Americans have absorbed a great deal over the last few years.
We have learned — and not for the first time — how political divides damage personal relationships with family, friends and colleagues. Many of us can tell tales of our own experiences with toxic politics in the last several years. Some involve painful estrangements of important relationships.
We have learned anew how deeply painful statues commemorating aspects of our Civil War are to millions of Americans. Earlier this month, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt resigned— some pundits say “bolted”— effective at the end of the school year. She also ordered the last remnant of a Confederate statue removed from campus only to have the UNC system Board of Governors abruptly terminate her, saying without words, “Don’t let the door hit you on the rump on your way out.”
And, we now understand the long-smoldering and erupting fury of American women over not only discrimination in the workplace but sexual harassment and abuse in both our public and private lives. This fury is captured in the #MeToo movement. It also encompasses the frustration of generations of women who have been bullied by men, demeaned by men, talked over by men, paid less than men for the same work and who have endured catcalls and inappropriate comments by men — the list is as long as the countless numbers of women on the receiving end of such actions.
The Gillette Company, whose razors are used daily by men all over the world, has launched a new ad campaign addressing what many dub “toxic masculinity” and asking, “Is this the best a man can get?” The ad released last week is just under two minutes long and had 20 million views on YouTube in its first two days. Not surprisingly, some viewers praise the ad while others find it threatening.
At the very least, Gillette has opened the conversation for the first generation of men to be held accountable for such actions by a large swath of American society, and the company should be saluted for that. Very few Americans would dispute the reality that being born a man in our culture comes with an extra measure of power, what some refer to as “male privilege.” While feminists have tried since the 19th century to move women’s issues up the national agenda, a bright national spotlight swung their way only in the last several years.
What Gillette’s ad and its supporters are attempting to do is pierce the protective armor of “boys will be boys” — at any age, apparently— and inspire men to hold each other accountable for their treatment of others whether that behavior is bullying, demeaning or outright abuse. The ad challenges men to reflect on their behavior and invites them to be kinder in both personal life and the workplace and to help other men do so.
Most American men are not violent and do not demean, bully or assault others, and the Gillette ad acknowledges that. It also points out that too many men remain silent when they witness such behavior in other men and challenges them to call out brethren’s negative actions. Some critics say the Gillette spot gives a pass to following the crowd even when men witness bad behavior, and there may be truth in that charge. At the same time, though, Gillette deserves credit for opening the conversation in a frank way, even if it is not perfect.
As a woman who grew up with one sister and became the mother of two boys, now men, I felt pressure— and still do — to teach my sons to treat all others kindly and with respect in both the workplace and in their personal lives. I know that today’s parents of growing boys feel the same pressure, and with any luck, the Gillette ad will resonate and inform their parenting.
Gillette’s tag line says it all.
“Boys watching today will be the men of tomorrow.”
That can either scare us or give us hope for change.