In a television commercial that aired over 50 years ago, a husband throws the coffee his wife has made him into the bushes, berating her and pointing his finger in her face for not knowing how to make a proper cup of joe. In a 2012 commercial for Carl’s Jr., a model eats a hamburger as if she’s orgasming. For decades, ads have dictated the proper ways for women to be women; generations of us have grown up under the thumb of corporate-created sexist expectations.
Given that long and unpleasant history, it’s a bit baffling to see the controversy over a single, fairly benign commercial for Gillette razors that focuses on masculinity. The ad, playing off its longtime tagline of “the best a man can get,” is part of a new campaign from the company acknowledging that “brands, like ours, play a role in influencing culture… we have a responsibility to make sure we are promoting positive, attainable, inclusive and healthy versions of what it means to be a man.”
Not exactly the stuff of Dworkin and MacKinnon, yet the sentiment was enough to set off a firestorm of mockery, consumer boycott threats, and one man even throwing his Gillette razor into a toilet. (Clearly, there’s no problem with masculinity here!)
I’m not particularly interested in providing a passionate defense of a multimillion-dollar corporation which — lovely commercial and positive message aside — is really only interested in using feminist rhetoric to make more money. But this kind of over-the-top response to a single advertisement is part of a broader backlash. U.S. culture is asking pointed questions about traditional masculinity and how it hurts both men and women — questions that men on the political right tend to see as an attack rather than progress.
When the American Psychological Association released new guidelines on treating boys and men that linked traditional notions of masculinity to harmful behaviors like violence, mental health problems, and suicide, there was immediate criticism. Conservative writer Andrew Sullivan wrote that the organization was “pathologiz[ing] half of humanity,” the National Review’s David French claimed that traditional masculinity wasn’t the problem but the “cure,” and Fox News dedicated several segments to decrying the report.
In part, these pundits were conflating criticisms of the expectations put on men with men themselves; the report never said that men are bad or violent but, instead, that the ideas about masculinity they grow up with are. But the misrepresentation isn’t as concerning as the core issue: Conservatives often believe that the more dangerous aspects of traditional masculinity are natural — whether it’s “locker room talk” or “boys will be boys” violence. They see the consequences of such behavior as an acceptable trade-off for maintaining the status quo.
So while it’s easy to mock the strange and transparent response from the right to the Gillette ad, we need to remember that it’s part of something bigger: Donald Trump’s election, the obsession with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the battle over #MeToo and Brett Kavanaugh — they’re all part of a frenzied backlash to a changing world. A backlash that’s getting more dangerous by the day.
We’re in a moment right now when young boys and men are being radicalized online into believing that feminist progress is dangerous — a time when horrific crimes committed by young men are increasingly being linked to misogynist ideas and ideology.
So yes, an ad is just an ad. And men who throw their razors in the toilet because of a commercial are, unquestionably, funny. But if conservatives keep telling their followers that there is a “war on men” — and if young men keep believing it’s true — we’re not going to see an end to a violent backlash. That’s a problem we can’t afford to mock.