Gillette & toxic masculinity — dispatch from the gender war

David Fuller
Jan 17 · 14 min read
Rebel Wisdom’s video take

The new advertisement from Gillette has acted as the latest lightning rod for the culture war, racing to over thirteen million views in less than four days, but also an unprecedentedly negative reaction on YouTube with over 750,000 dislikes and highly negative comments.

The reaction seems to have taken many by surprise, who simply don’t understand why anyone could disagree with what they see as the central message of the ad, that men should evolve to a masculinity that ditches some of the ‘toxic’ behaviours of the past.

Some have concluded that the reception of the film — particularly the firestorm of criticism on YouTube — is evidence that toxic masculinity is at epidemic proportions.

I think this is a huge mistake, and is likely to lead to even more polarisation between the sexes. In this article I’m going to try to explain why so many have reacted badly to it, and try to sketch out a place beyond the current gender war.

I’m a journalist and filmmaker, and I also lead retreats for men called ‘The New Masculinity’, with almost exactly the same aim, to allow men to become better versions of themselves. I also agree that masculinity is itself in crisis and a new model is needed. But I can understand and sympathise with why this particular message has been so roundly rejected.

It may be too early to say definitively that the film is a huge blunder, but alienating a huge part of your audience when you have a near-50% market share, is not something that marketing textbooks would advise. The respected advertising commentator Professor Mark Ritson in Marketing Week described it as “sanctimonious hectoring” and potentially the “worst marketing move of the whole year”.

Firstly, how did it come about? And what does such a high profile, generously funded firestorm about the most high profile social issue of the last years tell us about the current state of the post #metoo society.

As a thought experiment, if we assume (as feminist theory asserts) that men and women do indeed have different ‘ways of being’ in the world, and also agree that through much of western history men and women inhabited different realms and played different roles, then what we have seen since the 1960s is an unprecedented experiment in bringing these two worlds together.

Some have described it as a process of integrating two different hierarchies, the masculine and the feminine (patriarchy & matriarchy). We would expect challenges — and also rewards — from this process.

How it is possible for a company to misjudge their audience so spectacularly — we can only speculate. It is already striking that for such a high profile campaign, redefining a brand that was synonymous with masculinity, the company went with a female director, Kim Gehrig, responsible for the highly regarded ‘This Girl Can’ campaign. Compare the look and feel of this campaign compared to the Gillette film.

With no data whatsoever except personal observations on social media, it seems that the most consistent and enthusiastic support for the film has been from women.

Social Shaming

What many men are responding to is their sense that the film takes a social shaming attitude to the problem of ‘toxic masculinity’, as Mark Ritson describes: “Gillette’s ad feels like a tedious, politically correct public health video — the kind of film we were forced to watch in school about road safety before they invented the internet. Never mind making me hate Gillette, it makes me feel bad about pretty much everything.”

In place of Kim Gehrig’s successful and empowering ‘This Girl Can’ we have ‘These Men Should’.

Fernando Desouches, head of the New Macho project, which was set up to challenge the narratives around masculinity in the agency BBD Perfect Storm said:

“I think they focused on the symptoms of masculinity, saying, OK, men are more violent, men are not well behaved with women — they focused on that and not with the underlying issues. they didn’t focus on ‘men are in crisis, why are they in crisis, they are in crisis because they are performing who they are and not being who they are. So instead of empowering them to be who they are they said ‘why don’t we teach them how to be’ and that was the executional mistake — to teach them how to be, and to do it in a way that was not very authentic.”

Rafia Morgan, Rebel Wisdom’s mentor, who has been leading men through personal growth and transformation for 40 years describes true masculinity as the “essence of relaxed confidence”, the art of being present rather than efforting or performing.

In our retreats for men we take a very different approach to integration of the shadow and ‘toxic’ behaviour, one of exposure and integration.

