So, anyway, about that Gillette PSA.
At the end of December, I decided to take a break from writing for The Good Men Project. I had been producing an article nearly every week for over two years, as well as doing a bit of editing. I was dealing with several major personal issues, including the whooping cough (thanks, anti-vaxxers!) and getting my wife’s childhood home ready for sale. And I’m a full-time high school teacher. Something had to give.
January brought two issues that all but demanded my essayist attentions: Gillette released a PSA that challenged men to come together to address toxic masculinity, and Nick Sandmann stood chest-to-chest with Nathan Phillips.
I was asked, and I was tempted, to write an article about the Gillette PSA. Despite my internal commitment to stay away for a month, I started brainstorming on Facebook. In response, a few other men on my wall gave their own perspectives. Then I noticed that my stream was full of men giving their perspectives. That led me to notice that men all over the internet were giving their perspectives.
That PSA was chum in the waters. It seemed like every man with access to a keyboard had an opinion on it. There were articles criticizing it for supporting the idea of “toxic masculinity”; these articles bemoaned the death of traditional masculinity. There were articles claiming those critics were either only a handful of people or, because it’s 2019, Russian-bot-style trolls just trying to cause trouble. There were articles praising the PSA, there were articles breaking it down. It felt like the reporters rushing the phone booths in the movie Airplane!
But what has it really done?
Let’s start with money, because Gillette is first and foremost a company. More properly speaking, it’s an arm of Proctor and Gamble. On November 1, 2018, P&G’s stock was trading at $89.59. On January 2, 2019, it was trading at $91.28. On March 21, it broke the $100 threshold for the first time in the company’s history.
If the PSA had any effect at all on P&G’s bottom line, it was in the positive direction. But their stock price has been climbing for over a decade, so it’s not clear how much effect one PSA really had on it.
Gillette razor sales themselves may be down slightly, but P&G seems to be attributing that more to the current trend for more facial hair and less frequent shaving than to boycotts over the “toxic men” PSA. Any sales lost over any boycotts have apparently been balanced out by sales gained from support.
More disappointing from my perspective is the results of a Google search on “Gillette razor” limited to the past month: It’s as if that ad doesn’t even exist.
Two months ago, it was going to spur a revolution in men’s progressivism. Or it was going to spur a backlash from the Men’s Rights Activists. Either way, or both ways, it was going to forever change the landscape of how we talk about manhood in this country.
And now, what? Is the revolution over already? Did I sleep through it?
If I had been actively writing for The Good Men Project in January, I would have added my own desk-pounding, know-it-all, mansplainish article on the PSA. Indeed, I wrote notes for three different articles while hemming and hawing over whether to write it at all. So I’m not surprised that so many of my fellow men wrote articles.
At the time, I was just as fired up. But my commitment to not writing allowed me the space to read and watch instead. It allowed me to reflect on not just the advertisement—for, honestly, it was a commercial advertisement—but on how we were collectively responding to it.
It’s nearly forgotten now for the same reason there was a rush at the time to write about it: It was facile. It was low-hanging fruit. It stated that water was wet in a mildly confrontational way.
It wasn’t original in any real way except for the fact that it was underwritten by a major corporation. The message itself is something progressive men have been saying for years. It wasn’t a peak or a culmination or the start of a new social acceptance: It was a signpost. An important signpost, but a signpost.
We tend to forget signposts after we’ve noted and passed them.
The PSA said it’s wrong to bully. Okay. That’s easy. We can all agree that bullying is bad. But what is bullying? As easy as it is to say that it’s wrong to bully, it’s just as easy to define it in a way that whatever it is we ourselves are doing, it’s not bullying. The heavy work is making sure we’re addressing bullying when it’s ourselves, when it’s people we ourselves fear, when it’s people in power over us.
The PSA said we should stop saying, “Boys will be boys.” Okay. That’s easy. Not new. Not ground-breaking. That didsn’t stop people from defending Nick Sandmann’s actions, a week after the Gillette PSA dropped, as youthful naivete. The heavy work is tearing apart and repairing those systems that hold boys (especially white boys) to a different standard.
The PSA said we should stop objectifying and harassing women. Yes, absolutely. Unfortunately, while the message itself is sound, the center of it was role modelling for boys, not about how sexual harassment hurts women. The heavy work is to look ourselves in the mirror and recognize how we ourselves contribute to that. Including how we bury “don’t objectify women” in a context that centers boys instead of women.
The 30 second version of the ad says, “Instead of excuses, we need to make change.”
The change has been happening, something the PSA admits; we’ve been climbing up that hill, and we still have a long way to go. The rush of male voices explaining why Gillette was wrong or right shows an awareness of the core issue, but the loudness in response to low-hanging fruit but the relative quiet when it comes to the heavy lifting shows how much work we still have to do.