Earlier this week, shaving-supply company Gillette released a controversial ad reminding guys of their “toxic masculinity," a phrase that has popped up to describe the supposed hazards of typically male behavior.
The ad begins by showing men engaging in Neanderthal-like activities including cat-calling, bullying, mansplaining, and using sexual innuendo when talking to women. Then, in a cloyingly obvious nod to #MeToo, the ad suggests that men can “get closer to [their] best” by being empathetic to women’s needs and intervening when their pals engage in harassing behavior.
The “short film,” as the razor giant calls it, quickly went viral. As of this writing more than 16 million people had viewed it on YouTube. While some have praised Gillette for challenging behavioral norms, others are threatening to boycott the company for stereotyping all men as misogynists and bullies.
The message I see in this ad is that men need to stop being men and that men’s default position is bestial. I think that’s outrageous.
I am not surprised that ad executives have fallen prey to the “men are bad” narrative, which is the extreme and ridiculous response to the equally extreme and ridiculous “women are victims” narrative that has become conventional wisdom in the wake of the sexual abuse accusations against Harvey Weinstein. Madison Avenue has about as much of a social conscience as Wall Street.
Unfortunately, the executives at Gillette aren’t the only ones who think that men are a problem.
This month, the American Psychological Association (APA) released its first-ever guidelines designed to help psychologists work with men and boys to address the so-called epidemic of “toxic masculinity.” According to the APA’s research, "traditional masculinity — marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance, and aggression — is, on the whole, harmful.”
I believe this hostility toward men is dangerous, but I also know that it’s nothing new. As the second and third wave feminists gained momentum over the last 50 or so years, they bolstered a narrative that has become accepted wisdom: Men, the patriarchy, and masculinity in general have been the source of women’s suffering. Women are taught to blame men for everything bad that has ever happened to them. The #MeToo movement is just the next generation of this.
The new guidelines put a negative spin on characteristics that have traditionally belonged to the male of the species. For example, they treat men and boys’ reluctance to “talk” and share their feelings (unlike women and girls who use language to bond) as something harmful, because it implies that men can’t express their emotions. That’s much too general a statement to make.
As someone who loves men very much and who grew up around the John Wayne-Gary Cooper-Jimmy Cagney archetypes, this frightens me. When I taught at the Haverford School almost 30 years ago, I worked with boys who were filled with energy, aggression, ambition, joy, and courage. While it was necessary to channel those qualities in the right direction, it would never have occurred to me to teach those kids that their natural inclinations were “toxic.”
It seems to me that the APA is trying to use psychology to encourage men and boys to go against their inherent nature, to feminize them, to socialize them into communicating more like females. I also taught at Villa Maria, a girls' school, and believe me when I tell you that not every thought needs to be expressed. Stoicism has an up side.
In my opinion, these guidelines are designed to change men so that women who are threatened can feel safe from the supposed “toxic masculinity” — a.k.a. male human nature.
The people who support the APA’s new guidelines and praise Gillette’s message are pretending to care about the welfare of boys and men, but I don’t believe that’s true. I believe they are mistakenly trying to protect women from a patriarchy that they deem to be harmful.
Masculinity is not toxic. It’s normal, it’s human, and it’s good. We need to remember that, despite what Madison Avenue or #MeToo wants us to believe.