Rebel Wisdom Weekend Retreat

Suppression doesn’t work. Take anger as a case study. It simply won’t work to suppress, or to tell oneself that “I’m not an angry person” or “I shouldn’t be angry”. We all have anger and frustration at times, and by cutting ourselves off from it — pushing it down into the ‘shadow’ as the psychologist Carl Jung explained — we don’t lessen it’s power, quite the opposite. We disassociate from it and ‘project’ it out, in psychological terms. We begin to experience a world full of ‘angry’ people as we (over)react to others’ anger.

Healthy, integrated anger is positive. It allows us to say no, to set appropriate boundaries and to fuel us in our lives. Allowing our anger and frustration is a doorway into a more expanded version of who we are.

Healthy Masculinity

Integrated, healthy masculinity is the solution, not social shaming. Implicit in the Gillette film’s message is a hectoring morality, the idea that men need controlling, that unless you are threatened or compelled to act in that way you won’t act that way, and that men by their nature are not good — and as a message for young boys watching, that’s genuinely toxic.

However we are now living in a world where there is a critical shortage of healthy, mature masculinity. And where society has a suspicious, if not downright hostile attitude to the whole concept of masculinity.

Even more controversially than the Gillette film, last week the American Psychological Association published a set of guidelines for working with men and boys that contained the following words: “The main thrust of the subsequent research is that traditional masculinity — marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression — is, on the whole, harmful.”

This was not only staggeringly ideological but actually, demonstrably false. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), one of the therapeutic methods with the strongest evidence basis is actually based on Stoic philosophy.

As the therapist Erica Komisar says in the Wall Street Journal: “In my practice as a psychotherapist, I’ve seen an increase of depression in young men who feel emasculated in a society that is hostile to masculinity. New guidelines from the American Psychological Association defining “traditional masculinity” as a pathological state are likely only to make matters worse.

The report encourages clinicians to evaluate masculinity as an evil to be tamed, rather than a force to be integrated. “Although the majority of young men may not identify with explicit sexist beliefs,” it states, “for some men, sexism may become deeply engrained in their construction of masculinity.” The association urges therapists to help men “identify how they have been harmed by discrimination against those who are gender nonconforming” — an ideological claim transformed into a clinical treatment recommendation.

The truth is that masculine traits such as aggression, competitiveness and protective vigilance not only can be positive, but also have a biological basis. Boys and men produce far more testosterone, which is associated biologically and behaviorally with increased aggression and competitiveness. They also produce more vasopressin, a hormone originating in the brain that makes men aggressively protective of their loved ones.”

The Boy Crisis

As Warren Farrell explains in his recent book “The Boy Crisis”, the school system now is largely female dominated and based around female ways of learning. Boys’ natural boisterousness is frowned upon, and often even medicated out of them.

This is another feature of the Gillette film, any time two boys fight with each other, an adult intervenes to pull them apart. But we know that boys learn through roughhousing and physical play much more than girls do.

Farrell systematically outlines in the Boy Crisis how, on nearly every measure of genuine, toxic male behaviour, the most significant factor is a lack of father contact, including the staggering figure that “85% percent of youths in prison grew up in a fatherless home”.

Fathers play a key role, he argues, in teaching boys appropriate boundaries:

“I discovered in a hundred different ways that when children don’t have their fathers they have significant amounts of problems. But boys in particular have a greater amount of problems because they don’t have a role model. We often do rite of passage programs but rite of passage is only a minimal substitute for the real rite of passage which has a father every day interacting with his child to learn when to take risks, when not to take risks, when to be assertive and when does assertiveness become aggressiveness.

The unconditional manifestations of love that mothers tend to give are very important to creating the security blankets of children. But it’s also important in that children be guided out of their comfort zone not just during a rite of passage but during every day of their life with consistency.”

Farrell holds a unique position in the gender conflict, both as an invaluable resource of life experience, and a cautionary tale to what happens if you challenge a particular narrative.

Warren Farrell was a feminist leader

An early recruit to the feminist cause in the 1970s, he was the first man to hold a leadership position in the National Organisation for Women, and was a regular and popular speaker on how men needed to support the feminist movement. Duplicating the early ‘consciousness-raising’ women’s groups, he began leading men’s groups. However, when he started incorporating men’s stories of men’s struggles he had heard in the groups into his lectures, he found his career stalling.

