quo seem ‘right’. This means that some men, when confronted with change or ideas that ‘attack’ the very foundation of who they have been brought up to be, find it impossible to question what they have simply taken for granted.
The demographics of protest
It’s worth considering who protests most strongly against new masculinities. The most vociferous voices come from people who have benefited the most from the traditional system in place: the so-called ‘male activists’. For many of them, in the absence of work, money, education or any other socially valued source of power and self-esteem, social standing depends disproportionately on the undeserved privileges associated with ‘masculinity’. Simply, they believe that they stand to lose the most and protest loudest.
What’s that got to do with the Gillette ad?
The challenge we face finding our place in the tangled web of masculinity is illustrated in the comments made about the ad on social media. One of the most frequent expressions of anger from men is that they resent being lumped in with ‘douchebags’ by the ‘new woke Gillette’.
Clearly, not all men catcall, physically intimidate or verbally bully. But we are all part of a system that prizes dominance and ‘winning’ as the way to navigate interactions and objectives and which primarily addresses the needs of men. We are part of a culture that defines ‘male’ identity against a ‘softer’, ‘weaker’ female position. The so-called ‘patriarchy’.
While the men commenting might not break the law or overtly enforce toxic masculinity, they still face the challenge of understanding the everyday, commonplace routines, assumptions and views that we all share which derive from oppressive views about what it means to be a ‘man’. It is this lack of understanding regarding the damaging effects of the current system to those not like them, and the comfort of the familiar, that breeds a knee jerk resistance to progressive ideas.
However, innovation and change are rarely driven by those comfortable in the driving seat. It is the cramped and discarded passenger in the back looking to stretch their legs who figures out how to rearrange the luggage.
Men gain, not lose, from new forms of masculinity
The unspoken question men face is ‘why dismantle a system that works in their favour?’ If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
The truth is: traditional masculinity is ‘toxic’ not just for women but also for men. The American Psychological Association (APA) published a report warning against the effects of traditional masculinity and offered guidance to therapists on how they might work with both men and boys to provide new structures and support systems. Why? There are statistics galore that demonstrate the devastating impact that ‘masculinity’ wreaks upon men everywhere.
In 2014, three quarters of the 6,122 suicides recorded in the UK among people aged 10 and older were among men.. Men have a lower life expectancy in most countries around the world.. Homicides are almost entirely perpetrated by men and predominantly have men as their victims. The list goes on.
If men felt able to admit vulnerability and weakness, and could seek or create the required support networks, they might feel able to reach out rather than end their lives. If they felt comfortable enough in their identity without having to rely on being ‘strong’ inside and out, they might feel capable of visiting doctors and check health concerns before it is too late. If some men trusted their ability to seduce their partners and empathise, they wouldn’t need to rely on physical strength or intimidation to engage women.
The masculinity challenge
In light of this, it seems bizarre to resist change to the current system. If, as a society, we are to find equality, then we have to start understanding the need for change, no matter how painful or seemingly ‘pc’ that change might appear. Adverts and campaigns like the one created by Gillette are a good start and shine a powerful light on a dangerous darkness. Yet it should not be the responsibility of organisations and brands to lead the way.
It is up to all of us to challenge the toxic masculinity which causes so many problems to both men and women, to rethink the way we view the world and control the knee jerk emotional reaction we have to ideas we have never considered, and which clash strongly with our values. We might just find that those changes really are for the better.
ONS. (2016). Suicides in the United Kingdom: 2014 Registrations. Retrieved from ons. gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/ birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/bulletins/ suicidesintheunitedkingdom/2014registrations