What do the new Gillette commercial and This is Us have in common?

As published on LinkedIn Influencers on January 16th, 2019.

Yesterday I woke up to flurry of texts and emails that read, “Did you see it?!” These messages were followed by a link to an ad for, you guessed it, Gillette. I clicked. I watched, and I immediately teared up. I really did. Weird, I know. I mean, it’s only a corporate commercial, right? But for the record, whenever I watch an episode of This is Us, which I happened to do yesterday as well, I require a whole box of tissues. The reason I cry watching This is Us is often for the same reason that I teared up watching the Gillette ad. They are both displaying a fresh take on masculinity, and I love it.

Before we continue, take a moment to go and watch the Gillette ad. It’s less than two minutes long. I’ll wait. Now, take a moment to think how you feel about it. Honor that feeling. Now, ask yourself why you feel what you do. If you’re like me, and you loved it, perhaps it was because it was inspiring to hear male voices challenging the behaviors associated with toxic masculinity. Better yet, it put forth examples of what healthy masculinity looks like.

However, maybe you didn’t like the ad, and if you fall into this camp you are certainly not alone. A simple scroll through google news this morning include lots of headlines that read “anti-men”,”backlash”, and “boycott.” In addition, some public figures have denounced the brand, including professional troll Piers Morgan, who publicly declared that this ad is part of a war on masculinity. As of this writing the ad has over twice as many dislikes on YouTube in comparison to likes, so clearly it has touched a nerve. If it provoked a negative reaction, I invite you to share the reasons why below because I’m somewhat baffled as to why an ad urging men to abandon toxic behaviors and replace them with more positive ones is controversial. I did read through many of the negative comments on Youtube but struggled to find any that were either thoughtful, or helpful, in terms of articulating the objections. 

In a fortuitous twist of timing, this ad comes on the heels of the American Psychology Association’s release of their first ever report on the harmful effects of toxic masculinity. Titled the APA Guidelines for the Psychological Practice with Men and Boys, this report was 13 years in the making and drew on over 40 years of research. The conclusion? Toxic masculinity is killing men. Literally. The report outlines how traditional masculinity, which is marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance, and aggression, is psychologically harming men to detrimental degrees. In the US, men commit 90% of homicides and represent 77% of the victims of homicide, including 85% of the victims of gun violence. Men are the group most likely to become the victims of violent crimes in general, and suicide rates among men are three times higher than that of women. Overall, men have a lower life expectancy than women, and this is true in every country in the world.

The data clearly shows that toxic masculinity is exactly that: toxic. However, once again, judging from the reactions online, it’s clear that a lot of people have missed that point. The goal here is not to take away men’s masculinity. The goal is to challenge men to recognize the toxic aspects and arrive at a better expression of masculinity. You know, one that isn’t literally killing them. That being said, we all know that change doesn’t happen overnight, so I can only hope that enough men are inspired by this ad, and indeed by all the conversations taking place in this new #MeToo era.

Because it is January, the Sundance Film Festival is just around the corner, and while I was watching the Gillette ad, I was reminded of being at the premier of The Mask You Live in 2015. This landmark film by the accomplished film-maker Jennifer Siebel Newsom, “follows boys and young men as they struggle to stay true to themselves while negotiating America’s narrow definition of masculinity. Pressured by the media, their peer group, and even the adults in their lives, our protagonists confront messages encouraging them to disconnect from their emotions, devalue authentic friendships, objectify and degrade women, and resolve conflicts through violence. These gender stereotypes interconnect with race, class, and circumstance, creating a maze of identity issues boys and young men must navigate to become “real” men. Experts in neuroscience, psychology, sociology, sports, education, and media also weigh in, offering empirical evidence of the “boy crisis” and tactics to combat it. The Mask You Live In ultimately illustrates how we, as a society, can raise a healthier generation of boys and young men.” I cannot recommend this film more, so find out how to see it here.

While it is easy to get discouraged by the outrage the Gillette ad provoked, I find solace in the fact that popular culture seems to be making a positive shift. Last week, the New York Times profiled numerous musicians who are racking up hit albums and critical acclaim, all while specifically targeting toxic masculinity in their music. Earlier this month, the most lucrative franchise in Hollywood released a trailer for a superhero movie that featured zero action shots. Instead, it focused on the depression and grief of its overwhelmingly male cast, including a poignant shot of Captain America crying. And week after week, hit television shows, like This is Us, feature male characters who shy away from the stifling bonds of traditional masculinity. As Barbara Annis from Gender Intelligence Group notes in response to the ad, “We are entering a powerful paradigm shift, and I invite men and women to truly embrace these messages. I understand the inclination to react negatively when it lands as generalizing men or stereotyping male masculinity, but there are some beautiful messages in this ad that can inspire people to action. Think of this: women and girls all over the world have been hungering for men to engage and take action, and any boy who has been bullied will feel a sense of relief that there are men in the world ready to notice and take action. The critical approach is for us to move away from blame to a new kind of understanding.”

At the end of the day, Gillette knew this ad would provoke controversy, but so far they are not backing down. They released a statement saying that going forward they will be reviewing all public facing content to ensure that they “fully reflect the ideals of Respect, Accountability and Role Modeling.” Their website states that “It’s time we acknowledge that brands, like ours, play a role in influencing culture. And as a company that encourages men to be their best, we have a responsibility to make sure we are promoting positive, attainable, inclusive and healthy versions of what it means to be a man.” They’re also putting their money where their mouth is by donating $3 million over the next year to nonprofits “designed to help men of all ages achieve their personal ‘best'”, with the first recipient being the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Personally, I applaud this initiative, and I hope it paves the way for more corporations to examine the content and ideals their advertising is putting out into the world. I hope there is more media on the horizon, from every medium, that portrays men as awesome, complex, loving, kind, and emotionally vulnerable human beings. I think we all want to live in a world where treating each other with love, kindness, and respect is the new norm. 

Below please find some resources focused on healthy masculinity. 

Non-profit organizations

A Call to Men – is a violence prevention organization and respected leader on issues of manhood, male socialization and its intersection with violence, and preventing violence against all women and girls.

MenEngage Alliance – made up of dozens of countries, alliance members work collectively and individually toward advancing gender justice, human rights and social justice to achieve a world in which all can enjoy healthy, fulfilling and equitable relationships and their full potential.

Next Gen Men –  a nonprofit organization focused on building better men through youth and peer engagement, education, and empowerment.

Promundo – Center for Masculinity and Gender Equality – is a global leader in promoting gender justice and preventing violence by engaging men and boys in partnership with women and girls.

The Center for Men and Masculinities – The Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities, established at Stony Brook University (SUNY) in 2013, is dedicated to engaged interdisciplinary research on boys, men, masculinities, and gender. Our mission is to bring together researchers, practitioners, and activists in conversation and collaboration to develop and enhance projects focusing on boys and men. This collaboration will generate and disseminate research that redefines gender relations to foster greater social justice.


The Future of Men by Jack Myers

Guyland: The Perlious World Where Boys Become Men and Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era by Michael Kimmel

The Man They Wanted Me To Be: Toxic Masculinity and a Crisis of our Own Making by Jared Yates Sexton (April 2019)

TED Talks

A Call to Men – Tony Porter

Why Gender Equality is Good for Everyone – Men Included – Michael Kimmel

Why I’m Done Trying to be ‘Man Enough’ – Justin Baldoni

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