“When I started to incorporate men’s pain and feelings into my presentations to groups like colleges and universities I found myself going from very large standing ovation, large audiences and always being invited back to two or three more speaking engagements to a slow decline. And I knew that if I continued speaking and incorporating men’s feelings and fears that I would continue to have fewer and fewer speaking engagements and I had to make a decision. I saw the formula. Did I want to be formula-speak and have a huge income and do very well and be very respected and applauded or did I want to go ahead and try to discover my best truth and speak up about that and try to represent and incorporate men, while still retaining a compassion for women? I decided at least I would try to incorporate the best truth that I could.”

Now, 50 years on from Farrell’s experience, things are changing slowly, there is a ready and willing audience for the message that men are struggling. Many journalists now are ready to hear and amplify the message about men’s suicide rates, the level of relative failure in education compared to women, and the silent epidemic of depression and ‘failure to launch’. And the message that the root of many of their troubles is a difficulty in expressing emotions.

I’m a trained counsellor, working primarily with men, I know the power of truthful conversation, and the importance of expressing our genuine emotions. I know the power of this exposure to transform our lives. But something in this current cultural conversation, even obsession, around men needing to express their emotions to save their lives turns me off. It’s incomplete, and an incomplete story is almost as bad as a false one.

The issue of men’s greater reluctance to access and express emotions is true, but it’s rarely appreciated why this is the case. And it’s only part of the picture. This narrative very easily slips into a story that men are uniquely faulty, that they are suffering from testosterone poisoning and are in some ways ‘deficient women’.

The other side of the story is that when men actually do speak up, they are often not rewarded for it, or genuinely listened to.

Brene Brown, the researcher who found that Vulnerability was one of the key ingredients to living a fulfilled life, and whose TED talk on the subject is one of the most viewed of all time describes how she came to realise that it’s not as simple as just asking men to be more open and vulnerable: “I did not interview men for the first four years of my study [on vulnerability]. It wasn’t until a man looked at me after a book signing, and said, “I love what say about shame, I’m curious why you didn’t mention men.” And I said, “I don’t study men.” And he said, “That’s convenient.”

I said, “Why?” And he said, “Because you say to reach out, tell our story, be vulnerable. But you see those books you just signed for my wife and my three daughters?” I said, “Yeah.” “They’d rather me die on top of my white horse than watch me fall down. When we reach out and be vulnerable, we get the shit beat out of us. And don’t tell me it’s from the guys and the coaches and the dads. Because the women in my life are harder on me than anyone else”.

So I started interviewing men and asking questions. And what I learned is this: You show me a woman who can actually sit with a man in real vulnerability and fear, I’ll show you a woman who’s done incredible work.”

Farrell again has a unique perspective on this, as he now works as a relationship counsellor with both men and women. He agrees with Brown, that only women who’ve really ‘done the work’ can allow a man to be truly vulnerable, and drop needing him to fill the role of protector.

“Women do want to hear men’s feelings and hurts and pains if they’re assured first that they’re the protector. Women don’t understand this about themselves. They think “My husband really cried when his when his mother was dying of cancer. I really supported that. So doesn’t that mean I support a man expressing his feelings?” The answer is yes and no. You’re supportive of a man expressing his feelings when he has empathy for someone else’s pain.

Are you as open to a man expressing his feelings of anger or hurt or upset about something that you did when you experience it as a criticism from your husband or your boyfriend?

Oftentimes your boyfriend experiences you as backing off, as being less willing to be sexual, less willing to be emotionally open, to be more distant from him. He wants your love when he expresses what hurts him and gives him pain and he sees that you back off. He has to repress it because everybody else as well as you in this society has encouraged him to back off from expressing his weakness.”

We already find ourselves in a place where we are making up for a situation where women were once routinely devalued and stereotyped, with a situation where men and masculinity are now routinely devalued and stereotyped.

And yet, it’s almost impossible to call this out. Even the response to this Gillette ad has illustrated the Kafka-esque, Catch 22 situation that we are in.

