In January 2019, Gillette, a razor company, did something that pissed a lot of people off.
They released an advert.
In the advert, men are depicted in two contrasting fashions. There are those who favour old school displays of masculinity, which has come to be known as toxic masculinity, and there are men who show a more caring and emphatic side to themselves.
The central message of the advert is to implore men to be a better version of themselves. Thus, being better husbands, fathers and sons, while being role models to younger generations.
This seems like a reasonable message, but the backlash to it has been visceral and unsurprising.
Thousands of men have come out in droves to protest against the advert, with many stating they will boycott Gillette products.
After watching the advert myself, I fail to see what all the fuss is about. Surely an advert challenging men about abusive behaviour to become better versions of themselves should be applauded not decried?
The advert has struck at the core of a debate that has been bubbling in recent times, one of what it means to be a man. The very definition of masculinity.
What is clear is that there is a pushback to recent developments such as the #metoo debate and now this Gillette advert. What these developments show is that there are a lot of men who are fearful of change, which is at odds with the macho stereotypes that they desire to live up to.
What is clearer more than ever is that the concept of ‘real men’ simply doesn’t exist.
Looking back at my behaviour and thoughts in previous years, I would have fallen into the camp of men who believe in the concept of ‘real men.’ This seems ridiculous to me now, but it was something I believed.
I was of opinion that a ‘real man’ is able to fix things, he knows how to use tools and he doesn’t need to openly discuss his emotions.
These beliefs were a consequence of my upbringing and environment. The reason I was lucky enough to be able to fix things, use numerous power tools and build a house, was because my Dad was a builder.
If my Dad had worked in a different profession, I probably wouldn’t have those skills today. I am a product of my environment in that regard, but these skills came to be beliefs.
If you couldn't use power tools or do manual labour, I considered you to be ‘soft.’ This was not taking into account anything about the person, it was a stupid belief that was a result of my upbringing and environment.
A question I came across on Quora the other month highlighted how the ridiculous the concept of ‘real men’ is.
The question was related to what defines manhood. One of the answers was about how a man should know how to shoot a gun. As someone from England, where we have strict gun laws, I have never held a gun before, never mind shot one.
By this arbitrary logic, I am not a ‘real man.’ My ability to shoot a gun does not impact on my manhood or how much of a man I am. The simple fact is that there is no set list that defines what a man is and isn’t.
No matter how much certain people want to push male archetypes as being traditional or correct, there is no such thing because gender identities are fluid.
Conceptions about masculinity, femininity and the family have changed from century to century. You only have to look at a famous picture of Louis XIV, who was King of France from 1643 to 1715, to see this is the case.
Note the flamboyant clothing, the stockings and shoes he is wearing. Do they conform to beliefs about masculinity that are widely held today?
I doubt it. To the majority of observers, you would say he looks more feminine than masculine.
This picture highlights the fluidity of identity over time. Not only has it changed a great deal since Louis’ time, but it will also change a great deal in the future.
The idea of ‘real men’ is pure fantasy. It is about as real as a unicorn. What is real, however, is the fear that some men feel towards changing attitudes about masculinity.
The irony in their fear is that by denouncing the advert by Gillette, they have shown themselves to possess none of the traits they purport to uphold.
If you are a confident man at ease with yourself, an advert encouraging men to change their behaviour for the better will not affect you in the slightest.
Yet, here we are with widespread backlash in all corners of the web over a simple message.
The furore over Gillette’s advert and the wider discussions about masculinity comes down to a fear of change. Change is constant, but for some people it is unpalatable.
The irony in this is that if you are a strong and confident man, a ‘real man,' the advert wouldn’t bother you in the slightest. So why do the very people who purport this doctrine get so easily offended?
If you have to go to extreme lengths to prove your masculinity, then you're failing to meet the standard you have set yourself. The more we proclaim our own strength, the weaker it makes us appear.
When you have people such as Piers Morgan and Donald Trump being held up as beacons of masculinity, you know you’re in trouble! Morgan was particularly offended by Gillette’s advert, pumping out tweets attacking it, such as the one below.
What people like Morgan don’t realise is that you can be adventurous, stoic and strong without being an utter dick!
The advert is not an attack on all men, it depicts a number of men in a good light. It is a simple message asking men to look at themselves critically and be role models for younger generations.
Clearly, it is easier for some people to denounce the advert as an attack on their very being, than turning that critical eye inwards. Cultural markers of identity are flawed, because, as we have seen, they are fluid and ever-changing.
It is much better to construct your identity on a foundation of acceptance, that vulnerability is something to be embraced not fearful of. That your worth as a man does not come from your ability to proclaim you are not weak, but by accepting your weaknesses.
Masculinity is not in danger, it is simply being redefined. Like it has been before, and like it will long after we have gone.