Gillette Ad Controversy: A Byproduct of the Man Box?


Lily Campbell Co-Editor-in-Chief Before reading this article, consider watching Gillette’s The Best Men Can Be commercial for context (if you haven’t already). During the 1989 Super Bowl, Gillette snagged a coveted spot of airtime and branded their company with the famous tagline “The Best A Man Can Get.” On January 13th, 2019, on the tagline’s 30th anniversary, Gillette rebranded the meaning of their slogan. In her theory about hegemonic masculinity—the formal term for the phrase ‘stereotypical masculinity’ that can be heard in Gillette’s ad—Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell defines it as “a practice that legitimizes powerful men’s dominant position in society and justifies the subordination of the common male population and women, and other marginalized ways of being a man” (R.W. Connell). Gillette, a company that has been known for publicizing images of clean-shaven men attracting women and generally promoting what society considers the ‘stereotypical manly-man’ attempts to change their image and hold themselves accountable for the role they play in influencing culture: releasing an ad that displays commonplace instances of ‘boys being boys’ and probing men “Is this the best a man can get?” (Gillette). Tony Porter, an author as well as the founder of the non-profit organization A CALL TO MEN, furthers the discussion of stereotypical masculinity and its role in the development of men. A CALL TO MEN is an organization that specializes in “violence prevention organization” and is a leader in “issues of manhood, male socialization and its intersection with violence,” reflecting the goals for future generations of men that Porter sets forth during his 2010 TedTalk “A call to men.” In his TedTalk, Porter digs into the complexities of what he calls the “man box theory” and encourages all men to step out of their “man box.” Porter and A CALL TO MEN use the Man Box to illustrate what Porter calls the “collective socialization of men,” or the ways boys are taught to behave from a young age. Additionally, the Man Box identifies the limitations on what a man is supposed to be and what he believes is expected of him based on the expectations set forth by society. Gillette’s ad attempts to shed light on some of the Man Box tendencies Porter describes. Using Connell’s concept of ‘stereotypical masculinity’ and armed with Porter’s will to encourage men to step out of their Man Box, Gillette released their ad and simultaneously punctured a small hole in the nation’s collective Man Box. Unpacking their ad for viewers, Gillette released a statement along with the entire short film:

“Thirty years ago, we launched our The Best A Man Can Get tagline. Since then, it has been an aspirational statement, reflecting standards that many men strive to achieve. But turn on the news today and it’s easy to believe that men are not at their best. Many find themselves at a crossroads, caught between the past and a new era of masculinity. While it is clear that changes are needed, where and how we can start to effect that change is less obvious for many. And when the changes needed seem so monumental, it can feel daunting to begin. So, let’s do it together.”
  Even with the inspiring rhetoric and admitting their own collective role in perpetuating stereotypical masculinity as a form of ethos, social response to the ad has been polarizing. Contrasting opinions are most notably reflected among social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, however, the debate has seeped into mainstream reporting. Author Karol Markowicz of the highly-conservative news source Fox News labels her Gillette ad review as “Well, America, Gillette’s idiotic ad may have finally turned the tide on stereotypical masculinity.” However, Thomas Page McBee—of the infamously liberal Vox News writertitles his piece “Toxic masculinity is under attack. That’s fine.” On Twitter, the hashtag #BoycottGillette emerged in the afternoon of the thirteenth and began trending no more than 24 hours after the ad’s release. Some users are using the hashtag to critique Gillette, viewing the ad as a condescending, vilification of men, feeling as though Gillette is reducing their target audience to “sexist stereotypes, and telling them to ‘do better’ relative to a delusional feminist-made caricature of men” (@Siniverisyys on Twitter). Another Twitter user by the pen name @GLipWorth put his reaction in a more simple way, echoing sentiments felt by most self-defined ‘good men’ in the wake of movements such as #MeToo: “The Gillette advert is an insult to a majority of men who don’t behave that way,” the way @GLipWorth is referring to being catcalling, sexually assaulting women and other depictions from the commercial that have commonly been labeled as ‘toxic’ or ‘toxic masculinity.’ Tweets critiquing Gillette are often accompanied by a picture of the user’s Gillette razor in the toilet, similar to the #BoycottNike trend on Twitter following Nike’s decision to make Colin Kaepernick—a controversial social activist and former NFL player—the face of their newest Just Do It campaign. However, similar to the #BoycottNike trend, many users took to Twitter to support both brands, praising the companies for rocking the nation enough to ignite real conversation. One Twitter user BrooklynDad_Defiant a ‘proud [papa]’ and self-defined ‘#feminist,’ congratulated Gillette, Tweeting that the The Best Men Can Be commercial “gets it,” following up by noting that “[men] MUST remove ‘toxic masculinity’ from the way we raise our young men.” Speaking to the criticisms of many male Gillette customers, BrooklynDad_Defiant went on to address those upset by the commercial by citing them as the problem: “If you’re threatened by the idea of being seen as a Neanderthal…you’ll be EXTINCT unless you change” (@mmpadellan on Twitter). Critically acclaimed actress and producer Jessica Chastain chimed in to support the company as well, thanking Gillette for the “reminder of the beauty of men,” noting that she was “so moved” by their “call to action” (@jes_chastain on Twitter). It’s easy to discuss how famous actresses or distant Twitter users feel about the commercial, but how do Latin community members feel? One male student Colin Campbell (‘21) said he felt the ad was “reasonable” and “sent a positive message.” However, Campbell also noted that “ Gillette is a male-geared brand that has embodied and perpetuated the stereotypical ‘male’ image.” Therefore, after years of Gillette perpetuating the image of an ‘ideal male’—one that was clean-shaven and attracted women—Campbell understood why some customers felt targeted and somewhat “blindsided” by the change in messaging. Another senior male at Latin, who asked to remain anonymous, said: “I think it’s interesting what they are trying to do [in the commercial]. I don’t really relate to some of the stuff that they were pointing out, [such as] bullying, because [bullying] was not really a ‘thing’ at [my elementary school].” That same student also noticed that it is much easier to take criticisms about men from other men than from women. Signs that populated our halls around the Chicago Women’s March last year that said ‘Boys will be Boys held accountable for their actions’ made this student feel “targeted,” because it was “like saying that all boys are doing [things] wrong.” He, however, still noted that issues like sexual assault and cat-calling are very real things, but he just acknowledged that the message comes across differently depending on who it’s coming from:
“I like that [the commercial] says that men need to hold men accountable for their actions, cause it’s true…Like when the dude cat calls the lady in that video and his friend was like ‘chill,’ that’s what we need. [The commercial] also [reiterated] that everyone knows that everyone is equal, rather than men thinking women are less.”
While this is only one man’s opinion, it is a sentiment that tends to hold true in many instances: it’s easier to discuss contentious topics—or acknowledge your wrongdoings—when it’s coming from someone in the same position as you. Taking criticisms from someone who can relate to you and understands the way you have been socialized to behave feels less attacking: they’re calling you in instead of calling you out. In her MLK Day workshop ‘White Folks in Racial Justice: How do we fit in?’ Ms. LC made a comment: being called a ‘racist’ is one of the worst things to be called in our country today, which deters people—notably white people—from discussing race for fear of being branded a racist. On a similar point, the student brought up that he never felt inclined to engage in discussions about masculinity or other highly-charged, typically ‘feminist’ topics for fear of saying the wrong thing or asking one misguided question and being labeled a sexist. His request to remain anonymous was fueled by these same fears. Furthermore, the student noticed that the way in which we discuss gender equality is often highly-charged, citing that although he is a “very liberal-minded person,” when he gets “grouped in with sexist [men] it makes [him] feel attacked” and even pushes him to resonate with the “sexist guys” who often rant about their confrontations by women. Echoing sentiments expressed in Porter’s Man Box theory, the student noted that he felt like “a lot of [men] know what they are doing is wrong,” but by admitting it, they are called vulgar, demeaning names such as a “p***y” or labeled as “soft.” This, in turn, causes men to shun emotions and sensitivity in favor of keeping their masculinity ‘in-tact,’ which the anonymous male student believes “prevents a lot of productive conversations.” Another senior boy spoke to how commercials like Gillette’s can inform others about gender dynamics, or what the student calls “guy culture,” at institutions like Latin:
“I just think that guys who think that this ad threatens them in any way are missing the point…It’s like they don’t understand that this idea of toxic masculinity has this trickle-down effect where guys make it a standard to act a certain way and others feel the need to follow suit because they [are afraid] they won’t fit in if they don’t act this way.”
Purposefully asking me to include his grade and gender, this senior believes it’s crucial for everyone—notably younger, impressionable boys—to recognize that “a senior guy said this about the guys at Latin.” This senior speaks to much of the stereotypical hyper-masculine traits that define the phrase ‘guy culture:’ a microcosm that showcases the implications of the Man Box. So, what does all this mean for the Latin community? Why are some Latin students so desperate to remain anonymous for speaking in support of an ad that challenges what one student calls “toxic” behavior? Most importantly: how can it have productive conversations about the collective socialization of men all while not demonizing every single male student solely because they identify as a man? There is no perfect answer, as such conversations are difficult: once someone looks inward and sees their flaws, they can’t unsee them. For now, individuals must attempt to acknowledge and dismantle societal constructs like the Man Box and—most importantly—hold each other accountable.
Connell, R. W. (2005). Masculinities (2nd ed.). Berkeley, California: University of California Press.