The reaction to the film is held up as evidence for the central message (toxic, fragile masculinity) being true — even that the hundreds of thousands of negative reactions shows that there is an epidemic of toxic masculinity. As one of the comments on our film summarises:

Media: “To tackle toxic masculinity men need to express themselves more.”

Men: “I feel this ad demeans and misrepresents me.”

Media: “Shut up, snowflake, manbaby, if you didn’t like the ad you’re probably a bad person.”

I even hesitate to write this article, knowing how easily dismissed it can be in these identitarian times just because I am a man.

While the most high profile example of toxic masculinity in the world sits in the White House, and ‘liberal values’ feel newly under threat, it’s hard for liberal types (among whom I count myself), to realise the level to which their ideology permeates the vast majority of the institutions, from media to statutory bodies.

Harder still to recognise that it’s actually primarily the reaction TO that ideology that is sparking the wholesale rejection of left/liberalism in western democracies.

Another side of the story is that genuine masculine qualities are under assault in the culture at large. Largely by a simplified ideology of postmodernism that has been infiltrating our institutions since the 60s, but increasingly so in the last few years.

In short, it’s an ideology that reduces people down to their core identity groups, assumes that they are in competition for power with each other, and then defines a hierarchy where one group holds power at the expense of others. In this worldview, men have always ‘oppressed’ women, hoarding the power and privilege to themselves, and the only acceptable response it to recognise this, and atone for it by deconstructing those ‘harmful masculine behaviours’.

It simplifies and characterises masculinity as nothing but a pathology, and fails to recognise the positive side of traditional masculine values like self-sacrifice, responsibility and protection. Worse, it reframes the history of men traditionally sacrificing themselves to provide for their families, as an exercise in hoarding power and privilege to themselves.

Power & Privilege

Last week’s report by the American Psychological Association was littered with concepts and language taken straight from the power/privilege/identity group world of postmodern ideology, such as: “just as this old psychology left out women and people of color and conformed to gender-role stereotypes, it also failed to take men’s gendered experiences into account”.

In particular its framing, that ‘traditional masculine values’ themselves were a core problem, created a huge pushback, not least because this advice, as opposed to the Gillette ad, was designed to be implemented by psychologists around the country and therefore would have an impact on the care men would receive.

The APA eventually released a ‘clarification’ which contained the following words: “When a man believes that he must be successful no matter who is harmed or his masculinity is expressed by being sexually abusive, disrespectful, and harmful to others, that man is conforming to the negative aspects associated with traditional masculinity.”

This is the description of a psychopath, not someone suffering ‘toxic masculinity’. Yet this was not the original framing.

The place on the other side of the gender war is surely a place where we recognise difference and value the differing experiences of the world that both men and women bring to the table. To realise that sometimes Stoicism is exactly what we need, to get on with things rather than oversharing and emotionality, for example.

That after we’ve shared our feelings about something, the problem may feel smaller, but it doesn’t go away and we still need fortitude, courage and perseverance to get through.

We have confused equality with equivalence (sameness), and the result is a deeply confused culture that is at war with itself.

The last word I will give to Warren Farrell: “We have to realize that the male and female evolutionary dance has evolved as a tango for millions of years, and it’s very important that women speak up about what they do and don’t like about their parts of the tango and that we recognize that there are thousands of different women from different backgrounds who have different answers to that question.

We have only listened to women speak the feminist message for a half century but we haven’t listened to men express their feelings ever at all. That was exactly the opposite of what masculinity was about. So let’s open up and hear boy’s and men’s stories as well.”

Rebel Wisdom is a media platform founded by BBC & Channel 4 filmmaker David Fuller, on the conviction that we are seeing a civilisational-level crisis of ideas, as the old operating system breaks down. The new is struggling to emerge — and the most transformative ideas always show up first as rebellious.

We make films about big ideas, and run retreats for men called ‘The New Masculinity’

Rebel Wisdom

The intellect in service to embodied wisdom

David Fuller

Written by

Journalist and documentary maker, for Channel 4, BBC, The Economist and others — see or

Rebel Wisdom

The intellect in service to embodied wisdom

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